Lake Superior Journal: Superior Blues
Once or twice every summer when I was a boy, the women of my family – three generations’ worth – piled my sister, my two cousins and me into Grandpa’s Chevy Impala and Dad’s Olds Vista Cruiser and drove to a semisecluded Lake Superior beach.
Not far from our family cabins at Au Train, Michigan, this stretch of shore defines part of the northern border of the Hiawatha National Forest and back then offered relative privacy, clean sand, excellent views of offshore islands and tons of evocative driftwood to spark young imaginations. Many local beaches held similar charms, but no others offered what we sought most: the blue rocks.
Despite their resemblance to igneous rocks, our blue rocks were not formed in the magmatic bowels of the earth, but rather in fires lit and stoked by men. In the late 1800s, several iron-smelting furnaces operated along that beach once occupied by an Ojibwe fishing camp.
Slag is too vulgar a term for the stunning objects we fished out of the water. Technically, though, that is what blue rocks are: a by-product of the process to render iron ore, gouged from the hills to the west near Marquette, into pig iron (so called because the molds into which the molten iron was poured resembled a sow suckling her piglets). This pig iron was shipped south to the steel mills of Pennsylvania and Ohio, where it was refined and fashioned into objects of greater utility, but far less beauty, than the slag dumped into the Lake.
Although all the smelter slag we found had been polished smooth by more than a century of wave action and sand abrasion, not all of it was blue. The most abundant chunks ran pewter to blue-gray. These muted stones tended to be flat, elongated and an inch or two thick, as if they’d emerged from the furnace in sheets that shattered on contact with the icy Lake. A few bore wisps of purple or indigo, traces of various metal oxides in the ore. Green hues were common, too, and these bits tended to be more glassy and translucent than opaque and rocklike. Less common were pieces that could be mistaken for amethyst if not for flecks of rusty iron.
The surfaces of most of the slag rocks, no matter their color, were pockmarked and cratered where gas had bubbled out while they were still in a hot, semisolid state. To my childhood mind, they resembled pumice that explorers might someday find on one of Neptune’s moons. Unlike pumice, the slag did not float, despite all the gas and little bits of charcoal still entombed in them.
The rarest and most striking slag, though, was blue. Whether darker cerulean, sky blue, sapphire or arctic blue (some specimens contained all these shades), we went nuts for them.
The largest blue rocks were the size of a dinner roll or small loaf of bread. Such beauties often became ornaments in Grandma’s flower gardens and birdbaths. Most blues were fingernail- to fist-sized and destined for coffee-table and window exhibits, curated by my mother, grandmother and aunts. Into clear apothecary jars went a mix of blue rocks, colorful beach stones, sand-frosted bottle glass and old china shards all gleaned from our beach combing. At the end, the jars were filled with water and sealed so that the blue rocks might appear much as we beheld them in the Lake – rich and lustrous as jay feathers.
But there was, and still is, no better place to view blue rocks than in the crystalline waters of Lake Superior. On a sunny day even the smallest glowed like pirate gold against the predominating matrix of sandstone, basalt, granite and quartz. Partly for this reason, I sometimes regret not leaving the blue rocks where we found them so others might partake of their beauty. My pangs of conscience are tempered by knowing that blue rocks, technically, are industrial waste. Were we not, in a sense, cleaning up after our forebears? One could, I suppose, make the argument that blue rocks are historical artifacts, to be left for posterity to marvel at as tourists today admire the nearby smelting furnace restored by the U.S. Forest Service.
Lake Superior Journal: Superior Blues
Some blue rocks are easily spotted among the natural stones beneath the clear waters of Lake Superior.
Still, preserving pollution seems a dangerous precedent, even if the waste is both beautiful and benign. Lake Superior itself appears to be against that, gradually pummeling these accidental gems into grains of sand.
Other people carry away blue rocks, too, of course, as I discovered a few years ago on one of my increasingly infrequent pilgrimages to “our” beach. As my friend and I walked along the shore, we approached a young couple so intent on their plunder that they didn’t notice us until we were in their midst. Even before they hushed themselves and tried to assume nonchalant poses, I knew my family’s secret had gotten out.
