Kaydan awoke in the middle of the night demanding Deet. I told him to go back to sleep, told him I was not his nigger, which didn’t faze him, close-cropped Kanye-acting black man though he was.
Kaydan was on a roll. Had been all night. Earlier he had been demanding Tom’s pup tent, the tent Tom had taken out of mothballs, his grandfather’s tent, smelling of mildew and naphthalene, which had been on the ground in Korea in ’52 - or so Tom claimed.
Kaydan didn’t give a shit. He wanted it because it was private, was willing to trade weed for it. Had seen a girl at the convenience store in Bayfield that he was convinced was a sure thing. Tom only laughed at him, his low, breathy laugh, most of it coming through his nose.
Tom preferred his own weed, which Kaydan called ditch weed and scorned. Tom didn’t care. He was easygoing, a slim, rangy fellow with a slow rolling accent like one of those cowboys with a sprig of wheat between his teeth. It was hard to work him up into any kind of an emotion.
Kaydan groaned that the mosquitoes were eating him alive. As I had done so many times in the past, I gave in to his pleas and gave him what he wanted. Tom was serene, snoring away in his canvas tent warning off the black bears with his apnea, untroubled by insects.
In the morning Jake gave Tom unrelenting crap about his snoring, told him he sounded like a damned winch. Jake knew Tom because Gordon had invited him over to the house a few times for football games and cookouts and the like.
Tom was an employee at Gordon’s company, drove the delivery truck but had good connections everywhere, could get weed, blow, tickets to sporting events, and most importantly, tickets to Oprah, which Gordon’s wife coveted. Twice Tom had done this. In Gordon’s house Tom was golden.
But Gordon rarely spoke of his wife. It was peculiar the diligent way he avoided speaking of her. Kaydan noticed it and harassed him about it but Jake told him to shut up and keep paddling. That’s when they were together in the canoe, right before they flipped and Kaydan nearly died of hypothermia, the waters up around the Apostle Islands being so cold.
But of course Kaydan was overreacting again. He was about as far from hypothermia as Gordon was from talking to the rest of us about his wife. He couldn’t be drawn out about her.
But he was more than willing to trumpet about his kids. Like so many suburban parents, Gordon couldn’t resist droning on about his kids, soccer matches, ballet recitals, academic achievements. The rest of us looked at each other across the campfire with weary expressions.
Fortunately right about then the yahoos from Fond du Lac - or someplace around there, as we eventually came to understand it – came roaring into the campground, whooping and hollering. They pulled into the next campsite and jumped off their pick-up trucks like an invading army, guzzling cans of Miller, pounding their chests, shoving and punching each other. We didn’t go over to greet them; they seemed too F’d up. But we were glad they had silenced Gordon.
Entering Choppy Waters
Gordon had put this trip together. It was his brainchild. Later he told me confidentially he had done it to get away from home. He decided to call some of his closest friends, his old college buddies, which consisted of Kaydan and I, and his loyal employee, Tom, and his next door neighbor, Jake, and said, “Let’s go the Apostle Islands and do some canoeing.” So we did.
The Apostle Islands lie at the northernmost point of Wisconsin, clustered at the southwest end of Lake Superior, some eight hours north of Chicago. They are a group of 22 islands spread out over 400 square miles. They are particularly noted for their dramatic sea caves and unfettered wildlife.
Jake had been here before and particularly recommended it as a remote getaway. “When you’re out there on Lake Superior in a canoe it’s like you’re in another world, the way things used to be.”
Jake was a natural preppie, born to wear a letter jacket, captain of somebody’s football team somewhere in the past but gone now to fat, a perforated authentic jersey riding up over a couple of spare tires, a dollop of hair whipped to a froth like Big Boy or Ronald Reagan, a confident believer in a better past. It was Jake who first told me what was going on with Gordon. “His wife has been having affair,” he said. “It’s driving him nuts. He thinks it’s her tennis instructor. He found a pair of Bolle sunglasses on the nightstand.”
