Lakeland

Andrea Wuorenmaa

On December 14, 1287, under lashings of heavy rain, a dike broke in the Netherlands along the North Sea. The contents of an ocean dumped across the land—St. Lucia’s Flood. Once an inland lake but now gushing with floodwaters, the Zuiderzee—the Southern Sea—was born. A lonely ten houses were left standing in the city of Griend, later to become an uninhabited island. The flood opened up water access to Amsterdam, allowing it to prosper. Ocean water, its rough texture, its salinity, its powerful and incomprehensible surge, kept changing things—lakeshores eroded, villages drowned. Over fifty thousand lives were lost. In 1421, the land of Grote Waard, once lifted over the sea, was reclaimed by it in St. Elizabeth’s Flood. Wooden farmhouses and peat fireplaces disappeared under water and never returned. For hundreds of years, the Zuiderzee flooded again and again. Not until the twentieth century was it brought under control and reverted into a freshwater lake called IJsselmeer alongside the reclaimed Flevoland, population four hundred thousand. On Griend, there is a cabin used only by biologists and birdwatchers, who observe, through binoculars, Shelducks, Redshanks, and Short-Eared Owls. Their boots stand firm on ground that once supported a monastery, where monks brewed beer while they cooked gull eggs over the hot coals of a fire.

***

Finland is home to over 180 thousand lakes. They are notched into its evergreen landscape, purple-lit by the moon, surfaces rippling, rising and falling in Nordic breeze. They pool in the crevices of glacial mountains, fresh water beside the Baltic Sea. The lakes are what the people of Espoo and Tampere retreat to in times of bad weather: in Järvi-Suomi, Finnish Lakeland, north of the Salpausselkä Ridges, the terminal moraine which holds Finland’s thousands of bodies of water above the Equator and up toward the Arctic Circle, men, women and children light fires in their saunas, hole up in cabins painted a pastoral red, heat Juusto cheese on the stove before cutting into it and drinking coffee, step out into a lashing storm with their Karelian bear dogs, who are constantly searching the wet forest ferns with their snouts for the scent of danger—a moose, a wild boar. Father and son walk slowly to the end of a dock as the rain dissipates. Their faces lit by a cool grey sky, they look down at the stray leaves that float in the water. The father stretches out his hand and points into the lake:

“Look at this fish,” he says. “Look at that fish. Taimen.” Brown trout.

Mother and daughter, inside, read Arto Paasilinna novels by candlelight. They are ready for the polar night, and for winter. At dusk the family sits two on a wooden swing, two on the lawn and watches the lake’s night movement. Far from the city, they burn birch logs in a pit, sip hot cider and can see the stars, the Northern Hemisphere’s autumn constellations.

***

As for Michigan—Finland’s sister across the Atlantic—it has over eleven thousand lakes. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is tucked below Lake Superior, the largest lake of them all, pearl-lit by the lights of iron ore ships. The land is marked by the mundanities of green and water. Low mountains—Sugarloaf, Hogsback—lift up not far from Superior’s shores, toward the sky. Streams trickle, rivers rush, people haul their boats—everything goes to the lake. As a young girl, I circle Presque Isle with my dad: we look for deer. The lake’s waves crash up against the breakwall and Dad holds me back from the water with his palm. We watch ships fill up with iron ore pellets in a cloud of dust, and then night falls, and single, buttery lights here and there—the stars of the ore dock—illuminate.

“There are men up there,” Dad says. “And in the boat. You can wave to them.”

I do.

At home, our job is to find bait for fishing in the Upper Peninsula’s streams and lakes. The brook trout of the Fence River, swimming in deep pools under low branches, seek out nightcrawlers on hooks—earthworms pulled from the damp soil of fishermen’s backyards. And so, when night wraps its fingers over the eaves and edges of our house in Ishpeming, Michigan, at the end of a day of rain, Dad hands me a flashlight. The backyard is blackened by sky, stars, the shapes of the shed and the Mountain Ash climbing into power lines. I walk across the grass, the ground slick with moisture lifted into the sky and then dropped again. Water has puddled and formed rivulets all over the lawn. I step as in a careful game.

“There, Annie,” Dad says. “Gentle, now.” We are tugging worms up from beneath blades of grass. My pale hands become frosted with a thick black mud, textured by tiny lawn-stones. I rub them on my jeans. The juices of the earthworms string across my wrists and fingers, jewelry. I drop the worms into a pail of dirt. A rising moon lights up the odd purple of their invertebrate bodies as they curl around in the pail.

We keep the nightcrawlers in an old Country Crock container, in the refrigerator, between the seasoned pork chops and the red potatoes. In the fridge, they stay alive.

On evenings after earthworm picking, we sit at the picnic table in our backyard with my mother and talk. Dad drinks a beer and leans back with the can in his hand, supporting himself with strong elbows. The sleeves on his red flannel are rolled up. He looks up at the night sky, that vast and sprinkled bed of stars.

