“I’m turning a little bit green, aren’t I?”
An unsettled Beau Carey turns from his easel at the bow and addresses the pilot of the 17 foot Rabbit Island transport boat. Only an hour earlier the waves appeared calm enough for the first attempt to bring the large easel aboard. Now a strong east wind has begun to rise, and even while following the waves around the southwestern point of the island, the boat rolls and heels, making the task at hand uncomfortable if not impossible. We pack away the paints, point north and trace an arc back to the mooring in front of main camp.
A landscape painter from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Beau has traveled widely, making work in a variety of remote and challenging locations including Denali National Park in Alaska and the arctic archipelago of Svalbard, the northernmost settlement in the word. As our third artist-in-residence this summer, he has been on Rabbit Island since July 5th, creating a new body of work related to his research into the history of coastal profiling and the more immediate experience of looking versus seeing.
Beau remarked that while he could have continued this research on any
island, being on Rabbit Island was integral to pushing his practice in
new directions. In today’s world it might be impossible to find
unexplored places on the map, but according to the artist, the larger concepts that underpin Rabbit Island are “uncharted territory”. Historically, coastal profiling was used to
assist in and highlight a nation’s imperialist motivations; to gather more territory, exploit it, and
grow in commercial capacity. Beau sees the idea of Rabbit Island as the complete opposite and has been creating scenes of the landscape that are about our experience
not dominion over it.
The following day we spoke about the difficulty of painting while seasick–its
potential to shake up the way of looking and seeing, but also its potential to create a situation where it is easier to fall back on the conventions of the genre, and on the skills already mastered.
“Sometimes the difficulty in looking makes it impossible to see.”
During our conversation Beau relates this notion of looking as the act of searching and his immediate perception. In this case, an act made increasingly difficult with seasickness. On the other side, seeing is the act of understanding, resulting from extended periods of looking. These two interrelated concepts are represented by the pieces made in the field, and the larger works on canvas he creates when in the studio. With waterlogged edges and bugs stuck to the surface, pieces from the field bear the evidence of the raw environment in which they are created. The studio pieces, often much larger and created over a longer period of reflection, distill the immediacy of the experience and thoughtful interrogations of his research. Examples of both will be on display at our annual exhibition at the DeVos Art Museum, opening on the 24th of September.
Beau has several days remaining before he departs the island. Until now he has been painting from the rocky sandstone shore, a tree platform, and boats; while also reading texts from the library, contributing his own observations to the island’s journal, and attending to the day-to-day tasks of camp life. He is constantly
searching for a narrow target, albeit one that requires a very wide view. Beau has been both looking and seeing on Rabbit Island, and finding that the X that marks the
spot changes as frequently as the direction of the waves, wind, and weather. We look forward to witnessing what he finds.
Residency co-founder Andrew Ranville captures Beau painting from Eagle Rock, a sandstone shoal approximately ½ mile southwest of Rabbit Island. A small islet usually rises 2-3 feet from the lake’s surface at this exact location. This year, as a result of strong ice movement and record high water levels, only one stone breaks the surface to help balance Beau’s easel. July 9th, 2015.
The first two artists-in-residence of 2015 arrived on the island on June 21st. On their first night they were greeted by gale-force winds from the west, hitting main camp head on—a proper Lake Superior hello. Such is life on a remote island.
Composer Eugene Birman (left), received his M.M. in Music Composition from the Juilliard School, a B.A. in Economics from Columbia University, and this spring received his D.Phil in Musical Composition from Oxford University. Scott Diel (right) is an American-born writer and librettist based in Tallinn, Estonia, who has freelanced widely. The two have previously collaborated on several operas to critical acclaim. Their most recent work, Nostra Culpa, eclectically weaves together the global debate surrounding post-financial crash austerity and a Twitter feud between a Nobel laureate columnist from the New York Times and the president of Estonia. Such unlikely inspiration results from “a desire to step away from the formal opera genre and engage a wider audience with classical music that investigates contemporary issues.” The duo’s past projects have received attention from world media outlets including CNN, BBC World TV, NPR, and many others.
Over the past two weeks on Rabbit Island they have been working on their project, STATE OF THE UNION, a new multi-movement, multi-voice opera that engages with issues of environmental sustainability, economic inequality, satire, and the elusive solutions which are often lost in a sea of voices. Inspired by their time on the island they have shared that a singular voice will emerge in one of the opera’s movements, a voice with the potential to guide us from the wilderness. STATE OF THE UNION promises a groundbreaking approach to classical
music, and sets out to create a timely, vitally relevant message.
Recent discussions between the two residents and Rabbit Island co-founders Rob Gorski and Andrew Ranville have taken place both on and off the island. In an excerpt from email correspondences leading up to their arrival, Rob shared:
“I’m really excited for your
guys’ effort. Your idea–or at least my interpretation of it–has opened
up several new avenues for my thinking already. It pushes forward the genre of classical music in general and takes a classical art form to a new subject: Man’s relationship to his natural environment in the context of modern understanding. Historically, classical opera has dealt with mythology,
human relationships, power, politics, love, death, and other similar concepts. While certainly
classic themes, these seem to be a layer or two below the fundamental
rules of the game we are all now realizing, as well as our absolute
relationship to them.”
“I think the clear distinction is also that opera has almost always worked in allegory, that themes have been represented but not presented as they are, that characters themselves serve as parables but not personalities. We are not only removing the idea of characters entirely, but using the entire genre of opera as a character itself–or, as I see in Scott’s writing, a conscience and a voice. The very safe separation of message and representation as it generally is in opera is removed, and we have only the very clear libretto which hides behind nothing.”
“I may have mentioned it to you during our phone chat, but SOTU’s relationship to the very beginning of opera is quite strong, in that opera was invented as a genre for communicating revolutionary ideas. But political and conventional limitations on the form were nevertheless too limiting, so it was quickly subsumed into “music as entertainment.” SOTU is commentary on that role as well, for while the piece will be entertaining in many ways, I see its purpose as bringing opera back to what it was meant to be… as a gesamtkunstwerk with a specific purpose, not just one that brings together art forms for the delight of audiences. I think that the genre needs this shake-up because it has, with each new addition, become more and more anachronistic and baroque–ultimately, irrelevant and silly.”
