My Part of Michigan

I have a cabin in northern Michigan, at the foot of a hill called The Top of the World.

If you climb this hill on a warm summer day, you will hike through fields of bracken ferns and dry leaves, under a canopy of birches and pines. Just north of the ridge line, you will find a trail, reputedly an old Indian trail. Follow it to the northwest, and finally, with the pine scent heavy on the air, you will reach the summit. If you keep on the trail, you will find an ancient hemlock. Blocks of wood have been pounded into the trunk; they are worn, splintery, left by early climbers to make footholds to the branches above.

Climb the tree to the top—it isn’t too high, since lightning struck it years before. Then you will see, spread out before you, the lower portion of the Antrim County Chain of Lakes—Skegemog directly in front, a gentle blue, with the Narrows and Elk Lake, a brilliant turquoise, to the west. Beyond that, the outline of the Old Mission Peninsula juts out into the waters of Grand Traverse Bay, a deeper blue. To the east, Torch River winds like a silver ribbon through the trees, and if you can manage to turn around, still holding on to the tree (I never could), you will catch a glimpse of Torch Lake stretching off to the north.

From The Top of the World, the trees hide the clusters of cottages and summer homes on Elk and Torch Lakes. You see only the lakes, forest, and distant shores, and with a little leap of the imagination, you can picture what the native Americans might have seen as they looked down on their hunting and recreation grounds. My lake, Skegemog, is a gentle, smaller lake, still wild, with just a few large homes. My cabin is one of the smallest ones.

At the eastern end of the lake, near the mouth of Torch River, stretch the wetlands, wild, marshy areas where loons and eagles nest, and the few remaining mute swans search for food.  These places of high grass, stumps and water, once acquired with great effort by The Nature Conservancy, are now under the protection of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy.  As you descend the hill, if you love nature and wild places, you will rejoice that at least two hundred acres of forestland are still in private hands, the sole owner determined not to sell. The rest, wetlands and nesting grounds, are all protected areas.

Cross the road at the bottom of the hill, make a turn to the left, and you will see the cabin.  It sits amid pines, itself built of pine, a burnished light brown with white chinking. Inside, you enter a tiny kitchen, then a main room and three small bedrooms on the south side. There is a modern bathroom with a shower, and a front porch facing the lake.

As I look at the cabin logs, I remember when I was twelve years old and the cabin was being built. An Odawa from Canada, who lived in Elk Rapids, put up the cabin over winter with the help of his son-in-law. My father had instructions from the town pharmacist:

“Give him the plans, show him what you want, and then let him do it.  Don’t try to supervise him.”

Even more fascinating was his name, given to my father by the druggist. “Cy Beaver.  You can call him Cy, but the boys all call him Flat-Tail.”

My mind fills with images—the years drop away and I am standing in the snow with my father while Cy and his helper lift pine logs off a flatbed truck and position them in place. A black potbellied stove squats in the corner, warming the air while they work. Cy is middle-aged, not tall, his shoulders stooped, his face bronzed and wrinkled by sun and weather. He jokes with my father, barks short commands to his son-in-law, who is broad-shouldered, a head taller than Cy.

Then, months later, our first summer in the cabin. We furnish it with second-hand pieces, items from local rummage sales. Later that summer, the thing happened that I will never forget.

We were all outside on the lake shore, my parents, myself and my younger brother, and my aunt from Kentucky. A still morning—the surface of the lake was like glass. Suddenly, close to shore, a dark object glided into view—the prow of the strangest boat we had ever seen. It was a canoe built out of birch bark, with an occupant equally astonishing—a man who looked older than anyone I had ever known. His face wrinkled, his eyes deep-set, he brought the strange craft to shore and pulled it partially out of the water. Then he turned to face us, a thin, bent figure, appearing incredibly fragile with his grayish braids down each side of his face. His clothes looked old, ragged; he wore colored beads around his neck. He looked at us, and we stared at him, speechless.  Then he spoke without smiling.

“I come to see Cy’s work.”

We showed him the cabin, inside and out. He did not speak, but only grunted from time to time. His eyes seemed to dart everywhere, but he himself moved slowly from one place to the next, as if it were an effort. Finally he stopped and nodded.

“Cy did well.”

We followed him down to the beach and watched as he shoved the birch bark canoe into the water. He moved off as silently as he had come, leaving us staring at each other in awe and wonder. Finally the adults began to talk among themselves. My brother and I waited for him to come back. We never saw him again.

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Elaine Stienon

Elaine Stienon