A melange of anger, sadness, nostalgia and guilt (at my own selfishness) filled me at that moment, but I nodded politely to the couple and moved on with downcast eyes – in search of my own booty. It wasn’t selfishness alone that triggered my resentment of interlopers; it was an ingrained desire to guard our Lake’s unique treasures for us and from them, the out-of-towners.
I was raised with the illogical reckoning of many Superiorlanders back then, suspicious of “trolls” below the Mackinac Bridge. Heck, they probably rooted for the Tigers and Lions and not, like most self-respecting Yoopers, for the Brewers and Packers. If we weren’t careful, they’d overrun our beaches. Wasn’t it bad enough they made off with our agates?
Even as a child I was not oblivious to the hypocrisy of such righteous indignation, but that didn’t stop us from throwing our hats or beach towels over our own troves and bantering distractedly about the weather with the strangers who’d stumble into our family hunting parties. It didn’t even occur to me that half my clan lived in Wisconsin most of the year and, though I considered this home and spent all summer and school vacations here, it was actually my grandmother’s year-round home.
Sometimes when we were kids, an adult would spy a big blue in water too deep for wading. Eager to show off my swimming skills (such as they were), I’d dive for it. The real glory was in enduring the arctic temperature of the Lake. Even at summer’s peak back then, Lake Superior was so frigid that my rock-clutching hands and triumph-mumbling lips would surface almost as blue as the rocks themselves – and about as articulate.
In late summer our lips were just as likely to be blue from gorging on blueberries. A narrow linear clearing bisected the blue rocks beach. At one end, about a hundred yards inland, an old steel lighthouse towered above the forest. At the other end, almost in the waves, stood a smaller modern beacon. One warm August day as we scoured the bushes in this clearing for ripe berries, our eyes were drawn to a color as incongruous as that of the rocks we’d collected. Beneath those spruces and firs … had a small flock of gulls taken shelter there? No, it was snow!
Somehow a decaying drift no larger than my grandmother’s icebox (as she called her refrigerator) had survived into the warmest month of the year. I don’t remember for sure, but chances are pretty good that my cousins and I did not gawk long at this wintry relic before shredding it for snowballs to pelt each other, my younger sister and the beacon. It was Christmas in summer, complete with snow, evergreens and heavy colorful gifts (rocks) bulging our pockets.
Today you can find blue slag, or objects carved from it, on eBay going by the name of Leland bluestone, after a town in Lower Michigan where another smelter once operated. This doesn’t make the blue rocks from my childhood less special. Rather, I value them more because they remind me of my childhood’s blissful ignorance when I knew nothing of broken treaties, invasive sea lampreys, mercury-laden fish, microplastics, suburbanized shorelines, global warming or that my treasured blue rocks came from industrial processes.
Before introducing my girlfriend to our blue rocks beach last summer, I resolved to adhere to a strict catch-and-release policy, and I swore her to secrecy. I needn’t have bothered in either case. The beach has been pretty well picked over. No doubt many blues still lurk in deeper water, but on this trip a slimy, olive-drab algae coated the bottom rocks between the wave-crash zone and colder depths, and I noticed the water no longer numbed my feet.
I did keep the few small blue rocks we found to remind me that not only the natural, the pure and the uncorrupted deserve to be cherished. Weren’t we formed in messy fires stoked by imperfect people? And I keep them to remind me that, like a mid-summer snowball fight, miracles might still be part of our grandchildren’s future.
Finally, I keep those few beautiful blue rocks to remind me of the most precious treasure that I left with that day: the amazing blue-eyed woman who waded in as my girlfriend and splashed out as my fiancée. Together we will do everything we can so our children, and their children, will inherit a world no less wondrous than the one given, like a beautiful blue rock, to us.
Rick Chamberlin lives in Sauk City, Wisconsin, and his essays inspired by youthful ramblings on Lake Superior have appeared in Wisconsin Trails Magazine, Midwest Energy Review, The Capital Times and elsewhere. Photographer Amy Schwartz lives near Madison and enjoys photographing the outdoors and accepting marriage proposals on blue rock beaches.