When writing, I have learned that words often find a life of their own, the original intent goes amuck, and something entirely different unfolds. And so it is today. I wanted to tell a story about a fireworks display I witnessed while working at Isle Royale National Park in July 1981. But, instead, it is a story about how life as we know it changes in seconds or brief moments, not over long-suffering years as many people believe. It is also a story about how God gave me an unexpected gift at precisely the right moment to prepare me for one of those life-altering moments.
In June 1981, I left civilization behind to live on Isle Royale National Park for three months. I had attained a job as a cook for the concessionaires at the lodge in Rock Harbor. My Mother and our dog Patty stood on the dock in Houghton, Michigan, and watched as I boarded The Ranger, a large passenger ferry that took people to and from the island. I carried just one small suitcase containing all I might need for an entire summer. If I was sad to leave them, I do not recall. And, if they had any concerns about my departure, I did not notice as I was overwhelmed with anticipation to get to the island. Unfortunately, my excitement waned in the first hour of the six-hour trip across Lake Superior. The boat lurched gracelessly in the waves, and a cold wind arose. I quickly became chilled to the bone and fought the urge to vomit from my seasickness for the remaining five-hour trip.
Once upon the shore, I met the welcoming crew and though a bit green from the boat ride, cheerfully and anxiously greeted them. They introduced me to the folks I would be working with and then took me to my room. I was one of the lucky ones as I received a room to myself in the guest house along with three other gals. The alternative would have been double occupancy in an overcrowded dorm set farther away from the lake. Instead, the guest house was big and quiet and built on the shore of Lake Superior. My window was lakeside, and I could always hear the calming sound of waves splashing onto the rocks. Later I would discover that the small pools of water that collected amongst the rocks provided an excellent cooler for beer.
Once I settled in, I realized just how isolated Isle Royale is from the rest of the world. The forty-five-mile-long eight-mile-wide island is15 miles South of Thunder Bay, Canada, and over 40 miles North of Houghton, Michigan. Only two percent of the island is developed. There are no cars or motorized vehicles, so travel is by foot or boat. In 1981 there was one English-speaking radio station, one television that our manager did not allow us to watch, and one telephone.
We could use the phone anytime we wanted. However, it was located four miles away on another island and owned by the National Park Service. It was necessary to rent a small rowboat with a motor and buy gas, and all calls had to be made collect. It was an ordeal! I called my mom once that summer before our privileges were revoked. Julia, the waitress, failed to reverse the charges for her numerous phone calls ending the National Park Service’s hospitality.
That left mail as the only means of communication. Mail delivery depended upon clear skies as it was flown in by a pontoon plane from Houghton, Michigan. The fog was the enemy. Any interruption in communication with friends and family on the mainland had consequences. Once, we went two weeks with no mail service. People were going mad from the lack of connection to the outside world.
For the most part, I enjoyed my time on the island. I spent my working days in the kitchen on the lunch and dinner crew. On non-workdays, I hiked, boated, fished, looked for greenstones, played poker, and drank beer. Beer drinking was not technically permitted, nor was alcohol sold on the island. However, one could easily bribe a crew member from the Ranger to smuggle in the contraband. Residents like myself found that beer could be kept cold in toilet tanks or pools of fresh Lake Superior water.
I met some wonderful characters on Isle Royale.
Bob, our maintenance man, would take a few of us fishing for Lake Trout, Salmon, or Whitefish. We always caught something, and when we got back to shore, Bob would clean the fish while the rest of us found the necessary supplies to cook them over an open fire. It was by far the best fish I have ever eaten. Bob was kind and generous and always had a good word to say. Then, one day Bob woke up and declared that he was Jesus Christ. Sadly, when the delusion did not pass, he was removed from the island.
Martha was in charge of housekeeping, but I remember her always doing laundry. Martha was old with short unkempt gray hair, a deeply wrinkled face, and was as round as tall. She used her irreverent cranky sense of humor to scare folks. Most could not see the adorable woman that genuinely was and kept their distance. I saw right through her, though, and she always made me laugh. She was somehow able to thoroughly convince our normally stingy management that she needed to drink buttermilk and goat’s milk for a stomach condition. Then, one day with a twinkle in her eye, she confided in me that she did not have a stomach condition and that she just really liked buttermilk and goat’s milk. Martha, too, left the island early for some unknown medical condition. I suspect it was from drinking too much of the rich milk.
