Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sunset No. 2

Why in the world would I want to drive 410 miles over eight hours up from our winter home in Evanston, Illinois, to our cabin on Lake Superior a few miles west Ontonagon, Michigan, for the whole summer, let alone a long weekend? Photographs of the sunsets there are the perfect answer to that question. This one was taken May 27. (Click the photo for a desktop-sized version.)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Curtains for another little rail line?

It gets worse.

Last week I wrote about the planned abandonment of the Escanaba & Lake Superior Railway line to Ontonagon, Michigan, model for Porcupine City in my Steve Martinez mysteries. If the line is torn up, Ontonagon and the county of the same name will face an economic disaster from which it may never recover.

Today, while photographing trains, I was reminded of another looming Ontonagon County nightmare: the shutdown of the copper refinery at White Pine, 18 miles southwest of Ontonagon, and the consequent likely abandonment of the Canadian National Railway's 77-mile White Pine branch line up from Marengo Junction, Wisconsin. (The switcher in these photographs is working the refinery's yard, the northern terminus of the branch line.)

If both the E&LS and the CN lines go, there will be no operating railroads at all in the western third of Upper Michigan.

Hudson Bay Minerals, owner of the White Pine refinery, is closing the only source of the copper -- its mine in Flin Flon, Manitoba -- and if it does not find a buyer for the refinery by the middle of July, will shut it down for good.

Sixty-one more people in Ontonagon County will be thrown out of work, joining the hundreds idled when the Smurfit-Stone paper mill, the county's largest employer, closed permanently earlier this year.

Beleaguered Ontonagon County needs a miracle.

Just for rail buffs: The locomotive is a 600-horsepower EMD SW1, 661 of which were built between 1938 and 1953. This little engine hence is at least 57 years old. It served on the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Penn Central and Amtrak before ending up at the Minnesota-based Independent Locomotive Service, which leases it to the White Pine refinery.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

So near . . . and yet so far

One of my fondest goals as a summer resident of Steve Martinez' fictional Porcupine County in Upper Michigan is to get a good photograph of the dozen or so great blue herons nesting in a remote rookery just outside Porcupine City.

The trouble is the rookery lies in the middle of an impenetrable swamp about 200 yards wide by 400 yards long. One needs a ten-thousand-dollar 1,000-millimeter telephoto lens to get a good shot -- or enough Navy SEAL training to sneak up undetected under the surface through the reeds and leeches with a shorter lens.

Both alternatives are, of course, way out of my league.

So I had to make do with a hand-me-down but very sharp 300-millimeter lens and crop the original photograph by about two-thirds to get this long view from the road just south of the rookery.

Click on the photo for a larger version. With some browsers you can click twice for an even larger closeup, and if you do you'll spot three young herons in the nest.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Last call of the E&LS?

These photographs, snapped this morning, may well be the last ever to mark the Escanaba & Lake Superior Railroad's presence in downtown Ontonagon, Michigan.

The two battered old locomotives belonging to the short line were in town to tow out a string of hopper cars containing the last remaining coal from the property of bankrupt Smurfit-Stone Container Corp., which earlier this year permanently closed its huge mill, the county's largest employer, and threw hundreds of Ontonagonians out of work.

Now that its only customer on the rickety 43-mile spur from Sidnaw to Ontonagon is out of business, E&LS wants to abandon the line and tear up the rails for scrap.

With town meetings and letter-writing campaigns the citizens of Ontonagon are fiercely fighting to save the tracks, vital if new industry is to be attracted to the area, and today it was announced that U.P. Steel has asked the federal Surface Transportation Board to delay approval of the abandonment plans so that it can study use of the mill for manufacturing. Whether this will work depends on whether Smurfit-Stone, currently in bankruptcy, is willing to sell the mill to the steel outfit -- or any other company.

Somehow I'll have to work this ongoing socioeconomic drama into Hang Fire, the novel-in-progress set in fictional Porcupine County, whose real-life inspiration is Ontonagon County.

For fellow rail buffs: The rusty E&LS 1221, at top, is a 1,750-hp SD9, built by General Motors' Electro-Motive Division more than half a century ago. It labored for now defunct Reserve Mining Corp. at the western end of Lake Superior before ending up on the E&LS. The creaking E&LS 501, below, is a 3,000-hp EMD SD40-2 more than three decades old, and worked for the Milwaukee Road and GM Leasing before arriving on the E&LS.

The historic line was built in 1882 as the Ontonagon & Brule River Railway and was merged in the 1890s into the Milwaukee Road, which went bankrupt and sold the line to the E&LS in 1980. It stretches from Ontonagon and Escanaba in Michigan to Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Probable cause

The bear returned last night, trashed the feeders again, and now Sheriff Martinez has enough evidence to arrest. Unfortunately he has been ordered by his Lady Friend to store the feeders in the barn at night -- she doesn't want wayward bruins traipsing all over her back yard and doing who knows what.

But he'll leave the game camera up just in case the miscreant returns to the scene of the crime.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Bufflehead in the woodpile

One of the joys of living on the shore of Lake Superior, Sheriff Steve Martinez will always tell you, is glancing out the front window at breakfast and spotting wildlife paddling by like commuters on their way to work. Yesterday it was an otter that lives up the nearby creek and ventures out into the lake at dawn in search of a meal.

This morning it was a squadron of common mergansers, ducking their saw-toothed bills under the surface as they churned westward. Those two in the background are males, the ones closer inshore are females.

Suddenly a much smaller duck furiously motorboats through the flotilla, as if to grab the choicest morsels first. What is it? The Sibley bird book says a bufflehead, the size of the oblong white patch on its head suggesting a young adult female. Even though the two species are of considerably different sizes, Sibley says there have been reports of apparent bufflehead/merganser hybrids.

