Life by the Clang Of a Harbor Buoy

Beneath the dimming stars Of Michigan's copper country - a letter from Eagle Harbor

EVEN on the clearest night, with Lake Superior's shoreline stretching away in the dark, the Milky Way doesn't match its brilliance of 20 years ago. Is it a trick of memory, the result of air pollution, or is Eagle Harbor, Mich., somehow becoming part of the modern world? Eagle Harbor's embrace is generous. The red-and-white brick lighthouse on the west point of the harbor entrance was built at the peak of Michigan's copper rush in 1871. On the east point stands the long-defunct US Coast Guard station, a sort of large whitewashed garage with forlorn races sloping into the water.

The hot topic here is the recent scuttling of the Coast Guard cutter USS Mesquite, which ran aground last fall. By winter's end she was deemed unsalvageable; reports surrounding her demise run the gamut from bad weather to criminal negligence.

The incident has reminded many of a summer in the late '60s, when the whole town rallied against a Coast Guard plan to shut down the lighthouse foghorn.

As a compromise the Coast Guard put in a floating bell buoy outside the harbor channel.

It was the USS Mesquite that delivered that new green buoy the next spring, her first Lake Superior commission after a decade working in Lake St. Clair. Day and night, the buoy's ``pie-plates'' clang through the fog. And now the Mesquite is Lake Superior's latest deep-water diving attraction.

The town of Eagle Harbor is a cluster of clapboard homes and bungalows, two cabin-style motels, a gas station (with a soda fountain and a rack of used paperbacks that cost a quarter apiece), and a public beach. The town proper has a year-round population of 13, but swells to about 1,000 at the peak of summer.

The only general store closed for good several years ago. There's no post office, no cinema, and only one restaurant worthy of the name. The nearest traffic signal is more than 35 miles down US 41 in Houghton, home to Michigan Technological University.

Yet, despite its small size and remoteness, the town can't escape grappling with the same challenges that confront humanity at large.

When they're not tsk-tsk-ing over the fate of the Mesquite, Eagle Harbor natives are trying to figure out what to do with their household trash. The town dump - part landfill and part controlled burn, one of about 40 such in the Upper Peninsula - was shut down Aug. 13 by Michigan's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as part of a statewide campaign to protect local groundwater supplies.

Fred Kellow, fire chief of Eagle Harbor and member of the Keweenaw County Planning Board, has participated in meetings on the question. He says a solution means hard work, a few compromises, and certainly new fees or taxes.

``There's no way to satisfy everyone. Someone asked, `Why don't we have recycling?' I told them, `Let's get the basic system set up first; then maybe next year we can find markets for glass and aluminum and so forth.' But right now we're under the gun from the state.''

For now, the town has signed a short-term contract with a private hauler who will take the trash to a licensed landfill.

Mr. Kellow and his neighbors believe in preserving the environment, and this seems less a controversy than a conundrum - a puzzle requiring the cooperation of every property owner.

Maybe the stars are dimming.

And maybe closing dumps - and other uncomfortable adjustments to this northern lifestyle - will bring them back.

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