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Nick Vander Puy writes a note from his tent in the Penokee Hills

[posted by James Richard Bailey on Tue. 3/4/14 @ 7 pm]

My good friend and journalistic comrade in arms, Nick Vander Puy, has braved the roughest northern Wisconsin winter in three decades . The night before last the temperature here hit 30 degrees below zero, and it has been pretty much that way for three months.

Not far from here, Nick lives in a 12 foot by 14 foot wall tent heated with a wood burning stove. He is one of a group of visionaries who have made the Penokee Hills of Iron County their home, doing so in defense of this pristine wilderness, where the ravages of open pit iron mining are proposed for the area by a billionaire coal miner from West Virginia.

These people who would save the watershed of the Bad River are comprised of Native Ojibwa Indians, civil rights advocates, sports(men)&(women), ecologists, business persons, scientists, political leaders and area residents. Nick falls in most of those categories except the first one. He is the type of guy who gets committed and means it. Vander Puy has spent more time among the Anishinaabe (Ojibwa) people than most non-natives, and some of his compatriots up in the Penokees at this time are numbered among them.

Make Sauna Not War

My name is Nick Vander Puy. I live at the Harvest Education Learning Project (HELP) in the Penokees with four other folks off Moore Park Road around seven to eight miles east of Mellen, Wisconsin. We are grateful for the opportunity to share some stories about our life in the woods.

The Lac Courte Oreilles (LCO) band of Lake Superior Chippewa tribal permit establishing HELP is “Gida-wiidabimaa didakiiminaan jinaanaagadawenjigewad” or I sit with the Earth and Seek Knowledge.

Another way of phrasing this is to quote the singer Joni Mitchell, “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”

I’m going to share with you how we fulfill this mission in the Penokees. But first, I ‘m going to tell you a few things about myself.

I was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Michigan. I’m sixty years old. I grew up in a loving home playing sports, reading, hunting, fishing, gathering and visiting my grandpa and grandma in northern Wisconsin. After studying philosophy and a year in law school I moved to Eagle River, got married, built a house, had two sons and began guiding and writing for outdoor sport magazines.

I became a treaty rights supporter and eventually left guiding to work as a public radio journalist, airing national stories on NPR as well as hundreds of local stories on WOJB, WXPR and KUWS. I’m especially proud of a documentary I produced with Tom Vennum Jr. and Mole Lake tribal judge Fred Ackley called “Manoominike: Wild Rice and the Ojibway People”

After substitute teaching at Bayfield School and mentoring Red Cliff tribal youth, I came to live last spring at HELP in the Penokees. I put up a twelve by fourteen canvas wall tent which is heated by a wonderful Four Dog wood stove. Some of my finest memories are last spring harvesting wild onions and wandering down by the Tyler Forks River. I remember picking wild onions with several Flambeau youth, Joseph, Jada, Baby guy, and Wabanookwe Buckholtz, while their Mom Jeanne fried musky steaks and fry bread.

Another key memory came when Bad River elder Joe Rose Sr.and his son Joe Dan Rose, along with Gary Quarderer and Paul DeMain from LCO had a ceremony and erected an eagle feather staff on a cedar pole at the entrance of HELP. We made a tobacco offering at this place. This was also the first time I met our neighbor, Russell “Bear Whisperer” Buckenero a hunter, logger, trucker and owner of a traditional Finnish sauna. I’ll return to our relationship with Russell Buck in a little while.

During the early morning hours of July Fourth, after the bars closed, I was sleeping in my tent when I heard the high pitched whine of an ATV. I didn’t think of it until the next day when we found three tribal flags, LCO, Bad River and Mole Lake, had been stolen from us. This disturbed us immensely, and is still a cause for concern. If you have any info about the whereabouts of these flags please inform us.

As the summer wore on, thousands of people from as far away as Spain and Israel visited HELP. Several politicians including State Senators Bob Jauch and Dale Schlutz and Representative Katrina Shankland
shared our hospitality. I especially enjoyed teaching and playing with Michelle Heglund’s first graders from the LCO tribal school. We walked with them hand in hand into the woods to see a lightening strike and and a giant conglomerate rock.

In August my chum from Mole Lake, Larry Ackley, who is now the HELP administrator and Security, and I knocked about three hundred pounds of wild rice on lakes near Eagle River and Clam Lake. We began to process this rice in September, getting help scorching, dancing and winnowing the staple the old fashioned way.

Another peak moment was when I accompanied Bad River tribal chair Mike Wiggins Jr. and his daughter on a deer hunt in late October, after the leaves had fallen. We gratefully accepted the gift of a deer for HELP.

As the summer went on I began to chum with our Finnlander neighbor Russel Buck. We shared hospitality in his classic log cabin deer hunting camp just down the road from HELP. As we were preparing for winter Russel advised us on how to deal with giant snow fall and below zero temperature. As deer season approached we were short on firewood. We’d become close enough friends that Russell graciously delivered a ten cord load of the driest sugar maple in northern Wisconsin. This load of wood essentially kept the HELP village going all winter. We are deeply obliged to each other.

Three weeks ago on a frigid morning I put out some suet for the birds. Within moments a chickadee came to feed. The creature wasn’t complaining, it was happy and joyful and satisfied with life on this great earth. I consider the chickadee my teacher.

Just last night, in fact another thirty below zero evening, we used some more of the dry sugar maple to keep body, mind and soul together in Buck’s traditional Finnish sauna. We capped off the evening with some barbecued bear ribs.

As the spring unfolds we’re preparing to establish a two hundred bucket sugar bush. We’re getting supplies together and making wood. We are are diligently following our mission which is “Gida-wiidabimaa didakiiminaan jinaanaagadawenjigewad” or I sit with the Earth and Seek Knowledge.

Plus, we’re planning another sauna for this afternoon. SISU.

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