“What Scott will do in the libretto is link social issues to the greater issue at hand which, as you alluded to in your email, was an understanding elusive to past generations of composers because we simply weren’t aware of what we were doing to our planet. But it is all related, of course. Writing opera today allows us to finally make that leap.”
While on the island–between gathering firewood, stoking the sauna to 193 degrees, performing daily ablutions in the lake, and mastering campfire pizza–Eugene and Scott acknowledged that this is the first residency they have
participated in together, writing and composing in real-time. This process of direct collaboration has influenced their project by distilling and sharpening the opera’s message. Eugene, working in a way that is increasingly rare in circles of contemporary composers, has been hand-writing the composition at the shelter’s dinner table in response to Scott’s words and the wilderness environment surrounding them. All the while, they balance
the themes of their project with the necessary rituals of daily life in a place that occasionally heralds a damp awaking after a western storm.
It is a remarkable thing to consider: An opera addressing contemporary world issues is being written on a remote island in Lake Superior. We are thrilled to have Eugene and Scott in residence and are excited to share STATE OF THE UNION when it is complete.
Rabbit Island is featured alongside four other “American Utopias” in the April 2015 issue of the art and culture magazine Paper.
“Utopians are a diverse bunch,” the
story begins. “There’s little agreement to be found across the broad landscape
of individuals striving to transform society, save for two important factors.
First, don’t call them utopians; most of them hate that. Second and more
important is the consensus that society is fundamentally–but not
On both points we agree.
Brian Heater, the author, goes on
to describe the island’s wilderness character, the Rabbit Island Artist
Residency, and some of the project’s cultural spinoffs.
After some hesitation and strong
discouragement from concerned friends, Gorski [Rabbit Island’s owner and
co-founder] purchased the 91-acre swoosh of forest–located in Lake Superior,
the world’s largest freshwater lake by surface area–deeming it the perfect
laboratory for some high-minded concepts regarding land development, society
and art. The island became the namesake for the Rabbit Island Foundation, a
nonprofit devoted to rethinking development. As a Manhattanite, the notion of
continual subdivision is particularly troublesome to Gorski. He handily refers
to Rabbit Island’s driving principle as “Conservation 2.0: the marriage of the
Google map with Kickstarter and the Nature Conservancy.” Gorski asserts that
technologies like satellite mapping and online crowdsourcing efforts, when
combined with lessons learned from generations of land mismanagement, can lead
to better models for land usage. … “I think that’s a microcosm for all the
decisions that we should be making in our daily lives. What am I going to do
today? What am I going to make today? What am I going to sell today? What am I
going to buy today? And whatever I choose to do, how am I not going to fuck up
everything around me?”
The issue’s cover feature, Kanye
West, in his free-flowing take on the American Dream, contributes, “I believe
awesome is possible and I believe that beauty is important. When I say
‘beauty,’ what’s your current definition of beauty? When I think beauty, I
think of an untouched forest, only created by God’s hand.”
We agree here as well. Save the
part about God as used in this context, of course.
However, this highlights some
contradictions relative to artistic success in our culture that we believe are
worth discussing. Many of the artists regularly featured in magazines such as
Paper, elsewhere in popular culture, and in contemporary museum culture, have
been graced with various degrees of celebrity as a result of stylish and/or
important ideas they have conceived and brought into the world. However, the
popularly accepted metrics of what is stylish and important–a phrase
used here to signify that which is celebrated by critics, curators, and other
cultural arbiters–have historically been dissociated from a thoughtful and
holistic understanding of the physical world.
An interesting circle has been traditionally created: New Creative Idea. Fans. Celebrity. Success. Magazines. Museums. Repeat.
Rarely in these progressions to artistic and societal success are references to
Of course there have been celebrated and poignant examples of artworks engaging with ecological
concerns in the last half decade or more, even those considered social before
“social practice” was the art world’s stratégie
du jour. Presently, it stands to reason that the hyper-connected and
hyper-recycled creation and consumption of culture results in a danger of
missing the truly profound. How is it that we can be so connected but still so
detached, our feet rarely touching the soil, both literally and figuratively? Magazines like Paper might
highlight celebrity inanity as much as thoughtful projects embedded in dirt and
trees; but both now exist most readily on an Instagram feed, living and dying
in influence and audience as the minutes pass. It appears participants in both camps universally value
intact nature for what it is–as Kanye evidently does–regardless of whether
their creations were working for or against it universally. It is an odd
If many popular artists were to ask
themselves the following question, what would their responses be?
Does your work
positively influence the intelligent organization of our natural world in
absolute terms? Does your work help in any way to mitigate the mistakes
of cultural and environmental history we have inherited?
Modern understanding of our natural
reality, as well as our cause-and-effect relationship to it, dictates a new
ethical perspective. We must consider this when acting creatively, lest we risk
acting selfishly in the absolute. A filter of modern knowledge needs to be placed between
the classic spark of imagination and the contemporary execution of work. Until recently the
making of art relied solely on the historical standards handed to us by tradition,
experience, and education. From our new point of view, however, art history might be
reviewed and re-ordered, and might lead to considerable reshuffling of what is
actually considered important. God forbid one day $179.4 million dollars gets spent on re-furbishing an ecosystem, as an act of conscientious creation, rather than at an auction uptown.
In the end, of course, we can choose to do whatever we like creatively while presently limited only by what markets and laws will bear. We suggest, moving forward, that we should necessarily be judged according to a holistic understanding of
ecological reality. If it is not artists pushing into this space, then who?
Revisionist history can only move so far into the present,
with the evasive phrase “if we only knew then what we know now” falling flat
in light of real-time understanding of global concerns. Neither artist nor
politician can sidestep climate change, or food and energy shortages. Additionally, if we are forever contextualizing our work to important
works and cultural moments of the past–a standard that auction houses and museums tend to value that lacks basic ecological and geo-spatial understanding–are we not bound to continually applaud
ideas that don’t quite reach the level of true relevance in our own time?
