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Tuesday, September 26

Gapers Block

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Do you think of yourself as a Midwesterner? A Northerner? If you live in Chicago, author Ted McClelland would call you a Great Laker. McClelland spent last summer driving around the Great Lakes — a 9,600-mile trip that took him as far west as Duluth, Minnesota, and as far east as Kingston, Ontario — to research his upcoming book, The Third Coast, which looks at the Lakes as a distinct region of North America, with its own culture and common interests. Gapers Block is pleased to present a series of excerpts from the book over the next several months.

Grand Marais, Minnesota

"Oh, God said Abraham 'Kill me a son'
Abe said, 'Man you must be puttin' me on'
God said 'No,' Abe said 'What?'
God said you can do what you want Abe but
The next time you see me comin' you better run
Well Abe said 'Where'd you want this killin' done?'
God said 'Out on Highway 61.'"
-- Bob Dylan, "Highway 61 Revisited"

If you live on Minnesota's North Shore, U.S. Highway 61 is "the road to Canada." If you're a lover of old roads, it's the Avenue of the Saints, because it follows the Mississippi River through St. Paul, St. Louis and New Orleans. If you're a music lover, Highway 61 is the link between two of the most enigmatic songwriters of the 20th Century -- Bob Dylan and Robert Johnson. It visits both their birthplaces -- Duluth, Minnesota and Clarksdale, Mississippi. Highway 61 makes up half of Johnson's famous "Crossroads." Did Dylan have this in mind when he named an album after the road? He's not telling us. Dylan never tells us anything. But thanks to him, "Highway 61 Revisited" is now Highway 61's claim to fame.

The highway narrows to two lanes at Two Harbors, just past the taconite plant, and then slices through shoreline cliffs that crumble into pebbly beaches. We're due west of the Keweenaw Peninsula, so the rock is just as old, as just as full of treasure. West of 61 is the Iron Range, where Charlize Theron was sexually harassed in North Country, and the Edmund Fitzgerald's "load of iron ore" was mined.

I was headed to Grand Marais, to spend a morning on Harley Toftey's fishing boat. I'd gotten the number of his restaurant from a fishing museum down the coast in Tofte (no relation). Harley told me he'd be glad to have me up to the rest'runt. Even take me out on the boat. Usually left at seven in the morning, so be on the dock by then. He is a Norwegian fisherman, so he didn't say much more. I got into Grand Marais on a Wednesday night, rented a cabin on the hill above town, and set the alarm for six.

I awoke to a creaky chill, and to news of a subway bombing in London. When I found Harley, he was in the fish-cleaning room under the restaurant, watching Fox News.

"If some of these countries got more serious about terrorism, there wouldn't be any more bombing," he grumbled, looking at an image of a charred bus on the screen.

Grunting, he carried a box of ice out to his 27-foot skiff. His dog, Cubby, followed him, and jumped into the bow.

"He's got to go out every day or else he gets mad," Harley explained. Then he pointed at my hiking boots.

"You might want some rubber boots," he said. "It gets kind of wet out there."

Harley was dressed in the fisherman's uniform: wellies, overalls and orange waders. I was wearing a slicker and jeans from Old Navy. I found a pair of boots in a jumble box, yanked them over my socks, and jumped over the gunwales, after Cubby. Then we buzzed out toward the fishing grounds.

While the skiff was still at low throttle, a white wake of gulls gathered behind the stern. Their papier-maché bodies looked like chiseled marble against the cloudless sky. As they pumped their wings to keep pace with the boat, Harley picked up a box of fish guts, the gory remains of yesterday's catch, and heaved its stringy contents onto the water. The birds braked, splashing feet first into Lake Superior, so they could peck at heads and lungs with their scimitar beaks.

"You feed'em and they leave you alone when you're pickin' the guts," Harley explained.

A handful kept up the chase, so Harley gunned the throttle, and soon the birds looked like moths against Grand Marais' green hills. ... Harley cut the engines, and then the lake was as smooth as blue vinyl. I swear I could have walked the two miles back to the dock. Harley gripped his nets with gloved hands and hauled them across the deck. Maybe one hole in two hundred contained a herring. The fish twisted and flashed in the sun. Harley popped them free and punctured their air-bloated bodies with a metal spike that fit over his hand. Then he tossed his victims onto the ice, where their gills feathered out final breaths. The Evinrude was set to growl, which nudged the boat sideways, so the net streamed across the deck. While Harley plucked herring, I justified my 160 pounds of ballast by sitting on a bench and lifting the depth lines over the bow.

Every once in awhile, a stray gull harried the boat. Harley sicced Cubby on it. He put all his passengers to work.

"There he goes, Cubby!" he'd shout. "Get'im. Get that bird! Get'im, Cubs!"