My heart went out to the poor devil. Such a crisis would hit a guy like Gordon harder than it would other guys. He had always been insecure about his attractiveness; felt he had married over his head. At his wedding he told me he was just so grateful Ashley would have him. And then there was the family; it was deeply important to Gordon, raising kids, sharing values, building a cozy nest everyone could come home to.
Feeling Strong, Growing Weak
That morning as we took the canoes off the trailer I wanted to reach out to Gordon, tell him that I was there for him, no matter what. He could depend on me. But he was short-tempered, irascible. He hadn’t slept well. The guys at the next campsite had kept him up all night, playing poker and talking at the tops of their lungs. Campground security came around and told them to keep it down but they started up again as soon as security left.
Kaydan slept through it all. Once he got his Deet he was out like a light. In the morning he was chipper, rarin’ to go. He insisted on sitting in the stern and doing all the paddling. He said he felt strong.
There were five of us and only two canoes. One boat had to have three people in it, and the middle guy didn’t have much to do. Tom volunteered to be the middle guy at first. Kaydan and I were the paddlers. Gordon and Jake took the other boat. We set off across Little Sand Bay toward the sea caves on Devil’s Island. It was a long way. We had been paddling for over an hour before we even raised the brown brick lighthouse on Sand Island. Devil’s Island was another ten miles off.
The lake was surprisingly choppy with a head wind. At this rate it would take another four hours to get to Devil’s Island. Kaydan was for turning back; he said it was ridiculous, especially when there were perfectly good caves to be explored near Squaw Bay on the mainland. He said he felt like his arms would fall off. Silently, without a word of complaint, Tom took over the paddling. Kaydan sat down in the hull, smoked a bowl and entertained us with long drawn out jokes.
A Devil Among the Apostles
It did take an egregiously long time to get to Devil’s Island but it was worth the trip. The caves were magical, sandstone grottoes honeycombed into the rock with hobbit-like rusticity. The cliffs were bristling with spruce and cedar. Gulls swooped and wheeled overhead.
We paddled around in the caves awhile, ate some sandwiches, drank some beers, and when we came out, the sun was full up in the sky. Tom slipped on his sunglasses. The word Bolle was printed on the side.
The trip back went a lot faster. We had a tailwind and got back to the mainland before 6pm. Since it was midsummer there was still a good three hours of sunlight but we were all exhausted, all except for Kaydan who spotted some girls he had seen at the campground and insisted on showing off by standing on the gunwales of the canoe and rocking it back and forth in an attempt to propel it forward in that manner.
He slipped and fell on his back in the hull, scraping his elbow on the crossbeam. Jake and I roared at his antics. Gordon said it served him right. The girls snickered behind their hands; they looked like Native-American girls from the adjoining Chippewa reservation.
On the way back to the campground Tom struggled to get reception on his cell phone. It was one of those old models, about the size of a brick. Tom didn’t make much as a delivery driver for Gordon’s company and probably couldn’t afford a newer phone, so I took pity on him and lent him mine. He went off by himself and talked for some time. When he came back, he looked a little vexed.
Tom, Jake and Kaydan went down to the lakeshore to smoke a joint and I helped Gordon build a fire. Once we had it stoked and crackling, we sat down and opened some beers. I asked Gordon how he was doing. He was non-committal but he didn’t try to conceal the fact that something was bothering him. Eventually he opened up to me and admitted he was having problems at home. Then my phone rang. Gordon gestured for me to answer it. I wished I hadn’t.
“Hello, Tom. Is that you?” It was a woman’s voice. “Listen, I’m sorry. You know how I feel about you. It’s just that I think it’s incredibly reckless. You didn’t really need to do that. If you’d have just said no, he wouldn’t have suspected anything.”
I pulled the phone away from my ear and looked at it. The call was coming from Gordon’s house. My heart sank. I put the phone back to my ear. Now the voice sounded worried, vexed. “Tom, is that you? Tom?”
I said hello. The woman hung up instantly.
I looked across the campfire at Gordon. “Who was it?” he asked.
