Dan's Cabin- Porcupine Mountians Artist-in-Residence
It was the late winter of 2007 when my kids’ Venture Crew announced it was going to the Porcupine Mountains. Immediately I envisioned bears coming out of hibernation and wilderness. My only trip to the Porkies was a summer visit some 20 years before with my parents and my just-married wife in a rented RV. We only stopped at the Lake of the Clouds overlook and peered out at the vista before us. I remember reading that there were trails going through the forest and I also remember seeing the bridge so far below and thinking “someday I would like to go over that bridge and keep hiking”. I thought this is a place that could have inspired Bilbo Baggins to claim “Still ‘round the corner there may wait, a new road or a secret gate.” The whole of the Porcupines fell behind a secret gate for me. There was something special about the place, and yet all too soon it was time to turn back to the motor home and drive away. Then once back home it wasn’t long before there was a job, then two kids, a house, and after enough time passed the Porkies became a distant memory, tucked away, and almost forgotten. Looking back, perhaps I attempted to push the memory away.
But there we were sitting in the basement of the church in Weston, Wisconsin where Venture Crew 450 has their meetings talking of going to the Porkies. I wanted to be a part of my kids’ adventures and had been an assistant Scoutmaster in my son’s troop for years. I volunteered to help with the Venture Crew outings as often as possible. But the Porkies were another step. Dim memories of the vista, the bridge, and the trails locked as if by a secret gate came tumbling forth. Thoughts of long trails, distant intersections, huge trees, and bears feeling the hunger of a long winter’s rest came parading through my head. Yet, when they asked who was going I looked at my kids, raised my hand, and said “us”.
The months that followed found me checking web sites for better sleeping bags, backpacks, some new boots, and then a winter tent. Only later did I find out we had cabins rented. I packed fire starters, a GPS, compass, anything and everything I could think of to keep my kids safe should we, as I suspected, become hopelessly lost. But eventually the Friday night arrived and the cars were loaded and we were off. By the time we arrived after work from Wausau, WI in early April it was well past dark. We stopped in and picked up keys at the Ranger station, grabbed some maps, and then pulled into the Whitetail cabin parking lot. I remember hurrying to get on my boots, my new backpack, and finally my headlamp. Off we went through the dark and the snow. Shadows of huge trees outlined the blackness on each side of the trail. The night was full of “what could happen” and the smell of melting snow. Eventually the sound of distant waves began to increase in volume as we approached the cabin.
When we arrived I decided I wanted to camp out in my tent near the cabin (I have since found out this was breaking the rules). I was warned the bears could be coming out of hibernation and that I should be careful out there in my tent. But as I settled in with the sounds of the waves on Lake Superior only a few dozen yards away, and the little light hanging from the top of my tent waving gently from the wind, I realized I was finally “camping” in the Porkies. I had hiked one of the secret trails and here I was in my tent under the stars, between the trees, over the melting snow, and next to the big rhythmic lake. It felt really good, like I should have been there a long time ago, almost like- in some inexplicable and wonderful way- coming home.
We had a fantastic trip. We wandered more trails under giant pines. These were different than the trees in the county forests around my house. The loggers are in and out of those woodlots so often that the trees seem to cast side glances and stand uneasy in the winter wind. These trees had the wisdom of centuries gathered in their grain, and they towered proudly next to the great lake murmuring with the wind. As we shuffled past in our smallness, on our snowshoes, glancing up as often as the awkward foot gear would allow; our human concept of time began to seem like an unnecessary contraption. I liked that.
When we came back home I started to search the web for information on the Porkies. It didn’t take long before I came across pages from a Dan Urbanski. His photography and writings of the Porkies and surrounding area fascinated me. I had to try to find these places…
We started making regular trips to the Porkies. My wife and I backpacked the Lake Superior trail and set up our small 2-person MSR Zoid on a stunning campsite right on the lake. Some friends and I packed into Mirror Lake just after the leaves had fallen in late October. I fell in love with the Porkies. My in-laws purchased a Michigan State Park pass for me as my Christmas present. A couple years earlier it would have meant nothing to me, but at that point it became a treasure.
In the winter of 2009 I was diagnosed with salivary gland cancer. I went through surgery, and then six weeks of walking into a room with a foot-thick door every day to have my head strapped to a table as the humming servos of a massive machine spun it quietly up to the side of my face to deliver the buzzing, acrid taste of radiation. After the first two weeks the inside of my mouth was so burned I couldn’t drink our city water without adding baking soda, and I had to continue to walk through that door day after day. I couldn’t work, and I couldn’t just sit around worrying. So, realizing that our time on this planet is not what the trees in the Porkies enjoy, I decided it was time to pursue my goal of getting back into photography. I purchased a nice Nikon camera, gathered books from the library, and began to learn about digital photography.
I lost a good deal of weight going through the radiation process because it was difficult to eat. But, as the inside of my mouth healed enough to eat more regular food and I began to come off the constant pain killers, the first place I wanted to go was the Porkies with my new camera. My wife Renee and I rented the Section 17 cabin in the middle of an April week. There were still patches of snow on the south boundary road as we drove to the parking lot on that wonderful afternoon. Renee carried more than her fair share of gear on the mile hike in because I was weakened from the ordeal. I had my new camera inside my pack, as well as my 1983 Slik tripod strapped to the outside. We stopped at several places along the way to take photos. As I set my tripod up in “just the right” spot and carefully set atop my new camera I couldn’t help but feel a connection with Dan. Standing before the roaring spring waters of the Little Carp River, contemplating lens, shutter speeds, and F-stops; I imagined this must be how Dan felt hiking through the Porkies with his camera and tripod. It was spring in multiple and magnificent ways for me, and we had the most delightful and rejuvenating two days staying at the Section 17 cabin.
Since then I’ve upgraded cameras, lenses, and gear as I could. Renee and I have purchased a small cabin on a small lake in Northern Wisconsin of our own. The joy of photography for me is still about finding those secret gates. Getting up in the early morning dark and finding my way by headlamp to that “just right” spot, or paddling out onto a lake at first light hoping the loons might swim by or make their haunting call across the mist-covered morning. My hope is that the images created bring a little of the magic of those places home to the viewer.
Northwoods Fine Art and Nature Photography by Tim Feathers.
I'm based out of beautiful Vilas County near Manitowish Waters/ Presque Isle Wisconsin but wander with my camera throughout the North of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan.