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Vanishing Point

A city boy steps off into the great white north.


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The town of Rumely, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, has one grocer, one butcher, one postal worker, one video-store clerk, and one gas station attendant. His name is Michael Ninichuk. A year ago the 36-year-old Ninichuk packed up his rented one-bedroom apartment in Roscoe Village and set off to stake his claim as the new owner of the Rumely general store. After living 12 years in the city, Ninichuk did what most urbanites only dream about over a glass of merlot: he traded in his life for a new one in a land where he surprises bobcats in his garage and counts the deer outside his window, and where men no less emblematic of virility than Ernest Hemingway and Jim Harrison have been humbled by the sky and the dark, primal woods.

Until last year Ninichuk was a bartender at the Bluebird Lounge at North and Clybourn. But when rents skyrocketed and the Bluebird lost its lease in the spring of 2000, owner Bob McHale decided to open a new bar in Pilsen. Ninichuk planned to go with him until his brother Julian called with an idea.

Ninichuk, his two brothers, and one sister grew up on the west side of Detroit. Their parents are adventurous nature lovers who have been spending time "up north" since the 1940s. The family vacationed whenever they could, mainly over the summers, and Ninichuk recalls, "I loved the way we traveled, which was just to look at a map and say, OK, we're gonna go...there." One summer the family piled into the van and drove to Alaska, but they became particularly enamored with a place closer to home, the Upper Peninsula's isolated Alger County, where they spent summers camping and fishing outside the tiny Lake Superior town of Munising.

The Ninichuk children continued their forays into the U.P. as adults. When Julian discovered during a fishing trip that the general store in Rumely, about 20 miles from Munising, was for sale, he called his brother. "He mentioned it to me in passing," says Ninichuk, "kind of fishing for any interest." He thought about it, talked it over with friends and family, took a trip up to look at the store, and decided that he had two options. He could try it, and maybe he'd fail or hate it, but he could always go home. Or he could pass and regret it for the rest of his life. He counted up his savings, worked out a deal with his brother and father, became intimately acquainted with a banker, a lawyer, and an accountant, and signed the papers on the property. For far less money than most one-bedroom condos in Chicago, the main building, including store and living quarters, the fixtures and inventory, a detached two-car garage, and a small guest house were now his.

Six years ago, after a series of odd jobs ("stagehand, state humane investigator, bartender--always a job, never a career"), Ninichuk settled into working days at the Anti-Cruelty Society (as an undergrad at Michigan State he'd flirted with the idea of becoming a vet) and nights at the Bluebird, starting as a bouncer. "I was glad to finally get him behind the bar," McHale says, "because there wasn't enough for him to do." Ninichuk's friend and occasional Bluebird bartender Jacque Judy echoes this sentiment. "Michael's a bit of a restless soul. He always needs a project." McHale and Judy think the Rumely endeavor is a perfect fit. "He loves the U.P., loves fishing, and he wanted something of his own," McHale says. "He is the right man for that job."

Rumely is almost the end of the line. Drive another five miles north and you'll wind up at Lake Superior's shore, squinting toward Canadian waters. The surrounding county leads the Great Lakes State in "natural heritage sites"--scenic vistas, geological features, significant wildlife observation areas, major waterfalls. The 880,000-acre Hiawatha National Forest gives way to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, where miles of jagged sandstone cliffs rise high above the lake. There's no old growth left in the U.P. But the second- and third-generation forests that have been carefully planted after years of heavy logging are dense and beautiful again, home to black bears, coyotes, wolves, and deer.

Ninichuk spent much of his first year up north engaged in two activities: putting the store in order and battling the elements. Stretched between Lakes Michigan and Superior, Alger County is showered by lake-effect snow almost nonstop through the winter, an average of 14 feet annually. (In Chicago, the snowfall averages around three feet.) The snow is alive, monstrous--it devours everything in sight and engulfs entire homes. Front doors are barely visible; windows are completely obstructed. Along the embankments, tops of trees struggle to poke out from the drifts. The snow doesn't taper off to shallower patches. It falls and blows and drifts seamlessly over the land and out onto the lake, forming hilly floes. There is no distinction between the snow and ice on the ground, the snow and ice on the lake, and the snow and ice in the sky. Standing at the edge of Lake Superior in winter, you feel you may well be standing at the edge of the world.

Shovels and snow blowers are useless against the mountainous drifts. Ninichuk spent the season's pitch-black, subzero mornings cranking up his battered plow truck (a common second vehicle in the U.P.) to clear out his parking lot and driveway before heading up the street to plow the driveway of an elderly neighbor.

