Pete Edison Showing Off
No, I’ve never done it. But after a lifetime of listening to the stories of those who did, I’ve concluded it is an experience that I wish I’d had … but not one I want to go through.
Isle Royale is an island, 45 miles long, in the middle of Lake Superior and isolated from Canada, the nearest mainland, by 15 miles of open water. In winter, it is a desolate place with only a few animals who probably wish they were somewhere else. It is almost inaccessible in winter.
With very few exceptions, the island was a summer place to visit, from pre-historic times until now. Some woodland Indians years ago stayed over to hunt, trap and to be on hand for sugar making in the spring. Miners worked all winter in the late 1800s, as did a few loggers later on.
The stories that my family and friends tell are about the commercial fishermen who wintered over during the depression years of the ’20s and ’30s when living on the island was cheaper than living on the mainland.
Pete Edisen was one of the few winter residents who spent several winters at Rock Harbor on the northeast end of the island. “The finest thing a man can do,” Pete said, “is to winter over on Isle Royale.”
There are those who would disagree.
To stay on in winter, Pete and his wife, Laura, brought half a cow, a 100-pound pig (live, I presume), 25 pounds of pork chops and peaches and pears by the case. Other staples needed to last the winter would include smoked hams, eggs, flour and possibly hundreds of pounds of sugar, if you were to make home brew. And, of course, moose and fish.
Pete, who fished at Rock Harbor from 1916 to 1978, was a great storyteller, as were many of his neighbors.
“I remember one time,” recalled Pete, “I was skating to visit the caretaker at Rock Harbor Lodge, 6-1/2 miles down the harbor. There was a moose that was trying to cross over from Mott Island to the mainland. He figured if I could go that fast on glare ice that he’d try it, too. By gosh, when he got out on that slick surface, his feet went out and his chin hit the ice.”
Around the point from Pete’s fishing shack, my Aunt Myrtle and Uncle Milford Johnson shared living quarters with Milford’s brother Arnold and Arnold’s wife, Olga, in the old abandoned Rock Harbor lighthouse. Arnold and Olga lived on the second floor while Milford and Myrtle lived on the first floor. Arnold made beer on the second floor, which sometimes exploded, raining beer on Milford on the first floor.
The last mail, freight and passenger boat left the island in late November each year, leaving winter residents totally isolated until the following April. Myrtle found out she was pregnant with her first child shortly after the boat left one winter. Luckily, she made it back to the mainland in the spring to give birth to Milford Junior.
When asked the question, “What did you do on the island all winter to pass the time?” Milford said, “We fished until the bay froze over, hunted moose, trapped coyotes, cut wood and cut wood and cut wood.”
None of the island buildings were insulated, so the only place barely warm was a 2-foot area around the woodstove. They dressed in all their winter clothes during the day and put more on to go to bed. They watched the long process of ice forming, then breaking up and forming again until mid-February when it finally froze as far as one could see.
Finally, too, it became silent. The constant roar of the waves crushing and piling ice gave way to dead silence. Except for a few ravens croaking, moose grunting and handsaws swishing, solitude settled in. Big time.
Before the lake froze solid, winterers used their fish boats to go visiting neighbors 10 to 15 miles away. Skadbergs, Olsons, Seglems and Bensons from Siscowet Bay and the Holgar Johnsons, Simonsons and Savages from Chippewa Harbor, and the Johnsons, Edisens, Bangsunds and others from Rock Harbor bent a special effort to see each other once or twice each winter. After the lake froze, they snowshoed to the neighbors.
The Simonsons who I mentioned above were not a commercial fishing family, as were most of the others. Dorothy Simonson, a school teacher for the Holgar Johnson children in 1932-33, recorded her experiences in her diary, now in book form, in The Diary of an Isle Royale School Teacher, published by the Isle Royale Natural History Association.
Dorothy’s impression on arriving at Chippewa Harbor in September 1932 was typically romantic as she described in poetic terms her first view of the island: “The clear turquoise water sparkling in the autumn sun … sheer rocky cliffs peopled with slim spires of evergreens. This is truly Isle Royale the beautiful.”
After the last steamship left in November and she began to realize the consequences of total isolation, her attitude changed considerably.
She recorded days of minus-40-degree temperatures. Snow 10-feet deep. Moose hanging around her little school house. Coyotes howling at night. And more …
Nov. 2: “Hauling wood and stoking that devilish stove! Isle Royale and its romance, blah! It’s a hunk of mud. My feet are like ice. My fingers frozen stiff and my hands look like a coal heaver’s. Gee, I get disgusted!”
Thanksgiving: “White fish and moose for Thanksgiving. Sewed and gabbed and listened to football games on the radio.”
Christmas: “Went to Malone Island to get Ben Benson for Christmas dinner.” (About a 20-mile round trip.)
March 18: “Ice is piled 4-feet thick in harbor.”
April 5: “Still snowing! At least 3 feet fell yesterday. Heavy seas outside have filled the harbor with ice. We’re out of kerosene so can’t read. Almost out of gasoline, butter, coffee and canned goods. I’m sick of moose meat and potatoes. The compressed yeast is gone and the other has soured.”
Although she complained about her situation throughout the bitter winter, she did have some good times listening to her radio and her music programs, comedies, news and football and enjoying the Johnson family and a few wild adventures visiting neighbors in boats and on snowshoes.
“It is hard to imagine how one winter could have been so hard yet so rewarding,” her son, Bob, wrote about his experience.
The magic of Isle Royale – even in winter – gets under one’s skin in spite of everything.
Each fall I left Isle Royale to attend school in Duluth, Minnesota, where from my cozy house I’d imagine exciting times, wintering on Isle Royale: Going to the outhouse on snowshoes, chasing away the moose on the path, catching fish in the sparkling turquoise water under the sheer rocky cliffs peopled with slim spires of evergreens, etc.
But like I already said, I’ve never experienced the reality of wintering over on Isle Royale.
Howard “Bud” Sivertson is from one branch of the legendary Sivertson fishing family of western Lake Superior, although the artist-author-raconteur never got over his seasickness enough to take on that role. He has a series of books that tell the history of the lake region in words and paintings. His books, published or distributed by the publishers of this magazine, are Driftwood, Once Upon an Isle, Illustrated Voyageur, Tales of the Old North Shore and Schooners, Skiffs & Steamships.