I hesitated. “Wrong number,” I said.
Gordon shrugged. “Anyway,” he said, picking up where the conversation had left off. “It’s her tennis instructor. I’m sure of it.”
I opened my mouth to object but the words caught in my throat.
Then the other guys came back, and the conversation abruptly turned to other things.
As dusk gathered I couldn’t help looking at Tom and wondering how he could do this to Gordon. Did he secretly hate him? Maybe he resented him for being his superior. Maybe this was a way to assert power over him, to diminish him. It was ugly sometimes what guys would do to other guys to get the upper hand. Guys always needed so much.
Kaydan had gone off somewhere, probably to take a leak, but he was gone longer than expected and when he came back he had the two girls from the canoe launch with him. He introduced them around. They were pretty girls, slender with high cheekbones and long straight black hair. They couldn’t have been more than seventeen.
They confirmed what I had suspected. They were Chippewas from the Red Cliff Reservation. They told us the campground was on their land. They teased us about being squatters. They said the name of the lake in Ojibwa was Gitchee Gumee and they sang the song by Gordon Lightfoot that refers to it as such, doing a pretty tolerable job of harmonizing.
While they were singing, the yahoos from the neighboring campsite came roaring back in their pick up trucks, whooping and hollering. They had clearly been on a bender somewhere. They heard the girls singing and ridiculed them. They cranked up their radios to drown them out.
When the girls got up to leave, the yahoos realized they were Native-Americans and flung insults at them, calling them “chugs” and “bushniggers”.
It was so utterly over the top and unnecessary we were shocked to silence. Kaydan half-heartedly told them to shut up but I don’t think they heard him. The girls excused themselves and hastened off, bowing their heads, as if being pelted by a slanting rain.
“We should go over there and say something to them,” suggested Gordon.
“They’re drunk,” said Jake, “and they outnumber us, and they’re looking for a fight.”
“Yeah, and I’m black,” Kaydan reminded us.
We sat there in gloomy silence for awhile. Meanwhile, our neighbors kept up their boisterousness. Finally Tom announced that he was going to get security. Gordon said he was going with him, that he couldn’t spend another sleepless night.
By the time they got back it was full dark. Night in those parts is pitch black and Tom and Gordon had gone off quickly and forgotten the flashlight. On the way back, Tom had walked into a tree and Gordon was still laughing about it. Tom showed us the scrape on his forehead. “Gordon pushed me,” he said, and Gordon admitted he had stumbled into him. “You can’t see your hand in front of your face,” he said. “There are cliffs out there,” Jake reminded us.
Just then security rolled up in two jeeps and shown their spotlights on our neighbors’ campsite. Their intrusion didn’t seem to faze the rowdies who had managed to stoke a considerable fire in the last twenty minutes and were standing in its rippling glow, ignoring them. The security detail got out and confronted them. There were two of them, both Native-Americans. The girls had been right, the campground was on Chippewa land.
A heated conversation ensued between the security detail and the campers. Finally the security guards drove off under a barrage of insults laced with racial slurs. “A lot of good that did,” groaned Kaydan.
“They’re going to get the cops,” surmised Gordon. But Gordon was wrong.
Like a Swarm of Wasps
The party roared on. Eventually we went into our tents and tried to get some sleep but that was impossible. Even Kaydan couldn’t doze off. Finally we heard the zipper going up on Gordon’s tent and by the time we got to the flaps he was already on his way to the neighboring campsite, his softly rounded form silhouetted against the firelight, a form better suited for a country club or a cruise ship then a rustic site on an Indian reservation inhabited by belligerent yahoos. I looked at my watch. It was 3am.
“This is not good,” I said to Kaydan.
Then we heard Tom emerging from his tent. A moment later his lanky figure appeared against the firelight, going in pursuit of his employer. Reluctantly we pulled our jeans on and got up out of the tent just in time to see an altercation developing between Gordon and two of the larger belligerents.
