Volume 87 - Number 1

January - February 2008
Disaster Training Enters the 21st Century

Atraumatic Tooth Preparation

Atypical Odontalgia: A Review

The Dean

Classified Ads
MDA News

Cover Feature

The Island

Marshall G. Muirhead, D.D.S.*

The Mississippi River begins its very convoluted journey north out of Itasca Park, reaching Bemidji about 20 crow-miles later. The trip by canoe or kayak from the river’s source is more than twice that distance, the river doubling upon itself, weed-choked, so shallow in spots you need to get out and drag the boat. The Mississippi joins the Schoolcraft River just west of Bemidji, looking more like a real river for the first time — perhaps 40 feet wide — before passing through Lake Irving, then under the Highway 2 bridge, then into Lake Bemidji. Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, just a few hundred yards away, have their backs (and tail) turned away from the river’s arrival.

The river exits the lake, heading nearly east, the northernmost point on the river some two-and-one-half miles downriver from the lake, and within sight of my dock over on the south side of the river. (To a demographer who might ask me if I dwell east or west of the Mississippi, I’d have to answer “neither” or “both”.) After this, the river seems to realize it has been making a mistake for some time and begins to turn southeast. Then, at Grand Rapids, it turns south toward its destination in the Gulf of Mexico.

Downriver from my place, a 30-minute paddle or a 15-minute slow cruise in a motorboat, one comes to the Stump Lakes, three widenings of the river. From the air the Mississippi looks like an anaconda containing three closely-spaced meals, small hogs perhaps, nose to tail. As you paddle into the middle lake, there is an island, a few acres of high ground, almond-shaped, densely covered with spruce, Norway and white pine, birch. The island lies to your right, a thick impenetrable wall of green; new trees, old trees, downed timber. It appears wild, virgin; the island of our imaginations; the island of Robinson Crusoe, the Never Never land of Peter Pan.

Across from the island, on the north shore of the river, is a public canoe camp — a shelter, tent sites, a fire ring. Campers have the pleasure of looking across the narrow stretch of river at the island, sometimes swimming or paddling across for some exploration, leaving a tell-tale wrapper or a few beer cans in the ferns. Archeological evidence.

Three years ago the signs went up on the island: For Sale — First Realty. For those of us who had been drifting by in fishing boats or canoes, camping at the shelter, occasionally stomping around amidst the deadfall and boughs over on the island, it was an omen — the first evidence that this piece of wilderness was actually owned by somebody.

I was not the only one to imagine chain saws, back hoes, a timber and glass cottage put up by a distant summer visitor, and “No Trespassing” signs. Fellow dentist and river neighbor Doug Williams was among those suggesting that several of us go together on a deal, make the island our own little park, leave it untouched. I called the realtor. The asking price of $149,000 seemed a bit high. For someone with grand designs in mind, there were impediments. The island is not accessible, except by water (surrounding property on adjacent shores is either privately owned or is in the state’s hands), plumbing and electrification would be very problematic, and set-back requirements would be difficult to meet.

The short story is this: I offered something less than half the asking price; the offer was accepted. I didn’t need this island — my financial advisor pointed out that it was actually a poor investment — but I bought this “useless” piece of land because it was a way of saying “no” to so much, “yes” in many other ways. No to easy access, instant communication, development, structures. Yes to the loons, eagles, beaver, otter, deer, raccoons who had been here for centuries and would not be displaced. Yes to anybody who wanted to camp under the stars, read, sit around the fire, talk, sing, or play music unplugged.

I declared the island an independent nation, myself its Benevolent Dictator. Just a few rules were established. The island was open to use by anyone who would take care of it. The only specific rule: no to cell phones, I-Pods, any kind of headset. (You may use your cell phone in private. Don’t show, don’t tell.) The island was to be a preserve and a refuge. It is to be called The Island; anything else would define it too narrowly.

The Island became something of an obsession. I came to know and feel that I was in possession of a metaphor, an island, an island in the stream, no less. I began to revisit memories of The Swiss Family Robinson, the world of Huck Finn. Without any sort of prompting or explanation, my friends and relatives all went along with the game, children again, wherever I led them. We cleared trails, built fire rings, hung flags, kept journal notes in the style of Lewis and Clarke, and seceded from The United States. We established a library and a wine cellar (in plastic storage bins appropriately labeled), and appointed officers, ministers of culture, and a poet laureate – Susan Carol Hauser.

The Island shaped itself from the imaginations of our citizens –a nation and a notion, informed by a love of camping under the moon, listening to the peepers and owls, and sharing stories and the company of each other and our dogs. Visiting Icelanders (Icelandic teachers of English visiting Minnesota) needed no prompting when, in the summer of 2006, they boarded a vessel in Stump Lake and came across the waters bearing their flag, declaring their recognition of our republic and that for which it stands. They swam in the Mississippi, sang songs in both English and Icelandic, drank Brennavin, smoked their European cigarettes, and gave us our motto: “Allt Er Leyfilegt” – “Everything is Permitted”.

Not everything is permitted, of course. We have a “pack it in/pack it out” policy. Everybody brings his or her own camping gear, food, fuel, and everyone takes out their own trash. We have a 55 gallon garbage can and extra bags. We have suffered a couple of invasions in our first two summers. Once, foreign interlopers built a big fire in the main fire ring, burned quite a stack of wood (we cut, split, and burn only dead trees, standing or downed), left a substantial pile of beer cans in the fire pit, then hung all the camp chairs by ropes (from our storage bin) high in the trees.

