At five o’clock that afternoon, as on most afternoons, when dusk was starting to settle into the woods, we drove up the steep and sinuous road to the summit of Brockway Mountain to try for a glimpse of sunset and a cell-phone connection.
Brockway is a mountain in name only, barely a thousand feet above Lake Superior, and only about 1,600 feet above sea level. But it is the highest point on the peninsula and so exposed to the weather that the oak, aspen, birch, and spruce trees ringing its summit are stunted, their gnarled branches arthritic, their trunks stubby and twisted.
At the prospect, where the road circles a weather station and the parking lot is lined with a crenellated wall of quarried stone, we stood and looked inland at mountainous ridges where the Earth’s crust tilts toward the center of the Keweenaw. The woods on the hillsides, stripped of their leaves, appeared faintly purple, with veins of green conifers running through them and a few patches of aspens unfurling down the slopes like strips of gold carpeting.
Donut-shaped Bailey Lake, with a wooded island at its center, lay cupped in the valley below. We turned and saw the woods drop below us in an accelerating arc past the bay where our cabin sat, to the lighthouse at Eagle Harbor blinking white then red then white. Everywhere else was open lake. Fifty miles away we could see Isle Royale and its archipelago rising in hazy bumps just above the horizon.
Snow squalls crept across the lake. Each was shaped like an inverted thunderhead, or like a giant boot about to stomp the water. Even from twenty miles away we could see the snow-streaks beneath them, bending with the wind. Overhead, a few southbound birds shot past, trying to keep ahead of winter. The Keweenaw is a bird funnel, especially in the spring, when thousands of raptors concentrate above Brockway, circling on thermals as they wait for a south wind to carry them across the lake to Canada.
Grains of snow flung past in the wind, and gusts made the wind generator on top of the boarded-up gift shop accelerate into furious storms of kinetic energy. We could see the wind flurrying the lake many miles out. The lid of clouds cracked open low in the west and a burst of sunlight streamed through. For a minute or two everything around us flared in brilliant rose and scarlet, then the sun dropped beyond the horizon and darkness fell.
That was the moment, the very moment, when the season of falling fell into winter.
On our last day on the Keweenaw, Aaron and I stood among the pines on a bluff overlooking Superior, and watched waves pummel the shore. Snow blew in blinding flurries across the water and plastered white over the face of every rock and tree.
We were in a beautiful place but a hard one. I thought about hard winds, hard stones, hard winters, water so cold that it was only a degree or two from turning to hard ice, the solid rock foundation of this perilous finger of land where it is hard to keep warm and harder yet to make a living, and wondered if all that hardness rises through the feet of the people who live here and spreads into their hearts. Probably not. Of course not. We are strong and resilient and get along fine in harder places than this.
But you have to be hardy to live here. On cars and trucks throughout the Upper Peninsula you often see bumper stickers printed with the Finnish word sisu. Derived from a cognate meaning “inner” or “interior,” and pronounced “SEE-sue,” it is usually translated into something like stubborn determination, perseverance, or strength of will in the face of adversity, though it suggests more nuanced qualities as well.
In English it is most closely approximated by “guts,” but that familiar slang swaggers with masculine valor and battlefield heroics, whereas sisu transcends gender and ignores momentary courage to honor the more difficult valor of enduring without complaint a lifetime of ordinary hardships. It is the Yoopers’ humble anthem, adopted by those who have survived a single winter as readily as those whose ancestors immigrated to work in the copper and iron mines.
It is stoicism stripped of its philosopher’s robe and dressed in a Woolrich hunting coat and a Packers cap, with a chainsaw in the back of the pickup and a snowmobile rusting all summer in the yard. It means sticking to a job until it is finished, no matter how difficult it is or how long it takes, and one of those jobs, the one that requires the greatest endurance and the most courage, is life itself. In a harsh climate and inhospitable land, sisu helps a person get by with dignity.
We followed a trail down the hill to a steep, gravel-piled beach in a cove between headlands. The waves on the open lake were furious and black, their whitecaps streaming. They funneled into the cove and charged shoreward, rising higher and growing steeper as they approached the shallows. Each wave stood up, curled, paused, then fell, breaking with a booming, shuddering impact we felt through our feet, and rushed foaming up the strand. Every backwash dragged a few tons of gravel back into the lake. Superior had never seemed more beautiful or brutal. It roared with despairing shipwreck solitude and blew bitter cold without mercy.
Did the lake match my mood, or generate it? I don’t know; the knot is too tight. I began to imagine that the wind was scrubbing my perceptions clean, allowing me for a moment to see more clearly. It was a whimsical idea with philosophy in it. What if the wind could blow away everything we know, all our words, all our theories and arguments and superstitions and prejudices, all our fears and bravado, all our politics and ethics, everything our education has taught us, leaving us scoured and empty, clear and clear-headed, and able, at last, to see the world, not as a screen upon which we project ourselves, but as it is? What would such a world look like? Would we know it? Would we be at home in it? How would we make our way through it?
The waves came, one after another, beating against the bedrock foundation of the world. It was the pounding bass rhythm of music from the time before language, before even heartbeats. With each impact, I knew less. Every thump subtracted from my knowledge. Good-bye school years. Good-bye books I’ve read. Good-bye names of things.
The wind passed right through me. For a moment, just a heartbeat, I knew nothing, absolutely nothing — and the exhilaration of that moment stayed with me for days.
Author Jerry Dennis has earned his living as freelance writer since 1986. His books are widely acclaimed and have been translated into six languages.