There were many wonderful carefree days spent exploring the island with friends. One of my favorite days was when Carmel and I caught a ride with the tour boat to Moskey Basin. We left the tour and hiked to Lake Richie, where we laid on the sun-heated rocks and named the clouds as they passed overhead. Later we were mesmerized by a cow moose carrying her calf upon her back as she crossed the lake. And even later, as we waited for the return of the tour boat at Moskey Basin, we sifted through stones along the shore, searching for the perfect greenstone.
We were accompanied by Loons and Mergansers noisily teaching their chicks to dive. Try as hard as they might; the chicks would quickly bounce back to the surface only to be scolded by their disapproving Mother. And lastly, I remember the quarter-size leach that attached itself to Carmel’s ankle. However, even that did not ruin the day as she casually picked it off, cast it aside, and compressed the wound until it stopped bleeding.
As Labor Day approached, my coworkers began to leave the island. My departure would not occur, though, until September 15. Each day, the island grew eerily and steadily quieter as fewer and fewer people remained. Summer turned abruptly to fall, and the weather grew cold and damp, making the island feel even more remote. On September 14, the day before I left the island, the assistant manager knocked on my door and asked if I would like to watch his television. I told him no and to go away as our managers had a reputation for visiting female employees with gifts in hand, hoping to receive something in return. He assured me that he did not want anything from me and was trying to be kind. I still did not respond, and after a bit, I could hear him walk away. Later I found that he had left the television behind.
I brought the TV into my room, plugged it in, sat on the old wood floor, and began to search for available channels. It did not take long to realize that I had only one choice. It was a PBS channel featuring a program that explored the lives of three people who had become quadriplegic due to accidents. They talked candidly about their injuries, their struggles emotionally and physically, and how they not only moved forward but had become very successful. Although I was not entirely captivated by the program, I could not turn it off. Perhaps it was because I had not seen television in 3 months, or maybe it was something else entirely. When the program was over, I unplugged the tv and put it back in the hall.
On the morning of September 15, I packed my one small suitcase and headed to the harbor to meet the seaplane. It was not a sad departure from the island. By that point, I was more than ready to return to my “normal” life. I looked forward to spending a few days at home with my folks, eating good food, and heading back to Michigan State University for the fall term, where I would live off-campus for the first time in an apartment with some of my closest friends. My biggest concern of the day was that the seaplane might crash into the icy waters of Lake Superior en route to Houghton, Michigan. Surprisingly, the flight took only twenty minutes, and both take-off and landing were incredibly soft and gentle.
My mom, dad, and Patty, the dog, were waiting for me on the dock when I arrived. Though I know we were thrilled to see one another, no one cried tears of joy or even hugged as that was just not our way. I do not recall much about the trip home other than I was shocked that mom and dad had bought a baby blue Ford Escort station wagon instead of a truck; I thought traffic moved way too fast, and the 60-pound dog laid on me the entire eight-hour trip. Finally, we arrived home around 11 pm. As we got out of the car, the voice of our neighbor Micky stopped us. She had been crying. With great difficulty, she told us that my brother, Calvin, had been in a severe accident and that it was uncertain that he would live through the next 24 hours. My mother cried and began to beat my father’s chest out of anguish, I suppose, and my father just shook his head and kept saying no over and over again. I felt somehow separate from it all in dazed confusion. Lives change in seconds. That is all it took for my family. “Normal” in the way we knew it would never exist again.
My brother is a quadriplegic due to an accidental forty-foot fall from an electrical “high line.” He is still alive and doing quite well forty years later. He indeed experienced many of the same challenges as the three people featured on the PBS program I watched the night before his accident. His passage through this life has not been easy, but he is a survivor. Despite the pain and hardships that his disability has caused, he remains mostly cheerful, independent, and a good brother.
I will never know why the manager, a man I never liked or respected, felt compelled to lend me his television on September 14. Or why the only program available was one so related to what was about to happen to my family. What I do know is that it gave me hope for the future, faith that we could and would make it through, and the strength to endure.
There are no coincidences. It was simply God’s grace to paint a picture of what life could be for my brother. Imagine how bleak my outlook could have been without having seen this program. The journey I travel is not alone. Though God is not always as timely or transparent in sharing wisdom as in this case, I believe He is always present. I did not have to ask, surrender, or wait. What I needed was given, and I am forever and profoundly grateful.
© Gail Howarth and Living At The Lakehouse, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Gail Howarth and Living At The Lakehouse with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.