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The Grip of the Great Lakes


IMG_3243_100The Great Lakes are the stuff of legend for most Minnesotans but in Maine, the Great Lakes are just a collection of  storm water retention ponds.

Mainers have the North Atlantic.

People out here love the sea, its history, industry and adventure. I love it too, but it tastes a little salty.

Maybe it’s all about where you grew up and what you experienced as a kid that sets the tone for judging places. The familiarity, the personal history, the shared stories usually give your native land an advantage.

For example, as I see it, nothing beats the windshield view above Duluth on I-35. Maybe it’s because mom and dad told us so on those station wagon camping trips to the Sawbill Trail; or maybe it’s because there IS no better view of a working city next to an endless horizon of water and deep forest anywhere on the planet.

I can feel the waves when I hear “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and I can see the road when Bob Dylan says “Just take everything down to Highway 61.” Is this because I was born and raised little over 100 miles away from Lake Superior?

I found my funky, yellow kitchen table at a Two Harbors garage sale. I watched my nephew win his first hockey tournament in a Duluth ice arena. I climbed a mountain, searched for agates and fell in love with Jen outside Grand Marais. It’s amazing how many memories, and some important ones, have come from a place I’ve only experienced as a visitor.

Yes, the grip of the Great Lakes extends many miles beyond its shoreline.

But it doesn’t extend to Mainers.

I volunteer  at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, ME. The place bursts with maritime history. Old oil paintings of  wind jammers are stacked on the walls like windows into another world, wooden boats are showcased like giant trophies; and its campus, tucked in the middle of small seaside town, is crowded with buildings from a bygone era.

The museum recently held a book sale, clearing its shelves of dozens of duplicates. I conducted a “presale investigation” and discovered a 344-page hardcover copy of “A Pictorial History of the Great Lakes.” The book was published in 1963. It was loaded with  more than 500 black and white pictures of shipping ports, old whalebacks, locks and dams, ship wrecks, lighthouses, you name it.

"A Pictorial History of the Great Lakes" features this stunning aerial view of Superior, Wis.

“A Pictorial History of the Great Lakes” features this stunning aerial view of Superior, Wis.

The book was $5. I didn’t buy it.

Instead, I waited to see if it would survive the sale.

The next week, while lunching in the library, I looked through the leftovers. There it was: My Great Lakes book.

The library manager and a museum curator were in the room.

“I see no one bought the Great Lakes book,” I said. “What’s the matter? The Great Lakes don’t rate out here?”

The museum curator laughed. “Nobody bought them, huh?

The library manager sprung into action. She started digging through the boxes. “You’re into the Great Lakes? We have a whole bunch it,” she said.

In less than a minute, she produced five or six books and dropped them next to my ham sandwich. They all had something to do with Rust Belt shipping.

“All right, I’ll show you,” I said. “I’m going to buy these books, bring them back to Minnesota and sell them for 50-bucks apiece.”

That got another laugh.

In fact, I would never sell my new Great Lakes books. As I make a new life out here in Maine, the books and their mid-west memories bring me home to that station wagon view from I-35. A comforting thought. And it’s OK if the East Coast folks don’t want  it. That means the legend is all mine.

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