Our Hearts Know the Exact Location of ‘Up North’
By Mary Ann Grossmann, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.
Jul. 6–For Minnesotans, “up north” is not a specific place. It’s an idea that lives in our hearts and imaginations. “Up north” could be as close as the Chisago chain of lakes or as distant as Lake of the Woods. For many of us, though, “up north” means Lake Superior, its North Shore and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Today, we celebrate this giant inland sea and the cities that surround it with a roundup of worthy books that look at the area in different ways.
“Driftwood: Stories Picked Up Along the Shore” by Howard Sivertson (Lake Superior Port Cities, $24.95): Did you know that a man named Louis Denis, sieur de la Ronde, sailed Lake Superior in a 25-ton, two-masted schooner in 1735? Before this, only Indians’ bark canoes had navigated the lake. That’s one of the fascinating facts artist/author Sivertson offers in his beautiful fifth book. Sivertson, who has art galleries in Duluth and Grand Marais, combines his stories of the Lake Superior area with his jewel-toned paintings.
Sivertson’s family were commercial fishermen on Isle Royale for three generations, and he clearly loves the area.
“Some of the stories … are events from my personal experience that I felt important and interesting enough to preserve for future generations,” he writes. “Many of the stories are from historical events before my time and are the result of combing the archives for little-known facts about major events, then applying the power of deduction and imagination to
document how it may have looked.”
Sivertson’s topics range from tales of 18th-century fur traders to how 19th-century census takers rowed to their subjects in an 18-foot rowboat. He writes about how farm animals were unloaded at the Pic River fur-trading station and life at a fishing camp on Isle Royale.
“Driftwood” is one of those rare books that will appeal to a wide range of readers, from lovers of fine art to sailors and those who carry the North Shore in their hearts.
Sivertson will sign copies of his books Aug. 2 in Grand Marais during Fisherman’s Picnic Weekend. (For a peek at more of his artwork, go to sivertson.com).
“Island Folk: The People of Isle Royale” by Peter Okarinen (University of Minnesota Press, $16.95): The last chapter of Sivertson’s book is about his experiences as a young person losing his right to continue his family’s heritage of commercial fishing on Isle Royale.
That fishing community comes to life in the paperback “Island Folk,” first published in 1979. The island in the northwestern section of Lake Superior was designated a national park in 1940. Since then, the area is being allowed to return to its original wilderness state, as residents’ private-occupancy permits run out and their buildings are allowed to decay and return to nature.
“Island Folk” is made up of Okarinen’s conversations with men and women who spent their lives on the island. Black-and-white photos complement the text, and the book’s small format lends itself to being tucked into a backpack.
“Facing North: Portraits of Ely, Minnesota,” photographs by Andrew Goldman, essays by Ann Goldman, foreword by Jim Brandenburg (University of Minnesota Press, $34.95): “Driving into Ely gives you the distinct impression that you have arrived at the very end of the road. And you pretty much have,” Andrew Goldman writes in the preface to this collection of black-and-white photos of more than 100 residents of
the town perched at the edge of the Boundary Waters, as well as some residents of nearby Babbitt and Winton.
The Goldmans and their two sons spent five years working on this book. Andrew took the pictures using a large-format 4-by-5 camera (the kind press photographers used to carry).
Characteristics of this kind of camera, he explains, “slow the picture-making process considerably, forcing a deliberateness between myself and the subject that lends itself to an almost ceremonial result … I believe that the subjects’ self-awareness contributes to an honest and dignified representation of the core of these individuals. I never tell them what clothes or facial expression to wear, seeking to capture their own perception of themselves, framed in a formality of lines and placement that lend artistry to the photograph and that magnify the eternal aspects of the moment.”
And so we see conservation officer Marty Stage, of Babbitt, standing by his snowmobile; James Kurzdorfer and Ryan Jones with their canoe at Mudro Lake Access Point; veterinarian Chip Hanson with a tiny white dog; Ely Mayor Frank Salerno in front of an American flag; Arctic explorer Will Steger; and Seraphine “Sludge” Rolando, retired miner, welder and artist.
A nice touch is a paragraph of biographical information in the back of the book that introduces each person photographed.
Ann Goldman’s text doesn’t gloss over the town’s controversies, including some lingering resentment at restrictions imposed by BWCA status. All in all, though, this is a tender look at an increasingly diverse town whose original residents are descended from tough Cornish miners and Ojibwe people.
“Shining Big Sea Water: The Story of Lake Superior” by Norman K. Risjord (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $16.96): If you can afford only one book about Lake Superior, buy this information-packed and fun-to-read paperback.
Risjord tells the story of how the lake shaped the people who encountered it, beginning with the lake’s geological birth. He explores the lives of native people along its shore before European fur traders arrived to use the lake as a “blue water highway.” There are stories of how cities around the lake developed and histories of lighthouses and famous shipwrecks. Finally, the author offers an account of the environmental and economic challenges faced by Superior.
“Shining Big Sea Water” is also a sort of travel guide, highlighting historically significant sites and offering tips for travelers. Illustrations include paintings, maps and photos.
“Morgan Park: Duluth, U.S. Steel, and the Forging of a Company Town” by Arnold R. Alanen (University of Minnesota Press, $24.95): This multifaceted, 298-page look at a planned community will appeal to readers interested in sociology, labor, manufacturing, 20th-century capitalism and architecture.
Morgan Park is a Duluth neighborhood built and owned by U.S. Steel, where residents worked. The community, which was under company control from 1915 to 1945, was planned by renowned landscape architects, building architects and engineers, and included schools, churches and recreational and medical services.
In exchange for good living conditions, though, employees and their families had to contend with some company oversight of their private lives.
Alanen, a landscape historian and professor of architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, writes in an easy style and never gets bogged down in academic jargon. There are lots of interesting historic pictures of the community through the years, as well as contemporary photos by St. Paulite Chris Faust.
“The Fish House Book: Life on Ice in the Northland” by Kathryn Nordstrom (Dovetailed Press LLC, $19.95): OK, so this oversized paperback isn’t strictly about fishing way up north, and it’s not about summer. But with 140,000 ice-fishing shelter licenses sold in Minnesota, it’s a book lots of anglers will enjoy.
Nordstrom, who studied photography and graphic design at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, is a partner in Studio One Photography in Superior, Wis. She spent five years researching this picture book, talking to ice fishermen and women and photographing more than 200 shelters.
The range of fish houses is astonishing, from handsome structures with knotty pine interiors to a round one that looks like a spaceship. There’s one painted to look like an American flag and another that looks like a yellow cube with black spots. A few are made from the cabs of big trucks.
And where do people celebrate these little houses? At festivals, including the Aitkin Fish House Parade, the Brainerd Extravaganza and that unique Minnesota event, the Walker eelpout festival.
Book critic Mary Ann Grossmann can be reached at 651-228-5574.
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