“Dave,” my mother says. “You’ll fall right asleep out here.” And it’s true that the May darkness is dipping us all into sleep.

On weekends we go on fishing trips. Dad tucks worms into his fishing creel; my brother and I sit alongside him in the Ford F-150. My knees bump against an old cassette deck hanging below its dash. Dad stops the truck at Koski Korner and buys us dill pickle chips, cream soda and Airheads. We pass the Pickle Patch, and Mount Shasta, where Dad will sell blueberries when he is laid off from the Empire Mine. We pass a huge sign that says South Republic. At Perch Lake, we fish from an aluminum boat—we troll over water smooth as a window pane. At Silver Lake we navigate stumps and driftwood, misshapen and ghastly in the twilight. At Lake Independence we swim at Big Bay’s beach, then pull leeches off of our legs and lay them across upturned boats to crackle in the sun. We feed ducks that paddle near the shore. We rest our fishing poles against saplings, pluck raspberries from branches along paths, skip flat stones over the water, talk about pigs and snowmobiles and Jimmy Stewart, take the hooks off of our fishing rods, stop at a gas station for rock candy, drive home.

***

In Finland, they serve the fish caught from their lakes in pies and soups at rustic tables. At Lasipalatsi in Helsinki—the Glass Palace Restaurant—the menu reads perch rolls with vendace roe sauce, pan fried pike and perch with horseradish, whitefish tartar, salmon soup with rye alongside. Fisherman whip long lines and lures from the water of their lakes and bring their catches to the kitchen and then to the plate. At Lake Näsijärvi, 312 feet above sea level, men with brimmed hats and rolled up sleeves lunge barbed hooks into the tiny-teethed mouths of perch and landlocked salmon, to sell them at the market in Tampere. In homes, grandmothers—mine, maybe—fold the corners of butter-dough over these perch and salmon to bake Kalakukko, just as grandmothers in Hancock, Michigan, tuck perch into loaves and then loaves into stoves. Families flock to Friday Fish Fry. Or, they go to sleep full of homemade whitefish parmesan, Lake Superior whitefish slathered in mayonnaise and lemon. In the mornings they unlock their backyard sheds to retrieve their fishing poles, walk back into the kitchen to take their containers of nightcrawlers out of the fridge, climb into their pickups and are off again. This is the Upper Peninsula, this is Finland.

***

One September Dad brings us to the Fence River to fish, and we get caught in a terrible storm. On a small AM/FM radio, dirt caked between its buttons, Dad listens to severe weather watches and tornado warnings, then packs us up into the truck. Night falls. A strange luminescence forms in the sky, a violet storm-light in spite of the darkness; sudden cuts of lightning brighten the high points of Jack pines around us. Potholes emerge under a downpour. In my fear, I think of my grandmother, Elaine—my dad’s mother. She died right before I was born; in moments of terror, I think of her watching me. At her home in National Mine, she had a summer kitchen in the yard where she could bake blueberry pies in open daylight. In pictures of her behind the summer kitchen’s low walls, she seems warm and safe. Nothing like me. I think of her during the storm—and of how I know that my father misses her, the touch of her hands on his hair when he was young, the potatoes she boiled and served by yellow lamplight.

“Like hell am I going to get stuck,” Dad says as the water on the road rises.

As the wipers thump on the windshield, my brother grips the truck door and the seat and looks to the floor. I watch trees bend sideways in the wind outside. Everything lashes behind a shield of rain. I appeal to my grandmother as her son’s hands, gripped tight on the steering wheel, turn wildly left and right. His arms guide us out of the woods. We burst onto the highway, hydroplaning on pavement that has now become a long lake that we must follow home. But we make it. The kitchen light, steady, yellow, is visible through streams of rain obscuring the front windows.

“Didn’t catch anything,” Dad says to my mom in the kitchen. We return to the Fence River the next day, and our tent is in a spruce tree.

***

In Finland, in the summer, the sun never sets above the Arctic Circle. This is the midnight sun. And in the winter—twenty-four hours of darkness. The polar night. In Sodankylä, Lapland, the dark and the night and the snow last for days on end. People stay indoors by their fireplaces and do not move. Lake waters continue to churn beneath thick layers of ice; far above, bitter cold permeates, blizzard snow slicing the landscape. There are fish below, sluggish. Perch, salmon, brown trout. They swim through the warm channels that remain deep below the ice. Gliding past logs and boulders at the bottom of the lake, they cannot be seen—no light reaches their reflective scales, the shiny tips of their fins which in seasons warmer will land on porcelain plates somewhere in the world. Because the water always comes back up to the surface, and the fish along with it.

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Andrea Wuorenmaa is a recent graduate of Northern Michigan University’s Master of Arts in English program, with a concentration in Creative Nonfiction Writing. She resides in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, writing about her region and the world beyond.