This is it: the great frozen north, separated from the great white north by an icy body of water that the Song of Hiawatha calls “Gitche Gumee, that shining Big-Sea-Water.” For me, it’s a land of family history. My parents grew to adulthood here, as did their parents before them. When you climb the branches of my family tree, the only place that comes before the great frozen north is the Old Country itself — or countries, rather — Italy, Slovenia, Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Poland. Between the Old Country, and me, there is nothing but this great frozen north.
Even I lived here; not for long — just two years — but I did it. And I was cold. From the upstairs of a 1920s house, I was within earshot of the shining Big-Sea-Water, within earshot of the fog horns and the ice-breaking tugboats and the winds that pulled the water from the Lake and twisted it and stretched it and smoothed it like a icy blanket over the naked branches and undulating streets.
But the Lake isn’t all of the north. Like Longfellow wrote,
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them…
And it’s these inland woodlands that grew up around my parents as children, that grew around me summer after summer and that grow up around my own child now as we visit. It is these woodlands and these tired old towns, once humming with industry and iron mines, but now battered and listing, with every winter leaning further away from the future. It would be wrong to say time has stood still here, for had it stood still it would have left a kinder mark on the crumbling foundations and the aging rooftops.
Stepping here feels like stepping between the pages of the National Geographic photo essays I loved as a child; in the glossy photos I see the live bait and chainsaw repair shops, the blaze orange, the Stormy Kromers, the ice augers, and chatter about choppers (not airborne flying machines but leather-and-shearling mittens).
Here is where we Christmased, this year; here in the waves of gray that slowly sweep from sky to earth in great snowy sheets that obscure the horizon, layer after another until there is no more sense of up or down but only a single color painted in a single swath.
And in that horizon, I see only the lights of Christmas and hear only the laughter of everyone I know, and I forget the heat and forget the noise and forget the traffic and forget the tropical gales.
The snow covers it all.