Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - August 29, 2014

My trip to Paradise

The cool gentle northwesterly breeze was welcome as husband Art and I walked along Lake Superior's sandy shore at Whitefish Point. The late-afternoon sun had warmed the air to a pleasant temperature. Our attention was mainly focused on the seemingly endless variety of polished rocks and weathered driftwood. Occasionally we'd looked out over the water to mark the progress of a freighter heading toward Duluth or Thunder Bay hundreds of miles to the west.

But the beach and nearby lighthouse were just momentary diversions for the real goal of our trip. While many people have wondered what Paradise is like, we had experienced it!

Paradise is a small village on the lake stretched along a section of Highway 123 about 10 miles south of the lighthouse. There are a couple of restaurants, a convenience store, a small food store, a few motels, several churches and an assortment of houses. Yet even Paradise has its problems. The K-12 school now has only 24 students. If it closes, the youngsters might have to be bused 37 miles to Newberry. We had taken that route to reach our destination and saw exactly one home along the way. Everything else was trees with a few lakes sprinkled in.

So why was Art surprised when he was able to get us a room at the Vagabond Motel? Because of a small round fruit the locals sometimes refer to as blue gold - the blueberry! Two weeks ago today - always the third weekend in August - Paradise hosted its annual Wild Blueberry Festival and hundreds of people poured into the area. The small community building served a seemingly endless supply of scrambled eggs, sausage and, of course, all-you-can-eat blueberry pancakes. Maple syrup is available, but most opt for the pitchers of thick hot blueberry compote. A variety of entertainers used the small stage on the building's north end. The Deep Fried Pickle Project - a duo-sometimes-turned-trio - generated no small number of smiles with their music and chatter that would have fit right in on the old "Hee Haw" TV show. They entertained with instruments such as a handmade "panjo-le-le," an old suitcase serving as a bass drum and a wash board outfitted with bells, horns, cans and other assorted noise makers.

Outside, the entire parking area and several acres of grounds were covered with tents hosted by vendors of homemade art, wildlife photos, T-shirts and food. Among my favorites were a jewelry artist who made pendants and other items from Petoskey stones - a local fossil found in Michigan, and a couple and their daughter who made floral arrangements from maple twigs.

To be honest, I wasn't expecting much from this small out-of-the-way community. But this now 30-year festival was well-organized and a lot of fun. Rather than the haphazard arrangement of booths and presentations at so many such events, all of the bright white modern tents were the same size and carefully positioned. In the evening, horse-drawn carriages took festival goers up and down the street. I heard several of the vendors say it was the best festival they attend.

Art's second cousin Arden and her husband Bob had come for many years before her death four years ago. But Bob, now in his early 80s, still comes, and stepson Mark was with him. Art hadn't told Bob we were coming, so he was surprised when we met at the motel.

Bob said he wasn't sure what he looked forward to more - the breakfast or the pasty lunch available at the Methodist Church across the street from the community center. He put away 12 pancakes before opting for the huge pasty - a large turnover originating in Cornwall, Britain. It has a flaky pastry crust and a filling of meat, potatoes and vegetables.

Martha, Art's second cousin once removed, and her hubby Stan had driven up from Lower Michigan and joined us at the church. Stan bought one of the homemade blueberry pies and we all did our part putting it away. The congregation members had baked 187 pies for the event. One woman mixed the fillings and others helped with mixing and rolling out the crust dough. Each pie had a pastry letter or letters on it - R for rhubarb, S for strawberry, P for peach and of course, the most popular - B for blueberry.

To be commercially important, the bushes must be prolific. Sandy acidic soil is a must and the needles falling from evergreens provide that. But the plant needs a shock of some type. After the forests had been logged in the 1930s, blueberry bushes appeared. Locals burned the tops to provide the shock and the root system then regenerated the bush with an abundance of berries. But after World War II, conservation efforts suppressed these burns and production dropped. Commercial production is now located in Lower Michigan with growers shocking the plant by either burning or cutting. The small wild berries are collected with what is called a rake. The tines slip through the bush and pull the berries free, allowing them to fall into the holding area below the tines.

Another reason to visit Paradise is Brown's Fish House. A small place on the northern edge of the village, it has received raves on many websites. It has the feel of a hometown fast-food place, but the whitefish fresh from Lake Superior and the warm hospitality of its owner and his employees make it special. On Thursday evening, there was a line out the door. As people finished and left, their most common comment was, "It's worth the wait!" And it definitely was!

But even with a great festival and mouth-watering fish place, very few people would have ever heard of Whitefish Point except for one event. On Nov. 10, 1975, the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald sank a few miles northeast of the point during one of Lake Superior's legendary late-year storms. The event made headlines, but would have slipped quickly into obscurity were it not for Canadian singer Gordon Lightfoot's popular ballad about the ship. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at the lighthouse pays tribute to the Fitzgerald and the many other ships that have fallen victim to the big lake.

The museum is worth a trip. And Brown's is not to be missed. But anyone in the area the third weekend in August will find the blueberry festival great fun. Reservations are a good idea. Art decided in mid-July to surprise me and got lucky when the Vagabond had a cancellation.

So now I can say I have experienced the glory of Paradise!

Left: Art in Packers' sweatshirt chatting at the breakfast in the Community Center with a couple from central Michigan; middle: Art and I trying out the free Blueberry Festival picture cutouts; right: Whitefish Point shore with Art in the distance.

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