Thursday, January 22, 2009

Letter from the snowy North

Steve Sundberg's dog Ruby "breaking trail" through deep snow in Ontonagon, Michigan.

Steve Sundberg, a friend away up in Ontonagon on the Lake Superior shore of Michigan -- the place where my mystery novels are set -- writes:

"Winter is well along and shaping up to be one that the kids will brag about to their grandchildren. We passed 200 inches of snow for the season on Monday and we still have at least six weeks of winter to go. It has snowed virtually every day since Thanksgiving, some days a dusting, some days a foot of the lightest, fluffiest powder snow.

"It has made for tremendous conditions for the ski hill, cross country trails and snowshoeing in the woods. The snowmobile traffic in the area is way down, probably due to the poor economic conditions, so their trails are in excellent condition.

"The economy of the area haa been hit hard. The paper mill in town started a partial layoff the second week of December. About two-thirds of the employees were laid off with the expectation that they would be called back the beginning of January. The layoff has now been extended to at least the beginning of February and that timetable may be optimistic.

"The two enormous paper machines at the mill are kept running at an idle speed. If the machines were stopped for any length of time the bearings on the huge rollers would develop flat spots and be ruined, so power plant and maintenance personnel and a millwright and oiler were kept on for each shift.

"Last week Smurfit-Stone, owner of the mill, indicated it is investigating filing for bankruptcy. That may actually be a positive. Smurfit-Stone is highly leveraged and may need to divest some assets to make its interest payments. The Ontonagon mill has a reputation for making first quality corrugation used for cardboard boxes and other manufacturers may be interested in buying it.

"The layoffs, of course, cascade through the businesses in the community. January and February are normally slow months and that is especially true this year. Even the bars, restaurants and motels are hurting due to the lack of snowmobilers this year. Things are slow at the hardware store but we can hold on until spring. The only boom business right now is roof shoveling."

This reminds me that none of the action in the Steve Martinez mystery novels takes place during a hard winter, and I had better get up there and research a chapter or three set during that time for Hang Fire, the novel in progress. I might even have to rent a snowmobile and go haring off into the woods.

The news about the layoff at the mill, however, is disturbing. It is the largest employer in Ontonagon County, and as Steve says, when it shuts down, many more than its own employees are hurt -- for example, the many scores of independent loggers who fell and truck pulpwood to the mill as well as those who provide other goods and services.

Economic hardships are bound to affect an already overextended rural county sheriff's department such as the one in my novels. Petty crime will rise, as will alcohol and drug offenses and domestic disturbances. And it's the deputies who have to carry out the increasing number of eviction notices.

All this, of course, is grist for a novelist's mill. But I deeply wish it weren't.


  1. (Urk. Went to post a comment and the format is different.)
    Thanks for the update on the UP. Between your books, your reports when up there, and your friends in the area, it give one a good picture of the "neighborhood"; sort of as if we were part of the community.

    The snow up there makes our bad winter here in Evanston pale by comparison.

  2. People up in the UP say their winters are a lot healthier than ours down in the Chicago area, because the cold is a dry one, unlike ours. The snow tends to be dry and fluffy, unlike our heavy and wet stuff that turns to slush as soon as temperatures climb above 28 or so.

    The Lady Friend is making noises about going up there soon . . .