We believe that new understanding
of reality delineates new ethics within that reality. New work shouldn’t be
defined by old ethics, nor by a limited understanding of natural reality,
regardless of how entrenched this may be in our historical tradition. At some
point we have to cut the cord. We need a new vantage point. We need a new set
Today, becoming a relevant artist is harder than in past times given the need to account for so much new and conflicting information, yet this is what is demanded of us. An artist, it is said, is
meaningful to their time when they successfully express the undercurrents that
shape their time. In the past it was the norm that one needed only to create something aesthetically beautiful, or brilliant, yet without account for its environmental cost, in order to inspire applause. In our time material
ignorance is losing acceptance as evidenced by degree shows, headlines in major
newspapers, and, most importantly, the feeling we all carry around in our subconsciousness. The elements that make up the mediums used to bring an artwork to
fruition are not decentralized, but rather finite nodes in our ecological reality. Each piece of plaster, pigment, celluloid
and circuit connects back to the physical world. And our comprehension of that world is expanding. The last twenty years have seen the dawn of the Internet,
daily satellite perspectives of the world, concise understanding of watershed
ecology, genetic understanding, migration patterns, and so forth. Our spectrum is much wider than it was in
the 20th century. Our art must be too.
Perhaps this then signifies an end to
the pre-conscious era of
creation, where action without fundamental ecologic accountability was
acceptable. As the spectrum widens and our understanding grows, should this not recalibrate old
metrics related to perceiving and making art? Should not our conscience change
to reflect the natural realities that we now understand to be true? Meaningful
creativity is not impossible in this context, but it does require a new
capacity for critical thinking relative to the beliefs, opinions and
observations written above.
This is the premise of Rabbit
Island. Our project is not “utopian,” as Paper suggested. It is simply rooted in an honest take on
the modern world. It is an attempt to address cultural inconsistencies using
creativity and reason. When finished–if it can ever be considered finished–our project will leave many more acres of forest organized sensibly and
protected than when we started, in addition to the ideas we project outwardly from the experience. This absolute natural outcome could be looked upon by posterity as the
most important thing that we will have created as a community, perhaps. Or perhaps we will have helped create a sensible cultural vernacular to move forward with. Regardless, our project is not afraid to call spades spades,
especially in relation to the need for art to be coupled to ecology, and to be
held responsible in absolute terms. Art, after all, is the purest form of
creation, and thus serves fittingly as a symbol for all human constructions.
This weekend Ben Moon’s short film, Rabbit Island, will premier at Telluride Mountainfilm. Ben spent a week on the island in July, 2013, documenting the artists in residence, land and lake. If you are lucky enough to be in Telluride for the festival the piece will screen on Saturday and Sunday as part of the “Story of Place” short film series. We will also be setting up a table to hand out info about the 501c3 Rabbit Island Foundation and highlight the work that has been created on the island as well as the conservation projects we have been developing. In the next few weeks we will share the film here on rabbitisland.org.
More from Ben about the film:
Two summers ago, I had a conversation with Rob Gorski about a remote place in Lake Superior called Rabbit Island. He had purchased the pristine 91-acre island with the intent of conservation rather than development.
As a native of the Great Lakes, my interest was piqued and I traveled to Rabbit Island with Page Stephenson to film a brief study of the unique environment and the artists in residence at that time. The result is a short film “Rabbit Island” which premieres at Telluride Mountainfilm next weekend, screening both Saturday and Sunday.
A huge thanks to Patagonia for supporting the film, and Israel Nebeker for composing an original score, Lucy Engelman for the illustrations, Jessica Kilroy for her field recording and to all the artists involved!
Photo: Ben Moon
Dead. Cold. Clear.
as air. Pure
as ice: it takes 180 years
for water to leave this basin,
says the limnologist on the radio–
if your nose were fine enough,
you could draw a cup and taste the musketry
of 1812, the ashes of Toronto.
The lake remembers more than we do:
Blood rinsed from a tomahawk,
carbon from the Cloquet fire,
iron ore in the bowels of the Edmund Fitzgerald,
the smell of Norwegian pancakes
from a cabin on the shore of Isle Royale in 1927;
the acrid taste of taconite,
the stink of bloated lake trout, stench of burning
pyramids of sturgeon. Potato peels
from Louis Agassiz’s Harvard expedition
in 1845. The heel of a moccasin
awash in Two Harbors
in the McKinley administration.
The webbed feet of a fish duck
at the mouth of the Big Two-Hearted
River, right now, paddling.
A beer bottle tossed
from a party barge last night
in Murray Bay. Sawdust
from the last great white pines
of Grand Island
logged in the 1960’s
and ferried across, section by section,
on this very lumber tug
tied to the dock
and leaking diesel.
+ James Armstrong
In September of 2013 the author sent us a signed copy of his book of poetry, Blue Lash, with the inscription “Best wishes to Rabbit Island artists and writers!” It was intended to be included in the Rabbit Island Library–a wonderful gift. This poem alludes to Lake Superior’s immense water retention time and spare nutrient load, and is delightful in its transcendent imagery of the passage of time. The poem is republished here with permission from Milkweed Editions. Thank you to both author and publisher.
On February 21st, 2015, six people made the first modern trip across the ice to Rabbit Island, using sleds to haul food, gear and dry firewood over four miles of Lake Superior’s frozen surface to spend a night in the sauna. The quiet island wilderness proved imposing, and the trip exhilarating. There is no better time to feel the indifference a wild environment has for you than in the dead of winter at negative eleven degrees.
Below is a narrative of the trip followed by accounts we have republished of historic experience on Rabbit Island during the winter of 1914-1915 as told by Alfred Lahti, a local fisherman who died in 1980. Alfred’s father, a Finnish immigrant, was the first non-native settler of Rabbit Bay. The excerpts are part of a larger memoir he wrote recounting his early experiences at Rabbit Bay.
Planning for the late February crossing began in mid-January after it became clear that winter across the upper Midwest was unusually formidable, greatly increasing the chances of an ice bridge forming between the mainland and the Island. An email was sent to a number of previous artists-in-residence and some friends discussing the possibility, and the fact that the opportunity for crossing has become rare in the era of unpredictable climate patterns. Rob Gorski, Emily Julka, Nathan Miller, Caleb Larsen, Tony Schwenn, and Melissa Baroni decided to make the attempt. In the weeks that followed we discussed logistics extensively, including potential open water situations, wayfinding during whiteout conditions, drysuits, communication plans, towing a boat on skis, fire making, shelter, submersion limits, frostbite, etc., and set a date for crossing in late February that maximized potential success.
