Two Harbors, MN
Miles Today: 120
Total Miles: 8234.4
Days on the Road: 135
World's Largest Indian, or Statue Thereof. (Anglo shown for scale)
We're no longer in Michigan, we're in Minnesota, heading up the North Shore of Lake Superior towards Grand Portage and Isle Royale National Park. About as far away from anything as we can get, we may be out of touch for a little while. Meanwhile, take the opportunity to catch up on some back reading.
Up, Up, and Ascared
Out here on the road, we face life-threatening dangers every day. We're sticking to side roads, which are all two-lane, undivided highways. They also tend to be toll-free and filled with big trucks, often loaded with thousands of pounds of the nation's forests, in log form. Either that or tanker trucks filled with shortening, mammoth RVs with old ladies behind the wheel, or psychotic and drunk teenagers in suped-up classic muscle cars. All of these are always going in the other direction, whizzing by our side mirror. No one ever seems to be going the way we are.
And that's just one danger. We also face car fires, random acts of violence, acts of god, livestock, and, of course, terrorism. When we're not driving we contend with the threat of bears, rabid raccoons, water-borne diseases and parasites, and dengue fever. One would think that we would be loathe to unnecessarily add to this list. One would, apparently, be wrong.
Just outside of Ironwood, Michigan, in the middle of millions of acres of National Forest, stands the Copper Peak Ski Flying Center, the only ski flying hill in the western hemisphere (ski flying is defined as ski jumping 170 meters or more). The jump itself is 17 stories tall, and the hill is pretty big too. And steep? Oh yeah.
Our guide books and so forth indicate that in the summer it's possible to take the chair lift up to the peak, and perhaps even take the elevator to the top of the jump for a spectacular view of three states and Canada. Sounds good. When we arrived, the place was deserted except for a group of six bikers looking up the hill, lamenting that the place was closed. After searching with no success for a back road to the top, we decided to make a run at the front slope, which appeared to be covered only with knee high grasses, and rose perhaps 1000 feet at about a 60° angle.
As we scrambled up the not-as-steep lower part of the hill, it quickly became apparent that under that nice looking grass was a hill made entirely of small and tumbly rocks. Scree, we believe is the term. It's a good word, because that's about what happens. You slip and fall so fast you don't have to time to really scream, you just scree.
We were about to head back down as the hill became steeper and steeper when two kids, one in a cub scouts uniform and the other in a bullwinkle t-shirt, began bounding up the hill below us. We yelled at them to be careful but they ignored us and trotted right on by like a couple of dirty little mountain goats. We felt like pathetic old weaklings, and not willing to be outdone by unknown pre-teens, we had to keep going. The kids discovered a steel cable that made a great rope for pulling oneself up, and we continued. By the time we got the the top of the hill, the kids had already explored the base of the elevator and found it locked tight. The view was nice, but the view from 240 feet higher tantalized.
The end of the chute was only about 6 or 7 feet off the ground, and we decided to hoist ourselves up. More accurately, Anthony decided to do so, and Liz semi-reluctantly followed. The side of the wooden (35-years-old wooden) chute had a narrow walkway with tiny boards nailed on as stairs. At least one in ten was missing, and the others were all missing nails. The nails that were present were almost invariably pulled partly out or bent at intimidating angles. There were plenty of holes in the plywood, which served as a sidewall and anchor for the steel handrail, giving us unwanted previews of the spectacular view.
We started up the bottom curve of the jump, hand over hand on the railing, trying not to look down as the ground, easily visible through the slats of the ramp, quickly fell away. As the curve straightened into a dizzying 60° ramp to the sky, we stopped and sat down and tried to get our knees to stop knocking. Liz wanted to turn back, Anthony wanted to continue. We both agreed this would be a colassally stupid way to die. After a little break, we continued. Finally reaching the first launch point, at about 15 stories, we sat and looked out at the sea of trees, pretending to care. In reality, we were both just wishing we were on the ground and thinking how fucking insane these ski jumper people are. Illegally clamboring up a dry and rickety ski jump was one thing, but racing down one covered with snow and launching oneself out into space over a deliberately cut out hill, that's just dumb.
The best part of the story, and the worst, is that we never made it to the very top. Anthony crawled a bit higher and out onto some iron gratings towards the stairs which led ever-higher, but all that air under his shoes turned him back. Liz was huddled on the ramp 40 feet below, clinging to the railing and looking a bit like she might cry. Also, at that moment, a pickup truck pulled around the road at the bottom of the hill and some people got out and started rummaging under the bed cover. We both, independently and later verified, had visions of sniper rifles and suddenly felt incredibly exposed. Sad commentary on the state of things in this country, perhaps, but mostly we just wanted down. Down we went.
Once on terra firma, our relief was short lived as we realized we still had to navigate the scree field between us and the Badunk, hundreds of feet below. We surfed the rocks down, skinning only one out of four knees, and made it safely to sea level or thereabouts.
Commented a friend to Anthony later, "Climbing up derelict ski jumps is the kind of thing that you can only do so many times before something bad happens." Anthony replied, "Yes, I think that number is one." Though, having not gotten to see the real pay-off, the money shot, so to speak, that number may turn out to be two.
© 2002, 2003 Anthony Hecht and Liz Jones. All rights reserved.