For those who truly belong here, titles are bestowed or acquired through deeds, the whims and appointments of The Generalissimo, by acclaim, inspiration, or merit. A title or rank is not official without actually visiting The Island, certain ambassadors excepted. Michael Wyndam Thomas, for one, Albion’s (England’s) Bard to The Island, was granted his title in Key West last spring while Brigadier General Weaver and The Generalissimo were attending the Robert Frost Poetry Festival. Michael comes from an island (England), is the Poet-at-Large of The Conch Republic, another island, and understands our mission and place in the world. He also contributed a poem in honor of The Island’s chief export — empty bottles:

The bottles drift in through the
   mists in the river,

each one a soul-saver, a lease-of-

be-corked and be-labelled and,
   so it’s presumed,
all destined at once to be broached
   and consumed.

Had we been theatrical types — you don’t have to be any specific age to remember the Little Rascals — our next step would have been, “Let’s put on a show!” Perhaps a musical depicting the settlement of The Island. But we are a bookish group, and we declared instead, “Let’s do a journal!” And so, The Island Journal 2007 was conceived and published last June. Susan Hauser and I served as co-editors.

Seventeen artists and writers responded to our call for submissions of writing, photography, and art. Cady Borchardt, six, a frequent Island visitor, sent a crayon drawing, “Island Animals,” and Leah Peterson, three, sent her diptych, “The Island in Two Seasons”. Accomplished adult writers sent poems, essays, haiku — all on the themes of the river, the ice and snow and rain, flora and fauna, islandness. Accomplished author and Brigadier General of The Island Will Weaver contributed a wonderful essay on the phenomenon of ice-out on the river. Listen: the “Crumbled, honeycombed ice flows along rustling, scraping, murmuring, tinkling like a thousand chandeliers.”

Minnesota Book Award Winner Susan Carol Hauser wrote both the introduction to The Island Journal and a special poem in honor of our republic. She was appointed as our Laureate because she has a wonderful imagination, is a terrific writer of both poetry and essays on the natural world, and has published books on maple sugaring, poison ivy, and wild rice cooking.

This coming June we will be celebrating out independence for the third time. I bought The Island in December of 2005, and on the tenth of June of 2006 we held our first such event. There was saw playing, short formal speeches, a solo of “Old Man River” by local singing legend Joe Vene, and a parade from one end of The Island to the other, led by children at hand. Then there was feasting, more music, and an overnight campout by some 40 guest of the Republic.

The 2007 version of Independence Day was held June thirtieth — we try to coordinate with the full moon — and featured a kid’s fishing tournament. Sunfish are thick in the waters off the southeast coast of The Island; lurking amongst the lily pads there, they are quick to hit the smallest piece of worm on a hook. Youth Hiking Specialist Derek Peterson, 6, won the derby with the most and biggest sunfish.

The Island is a four-season retreat, inaccessible only a few days of the year: just after the first ice forms, and just before and during ice-out. Even then access is possible via the West End, where the mainland is only 70 feet away at one point. With determination one can, with an ax and waders, hack away at the ice and slosh through the broken shards in thigh deep water to reach the other side. This has been done. It is a bone-chilling and invigorating experience. I once camped on The Island on a winter night in December. It was forecast to be cloudy after dark, the temperature dropping to 20 degrees or so. Instead, the sky remained clear, and my little thermometer read two degrees below zero in the very early morning. The stars were brilliant, almost piercing in their sharp cold light. The biggest surprise was the chorus of owls, barred owls, who kept me awake with their hoo, hoo, hooing much of the night. Just before dawn the cold and the owls had become too much. I fled The Island, across the South Bay to my car parked on the township road, and drove home to a hot shower.

For most purposes, though, winter remains a favorite season among our citizens. You can walk out from Brigadier General Weaver’s house or from Stump Lake Road, a distance of less than a mile in either case. It’s a great place to ski or snowshoe. A few fish houses dot the expanse of white. The Island, 90% evergreen, remains a little jewel. On many weekends in the winter we’ll have a big fire going, something cooking in a pot, dogs tearing around, people sitting on the dusted off benches and chairs sipping coffee or tea or a hot rum.

Everybody looks forward to spring and the first camp-outs. The light is long, the forest is exhaling its damp, cedar-pine, thawing-earth breath, and all the wildlife is busy making families. The local ospreys and eagles work on nest building, the turtles are up on their logs in the sun, the water birds are guarding their nests, playing “broken wing” when a canoe passes too close, and at night the roar of the frogs and the slapping of beaver tails keeps us awake.

Something about the ecosystem of The Island keeps mosquitoes to a minimum in the summer. And The Island being such a small country allows breezes to pass through from over water in all directions, affording a bit of air conditioning. It’s swimming season then. The shore bottom is a bit mucky, though, and we send out a swimming platform (pontoon boat) on hot afternoons.

The fall is the most colorful, quietest, and most fragrant season. All the animals have settled down, what bugs there were are almost gone, and nothing smells better than a snapping fire of birch and pine logs as the cool of night drops down through the trees. It’s not an official holiday yet, but we’ve had short-notice fall gatherings each year, everyone pitching in with an open-fire dish of some kind and something to read or sing or tell.

Much of what we do with The Island is silly and frivolous; we are adults at play. But despite how much fun this is, we also feel inspired and are dead serious. It is a wonderful thing to be among your friends and relatives, kids and adults of all ages (toddlers; high school students; my mother, The Queen Mother of The Island), if only for a few hours or a day, without a television blaring in the distance, without news bulletins, polls, absurd advertisements, without those in your presence talking to or texting someone somewhere else. It’s a wonderful thing to revisit, or to demonstrate to the young, the cycles of the moon and the seasons, the insistence of air and water and ice, the value of talking directly with real meaning, the importance of self-reliance and cooperation; our place as islands in the stream.

Copyright 2008. Minnesota Dental Association
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