While we were aware of the might of Lake Superior during spring, summer and fall, when storms can push waves to heights greater than ten feet in a matter of hours, we were not completely certain of the conditions we would find in February. For weeks we watched the weather closely–winds, temperature, Environment Canada ice thickness forecasts and satellite photos. We made travel arrangements, assembled gear, and then waited, hoping that the weather cooperated. As the date got closer we began talking to ice fisherman who had begun venturing about halfway out to the island with their four wheelers and shanties. Then on the day before we planned to leave we chipped through the ice several hundred yards from shore with an axe to measure it’s thickness. We measured 13 inches before the hole filled with water. The lake was definitely solid.
At 11:30am on a Saturday, after a breakfast of pasties and several hours of packing around the wood stove at Adam Clay’s camp in Rabbit Bay, we set out on the lake from the northernmost end of Rabbit Bay Road. Sleds behind us, walking through four inches of snow on the ice, we chose a bearing a few degrees below due east. The air was dry and 14 degrees. The sky was sunny and clear, and there was a mild northwest wind blowing. On the horizon the island seemed distant but was visible.
We were excited as we walked along in single file, yet precautious. We consciously avoided any concentration of our weight on the ice, keeping several yards of distance between each of us. The first man also dragged a 50′ rope tied to his harness in case he broke through and needed rescue from the water. Generally speaking it is said that 4 inches of ice is safe enough for travel on foot, while 8 -12 inches can support a car. Every half mile or so we used an ice fishing spud to chip through to water and were consistently relieved to find the ice on Rabbit Bay nowhere less than 9 inches that day.
After about two hours we were approximately two miles from shore–half way to the island. It was here that we started to encounter difficulty navigating due to jagged ice formations that precluded direct passage. The lake’s surface had became uneven and treacherous, a circumstance that appeared to have been caused by breaking and refreezing of ice sheets earlier in the season. We speculated that a northeast storm had come through when the ice was around 3 inches thick, and broke it up, leaving it to float in irregular patterns. These remnant shards then refroze at sharp angles and were covered in light snow. As we walked among them our boots slipped and the sound of plastic sleds climbing up and dropping over this textured surface was ever-present. Navigating close turns while dragging a sled proved laborious as well.
It was at about this point, during a break for food and water, that Nathan Miller unpacked his large orange and blue kite and began flying it high above us with the intention of taking photographs from a camera he hung from the main line about 50 feet below the kite. He walked along with the kite high above for the next two miles until we landed on the island, while Emily began pulling his sled and gear. His camera was set to rotate at a fixed rate and shoot at regular intervals, a situation that in theory relied greatly on probability and a large number of shutter clicks. The kite was raised and lowered by a large hand crank, similar to an oversized open-faced fishing reel. His efforts were rewarded with a number of iconic photographs of the trip.
As we approached the island one major question nagged us: were we going to find open water between us and it? After three miles our confidence improved that we would not. Just beyond the north end of the island, however, at the end of our visible range, a dark line on the horizon became noticeable, and we began to speculate that there could be open water in the distance. Within an hour we would realize that we were right.
As we continued the completely flat, white surface of the lake made the island appear as if it was perpetually just a few more steps away, an allusion we found frustrating. When we finally arrived, however, an amazing feeling came over us. Peering north and south along the island’s western shoreline we noted several feet of ice that had accumulated from crashing waves earlier in the winter. Bare rocks that are familiar jump-off points for swimming in the summer were buried beneath large mounts of ice. The six foot drop beneath the main camp to the waterline was now nearly nonexistent, as ice and snow had been forced onshore creating a gentle slope up from the surface of the lake–a circumstance far more extreme than we had ever speculated. This observation was not only chillingly beautiful, but also made it abundantly clear why shoreline docks on open Lake Superior do not hold over time, an affirmation of our decision to never attempt building one. This would surely be a fools errand over time, and, more importantly, anathema to the premise of the island project which is the pursuit of the longest possible timeline of environmental and artistic consideration. Restraint, after all, is a virtue.
We pulled our sleds up and over the icy shoreline slope, stopping only briefly to take a photo of Miles Mattison’s 2011 “Sauna and Hot Tub” sign, now buried to its neck in three feet of snow, and found ourselves face-to-face with the sauna that would shelter us for the night. We considered for a few moments the winter’s desolation and looked around at the undisturbed white snow leading into the forest, and then busied ourselves setting up camp. In a short while a fire was roaring and the sauna started to warm up. It was about 4:30pm.
Every man organized their things and unpacked their sleeping bags to help them regain full loft before nightfall. We laced on our snowshoes and headed north towards the point through several feet of snow. Along the way several of us fell into small, narrow, crevasses that had formed between the upper and lower tiers of the shoreline ice shelves, often needing the help of others to get up. There were a few good laughs. We were all excited and there was a distinct sense of the surreal as we gazed in all directions at something we had only previously imagined. Without snowshoes walking would have been extremely difficult due to the depth and texture of the snow.
As we continued north towards the point we came closer and closer to the most notable part of the entire expedition: the confirmation of a vast stretch of open water along the island’s east shore, and our unexpected proximity to it. Standing on the edge looking towards Canada we saw the familiar blue of Lake Superior stretching to the horizon. It donned on us exactly what forces were at play on a geographic scale; the island was serving as anchor for the bay ice, and was the reason an ice bridge formed whatsoever. In hindsight, and with the benefit of studying weeks of satellite photos since, it is clear that the island stands as the only fixed point above the waterline–a upwelling of Jacobsville bedrock–that prevents the ice we traveled across from floating hundreds of miles east. Needless to say the presence of open water created anxiety as we all perceived the shifting vulnerability of ice on the scale of Lake Superior. Plus, none of us had brought our passports.
From the north point we continued walking south along the shoreline ice towards a prominent rock with a tall pine perched on it about one third of the way down the coast. Below this pine, scattered on the snow, we discovered a fresh bird kill and noted plumage, ravaged feathers, drops of blood and large claw prints covering an area about fifty feet in diameter. It was an obvious signifier of an eagle’s recent conquest, and a unique moment in the wild, though we moved on quickly to maintain warmth.
