GRAND MARAIS, Mich. — I’m sitting in the Voyageurs Motel looking out over West Bay at Grand Marais, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The light is dwindling. Fresh from a meal of poached whitefish at the Dunes Saloon, it feels like the perfect time to begin this story.
The breeze is gone, except for the fan in the corner, but the setting sun striking the clouds resonates with the evocative writing of one of my favorite authors, Jim Harrison.
Ever since Harrison’s novella “The Woman Lit by Fireflies” crossed my path about 25 years ago, I’ve read everything by him I can get my hands on. (He’s published more than 30 books of poetry, fiction and nonfiction.)
Harrison’s descriptions and insights cut to the bone with the sparseness of Hemingway, to whom he is often compared, although he professes not to be a fan.
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He writes from the expansiveness of locations such as the Upper Peninsula, and the far southwestern desert near Patagonia, Ariz. Places as big and open as his vision.
Tomorrow, I’ll go out with an old hunting and fishing buddy of Harrison, Mike Ballard, a big, burly bear of a man, who lives on 40 acres outside of Grand Marais. Mike recalls with fondness the days when Harrison would stay at his little cabin near the Sucker River to retreat, often to write and enjoy the wilderness of the Upper Peninsula. Ballard looked out for the place when Harrison was gone.
I was privileged to visit the cabin, a location that is kept relatively quiet around here by the locals. Harrison sold the cabin in the early 2000s when he and his wife, Linda, moved to Livingston, Mont., to be closer to their daughters.
Ballard says he knew Harrison before he became well known as an author and thinks of him as “just Jim, a real good human being, who would give you his last nickel if you needed it.”
Ballard is the inspiration for several characters in Harrison’s novels, although Ballard says he doesn’t really like that because he’s always the bad guy, which he doesn’t come across as to me.
In one novel he is portrayed as a lousy ship captain who drowned his whole crew on Lake Superior, and threw a man through a plate-glass window. In “True North” he is transformed into the character of Mick, David Burkette’s hunting and fishing buddy, an honest, straightforward friend who owns the Dunes Saloon, although he doesn’t anymore.
Harrison lived for years on a farm with his family on the Leelenau Peninsula near Traverse City in northern Michigan, but he purchased his remote cabin near Grand Marais in the UP with an early royalty check. It reminded him of the cabin where he grew up as a child, with the love of fishing, hunting and roaming the expanses of forest.
After years of eking out a meager living as a writer, he was noticed by Hollywood and began writing screenplays from some of his novels and novellas, including “Legends of the Fall,” starring Brad Pitt; “Wolf,” with Jack Nicholson; and “A Good Day to Die.” Harrison spent a decade back and forth between Michigan and Hollywood, until he finally decided, as he puts it, that the greed wasn’t worth it.
Many of his books come at the same characters from different directions. His descriptions of the Upper Peninsula made me want to come here and see some of the places that inhabit his writing for myself.
“The Upper Peninsula has been pretty much ignored by the rest of the culture and consequently was free to evolve into its own,” Harrison wrote me in a note forwarded by his secretary. “This is wonderful for a fiction writer, as most areas of the U.S. have been flagged to death and are mere shreds of the dominant super-culture.”
While visiting Marquette, Mich., recently, I got some insights into Harrison’s writing by talking with writer John Smolens, also a friend of the author. “He writes the way he talks,” Smolens said. “He has such a vigorous mind, he can’t sit still.”
“His prose has a lot of jazz in it.” Then he ruminates, “Maybe that’s why he’s so big in France.”
Smolens was partially responsible for having a suite at the Landmark Hotel (Harrison’s favorite hotel in Marquette) named after Harrison. The Jim Harrison Suite is where Harrison stays when he’s in town and has copies of several of his books and other memorabilia. When Harrison learned of the suite’s name, Smolens said he asked, “How you gonna decorate it, with a bunch of empty wine bottles and cigarette butts?”
Ballard took me on a tour around the areas south of Grand Marais where he and Harrison used to roam.
The Kingston Plains is an eerie stretch of land that used to be full of majestic old-growth pines, but was strip-logged in the 1800s, then ravaged by a massive forest fire. The weathered stumps, still visible, dot the landscape like tombstones in a cemetery. Very few new trees ever grew back.
Harrison writes in many of his books about this devastation, coming at it through the viewpoint of different characters, but most famously the Burkettes, a fictitious family of six generations living in Marquette, whose first generations were greedy lumber and mining barons in the UP.
Harrison loved to walk for hours on the Kingston Plains to clear his mind.
Ballard also took me to an area known as the “Whitewash,” where an old whitewashed lumbering lodge used to stand . There he showed me the biggest old growth white pine stump I’ve ever seen, nestled in a gully. Big enough to crawl inside, like some of Harrison’s character do.
Although Harrison’s writings cover the expanse of the Upper Peninsula and northern Michigan, I concentrated on the stretch from Big Bay, a little west of Marquette where the Yellow Dog River flows into Lake Superior, and on along the Lake Superior shoreline east to Grand Marais, where Harrison’s beloved cabin is located.
Seeing his cabin on the Sucker River was a rare privilege. I pictured him writing at his table by the window that looks out over a horseshoe bend of the pristine trout stream, where he used to fish and swim. Ballard said he would often find him there sitting in a chair, chest deep in the water, just thinking and enjoying.
Ballard tells the story of one time they were out hunting and Ballard shot a bird that fell on the other side of the river but the bird dog didn’t want to go across. Ballard began taking off his clothes to fetch it himself. When Harrison saw him, he asked what the heck he was doing, and just plunged across the chest-deep river fully dressed, brought the bird back, and continued hunting soaking wet for the rest of the day.
Ballard also tells a couple of funny one-eyed stories, about how Harrison would sometimes bump into trees on his left side while walking through the woods because he was blind on that side from a childhood injury. According to one account in “The Raw and the Cooked,” he was poked in the eye with a broken bottle by a 7-year-old girl while playing doctor as a young boy.