Maybe a small scandal of nature is aborning here.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Bring on the belly dancers . . .

. . . and save a branch library!

The Evanston Public Library Friends, one of my favorite organizations, is sponsoring a silent auction on the Internet starting today and running through May 30.

The auction is to raise money to keep alive the city's two branch libraries and provide other vital services. The city council wants to close them to balance the budget, but a large group of concerned citizens has banded together in a grassroots effort to demonstrate that the people of Evanston value the town's intellectual heritage.

More than $80,000 of the required $200,000 has been raised so far, and the auction will push the effort a great deal closer to the goal.

You don't have to live in Evanston to bid on the goodies, some of which includes rare volumes, autographed books by Evanston authors from Joseph Epstein to Scott Turow (and including me), meals at local restaurants (and a dinner with Audrey Niffenegger), art of all kinds including spectacularly illustrated garden watering cans, and sports and entertainment tickets.

There are also "unique experiences" such as a belly-dancing party in your own home that includes three dancers and instruction in the art. Malik Turley (right), founder of the Hip Circle Studio, donated the party to the auction.

Bid. You are bound to win something useful (tax deductible as well) and gain a large measure of the satisfaction that goes with helping save something priceless -- and irreplaceable.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Catalog page

In the interest of shameless (is there any other kind?) self-promotion, I hereby offer a page from the University of Illinois Press's brand new Fall 2010 catalog.

The arrival of a publisher's seasonal catalog is the penultimate step, from the writer's point of view, in the publishing process. The last is the actual appearance of the book. Then the really hard grunt work -- getting out there and promoting the book -- begins.

Click on the page (twice, depending on your browser) for easier reading.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

In flagrante delicto

Steve Martinez's cabin has been terrorized these past few nights by a large creature that trashed the bird feeders and bent the cast iron shepherd's hooks into bows. Last year the culprit was a large doe that eventually learned to dip the feeders gently and tongue the seed out of them. But this time the feeders were broken into pieces and scattered about the yard.

The game camera is a cheap one with a wimpy electronic flash, and the target was dark as night, but it's clear that that's a good-sized black bear (the squirrel baffle is about 4 feet off the ground). Click on the photo for a slightly better view.

And so Sheriff Martinez has issued a countywide BOLO for a bear about yea high, dressed as a ninja and with birdseed on its shirt front.

And he'll bring the feeders indoors for the next couple of weeks, or until the perp is apprehended.

Monday, May 10, 2010


This time of year on the isolated stretch of Lake Superior beach where Sheriff Steve Martinez lives, waterfowl are on the wing for places north, still on their migratory paths.

Yesterday these birds tarried in front of Steve's cabin:

Five male mallards

Two lone Canada geese

Three male goldeneyes

Nine loons (eight male and one female)

Two mergansers

Scores of gulls, both ring-billed and herring

And, oh yes, the ubiquitous crows and deer onshore. What's more, during the night a large and clumsy visitor took out both birdseed stations, bending one of the iron shepherd's hooks into a bow and destroying one of the feeders. Could have been a muscular buck, but possibly a black bear.

When Steve can look out his cabin window at breakfast, or while trying to squeeze a few more drops of blood out of his departmental budget, and see these lovely wild creatures helps explain why he stays in declining Porcupine County rather than pulling up stakes for a better-paid job fighting crime elsewhere.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The snows of May

Friday morning at Eagle River. Good thing I brought along a snow brush just in case.

The drive up yesterday to the log cabin on the shore of Lake Superior in upper Michigan where I spend my summers with Sheriff Steve Martinez was not without its moments.

The day before, a rare May snowstorm blew in from the northwest and made driving difficult. By the overnight stop in Eagle River, Wisconsin, the ground had turned white, and four inches of heavy white slop fell before morning. The snow resumed shortly after departure from Eagle River, but right at the Michigan state line the clouds lifted and the driving once again turned pleasant.

The cabin itself looked just fine. It had survived its 62nd harsh winter without damage. By nightfall the log blaze in the fireplace had warmed the great room to 70 degrees, and this morning as the sun rose in a cloudless sky to a bone-chilling 23 degrees, the temperature in the cabin had fallen to just 55 degrees.

Soon it'll be time to resume work on Hang Fire.

The view north on U.S. 45 between Eagle River and Conover, Wisconsin.

No snow at all at Sheriff Steve Martinez' cabin on the shore of Lake Superior.

Hogan surveys his domain in front of the cabin (visible through the trees).

The first Lake Superior sunset photograph of 2010. There will be many more.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Stieg Larsson

I've just finished reading the second Stieg Larsson crime thriller, The Girl Who Played with Fire, on my iPod Touch, and am eagerly awaiting the e-book release May 25 of the third and last in the trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.

Both Fire and the first in the series, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, are structural messes shot through with annoying minor flaws. But they are both riveting, primarily because Larsson (who died before the first book was published) wrote with such passion and created such a singular heroine in the alienated hacker Lisbeth Salander.

Larsson reminds me in some ways of Thomas Wolfe (Look Homeward, Angel), an equally untidy novelist who nevertheless captivated his audience with the power of his lyrical prose. Like Wolfe, Larsson was an important character in his own books -- in real life he was a crusading journalist, just like Mikael Blomkvist, the dogged magazine reporter who serves as a foil to Salander.

The Sunday Times (of London) has just published an excellent profile of Larsson that brings up to date the story of his unfortunately just as messy personal legacy (he wallowed in self-destructive habits and left no will). It also hints at the existence of a fourth manuscript that has been caught up in family squabbles among Larsson's heirs.

Thanks to Miriam Berkley for the heads-up.