We then traversed west through the island’s interior, doubling back towards camp. We found the walking considerably easier in winter than summer. We noted a few scattered animal prints in the forest which appeared small and were difficult to identify, as they were not clearly defined in the fluffy snow. We didn’t notice any specific evidence of rabbit tracks, which is interesting to note. Caleb Larsen believed this would be atypical if rabbits still inhabited the island, as rabbit tracks generally accumulate over time in the snow, based on his experience in the woods on the Keweenaw mainland. Thus the question as to whether rabbits remain on Rabbit Island remains a mystery, though evidence has been scant since 2011 and the prospect of such seems increasingly unlikely.
Exiting the forest we came out near the main camp’s lean-to shelter and surveyed the area. All was quite and nothing was disturbed. We then walked north along the shoreline trail back to the sauna, completing our loop of the upper third of the island, and checked the suana’s thermometer. It was 180 degrees inside.
Before taking sauna we ate dinner which consisted of the disorganized potluck musings of a six person expedition, while trying to maintain body heat. Whitefish spread, salami and wine stick out as memorable, while just about everything froze solid immediately upon exposure to the air. Around our makeshift low table we discovered that we had only one cup–the trip’s main gear oversight–which we passed around as if at communion, refilling with wine as needed. Before dinner Tony had also chipped a hole in the ice just offshore from the “Hot Tub” and used the cup to ladle water into stainless steel buckets, which we then carrying over the snowbank back to camp. It was a pleasure to drink clear cold water directly from the lake.
The girls got in the sauna first, followed by the guys, one or two at a time, until all six of us were enjoying a nice steam. The next three hours were spent alternating between heat and snow at a ratio of 90% to 10%, a transition palliated by wine. In the summer we would typically have run from the sauna to the water, but given the lake’s ice we settled for partial submersion in adjacent snow drifts. Well, most of us did.
Outside the temperature dropped to low singe digits and the night was clear. The wind was picking up and the moon, initially bright, began to set low. Time passed quickly.The area we designated for urination was utilized frequently.
By this time our skin was becoming pruned so we stopped feeding the fire and went outside to cool down and get dressed. It was about 10pm. Steam rose from our bodies in such surprising quantity that we joked the scene was not dissimilar to a nightclub. As we laughed the sauna gradually cooled to livable temperatures again and we started to lay out our sleeping bags.
After a short discussion of how to sleep six in a 7′ x 7′ room, Rob settled on the top bench, Tony and Missy on the bottom bench, Emily against the far wall on the floor, Caleb between her and the stove, and Nathan on the decked floor of the changing room, which he insisted upon against the urging of others. We slept well, for the most part, amidst navigating an occasional bathroom break in the dark, and learned several practical consequences of thermodynamics–heat rises, slatted floors leak cold air, sauna stoves are not meant to burn all night, etc. All told the fire was stoked five times before sun-up, though we couldn’t have been happier.
When the morning came nobody was initially eager to venture back out into the cold. Mainland weather stations reported that the temperature dropped to -11 degrees, which was not encouraging, though was a bit exciting as we recognized our lack of control of the circumstance. We got dressed, gradually, while fumbling around one another in the small sauna room, packed our bags, loaded them into our sleds, reorganized camp, and set out. We traveled quickly and aimed south along the west coast of the island following smooth ice and then made a turn west and right towards the mainland, choosing increased distance over uneasy footing.
The wind blew again from the northeast, though had increased significantly from the day before to 25 knots. Snow was blowing across our boots and a particulate mist hung in the air, slightly altering the bright sun, creating an odd hue. Loose gray clouds passed overhead.
We continued on seriously and quietly, always conscientious of the risks of exposure. This day there was no kite flying and little joking around. Each of us walked in solitude on the never ending white surface of the lake, every part of our bodies covered and protected from the elements, save the occasional slivers of skin, which were quickly affected by wind burn.
About halfway home we had to made a decision: bear slightly north and head for the point we started from, or continue west directly to Adam Clay’s camp, a slightly longer distance. In the end, given the natural tendency of our legs to seek unencumbered walking, we chose the latter, and within a few hours we were approaching shore. Spirits began to rise inversely to the distance yet to cover. We were going to pull it off. Sisu had worked!
During this final stretch of the journey we picked our way through the large piles of accumulated near-shore ice–paralyzed waves approaching the land–and made a short push through deep snow up to the Clay camp. There waiting was a warm stove, having been kept burning by Emily’s boyfriend, Ben, as well as hot coffee. We peeled off layers of clothing and settled in a circle around the stove to debrief. Tony’s scarf had frozen to his beard, making it difficult to pull away from his chin. Missy, his girlfriend, volunteered to melt it off with her breath, which was memorable. Gradually the leftover whitefish spread defrosted and we enjoyed a snack as we came down from our adventure. An hour or so later we packed up the cars and headed back to Calumet.
Below are recollections of ice near Rabbit Island by Alfred Lahti, the son of the first non-native settler of the region and the eventual owner of Rabbit Island for several decades, after purchasing it in 1930. These stories were handwritten in 1965 and subsequently published in the 1970′s by his family as The Early History of Rabbit Bay: The Memoirs of Mr. Alfred Lahti. They are included here as a reference for posterity and also because they so clearly illustrate, when juxtaposed to our experience, the idea that wilderness can continue to be rediscovered by new generations if it is simply left alone.
Every member in our family except Mother and sister Aili has almost drowned. Once Dad was out ice fishing on rather doubtful ice, and the weather being cold he had his usual heavy black fur coat on. The ice gave way under him and down he went, but the fur coat held him up so he was able to maneuver and get back on firmer ice. This was about a mile and a half from shore.
One time we were ice fishing from Traverse (Rabbit) Island. Emil decided to bring a sleigh load of bobbing trout with the dog sled. They were coming along nicely, late in the winter when there isn’t much snow on the ice, only crust, until they got near the island shoal (laasa) and the dogsled first fell thru, then the dog, and then Emil. The dog could swim, and the wooden sled an frozen fish wouldn’t sink, so he got out first and then helped the dog in harness and then got the sled. It was a wet bath, but it was four miles to go so it was quite refreshing!
