A few years ago, when I lived in Grand Marais, Michigan, I was fortunate enough to get to know Jim Harrison a little bit. He owned property there and would come and write out in his log cabin in the woods. It was situated on a beautiful bend on the nearby Sucker River. He would isolate himself out there and work on a book. Often, after 10 pm, he would come into the Dunes Saloon, also known as the Lake Superior Brewing Company, and have a few drinks after a long day of writing. His publisher had been instructed by Jim to call and leave messages at the Dunes and he would call them back after ten.
I was introduced to him by the bartender there, Dave Beckwith. I lived in Grand Marais for 10 years and had many opportunities to spend some time with Jim. We rarely talked about writing. I always figured that when he was there, he wanted to get away from the writing for a bit. So, we talked about other things such as hunting and fishing and make no mistake, Jim Harrison was a foodie.
He often talked about things he’d had in different places. When he came to Grand Marais, he would always stop off at this little place on M-28 called Rashid’s Market. He said they had the best prosciutto he could find. Rashid’s went out of business a few years ago and is now another unused building along the highway.
My wife and I would have a party every year on our anniversary which is also the summer solstice. We would invite everyone and the party would last for several days. Kegs would be brought in from the Lake Superior Brewing Company, the fire pit would be going and Mary, my wife would cook obscene amounts of food. Seemed like half the town was there. It was very cool.
Jim would stop by and kick back with all of us. I don’t know what species it was, but we had this really fine soft grass in the yard. After a while and we would look over and Jim would be crashed out in the grass. He remarked to me how soft and nice it was to lay down in it and he’d never seen or felt grass like that. It was fun to have him there, but for most of us we saw him as a regular neighbor.
We all knew who Jim was, and plenty of folks would show up at the Dunes Saloon hoping for a “Jim” sighting. It was no secret that he might turn up in Grand Marais and people came looking. I was once mistaken for Jim, not sure why to this day, but the guy would not believe I wasn’t him. Someone also insisted that I was a character in a couple of Jim’s stories called “Brown Dog.” He wouldn’t believe me when I told him no either.
Jim also liked being around the females. They would often cluster around his table and sit and drink with him. We used to call it “holding court.” He would be smiling with three or four ladies next to him cocktailing the night away. Never saw him leave with one though.
In Grand Marais, the tourist season gets so busy that everyone works, even the kids. My wife Mary caught Jim checking out our daughter who had just got a job bussing at the Dunes Saloon. She chastised him a bit informing him that was our daughter. He looked surprised and said “That’s Mikel’s daughter?” He came over to me and apologized and I looked at him and said, “Keep this in mind, she’s only 14 and this is neither Kentucky or France.” He laughed. Jim was always good natured about things.
Jim would often come to town during the fall. He loved to bird hunt and would bring his dogs. Accompanied by friends and relatives they would all spend a few days chasing down partridges aka ruffed grouse. Tourism had slowed this time of year and a pleasant, relaxed time could be had.
One day Jim approached me to take a few pictures of him. He disliked the author picture on most of his books. You know the ones, where he’s looking contemplatively out a window. We made arrangements to meet him downtown Grand Marais, the next day. I get downtown outside the Sportsman’s Bar and after a bit Jim shows up driving an old beat up truck that he had borrowed from one of the locals named Lance. Jim also has someone with him.
He gets out and introduces me to his companion who happens to be an editor of a French magazine who was doing an article on Jim. Jim Harrison is apparently really popular in France. The editor and I shake hands and jim says “We’ve been drinking wine all night. I’m really hung over, we need to do this quick.” So Jim heads for the truck and leans against it, smoking, wearing his ever present off faded pink shirt. The wind picks up a little tossing his sparse hair around.
I’m bent over my camera shooting pictures when I realize that the French editor is shooting me shooting Jim. Yes, splashed all over France is my derriere in a magazine. I didn’t shoot very long since I knew Jim was impatient. The pictures on this page are from that shoot.
A couple of days later I went out to his cabin on the river bend. It was an old log cabin with a thick coat of varnish on it. He let me inside and the interior was fantastic. There was a river stone fireplace with dark walls stained from age and nicotine. This was where he created his magic, his wordsmith shop. I showed him the shots I’d taken and gave him the envelope with the prints. On the table were several yellow paper legal size pads where he created his stories. There was an energy there you could feel, like a thick fog.
Jim eventually sold his property in Grand Marais. The little town was becoming “discovered.” Soon the tourists began to overwhelm the place no matter what the time of year. I remember Jim coming into the Dunes Saloon, which was quite busy at the time, loudly saying “Get all of these fucking people out of my bar.” He ended up finding a quiet table in the back and cocktailed there.
Jim came less and less to Grand Marais and then he simply stopped coming. When the cabin sold it was final. I never saw him again. Then he passed. It is one of my regrets.
For more information on Jim Harrison follow these links: Jim Harrison – Wikipedia
Photos of Jim Harrison by Mikel B. Classen. Copyright by Mikel B. Classen.