Mount Kallio hike provides memories

JOHN PEPIN

“Such pretty colors I am told, there for all to see, but falling leaves of red and gold have autumn blue to me.” — Bobby Goldsboro

I recall it was a spring day, a Sunday morning, an occasion when the skies were mottled bright and blue and gray, but where the brisk north winds — still stubbornly upset about the demise of wintertime — had done their best to do their worst to overshadow the warmth of the sun.

I pulled my jean jacket on over my shoulders. It was the one I bought in Arizona with the leather collar and the warm sheepskin lining that bore a Navajo pattern. It’s one of my favorites

Meanwhile, in contrast, the landscape was dressed in late spring drab. Busted or sagging branches pushed down by the winter snows hung low to the black and gray rocks on the ground.

The green and golden grasses of summertime were bent and flattened, lying down across the earth in various shades of beiges and browns. Some of the poplar trees had begun to sprout leaves, but the growth was still too young to obscure a clear view of the bluff that sat like one big raindrop on the flat horizon.

This was Mount Kallio in Baraga County, situated about 2 miles outside Watton, near the winding Perch River and not far from the majesty of the Sturgeon River Gorge. We were set to climb its heights on this early spring day.

We were on a mission of historic import, looking for — of all things — a place in the rocks where stateside German prisoners of war were said to have carved their names during their internment here during World War II, among the forests and the friendly, mainly Finnish, folks of Sidnaw.

In my company that day was my filmmaking partner, Jackie Chandonnet a talented broadcaster who was well known to her fans of the 6 o’clock television news. She wore a blue fleece pullover jacket I’d had in the truck and a headset to hear the natural sounds and conversation we would be picking up.

Our guide and interview subject that day was Robert Godell, an 81-year-old local man who had helped supervise the prisoners as they cut balsam, spruce and hemlock during their captivity in Upper Michigan.

The pulpwood would be brought to area mills and used to combat a wartime paper shortage. Godell was the youngest of 11 children. He had been born a seventh son on a perfect autumn day in October 1921.

Throughout his life he would work on his family farm, in the logging trade, and later, with a new telephone company being established in the area.

On the banks of the roaring Sturgeon River’s blue waters, we filmed as he told us how prisoners who had cut their quota of 80 sticks of pulpwood per day would then have time to relax.

Godell told us he had offered one German prisoner some fishing lures and some line so he could catch fish from the river, which the POWs then had their American captors cook up for them back at the camp.

Our growing knowledge about the POWs was something we were piecing together from the memories and photographs of locals who had been there. The POW internment lasted 26 months in the days when the weary, war-torn world seemed like it might tear apart at any moment.

In hopes Hitler’s Nazis would reciprocate and treat captive allied prisoners well, the Germans interned here in the north woods were treated kindly by the U.S. Army limited service personnel who guarded them at the camp, the local woodsmen who supervised their work in the woods and the local townspeople.

Godell told us there was some bad feeling toward the prisoners in the beginning. They had arrived on special passenger trains in February 1944.

“There was always some that, that’s the enemy that’s in our midst,” Godell said.

The young German conscripts and captives of Erwin Rommell’s Afrika Korps looked very much like the blonde-haired and blue-eyed local Finns. For most, these sentiments of suspicion would diminish as time went on and the Germans became familiar fixtures in the local area.

So almost six decades later, up Mount Kallio the three of us climbed, with the octogenarian leading us on like a young mountain goat. We stopped a few times along the way to film.

Reaching the summit, we looked all around for the POW inscriptions, but didn’t find them. Instead, we found an incredible peace looking out over the countryside that rolled out in front of us for miles.

We sat quietly taking in the scenery.

The only sounds were the birds and the breeze.

Godell pointed to stands of regenerated trees off in the distance. He told us this is where he had worked with the POWs in the woods. He said he hadn’t been back here since those days.

“One of my favorite memories is the day we hiked up Mount Kallio with Bob Godell,” Jackie would later say. “Mr. Godell is a gem. It was a fun trip, a beautiful view and an emotional day. His interview at the top of the bluff was heartfelt and his warm character shone throughout the film.”

He was different than all the others we interviewed for our documentary on the U.P. prison camps, but he was just the same too.

These people were born out of a different era, one where the hard knocks of the Great Depression had taught them humility, kindness and a caring for others that seemed to come as second nature.

They also had learned the power of befriending strangers, how to surmount prejudices and to hold their heads high with grace.

Whether it was the wife of the prison camp commander, the former school teacher who remembered prisoners harmonizing in German as they rode in trucks back to the prison camp or Godell’s friend, Ray Maki, a real card and gifted storyteller who had also worked in the woods with the POWs, they all presented a profound dignity and intrinsic, but understated, pride as they told us their stories.

These were all decent people at the dirt and roots level, something that seems harder and harder to find these days. Once our film was finished in 2004, I found I missed these people terribly.

So today, some 16 years since that hike up Mount Kallio, Robert Godell remains like all the others we came to know and love, and he remains set apart too.

Like the rest, I will never forget the special moments we shared capturing Godell’s stories and seeing his delight as he understood those memories would remain captured for posterity.

Fortunately, I can see Mr. Godell and the others talk and laugh any time I’d like. Because sadly, like autumn leaves tumbling softly from the tree of life, they have all fallen, one by one.

On March 19, at age 97, Robert Godell followed them, the last of the original core group of storytellers we met. I tip my hat and bow my head to the man. He demonstrated for us what it means to be a human, human being.

I will certainly miss him. Regrettably, the coffee and talk we planned to have one day at his kitchen table will now certainly have to wait.

I know I’ll sense his presence anytime I’m walking or fishing along the rocky shoreline of the Sturgeon River, or maybe I’ll sit quietly atop Mount Kallio again. I know he’d be there among the soft breezes, the pretty green leaves of the “popple” trees and the endless skies.

Strangely, this morning, as in many similar times in the past, it strikes me how after we lose friends and loved ones in our lives, the world goes on effortlessly.

The sun came up again today. I heard my first robin song of the young spring, while the sound of woodpeckers drumming echoed into the hardwoods and I watched a mink bob up and down as it ran along the ground.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, one day, someday, all of us.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.