Five miles away, in Chatham, there's a tavern, a small grocery store, an inn, and a bank. Long, wooded distances between houses and buildings grow longer as Rumely gets closer. Ninichuk's red Open sign blinks alone against the sky. The store is a lifeline and community center to the locals. Rumely is unincorporated, without official boundaries, so Ninichuk counts its population in his head--his best guess stands at about 50. The store is open 14 hours a day--12 on Sundays--and though Ninichuk now has some part-time help, he still works long shifts alone in the two-story, gray-shingled building. Out front are two ancient but functional gas pumps. Inside the wood floors are well worn and many of the original shelving units and fixtures are still intact.

On the shelves there's a little of everything: bread, milk, potatoes, charcoal, batteries, cleansers, canned goods, fishing tackle, work gloves, poker chips, and Boone's Farm. In the back there's a small, square room that houses a surprising 1,100 video titles. A chest-high deli counter displays steaks, cold cuts, and cheeses, and a little U.S. Post Office outlet is tucked into the front corner by the door. Eighty post office boxes surround a small window and counter, behind which Ninichuk performs most of the functions of any post office, sorting mail, writing money orders, sending packages, and selling stamps.

He delights in the store's old-fashioned details--the 1920s steel safe, the manual from 1929 that still sits in the huge old cash register. He wants to restore the honey-colored walk-in wooden cooler and the sturdy deli cases. "I'll come across something and think, Oh wow, this is really cool," he says. "Then I'll stop and realize, I own this!"

Ninichuk's apartment above the store is a sizeable three bedroom. Once he gets more help, he'd like to get it into shape. For now, the dingy orange carpeting in the bedroom lifts up to reveal linoleum tile; beneath that are newspapers dating back to the 1930s, and below that are promising hardwood floors. A perfect white coyote skull perches on one windowsill, a cow femur on another, and a not-yet decomposed bobcat head sits in the freezer, courtesy of one of his customers. Ninichuk shrugs: "I like skulls."

The U.P. has the largest population of Finnish-Americans in the country, over 50,000 people--16 percent of the total population according to the latest census. Drawn by mining and logging jobs at the turn of the 20th century and comfortable in the familiar climate, Finnish immigrants settled all over the peninsula, particularly near Lake Superior, where copper and iron mines flourished.

Built in 1926 by a Finnish immigrant named Matt Pantti, the Rumely store once served a bustling, prosperous community of logging and mining families, many of whom worked for Cleveland-Cliffs Iron (CCI). Pantti delivered to area logging camps, did a brisk business in feed and farm equipment, and worked as freight agent for the railroad that carried several trains through Rumely and had a stop directly in front of the store. Logging was unregulated then, and once the dense woods were cleared and the mines depleted, CCI encouraged employees to farm the land instead. One of the original farms still operates across the street from the store, but most families moved on as the jobs disappeared, and the train track has long been converted to a snowmobile path.

The store--originally publicized in Finnish as a "seka tavara kaupanh" (or "mixture-of-goods" store)--once carried everything from boots and clothing to penny candy and ice cream. "I still have one customer," says Ninichuk, "a man in his mid-80s, who was here for the grand opening. When the store opened, there was no refrigeration. He showed me how they used to cut ice on the lake and store it here under the floorboards." He taps at the stockroom floor with his boot. "The building used to be heated by a wood furnace in the basement. The video room used to be the old feed room."

A kitchen arrangement of sorts--a table and chair and a stove--sits in the back, where Ninichuk snatches the occasional cigarette. When the bell on the door jingles he dashes to the front of the store. "Howdy!" he calls to the three men who enter: two potato farmers who live across the street--twin brothers--and another man who happened to see their truck so stopped in too. Ninichuk knows them all, and the four are quickly joking and laughing.

"Another four years of work and I'll be buyin' a new pickup."

"Stayin' busy are ya?"

"Busier 'n I care to most of the time."

"Goin' to the races?"

"Oh yah, haven't missed one yet."

"The races" are the talk of the town each winter--the annual U.P. 200 Sled Dog Championship. Every year, at the start of the 68-mile Midnight Run in Chatham, snowsuited families alight from pickup trucks along the side of the road. Kids run ahead toward the bright lights of the fairground, their parents carrying toddlers and babies whose cheeks look like they've been slapped with a brush dipped in scarlet paint. The children scramble up mountains of snow and slide down. Adults stand around chatting and laughing, bouncing their babies like they're at a Fourth of July barbecue. It's 35 degrees below zero.

In the Village Pub, just outside of Rumely, nearly every man wears a hat: baseball caps, hunting caps, woolen lumberjack hats. Unescorted teenagers shoot pool in the pub, but no one kicks them out. What else is there for them to do? The nearest movie theater is 30 miles away, in Marquette, as is the nearest swimming pool. For $1, kids can gather at the store at 4 PM and ride a bus to the pool for a swim. There are high school basketball games, for which the town turns out in force. There's also a game in which kids hunt for colored rocks hidden in the snow. At a tavern in nearby Eben Junction, players throw beanbags into a box with a hole cut out.

