On a journey around the Great Lakes to honour his mother, the author takes his cue from Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore and turns his ear to the water to listen to his surrounds. By Patrick Pittman.
Canada’s Pukaskwa National Park, Lake Superior
Four days out from Toronto, I’m laid flat on a jagged headland in Pukaskwa National Park, on the north shore of Lake Superior, one ear pressed to the narrow end of a metal cone pointed out towards the water, the whipping wind and the sound of the crashing waves channelled towards a single point. The cone’s surface has been carefully imprinted with the textures of the basalt it’s nestled in. Running your hands over it, it feels as though it could have been here forever, a freak byproduct of whatever volcanic forces brought this coastline into being.
To get here from the campsite, I’ve clambered through tangled woodland trails and over driftwood, trying not to crush the fragile arctic lichen underfoot – the first real sign, this far north, that boreal pine and spruce aren’t all that Canada has to offer, and a hint at the tundra that lies a day or two further on. I’ve been looking out for the peregrine falcons that have begun, warily, to return to the area, and slightly less hopefully for the caribou that have largely succumbed to the local wolves in recent decades. All I can see, though, are a retired French–Canadian couple I’d met down on the beach, braving the frigid waters in their wetsuits, arms wrapped around shoulders as they help each other over the rough stones and the zebra mussels, going out far enough to push past the uninviting shock of the cold.
I’m on the road to Minneapolis, going the long way, the way nobody ever goes, along a stretch of Highway 17 – the old Trans-Canada, skirting the edge of the lake from Sault Ste Marie to Thunder Bay, the last major city in Ontario’s north before the roads become seasonal and poorly serviced, pushing upwards into the Arctic. I’ve got nothing much more than a tent in the back of the car and a selection of jerkies, and I’m in Pukaskwa because it’s one of the few spots where you can pull off the highway and camp without a booking. Even in the wild, Canadians are very particular about forming orderly lines.
In my pocket I have a small, smooth stone I’ve carried with me from Newfoundland, from a cove that was one of my mother’s favourite places, where we brought her ashes a couple of months earlier; not to scatter but just to visit. I’d tried to record the sound there of the symphony that would strike as the waves pulled back across the rocks, a sound we’d always talked about reverently, but I couldn’t get it right. Instead I pocketed this stone, and for reasons I haven’t been able to explain, made it my summer’s mission to bring it to all the Great Lakes, letting the water wash over it again and again as it drained from Superior through Huron and Michigan to Erie, crashing over Niagara Falls, out through Ontario to the St Lawrence Seaway and eventually back to the Atlantic, where it might crash back again on the beaches of Newfoundland, on shorelines not so different to this one.
Superior is not like any of those other lakes and waterways. Its Ojibwe name, Gichi-Gami, loosely means “great sea”. Whether it’s the world’s largest lake depends on what you think of the Caspian, but technicalities aside, there’s no arguing its singular nature. Were it not for the lack of salt mixed in with the smell of the spruce and pine, I could be standing back there at the Atlantic’s unruly edge where, along with my father and my two sisters, we had just nursed my mother through the last stages of glioblastoma, where I would take a break from administering morphine to go lie right at the cliff’s edge in front of the house, to sink my hands into the mud while I watched the waves crash, pondering the iceberg that had parked itself in front of us, quietly giving itself up but for the occasional dramatic crack as it watched over her with us in those final days.
The road to this corner of Superior hasn’t all been the spectacular wildness around which Canada has built its own mythology. A century back, this was where Lawren Harris and the Group of Seven came with their brushes and palettes strapped to their back, to paint their way towards a Canadian understanding of landscape. To create a fictional idea of a pristine, uninhabited north, conveniently leaving the Anishinaabe who lived here, and still live here, just out of frame. There are a bronzed stool and easel where you can sit and pretend to be Harris, and another plaque to behold Pic Island, Lake Superior, from the spot he likely saw it.
There’s another of Harris’s paintings, called simply North Shore, Lake Superior, that you could reasonably argue to be his definitive work, possibly the defining Canadian landscape painting. It’s a sparse abstract of a single burnt stump, standing stubborn and proud here on this shoreline, the lake stretching endlessly behind it, a heavenly sun shining down across it.
Other than petrol station attendants, the last person I spoke to properly was two days before, after I pulled over to check out a meat truck full of metal and noise albums parked in Batchawana Bay, an hour north of Sault Ste Marie, where highway services begin to drop off in favour of abandoned motels and First Nations reserves. Al, the truck’s owner, handed me a beer and bent my ear off about the state of the punk scene in the Soo, and how few tourists come out this way nowadays. I left with a couple of LPs and a Merle Haggard cassette thrown in for the road – Sing Me Back Home.
This morning I’d woken at dawn to a ghostly mist blanketing the campsite. The only creatures awake were me and a couple of flighty hares. I’d followed them out past a model Anishinaabe wiigwaam to a small trail running along the edge of a flat, still cove, where the jack pines, tamarack and cedar all stood shrouded and monochrome. Other than an occasional loon call, the only sound was the plop of a fishing line dropping in the water, as a fisherman likely from the neighbouring Biigtigong Nishnaabeg reserve drifted about in a tin runabout among the bullrushes, leisurely casting about for whatever he could find.
When things get this quiet, it’s the low mechanical hum of my mother’s oxygen pump that comes back uninvited. I’d tried to distract myself from its weary exhales by reading excited and lovingly detailed signs recounting the adventures of the park’s fire marshals who staged a controlled burnoff on this trail five years ago. They’ve installed small stands for you to place your iPhone, to help them document how things come back after devastation, little by little, year by year. First the birch, and then the spruce and the fir, strong and proud. Young trees tangled with wildflowers blanketed the ground, covering blackened stumps.
There’s no sign nearby to tell you, but the cone I’ve got my ear pressed to is a work placed here by Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore, one of three she’s placed in national parks across the country with her share of the vast mountains of cash the government dished out for Canada’s 150th birthday last year. It’s an inversion of her most famous work, Speaking to Their Mother, a wooden megaphone that travelled the country in the 1990s at one of many times of heightened political tension between Canada’s First Nations and its government. Starting in Banff, she brought the megaphone to indigenous communities across the country and invited them to speak into it, not to speak to Ottawa but simply to address the land. To have their say. With Wave Sound, almost three decades on, she’s turned it around – the invitation now is simply to be quiet and to listen to what the lake has to tell you.
Tonight will be the total eclipse, and if I make good time I’ll round the lake and start heading south, making camp in the wild woods of Minnesota before the sun’s down. Right now, though, I’ve pulled out my audio gear to try to capture what I’m hearing through Wave Sound. Another passing hiker comes along the path, stops and watches me, my unwieldy radio microphone jammed into the narrow end of the cone. She asks me what I’m doing, if I’m an artist.
“No, I’m just listening,” I tell her.
When I listen back later, there’s only low static, an occasional whistle; an emptiness you could fill with anything you need.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 30, 2018 as "Mother Superior".
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