Couple Lives Off The Grid In The Woods Near Lake Superior

Categories: Life Stories

This was always Ojibwa land, long before the settlers came. One day John Jungwirth heard of a tribal ceremony taking place nearby. He wandered over to watch.

It wound up changing his life.

He was fascinated by their lore and their history, and he marveled at their ability to live off the land.

"I just fell in love with this," John Jungwirth said. "I was like, 'Oh my God, this is real culture. This is like a direct oral history all the way to the Stone Age,' and that's really exciting to me, that kind of mindset that really helps with my whole picture of living the kind of life I like."

The Ojibwa elders admired the austere lifestyle of this cheerful white hippie who suddenly appeared in the woods, living like their ancestors did.

"They would always say, 'Boy, you're more Indian than any of us,' " John Jungwirth said.

They taught him how to conduct himself in the lodge, how to take care of the sacred fire, how they believed the stones and waterfalls were alive. The couple would supply them with herbs and natural medicine for various health ailments.

"It was kind of like, 'When in Rome, do what the Romans do,'" John Jungwirth said. "They were the Romans. That's what we did, so our kids got to grow up hanging out with all those folks. I'm not trying to be an Indian or nothing, but how they lived and those kinds of beliefs, and just the way they look at the world, you can really learn a lot."

Authentic canoes

He learned woodworking from his grandpa and about canoes from the Cub Scouts, and tried building his first Indian-style canoe as a teenager.

"After making a few parts, I realized that I was way in over my head, man," he said. "This is a big deal. This is the biggest skill there is on Earth to try to make one of these things."

The boats he and his wife make are narrow bottomed with flaring sides, and they come to a point in front that marks their identity as Lake Superior Ojibwa. The couple strive to be as authentic as possible.

"The end of the boat tells you what band of Indians you're from," John Jungwirth said. "That's kind of a billboard. So when the boat's coming across the water and you step out of your lodge and look, it's either, "Ma, put the kettle on or get the shotgun.' Without that, you don't know if you're at war or if it's Uncle Louie."

As with their cabin, they make the canoes with nothing but hand tools and what they find in the woods around them. They use cedar for the ribs, spruce roots for the lashings, and pitch mixed with charcoal powder and bear fat to keep out the water. He does the woodwork. She does the stitching.

They might make a few thousand dollars from each. And they make only one or two a year.

They also make smaller models that people in the city buy to decorate their fireplace mantles or store in display cases, like modern artifacts of a lost way of life. Those don't bring in a lot of income, either.

But they don't need much money to live the way they want.

What they don't hunt, trap or grow they get by trading with others also living up here in the wild, like vegetables that won't grow in their garden or fat to render for cooking. Victoria Jungwirth sells wilderness herbs to residents who use them when they get sick. And a few other odd jobs get them by.

"Instead of paying a utility bill, we get our own water and our own fuel," John Jungwirth said. "All of those things you just take care of yourself. And then we can be rich without having to deal with the money part of it."

Lights at night

The winter sun came faintly in the window after being filtered through the pines outside.

Victoria Jungwirth sat on the fur-wrapped cushions on the floor in the sunshine, lashing the gunnels onto a little boat they were commissioned to make. A wood-fed stove filled the cabin with heat. The two sat in silence, broken only when they spoke.

All around them were signs that the modern world was slowly intruding.

Some ways are by choice. They installed a solar panel alongside the creek out back, which generates just enough power to run a radio for news, charge a phone for their business or light a bulb for reading. Sometimes they'll even watch DVDs on a small monitor.

"I got 30 years of missing out on the culture," John Jungwirth said, laughing. "So this is a way of catching up."

They finally got someone to make and maintain awebsite for their canoe business, allowing people to contact them other than by word-of-mouth. It's still not very easy.

"We live in the bush without modern conveniences," their website notes. "We go into town every week and can write a good letter. E-mail is beyond our reach. Please be patient with communications."

Other ways are against their will. Lately, they see a glow on the horizon at night, spoiling the ink-black sky that showed all the stars.

Last year, a new nickel and copper mine opened on the sight of an old mill. Where once they saw and heard nothing, now they have bright lights, loud noise and a lot of heavy machinery.

And Marquette County is pushing to create a new road through the woods for all the trucks coming out of there.

"We can see the lights at night in a place that never had electricity," John Jungwirth said.

They can do little about it. This is home and they're not moving. Nothing's stopping that mine. And that road's probably coming.

But one good thing has come of it, they say. It has made them savor even more the life of solitude they still have and worked so hard to get. And not a single day goes by where they don't appreciate it.

"Every morning, the first time you go outside, I just stand there and try to soak it up so I don't forget that whole feeling of peacefulness, 'cause if there is any commodity on Earth that there's getting less of, that's going to be it," he said. "You can't buy it. You earn it by living in a place nobody wants to live."

During the warmer months, the Jungwirths' build full-size canoes with hand tools and what they find in the woods around them. (Photo: Ishpeming Birchbark Canoes)

During the warmer months, the Jungwirths' build full-size canoes with hand tools and what they find in the woods around them. (Photo: Ishpeming Birchbark Canoes)

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