An American friend of mine in Paris, who is definitely a big-city kind of girl, shakes her head in disbelief when I describe our cabin on a river in northern Michigan. She knows that we spend two months in Paris and two months in Pisa each year and can't imagine going from the myriad offerings of those two cities to what she calls "wilderness." "What do you do there?" She practically wails when she says this.
It's true that life at the cabin is definitely a far cry from the bright lights and big city feel of Paris or the medieval splendor of Pisa. In fact, it's a pretty far cry from anything. The closest grocery store in Baldwin, population 800, is about six miles away on roads that are largely unpaved. There are no fancy restaurants, cafes, cinemas or art museums. The town does have two canoe liveries, a hardware store, a good little library with internet, an ice cream and fudge shop and, most surprising of all, twice-weekly jazz and blues concerts all summer long. There are lakes and streams for fishing and canoeing and hundreds of miles of forest bike and hiking trails. Lake Michigan, where you can find beautiful, secluded white sand beaches, is just 40 miles to the west.
Our cabin is modest. At 720 square feet, it's just a bit smaller than the 80-square meter apartment we rent for two months each year in the Marais neighborhood of Paris. The screened-in porch adds another 200 square feet - and a view that many Parisians might envy. It's here that JR and I have our "offices," facing a bend of the Middle Branch of the Pere Marquette River, a national scenic trout stream. There are a few other cabins not far from us, but they are lost from view around the serpentine bends of the river. The opposite bank is federal land, where the only neighbors are forest animals, birds and butterflies. White oak, sugar maple, aspen and cedar trees fill the forest and tower over the cabin.
Guests get to stay in the Love Shack - a separate building that was in complete disrepair when we bought the property 15 years ago. JR and I rebuilt it and restored it to its former rustic glory, and my sister Michele, one of its first occupants, named it. It's just big enough for a bed, a dresser and a chair, but its four big windows bring the outside in. A bistro table and chairs, a gift from my French friend Marcelle, bring a touch of Paris to the Love Shack's screened-in porch. The small espresso machine is a reminder of Italy.
The river up near our cabin is small, but deep and cold. Trout hide in the under banks and in season, steelhead and salmon spawn in its gravel bottom. The calm bends of the river are filled with mounds of watercress, whose slender green shoots spill out into the river, gracefully undulating in the fast-moving current. In springtime wild asparagus line the riverbanks. In summer, bright orange Michigan lilies and startlingly red Cardinal flowers take their place. Spring through fall, mushrooms - morels, chanterelles and porcini - flourish in places that will remain my secret.
Although not as obvious to the casual observer, life in the "wilderness" is just as busy and chaotic as life in the big city. It hums with activity day and night and its bucolic appearance belies the great dangers that lurk for the creatures who live there. When we arrive in springtime, though, love is in the air. An attentive observer can find the architecturally perfect nest of the hummingbird; hear the high-pitched cheeps of the Towhee nestlings; witness two wood turtles making love; or come upon a fawn bedded down in the tall grass.
The city sounds of Paris are a world away, but like the big city, the woods are almost never silent. The wind whispers or sometimes roars through the trees; the river babbles; the chipmunks chip; the deer snort; the birds sing; and, this year unfortunately, the mosquitoes buzz.
Melting snowpack from one of Michigan's coldest winters in decades coupled with heavy spring rains created a perfect storm for the breeding of mosquitoes and ticks. And then, there are the turkeys. A couple of weeks ago, while hunting mushrooms in the early evening, I was charged by a mother turkey when I inadvertently came too close to her nest. I ducked behind a tree and the turkey and I - Walt Disney cartoon fashion, circled it - I right next to the trunk and she about 10 feet away. My yelling got her to retreat, but as I made for home, she followed me for about a half-mile gobbling and squawking the whole way.
I'm not sure how much damage a turkey can do, but I can tell you that being charged by a 30 pound turkey at breakneck speed is unsettling. For a while it made me wonder why I was not sitting instead at a sidewalk cafe in Paris.
But then as I made my way back to the cabin in the gathering darkness, a whippoorwill began to sing. The words of a classic Fats Domino song came to mind.
When whippoorwills call and evening is nigh,
I hurry to my Blue Heaven.
A turn to the right, a little white light,
Will lead me to my Blue Heaven.
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