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
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.
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
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
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
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.