By Gerald E Mantel (Gerrymantel) on Friday, September 12, 2008 - 03:19 pm:
Glowing reviews of Peter Oikarinen's "Island Folk: The People of
Isle Royale" are rollin' in---from Thunder Bay to the Eastern U.P.
to the southern fringes of Wisconsin & Lower Michigan---which
are well-supported via the excellent sales data provided by my
friends at the University of Minnesota Press.
For those unaware, the book is again out & about across the
Lake Superior basin, updated with additional material; I highly
recommend it to all (see my own review, below) as it ranks right
up there with my other favorite, Steve Lehto's "Death's Door."
Speaking of Steve, he is still pounding the pavement like there's
no tomorrow, in support of his great work ... so by all means
please visit the Italian Hall blog on-line to get the scoop on his
adventures as well as a teaser or two regarding his upcoming bio
of Douglas Houghton.
ISLAND FOLKLORE REVISITED: a review by Gerry Mantel
Peter Oikarinen’s Island Folk: The People of Isle Royale, first
published in 1979, is back on the streets again, expanded-and-
improved by the University of Minnesota Press, including an
updated preface and additional chapters.
I bought the first edition way back when the “Oikarinen-
Calumet” combo caught my eye as I began a deep-dive into my
Finnish-American roots, coupled with my fledgling fascination
for U.P. trout. Pete’s stuff was right up my alley: a fast-paced
collection of short profiles based on oral histories, with a simply
worded, unpretentious appeal. And although the lives of
commercial fishing families dominated, I also appreciated the
allowances for the supporting casts (like Capt. Roy Oberg, who
long delivered people, cargo and mail) and peripherals—such as
the tales of the old mining camps and rambunctious resorts, as
well as the intrusion of the Feds during the island’s gradual
transformation into a National Park.
Over the next three decades I even managed to forge a
friendship with the author. Indeed, Pete is of a rare breed
exhibiting an “extra dimension” that I actually try living up to,
the sort of character who, almost invariably and certainly not
coincidentally, hails from the same Lake Superior basin that is
still the epicenter of my life despite my often-knotty
relationship with it.
However, when a refurbished Island Folk appeared a couple
months ago, I was eagerly game to reevaluate this work; once
again, I found myself mesmerized by the sharply resonating,
life-risking perils of fishing the Greatest Lake and still amazed
by the “island-crazy” mentality (to quote one of Pete’s subjects,
Elizabeth Kemmer) that persevered the hair-raising hardships.
But the new edition has special treats of its own, particularly the
introduction of Grant Merritt, a Minneapolis-based hero of the
Reserve Mining lawsuit who provides a great story or two
regarding he who is often considered the quintessential Yooper,
John Voelker a.k.a. Robert Traver. For me, the 2008 version also
serves as a fresh reminder of how Pete’s telltale photography
puts this book, as well as his creative output in general, in a
class of its own.
Not only that, but I concurrently got to play “Island Folk” myself
upon Pete’s invitation, doing so for the very first time this past
May. Peter’s close relationship with the island was underscored
by his family-like familiarity with its staff—an impressive,
entertaining & informative crew that helped provide for a
spectacular adventure highlighted by the opportunity to bob for
lake trout, keppu-style (under the instruction of the “Fish Slayer
of Isle Royale,” Tapiola’s Dave Paavola), to take full-length
cruises of the island (courtesy of cool Ken Irwin), and to catch
sight of some Island Folk landmarks along with a virtual gamut
of wildlife. Bestowed upon me, too, were the revelations that
there are three subspecies of lakers indigenous to the island, not
to mention two distinctive tribes of coaster brook trout, those
inhabiting Tobin Harbor and those of Siskiwit Bay!
I’ve lived through some drastic changes in man’s strong-arming
of the Lake Superior environs, and despite any dog-chasing-tail
overtones, those decisions to manage the lake as a sport fishery
and maintain places (like Isle Royale) as “unspoiled” wilderness
are policies that I can’t argue with. But the island has an
intriguing human history that’s not to be denied, one with a rich,
unique legacy aptly addressed by Oikarinen’s engaging book,
which provides a perspective not to be missed. Besides, those
human imprints continue to be laid by the fine National Park
personnel, their associated infrastructure, and their visitors, like
it or not.
Or as well-respected fisheries expert Karl F. Lagler puts it (in
The Fishes of Isle Royale, 1982):
“The seasonal commercial fisheries of Isle Royale have declined
over the years. Their presence on the island is not undesirable
and is of considerable interest to the visitor. At Isle Royale they
conflict little with recreational fishing under current laws, and
the presence of long-established fishing families adds to the
historical lore of the islands in the Park. Prior to the advent of
the Park, the only real success that man ever experienced on the
island was in fishing for food …”
You bet, dude!