One morning brother Dick and I decided to take advantage of the beautiful smooth ice. We planned to skate to Section 8 and followed the shore about 3 miles, but we didn’t like the looks of the ice ahead and decided to turn back. Since the ice extended to Traverse Island we decided to go out a mile or two on the way home. The ice was 3 and 4 inches thick and we had often fished off such ice, but I thought it would be safer if we wouldn’t skate abreast of each other but with one in the lead. We each had a stick with a sharp spike in it with which we often tested the ice. While we were going about a mile out, Dick, who was in the lead, skated onto some very thin ice, about a quarter inch, and he fell thru immediately and the water closed over his head.
I quickly braked my skates. Dick, who had been in the Coast Guard and was a good swimmer, first came up and gathered his wits. I quickly extended my spike stick and he grabbed it, but as I had him up always his grasp slipped and down he went a second time. I got a little nervous thinking maybe he can’t hold any more, but I composed myself and cautioned him, and the second time he grabbed hold I encouraged him an with greater caution gently heaved him up. Fortunately or unfortunately, brother Emil witnessed the whole incident from shore; he got concerned when we weren’t successful the first time but when he saw two on the ice he quickly relaxed. While ice is forming it it hard to tell where the ice has shifted and where not, so one can find 3 or 4 inch ice with pockets of ¼ inch ice. Very treacherous!
One time the whole bay was covered with smooth glass ice a few inches thick. There were ice fisherman but they had a boat with runners on it. A few of us had this type of boat for safety purposes. I wanted to get some bed angle irons from the Island shack, out of which to make a work sleigh, so I put on my skates and got a spike stick in hand and a sled with which to bring the irons.
I got out about two miles and as a couple thousand feet abreast of some hook fishermen. Going was good and I bore down quite heavily when the ice started to feel rubbery under my skates. I realized I was out too far, and I didn’t want to stop and place my weight on one spot, which would have hastened the breaking through; as I was about to swing in a gradual arc I fell thru up to my neck.
The sharp edge ice nicked me on the chin but I quickly spread out my arms; my hands held on to the spike stick and let go of the sled, which almost hit me in the head as it sped by, but of course I remained afloat. I didn’t call for help, figuring I could wiggle myself out of this predicament. I began paddling, but skates are indeed no help in swimming but just the opposite, so one has to paddle that much harder.
My biggest grief was battling the broken ice around my head. After clearing out most of it I was facing the direction I had come from, and when I first contacted a little firmer ice I discovered it was only about ¾ inch thick and that I had gone 20 or 30 feet before it broke thru. I started to paddle with my feet to get as nearly horizontal with the ice as I could.
Then I ventured to stretch the and with the spike stick, which by now held it as near the spike as possible. I extended that hand and arm as far out as possible before daring to start pulling myself up on the ice with the other hand. I placed that as far away as possible in the other direction, with my midsection or chest against the ice, and I slowly and very cautiously maneuvered my arms a fraction of an inch forward at a time to get my horizontal body on the ice; then I planned to do the same with my legs when they got on the ice. Almost my whole wet body was on the ice when a sudden crack appeared underneath and I panicked, fearing a break and the I called for help; but the crack didn’t get any worse and I kept on.
The fishermen heard my call and were already on the run with their boat, but I had no time to wait and kept on working and soon had my whole body out of the water and spread out on the ice. It as slow progress, for I took no chances until I had reached thicker ice. One sure doesn’t feel the coldness under those conditions.
Just then the boys with the boat arrived. Humbert Lausanne, who arrived first, had the boat. They volunteered to go after my sled. To keep warm I started to skate in circles, but after awhile my clothes started to stiffen, so I stopped. I always wore heavy woolen underwear, wastage pants, plus heavy top shirt, leather mitts with woolen liners. After getting my sled I thanked the boys and headed the 2 miles home. I took a good rubdown and change dot another set of clothes and headed back for the Island, got my irons, and got home with no further mishaps.
Carl, when a small baby, disappeared out of Mother’s eyes. Emil was near a net reel corking nets when he heard Mother being concerned about Carl; he ran down to the shore and sure enough, the babe had just dropped in from the dock and was lying on the bottom. Quickly he jumped into the water and grabbed the boy and brought him to safety, never the worse for the experience, but seconds were in question.
Thus we all have had our baths one way or the other. There are other incidents of having gone in up to our necks, but the above are the outstanding ones.
The winter of 1914-15 was my first winter at the Bay. We had decided to do some logging out of our woods and hire a sawmill to saw them into lumber, so after the summer and early fall work we plunged into the woods with axes, saws and wedges. We finished the logging and started preparing for ice fishing. Sleds had to be made, lines had to be built and tarred, ice chisels made, good foot gear and wind breaking clothes made.
Being in such a predicament for the first time, I was more or less confused, and Dad came to me and hurriedly said, “Let’s go!” I left everything there. I was so frightened. The new sled, heavy coat and lines all got left there, and we ran for dear life. When we got to the crack we waited and watched for a suitable chance and hop, step, and jumped across. There was no telling when the remainder would start moving, and we were al relieved bunch when we set foot on shore! The loose ice field kept sailing, quite it didn’t go very fast and if we had a boat on runners we could have saved our equipment. That was the only time I ever lost anything on floating ice. We gained by experience.
New ice formed and froze over the open water and we had remarkably good ice for the rest of the winter. We got a bait net under the ice, and that was something to see how it was done. Already we had learned many things about life in the wilderness and on the shore of Lake Superior. We fished straight towards the Island from home because that ice remained and gradually got thicker, and then the area where the ice had just moved froze again and stabilized. Traverse [Rabbit] Island 4 miles out from home and 2 mile out from the Red Rocks forms a near perfect anchorage for ice formation. After a few weeks of fishing inside the island an dice forming fast outside the Island all the way to Pt. Abbey 12 miles away, the Island beckoned us to try as the other fisherman had done in the past.
