Friday, April 27, 2012

Pig Island

The Menominee River from the Michigan side (circa 1906)

Dear George,
This photo of the Menominee River is from a postcard published about 1906.  I was excited to run across it because it was taken at the approximate location that became our family’s front yard some 40 years later.  My grandfather Guy Cramer built a summer cottage near this spot in 1941, and, after my dad returned from the war in 1946, our family moved there permanently on a year round basis. I was 9, Steven was 5, Peter was 1, and Vicki was soon to be born.  Ours was the first house on that stretch of the river, and, though we gained a couple of neighbors in ensuing years, we had a strong sense of living by ourselves in the woods.  It was a big change from living in the middle of town.

As the postcard shows, there was a large island across the river from us, roughly six-tenths of a mile long and four-tenths of a mile wide.  My parents named it “Pig Island”, and that’s what we’ve always called it.  Family legend holds that when we first moved to the river a farmer was keeping his herd of pigs on the island, and we could occasionally spot them grazing on the shore.  I can’t remember that sight any more, but it’s probably true.  Across the river from our house, Pig Island had a distant, mysterious air about it.  The river had been the major conduit for the logging industry during the late 1800’s, and remnants of a couple of the loggers’ structures still remained -- a crumbled cabin on the eastern tip of Pig Island and a weather-beaten log building, perhaps a bunkhouse, on a small manmade island in the middle of the river. 

My brother Steven and I would row to Pig Island in our rowboat, wrap our anchor chain around a large tree which hung out over the water, and embark upon the island.  We’d swim at the river’s shore, gather clam shells and snails, strip birch bark from fallen logs, eat wild blackberries, collect snakeskins and antlers that deer had shed, run through the forest, climb trees, and rummage around the old logging cabin.  We could be pirates or Indians or lumberjacks or seventeenth century explorers, depending on our whims.  Each summer we’d gather up some dried fallen logs, tie them behind the boat, and tow them home to build a primitive raft for swimming.  When I reached my teens Steve and I would take overnight camping trips to Pig Island, transporting our gear by boat.  We’d clear a patch of land for a campsite, build a fire pit with rocks we’d carried up from the river, dig a latrine, cut tent poles and stakes from tree branches or shrubs, and boil river water for drinking and cooking.  One winter we cut evergreen branches to construct a platform which would shield our tent floor from the foot-deep snow in the freezing weather.  Unfortunately I gashed my left hand with a hatchet, and our arctic expedition was cut short. 

The tip of Pig Island (right) in the winter (circa 1952)

In the summer time my dad would row the boat, well-stocked with life preservers, while Steve and I would swim across the river to Pig Island, as did Peter and Vicki a few years later.  As we grew older and that task became less challenging, we swam all the way down to the logging structure a half mile away.  Years later I was horrified when my teenage sister Vicki and her friend Kiera, in our parents’ absence, swam across to Pig Island with no accompanying boat or life preservers.  They were always the most adventuresome. 

In the mid-1950’s one of my father’s friends, Bob H, who was the president of a local manufacturing company, bought Pig Island and its next-door neighbor.  He built a one-lane bridge to the island from the Marinette shore, put in a gravel road to the island’s interior, and erected a contemporary A-frame house and tennis court.  We were distressed because civilization had invaded our wilderness paradise.  One day my siblings and I and the O’Hara kids rowed over to the western end of the island and walked in to check out the A-frame house.  We didn’t know it, but Bob and his wife had bought three Rottweilers which they allowed to run free.  Midway on our inland journey the dogs started coming after us.  We abruptly turned around and walked gingerly back to our boat, with the dogs barking at the top of their lungs and nearly nipping at our heels.  That was our last unannounced expedition to Pig Island, though I did go over several times to play tennis with Bob.

There was a second large island immediately west of Pig Island, and we called the small waterway between the two islands “the channel”.  Much narrower than the main river, the channel was an entirely hidden and quiet world unto itself.  We could never use our rowboat’s 1.5 horsepower motor there because the water was shallow and filled underneath its surface with stumps left over from logging days.  The channel’s surface was covered with flowering water lilies, and dragonflies would flit about, sometimes landing on our arms or shoulders.  Turtles sunned themselves on the tops of deadheads.   Blue heron nested in the channel, and they’d fly off when they heard the sound of our oars.  Often when we entered the channel two men were fishing in an aluminum boat in one of the lagoons.  We’d wave from a distance, but never exchanged words.  There was a small marshy island in the middle of the channel, and I camped there by myself one night as a 16-year-old.  I fantasized that I’d left home and was hiding out because the Russians had invaded the U.S. and occupied Menominee and Marinette.  Having escaped and established my secret base in the channel, my plan was to carry out night-time forays into town and blow up the Russian installations.  In real life, however, the mosquitoes got so thick by dusk that I had to set my guerilla plans aside and devote my time to swatting insects. 

Sunset on the river

There’s a great temptation to romanticize one’s childhood, and this seems to escalate the further removed one becomes from it all.  When I push myself to be realistic, I have to recognize there were lots of drawbacks to country living, e.g., social isolation from other kids, long periods of boredom.  From the distance of decades, however, it all seems enchanting and idyllic.  Pig Island, in particular, was a magical place.  Until my mid-teens, we never saw another human being on the island, and, for all practical purposes, the land effectively belonged to the kids in our family.  Free from parental surveillance, we could do whatever we pleased, and Pig Island provided a limitless playground for exploration, independence, and growing competence.  Sometimes I wonder where Pig Island went in my life and what its equivalent is nowadays.  I haven’t figured it out, but I would like to find a new version of Pig Island if I can.

G-mail Comments
-Vicki L (4-29):  Hi David,  That was a lovely reminiscence of Pig Island...not only vividly evoking my own memories - but letting me in on all kinds of things you did that I never would have contemplated - eg. camping in 'the channel' by myself! Don't forget we still own 100' on the banks of the Menominee. Love, Vicki
-JML (4-27):  This is wonderful dad 

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