Rabbit Island: The Trip

Object Guerilla has been a bit slow in posting this month due to a move of HQ, resultant internet issues, and because I spent a week in the woods. 

Back at the end of March, I entered an architectural competition for an artist's retreat on Rabbit Island, a 90-acre slab of sandstone and conifer off of the Keewenaw Peninsula in Lake Superior. The Keewenaw (now technically an island itself, after being cut off by the Portage Canal beginning in 1868) is part of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, first settled by whites in search of copper in the 1840s. Long known to native peoples, rich copper deposits were commercially exploited in Houghton, Hancock, Calumet, and other towns well into the 1950s, driving the local economy. However, once the most easily-recoverable deposits played out, and copper prices declined after World War II, the mines shut down. Many people left the U.P. in search of work downstate, joining the steel and auto plants in Detroit, Flint, Milwaukee, and Chicago. The current economy is still based on natural resources -- extracting timber and importing tourists. 

Panorama at the point.

I left early on a Sunday morning, driving nine hours straight north on I-43 through Milwaukee and Green Bay. Gradually the roads shrank to fewer and fewer lanes, then shedding shoulders, scenery turning to birch stands and fir forests. The towns shrank, too, from sports-franchise-bearing Midwestern cities to small rural outposts, populated with gas stations, hunting shops, churches, and brick bars with wind-battered Pabst signs outside. 

I met Dr. Rob Gorski and his friend Amanda Pastenkos at the homestead of some friends, a young couple who had been carving a home out of the forest for about a year. After a glass of water and some introductions, we were on our way to Rabbit Bay. The road gave way to gravel. The lake was still a little rough, so we held off for a few hours, barely beating the sunset (around ten this time of year) into the island. Due to rocky shores, the boat must anchor about fifty yards out to avoid getting banged up. Ty, a college student in Marquette that has been volunteering around the island, ably tied us off, and I plunged into the cold water. Once ashore, we all put our pants back on and started a fire to take the lake chill off. A little medicinal whiskey helped as well, warming us up and helping me sleep on the ground for the first time in a long time.
The main shelter at sunset.

Sunset over camp. Lumpy shadow on right is one of the tents.

Storage shed with generator for charging tools (and phones). We built the whole sauna with a circular saw and a drill.

Kitchen in the main shelter.

Rabbit Island library.
The next day, after a breakfast of thimbleberry jam and toast, we began work on the sauna. After becoming a finalist for the architecture competition, I went on to collaborate with Rob on a design for a sauna that would also serve as a possible over-winter camp. Rob did most of the design work, and I consulted on structural, technical, and the odd aesthetic issue. By the time I got there, a clearing had been made a few hundred yards from the main camp, dry-stack stone piers had been constructed, and a platform had been leveled. The first day, we put on joist hangers, bolted together sections of the platform, and began decking.

Amanda power-sawin'. The platform is about 13' x 19', for context.

Under the conservation easement that governs land use on the island, only temporary structures are permitted. A dry-stack foundation ensures we can push the whole thing into the lake if need be.

Partially decked in gorgeous cedar planking.

Under the walls, we put pressure-treated sill pieces, created a diagram of the building plan embedded in the platform.
I made a little jig to place the screws in  straight lines.
Later that evening, Andrew Ranville and Sara Maynard, the artists-in-residence, joined us. Sara is an illustrator, photographer, and long-distance, open-water swimmer. Earlier in the summer, she swam the three miles from Rabbit Island into shore; all summer, she has been swimming in wild lakes across the country. Andrew is a Michigan-born, London-based artist who spends time on the island each summer, pursuing work that is grounded in issues of geography, nature, and the limits of the physical world. The next day, Marlin Ledin  stopped for a few days on his 20-foot sailboat, Voyageur. His bigger boat came in really handy at the end of the week, as Rob and I had to leave in heavy seas. A hectic row out to the mother ship in a rubber dinghy, followed by a surfing trip into the shore left me soaked and shivering, but Rob made his flight and I eventually dried out.

Panorama just past the Rabbit Island "harbor."
The rest of the week passed in a blur. We had pretty good weather, except for Thursday. Each day was spent working on the sauna, eventually finishing the decking and erecting a few walls; going on hikes under the guidance of Andrew; eating some amazing island cuisine cooked up by everyone except myself; designing and building a chair for the camp; and unloading lumber tossed from bobbing powerboats.

Rob cuts notches in the studs for purlins.


Given the island lacked chairs with backs, I put one together out of scraps one day.

Marlin, forced into proper posture by my faulty ergonomics.

A Rabbit Island lunch. Brat, pickled summer squash, hot brown mustard, fresh tomato, and Wisconsin craft beer.

Ridin' that sauna.

The Rabbit Island lumber yard. They threw the boards overboard, trying to propel them square into shore, but much swimming and rock negotiation was required.
All of those separate piles of boards had to be hiked up the rocks and into the woods.
This year has found me guerilla-ing across the country, in wildly disparate settings. Add a week in the woods to the list, learning how to build under some of the more difficult conditions I've encountered. My cabin proposal from the spring, however modest, now seems bloated and impossible given the actual circumstances of the environment. Moving sheets of plywood or large windows would require a barge, a dock, and a lot of patience.

The sauna as we left it. It will be battened down a bit more for winter, to be finished next building season.
Rabbit Island left me with another lesson, a deeper inquiry into the work I do and its place in the world. The people there, inspired by the environment, pursue an artful life. The meals, the work, the objects on the island; all were of a piece, a sort of long-running installation made out of the machinery of daily existence in a harsh place. Living outside makes everything a little harder, a little bit more time-consuming, a little more logistically complicated. It slows things down and livens up senses that have been shutting themselves down, overwhelmed by distraction.

Since the island is a hermetic environment, background noise is eliminated. There is only what we brought. There will only remain what the weather does not erase. In time, the weather will erase all, and the island, geologic, monumental, still, will heave our secrets into the water.