We slapped on some clothes and merely tied our swampers around with the laces and rushed our as fast as well could. When we got to the edge of the ice we could see the break extending as far westward as we could wee, tho only occasionally could could one see any distance. Dani and I volunteered to row across the opening, which was a couple hundred feet wide with plenty of floating ice chances and rolling sea. When we got to the other side Dyni remained with the boat. I saw a dark object in the distance but found it was only and ice chunk standing up; i peered further on and saw another object, and when I got there, sure enough, it was a shelter standing up. I stepped in from of the shelter and lo and behold, Karinen was there fishing away. When I told him to hurry up because the ice was sailing to Canada, he got so excited he didn’t know what to do. As soon as ice moves, one’s line takes on the effect of a heavy current, but it’s only because the float is moving: so not to lose any outfit I pulled the line in as a coil and bunched it on the sled, grabbed his sled, and told him to follow.
The most exciting time of year was ice fishing time. That first winter the ice formed January 20. A new adventure was about to take place for Dick and me, who had never seen ice on the lake before. The first day we headed out towards Kivi Niemi’s “Friskas” and got well settled at our holes. The ice was 5 inches thick and smooth and bare. Emil, who was a little closer to shore than Dad and me, started to holler that the ice was heaving. It had been blowing from the s.w. and the ice broke from about front LaChanes Point to the Island, and we were on it. Emil, however, was on the stationary side of the crack, and the loose ice was not breaking away but flowing lengthwise with the crack.
Ice Fishing from Traverse [Rabbit] Island
“They’d fish for trout, beautiful trout!” –Estella Lahti
There were cabins on the Island, one out of boards and the other out of round logs. One was built in 1910 by Charles Tormala, his nephew Arthur, and some others. Arthur Tormala has often spoken about it. The other cabin was built around 1880 by a man called Berg, and the fins knew the Island as “Bergin Saari.” Captain Harry Berg, father of Russell Berg of Jacobsville, told me in a hotel in L’Anse that he can barely remember as a little boy when hi father lived on Traverse Island that he sat on a wooden horse and worked with a drawknife. Bill Berg, former sheriff of Keweenaw County, had no recollection of life on the Island so he was too small or was born later.
In my first year of ice fishing we decided to move to the Island and occupy the old Berg camp because it was more space sand was still in good repair. To we started to prepare and load the jumper which Dad made the previous winter. It was not a bob, as sleds were called, but was a runner and consisted of two long runners. It was not a pleasant thing to ride on a bumpy road but gave a smooth ride in deep snow. We loaded this jumper in our yard with anything that we might need: axe, shovels, saws, pots and pans, blankets, quilts, dishes, stove pipe, windows, bait nets, etc. The sled was full.
The ice was about a foot thick. When we got to the Island we unloaded an d turned the horse around toward the Bay, and he went straight to the stable door and waited for Mother to unharness him. Emil, Dad, Dick, I, Felix Salo and Andrew Herriniemi comprised the gang. Life began, but it was a pleasure since every man was capable of doing something. There was much to do: shovel snow away form the door, get wood, set the net, and a host of other things. Dad set the rabbit snares. Rabbits had chewed the floor planks and the table and window sills, but with the gang at work the camp was made livable for that night. In fact, it was the first time anyone had spent a night on the Island.
Our milk and potatoes were never protected but left to freeze. A hole was dug for the milk pail, and whenever one needed cream he would carve a chunk of cream and carry it into his coffee. The skim milk turned pale blue. Potatoes when frozen and placed into cold wanter and peeled were just as good as fresh spuds when they were not allowed to stand but placed into the pot immediately. The meat bag was always kept in the snowbank. The fish we caught were all cleaned and allowed to freeze overnight, and next morning placed into a snow hole. Each man had his own cache to keep. Sometimes in the spring the first crows would play havoc if any fish were left exposed.
We fished a week or two around the Island before we ventured to the East and Big Reef. The top of Big Reef lied northeast by sourest and is 9 miles long and about 4 miles to the inside of the reef and about 5 ½ to the outside. We had a very lightweight flat bottom skiff with runners bolted on the bottom for a rescue boat, and this boat was always taken along when the wind was not favorable. One man would use the boat as a shelter by often git up on one edge to form a windbreak. Other sleds were in the boat and each of us would take out his sled and head into whatever direction he chose. The Big Reef, 65 fathoms on the NW side and 90 fathoms on the SE side, was a challenge. 20 to 35 fathoms was the average depth we chose to fish in.
To avoid getting lost in a snowfall or sudden storm we all would place evergreen boughs in our sleds, and each man would stand a bough every quarter mile or so on his way. In the earlier part of the winter it was necessary to travel by skis. Later when the spring thaws came the snow practically disappeared, so skis were not used any more. The spring crust was hard on skis and had the tendency to wear the bottoms no matter how we tarred them over a fire. Then when all the snow changed to crust we would travel by “pushing.” With this method, getting on tone’s ones on the back part of the sled and pushing with a pair of special spike ticks, one sure could travel rapidly and easily. Fishing always improved toward spring even on the Big Reef. It was common to get 20-30 nice trout. I remember one day Dad, Dick and I were the only ones out there. We got about a hundred trout.
There were a lot of fisherman on the ice that winter. Another group of men opened the other cabin and that became filed with and 7 had to sleep at a bonfire. Mine conditions are not quite back to normal and many were idle. The bait question got to be very acute. Without bait, no fish! Alfred Dyni said he would bring a net and a group of men set it under the ice along the east side of ours. we didn’t realize what effect it would have on our bait catch until we hauled our net a couple of times. Our catch hardly kept us in bait. The bait evidently swam from an easterly direction and went into their net. This sure cast a gloom on us, but we couldn’t do a thing about it. After they hauled their net 2 or 3 times the upper maitre caught on the ice or the lower maitre caught on a boulder, and the net ripped completely in two. The maitre lines were hanging on a tree. That was the end of our bait shortage.
Andrew bert, August Piri, and Aho “Pikku Aho” came to the Bay and stayed at our home. One day Berg and party decided to come to the Big Reef straight from home, which was 8 miles. Unfortunately some ice broke loose east of all of us, and it didn’t take long for Berg and party to head for Rabbit Bay with his stallion, which was a beautiful creature!