Gordon had been shoved. He staggered back a few steps, seething, and charged, head down, into his aggressors. Tom arrived just in time to add to his momentum. Together they plowed into the rowdies, knocking them off their feet and sending them sprawling. This brought the remaining rowdies down on them like a swarm of wasps.
Now there was no question; we had to act. We rushed over to the brawl and were about to wade in when the sound of arriving vehicles made us stop and look back. Cars and trucks fetched up helter skelter before the campfire, their wheels grinding to a halt in the dust, their headlights blinding us. Kaydan and I drifted back, receding into the darkness; the last thing we needed now was to be arrested for something we hadn’t started.
But the newcomers weren’t cops. They were men of all shapes and sizes, dressed in flannel shirts and work boots. They were carrying chains and baseball bats and they went to work without hesitation, whipping their heavy chains down on the backs and shoulders of the rowdies, kicking them viciously in the ribs, beating them mercilessly with their bats, breaking bones, smashing teeth.
A few of the rowdies managed to get to their feet and put up a fight. They got the worst of it. They were bludgeoned and kicked so savagely we were afraid we were witnessing murder.
Throwing Away the Chains
It was over as quickly as it had begun. The attackers got back in their vehicles and drove off. There were no license plate numbers to be written down. All the vehicles were older models, many showing rust. One had a driver side door of a different color.
Back at the tents, Jake confronted us, demanding to know what had happened. Shaken, I groped around until I found a flashlight. Then I returned to the scene of the carnage. The music coming from one of the trucks was still blaring. I reached in and turned it off.
I shone the flashlight around the campsite. Bodies were strewn everywhere, some writhing in agony, some groaning, a few lying perfectly still.
I found Gordon by the fringe of the forest, sitting cross-legged, with a chain in each hand. He had picked them up in order to defend himself, he said. He held them up to me. “Throw them away,” he said in disgust.
His lip was puffed up and he had a nasty scrape over his eye but otherwise he was none the worse for wear. He told me he had managed to crawl away when the Indians had shown up. That’s how he referred to them, the Indians. “Native-Americans,” I corrected him. “Okay,” he said.
We found Tom face down by the campfire. He had been worked over pretty good. We tried to bring him around but he was groggy. “We better not move him. Let’s wait for the ambulance,” I said.
When the ambulances came, Gordon refused treatment, insisting he was all right and directing the medical technicians to see to his friend. They carted Tom and six of the other guys away to the hospital in Ashland. We packed up our gear and followed.
In the waiting room the cops showed up and wanted to know what had happened. I told them pretty much as it unfolded. I had nothing to hide. When they asked for a description of the vehicles I told them there was nothing to go on. One car had a green door, I said. They asked if the attackers were Native-Americans. “Hard to say,” I said.
Tom had a severe concussion and some broken ribs. He had been lashed mercilessly with a chain. He would have to remain in the hospital a few days. Gordon vowed to stay with him. The rest of us drove back to Chicago.
I didn’t see Gordon again after that. We drifted apart. A few years later I heard he had gotten a divorce. Kaydan struggled for years to become a stand up comic working odd jobs to make ends meet. Finally he started to get some traction and then the recession hit.
I never saw Jake or Tom again. Traumatic events like that have a tendency to blow tenuous relationships apart.
Now whenever I think of the Apostle Islands I get an uneasy feeling in my stomach. I know it has nothing to do with the place itself. For some people the Apostle Islands are the most wonderful place in the world. But for me the shores of Gitchee Gumee resonate with a different meaning, a reminder of what some men are willing to do to be on top, and what other men are willing to do to fight their way back.
Canoe From Underneath, Mjwinoz; Raspberry Island, Public Domain, Apostle Island Map, Public Domain, Sand Island Light House, Public Domain,
Sea Cave from Inside, N2e, Squaw Island Sea Cave, Bobak He’Eri,
Headlights, Jeepforum.com, A Considerable Fire, Savage Love, Brawl, Matt Shank, Chains, Mojowire.com, Lake Superior at Dusk, StantheJeep