"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
The first 12 words in Charles’ Dickens’s “Tale of Two Cities” could very well be written about the north country every spring.
The paradox hit me like a sledgehammer in April of 1986. I had just closed on the purchase of a waterfront lot on Bluegill Lake near Winter, and I planned to spend our first night “van camping” on our private piece of paradise.
It was a sunny day in the low 70s for the drive to the lake in our GMC window van. The immediate plan was to set up camp, explore the area, cook hot dogs and baked beans over the campfire, and introduce Mike, my 9-year-old son to the nature, the wildlife, and the addictive appeal of the Chequamegon National Forest.
Whereas, the intermediate plan was to build our very own lake home on the same lot that summer, so that we could complete the interior finishing over the winter months.
It was a perfect evening. The temperature dropped to ideal sleeping weather. We put out the fire and retired to our camping mats inside the van, nodding off to the sound of fish swirling in pristine little Bluegill Lake.
In fact, we slept so soundly that I was not awakened by the rain. And I mean rain. And more rain. It continued through the early morning.
Luckily, we had put most of our camping supplies back in the van for the night. But our site was in front of the lake, at the bottom of a pretty steep hill that constituted our future “driveway,” that had now turned to mud. Too much mud and ooze for a rear-wheel van with all the weight up front. We were trapped.
After several vain, wheel-spinning attempts up the hill, we trudged down the road to Trap ‘N Fish resort, hoping it was open so we could call a tow service. But our first good luck of the day was meeting resort owner Joe Donahue and his son Randy, who both scoffed about a tow service and pulled us out themselves with a four-wheel-drive Army-surplus jeep they kept on hand.
Two years later, after the cottage was built, the entire family arrived again in spring, in high spirits and with high hopes, in our own four-wheel-drive Blazer. So far so good — until we turned on the water which proceeded to squirt and spurt from four different seams in the interior walls, the result of burst pipes from the freeze and thaw.
Once more I relied on the Donahues, sending Marianne and the kids to the resort for dinner, while I spent several hours disassembling walls and patching PVC.
Spring of ‘90, we were ready for anything. The cottage had been properly winterized and the steep driveway fortified and graded with crushed stone. What we hadn’t anticipated was a family of skunks taking up residence somewhere beneath what they believed was an empty house. After several weeks, during which Momma sprayed our black Lab Biff six different times, we enlisted the help of the DNR to evict the squatters.
When we moved from our cozy custom Bluegill Lake cottage to a bigger, ready-made home on Moose Lake, I figured the era of spring surprises was over. But our third year there, an exceedingly rapid warming trend, leading to premature ice-out and copious snow melt, raised the lake to unprecedented levels, prying up our dock, along with those of our neighbors, which floated away, sank elsewhere, or were crushed in the current. Neither retrieval nor replacement was covered by conventional house insurance.
Still, the cost of replacing our dock was a mere pittance compared with replacing a garage the following year, when heavy winter snow accumulation collapsed the roof.
But I’ll neither get specific about the prices nor continue further with this litany of spring surprises, since everyone up north has their own list of calamitous mishaps and arduous and costly remedies.
Every surge of spring optimism, it seems, is tempered by catastrophe. Which is a lot like life, and I wouldn’t trade a minute of it.
For when you live in a place where the beauty of nature is paramount, you learn to respect its power and adapt to its whims.
David McGrath is a former Hayward resident, an emeritus English professor at the College of DuPage in Illinois, the author of "South Siders," and a frequent contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.