Cubby planted his paws on the side of the boat and whined as the gulls flew away.

"They pokes my nets full of holes and ruin' em," Harley said, in a tone of jovial disgust. "Once in awhile, they'll pull a fish out. I got a shotgun there, I'll shoot it in the air once in awhile to scare'em off. It's the young seagulls, don't know anything. Eventually, they'll watch their buddies get in trouble."

Harley had his opinions, but he wasn't a conversationalist. I suppose that came from being Norwegian, and spending his mornings on a boat with Cubby, the fish and the seagulls for company. Since writers work with words, we believe the fallacy that only articulate, "quotable" people make good copy. But if we spent as much time watching what people do as listening to what they say, we'd understand that guys who work with their hands are as worthy of words as, say, presidential speechwriters.

While Harley didn't volunteer his life story, he did answer my questions. From the fishing museum, I'd learned that the Norwegians were drawn to the North Shore because the Superior coast reminded them on their native fjords, and because the cold waters teemed with that Scandinavian delicacy, herring. When the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1954, lampreys swam in from the ocean, killing the trout. A decade later, waste rock from the Silver Bay taconite plant drove the herring far from shore. The EPA forced then forced the plant to pump its silt to an inland pond, and the herring came home, but now only two dozen men, descendants of the original Norwegians, bother to catch them. I asked Harley about his family's story. In his father's day, he said, "there were 400 fishermen on the North Shore. They all lived along the shoreline, and there was no roads here, so they did it to survive. A lot of these people here, they grew up on Isle Royale."

(Grand Marais is still mostly waterfront. The streets climb into the hills for a few blocks, then dead end. Now that 61 brings tourists through, most of the fishermen's taverns have been turned into restaurants or art galleries.)

Harley was back on land by quarter to 10, with 200 pounds of fish.

"It ain't great," he said, "but for this time of year, it's average or a little bit below average. It's been raining and it puts a little silt in the water. Fish don't like that."

There was a sign over the cleaning room: LOCALLY CAUGHT — From Our Boat to Your Table —Herring, Whitefish, Brown or Spec. Trout — Cured Smoked Fish." Harley dumped his catch into the scaler, a metal cylinder with a fish-skinning screen. As it whirled, he pumped in water, and silver flakes drifted into the drain.

Seeing the boat docked, a pair of old fishermen wandered in. One grabbed a knife, began slicing the flanks off fillets, and ribbed Harley about politics.

"I call him 'George W,'" he said, looking over at me with a glint.

Harley swept the cartilage off a herring and tossed it to Cubby.

"You know, a lot of kids around here are Republicans now," Harley said.

"Yeah, but when they go to school they'll learn to be Democrats," the old man chuckled.

Harley carried two tubs of herring up to the kitchen, up to Shele. They had met in Alaska, where Harley fished summers in his younger days. When Shele first went out on Lake Superior, she thought she was on the ocean, it was so rough and mean. Shele knew rough waters. In Alaska, she'd lost a boyfriend to a storm. Here in Grand Marais, "there's waves that come bashin' in, and there's water on the downtown streets and rocks in, especially when we get a good easterly."

Harley was up in Alaska the summer she was pregnant, with twins, and she had to get one of the old fishermen to help her pull up the nets. After that, she told Harley, we're settling down. Dockside was 12 hours a day, seven days a week, from April to November. In the winter, she waitressed in a ski lodge while Harley fixed the machines that groomed snowmobile trails. Freedom isn't free. It's harder work than servitude.

Shele had a seafood tip for me: you can tell if your fried fish is straight from the lake by the way it curls in the basket.

"So make me some fish and chips with the fish we caught today," I said. "That's gotta be the freshest fish in the world."

"You want today's catch? OK. Go wait in the restaurant."

I sat by the window, overlooking the dock. Ten minutes later, Shele came out with from behind the seafood cases, bearing a plastic basket. Strips of herring lay across a pile of French fries. Some were half-whorls. Others were corkscrews. I picked one up. It fell apart. I stuffed the pieces into my mouth. The meat was so soft, it dissolved. That's the reward for getting up early to fish.

Read on:

1. Sheboygan & Manitowoc County, Wisconsin
2. Marquette, Michigan
3. Mackinac Island, Michigan
4. Grand Marais, Minnesota
5. Pays Plat First Nations Reserve, Ontario, Canada
6. Isle Royale, Michigan
7. Rogers City, Michigan
8. Toronto, Canada
9. Hamilton, Ontario
10. Hamburg, New York
Buy the book.


About the Author(s)

Edward McClelland is the author of Horseplayers: Life at the Track, published in 2005 by Chicago Review Press. The Third Coast was released by the same publisher in 2008.

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