In the winter the bar fills with snowmobilers. They stream through the back door, walking stiffly in their snowsuits, pulling off their helmets and shaking out their hair. They dump their gear in a pile and head straight for the bar while others suit up and file out. They are loud and jovial as they leave. Last winter an Illinois man crashed head-on into a track-grooming vehicle, making him the ninth snowmobiling fatality in the U.P. that year.

Firing up a fresh pot of coffee and unlocking the front door of the store at 7 AM, Ninichuk greets his nearest neighbor. Helen, who lived years ago with her husband in a lumber camp without plumbing or electricity, is, like most of Ninichuk's customers, descended from the original Finnish population. "They call themselves Finlanders," says Ninichuk. "As in, 'Oh dat crazy Finlander, he's still in da woods.'" No one calls himself a lumberjack, instead he "works in the woods." Those of us below the peninsula are "Apple Knockers" or "Flatlanders."

Of the people who enter the store, there are few he doesn't know by name. There's Henry, who's dug a pond in his yard and stocked it with trout, which he then fishes for dinner. Henry also collects buses--he has three or four scattered on his land, all filled with firewood. He buys a six-pack of Busch and two hot dogs, for which he receives some ribbing. "Two hot dogs? What, you get paid today, Henry?" John handcrafts guitars and mandolins and sells them on the Internet. He stops in for two jugs of orange juice and talks about his upcoming trip to Nashville, where he's showing his work. Taped above the cash register is a photo of a man standing next to an enormous buck that hangs from a tree. Ryan lives on a 40-acre "camp," wears a camouflage coat, big rubber boots, and a drooping hat with flaps over the ears, made of fuzzy American-flag-patterned material. He brings in camcorder footage of his three young children zipping down the luge track he maintains outside Marquette. "Natural-track luge is going to be an official sport in the 2006 Olympics," he says proudly.

Ninichuk runs a tab for many of his customers and looks the other way if they are short one month; they often pay him back in trade, fixing a tire or taking a look at a faulty compressor. "The friends I've made up here I wouldn't hesitate to ask anything of," Ninichuk says. "They'd drop everything and do it. Back in the city, they're good friends, but people are working, they're busy, they're out." Helen brings him home cooking whenever she visits. Hunters leave him gifts of venison, grouse, and pheasant. Michael opens the store at midnight if someone needs gas for his generator. "You never drive by someone on the side of the road," he says. "Sometimes it's almost comical. I've seen four or five cars pulled over changing one tire. One guy is doing the work, everyone else is talking about it."

All this closeness, of course, has its drawbacks. He recalls the night a local woman drove into a ditch on her way home from the tavern. "I must have had half a dozen people come into the store and tell me this the next day."

Ninichuk says he doesn't worry too much about what he's missing, though he sometimes laments the absence of his friends and urban amenities like live music, movies, art, and, above all, choice. "There's only one of everything here," he says. Also, he says, "I really, really miss someone who's still in Chicago. This is something that has to be dealt with. I'm trying to get her to understand that we have the capacity to have a pretty interesting life if I can get this place up and running to the point that I think it can be done." He hopes to eventually turn the store over to his brother, who's a co-owner, on alternate weeks, to allow him to return to Chicago more often.

"Moving here is probably the hardest decision I've ever made," says Ninichuk. "I still wonder about what motivated me to do this." Ninichuk's friend Rob Miller has a theory: "He's nuts....He's in the middle of nowhere. But he's a vital link in that community, and that lets him tap into what made him a good bartender--it's a good way to know a lot of people superficially. He knows a little bit about everyone, but they don't know a lot about him."

"That's fairly accurate," says Ninichuk. "I'll deny I ever said it, but that's not a bad assessment."

In the meantime, one year after he arrived, he's doing well. He pays his bank note every month with income from the leased post office boxes and the rented guesthouse. He pays himself. His living expenses are minimal, given that he owns the food and sundries in the store and the gas in the pumps. He is still energized enough to stay up late after he closes, going over the books and thinking about how to best rearrange things. And if he spends Saturday night at a 25th anniversary party or baling hay for his neighbor rather than at the Metro seeing a band, it's OK with him. "Do I still need to see a show a week? Two, three shows a week? No. Anything becomes boring day in and day out.

"I haven't seen the place I want to live for the rest of my life. I haven't done what I want to do for the rest of my life....This is a definite experience. I've never done anything like it. It's not often I get to say that anymore."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lisa E. Reardon.


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