Field Trip to the Penokee Hills

I drove 50 miles up and down the Penokee Hills on roads like this and worse.

Drove 50 miles up and down the Penokee Hills on roads like this and worse.


Lake Superior from near the Wisconsin/Michigan border. The great inland sea, called Gichigami by the Ojibwa. Here is the largest fresh water lake in the world (by surface area) and 10 percent of the world’s surface fresh water (and not frozen at the poles). Water clarity is startling.


A stream near the Penokee Hills cascades on its way to Lake Superior.


Ashland, WI, features a number of murals on downtown buildings.


The Penokee Hills, subject of this exploring.


Silver Street in Hurley, WI – famous for its prostitutes.

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These photos are from a weekend exploration of the Penokee Hills, the setting for upcoming novel, Mikiwadizi Storms. I wanted to get a feel for this area in order to represent it with sensitivity. These hills are an ancient mountain range, something like the Alps, but worn down over many millennia of erosion. The novel draws on an intense controversy now raging over these hills – mining interests would dig a 24-mile long open pit iron ore mine here. The tribe next door (Bad River Ojibwa) are dead set against it. Many locals support the project, because of the jobs it would bring, and the boost to local economy.

Mikiwadizi Storms is fiction (magical realism, in fact) but it echoes some of the voices engaged in this controversy. In this fictional representation (all names are changed) the mining project moves ahead, ultimately to disastrous results. No doubt this reflects my environmental leaning, but the novel isn’t based on predisposition alone, rather, some good reasons:

  1. The mining interests, based out of the area, have corrupted (i.e. given campaign contributions to) local political  processes and politicians. Certainly they have an interest and should have a voice in the debate, but not that way. I resent their attempts to buy elections.
  2. There is no example of a mine of this sort that hasn’t been fined for polluting water. The water at stake here is Lake Superior (see photo), holding 10 percent of the worlds fresh water that is above ground and not frozen perpetually. The owners claim this mine will not cause such pollution, but clearly this is unwarranted optimism. I’m reminded of the off-shore, deep-water oil drilling operators, who, until the BP platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, believed they could bring oil from the sea bottom through such depths without danger. Optimism is good, but here we need hard-core realism. What is the plan when water polluted in the ore processing seeps into the ground water and makes its way to Lake Superior?
  3. The local benefits (jobs and boost to the economy) are short term and unsustainable. Isn’t it time we committed to sustainable use (and renewal) of resources? Clearly we (or our descendants) will do this one day and clearly the transition gets more difficult the longer we postpone.

Some characters in Mikiwadizi Storms advocate for the mine; others against it. There are many more arguments that presented here, but you’ll have to wait for the novel to be released (September, if all continues to go well) to read them.


1 Comment

Filed under Book Reviews

One response to “Field Trip to the Penokee Hills

  1. ianmathie

    This sounds interesting. Make sure you tell us when we can read it. If it’s anything like your other work it will be well worth it.

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