Nobody had been fishing on that floating ice, but often it improved fishing because there is more current under floating ice and the fish bite better and there are more fish on the move. We had our ice boat so the rest of us just stayed and fished. Of course, the number of men fishing in the security of one boat was limited, and only our crew, who hauled the boat back and forth the 4 or 5 miles, could expect help if the ice did leave. When the others were told they were expected to travel at their own risk they became alarmed and got desperate one evening and sent a man from the other camp to buy our boat, which we refused with a laugh. We weren’t going to spoil our plans by disposing of the only safety measure we had. Most of the boys had to leave the Island.
We always came home of Saturday eve and left enough dry wood behind the box stove and piled outside for when we came back out Sunday eve. Once a group of fellows from Calumet and vicinity asked if they could remain in our warm camp, and we readily consented. But there were scoundrels in every group. When we were coming back on Sunday evening we saw from a distance the men leaving the Island for Little Traverse; and when we got to the Island the wood was all burned and a dandy pair of Dad’s skis were stolen. We never saw those men again, and some of them we knew.
The Island afforded an amazing view of the ice conditions. One only had to walk about 75 feet from the cabin either to north or south to get a view of what had taken place during the night. It blew hard all night from a westerly direction and often played havoc with the ice southeasterly or to the Big Reef. One could fish safely one day, and the next day the ice would be all gone.
One winter while staying the the log cabin Dad, Felix Salo, Alfred Dyni, Eli Karinen and I and one or two others all set out to fish the east reef, which lies toward Pt. Abbey in line toward the Big Ref. There was quite a blizzard from the northwest so we took the boat along. The blizzard raged on and we all decided to go back to camp except Eli Karinen, who said he’d hang around and try his luck. The rest of us went back to the island.
The Storm raged and Dad became restless and every few minutes stepped outside to glance at the ice. The rest of us noticed his actions but din’t pay too much attention. One time he asked us boys to come out and look. He had placed tow ski sticks in line with something dark in the direction of Pt. Abbey. We used out without our camp slippers on or barely-laced swampers and lo and behold, the black line that Dad had been watching was open water near the southeast end of the Island. Water looks black when compared with snow-covered ice. Immediately we figured Karinen is sailing; we didn’t know how long, but ice can move in a heavy wind when it gets going. When ice leaves beyond the Island it is surely goodbye, for there is nothing to stop or slow it.
We got to the boat and placed him in the middle and had him with his big fur coat bend down low, because it sure was difficult to dodge ice chunks with the wind blowing to beat 60. After much maneuvering we finally made it across. The men were standing in the water almost to the tops of their roots, for the ease were washing up onto the edge of the ice. They grabbed our low line and heaved us up on the ice, and did we head for camp! Nobody said a word, but each quietly thought how foolish one can get on account of trying to land a fish under those conditions. We were all dumbfounded, and all we could say was how lucky we were to have saved a man. It finally dawned on Karinen what we had done, and he began to cry like a baby.
Too often there are men very anxious to catch a fish or two and take the chance. An old timer is never too smart in solving ice conditions, so what chance has a newcomer? Often an old fisherman will take a chance but always has on hand a boat so he can get across if the ice breaks or is not thick enough or has honey-combed. A man of long experience can recall incidents of the impossible happening, and often he is very cautious. Some have experienced close shaves and have become overcautious or have quit altogether. But Lake Superior Trout being of such superior quality to all other fish in the world, it is enticing to get out there and try to get them one way or the other, by bobbing thru the ice or by trolling from a boat or spearing them thru the ice form a dark shanty. It has fascinated me since I first found out fish can be caught by such simple equipment. The early Finn first learned the art from the Indians.
Become part of our story
Moving into 2015 the Rabbit Island Foundation and residency program is tremendously thankful for the hard work and dedication of our artists, collaborators and administrators. Looking ahead to next year’s residency season and beyond, we have a lot to be excited about. The program continues to push the boundaries of what a residency can be, while asking its creators, residents, and audience to engage with critical and conceptual issues concerning the environment—all from a remote and symbolic watershed sitting in the largest freshwater lake in the world.
We’d also like to thank our community for continuing to share the Rabbit Island story, and aiding in its future telling. Our new donation page makes it easy to pledge support for the project. Donations help fund artists-in-residence, enable us to communicate more effectively, present our growing archive thoughtfully and contribute towards our future development of conservation tools.
The Rabbit Island Foundation is a 501c3 organization registered in the state of Michigan. All donations are tax deductible.
The 2014 Rabbit Island Residency Exhibition Catalogue was designed by Edwin Carter and published by the DeVos Art Museum. It is a beautiful collection offering a concise window into the experiences of six artists who spent time on Rabbit Island in the summer of 2014. The full color, limited run catalogue features work and essays by Elvia Wilk, Nich McElroy, Nicholas Brown, Dylan Miner, Suzanne Morrissette, and Julie Nagam.
The tone set by these artists’ interpretations is varied–terse, hopeful, exasperated, celebratory, critical, introspective–yet the common denominator of residence allows one to gaze into daily life and the creation of art on Lake Superior, isolated from the noise of civilization. Each artist expresses conclusions as well as new questions, and several topics are particularly interesting. Elvia Wilk’s description of her experience with inclement weather while alone for several uncomfortable days, as well as her resolution, is raw and revealing. The Waboozaki group’s collective criticism of the postcolonial narrative that is common in our time, as expressed from within the cultural history that has been pushed back, is cogent, emotional and fundamental. Nich McElroy’s thoughtful photographs, made over 26 days in June and July, are subtle and evidence his shifting emotions while in residence. This newest publication thus adds a chapter to our evolving story as Rabbit Island continues to exist in the lake, unchanged by man as a matter of morality, culture and principle. We encourage you to take the time to download it, and especially to read the essays critically.
Download the 2014 Exhibition Catalogue here (PDF, 18.5 MB.)
Physical copies of the catalog were printed in a run of 150. The majority of these were distributed free of charge to the public who visited the exhibition. A small number of catalogs are still available from our online store. All proceeds beyond the nominal cost of administrating the store will be placed in a Rabbit Island Foundation savings account and earmarked for a conservation fund dedicated to addressing issues of parcelization of our land ownership grid.