I Knew Chelsea Manning in Basic Combat Training. Here’s the Story You Haven’t Heard.

January 2017 – as one of his final acts in office, President Obama commuted the 35-year prison sentence of Chelsea Manning down to just four years with a scheduled release date of 17 May 2017. For supporters, it must have been an unbelievable victory, and for her critics, an outrage. For those that have known her, there’s an added dimension of anecdotes, personal interactions, and concrete memories of her conduct, all of which color the quality of that commutation.

She is a hero to some, a traitor to others. Either she was an idealistic do-gooder who was intent on revealing state-sponsored human rights violations while exposing the darkest corners of the U.S. Government, or she was a coward suffering delusions of grandeur who invented enemies to blame, lashed out at her own country, and revealed nothing but her own self-sponsored narcissism. Which one is accurate? Let me tell you a story.

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In the Manning saga, the debate has always been over her state of mind leading up to and during the theft and dissemination of that classified information. There is no debate regarding the basic facts of what she did and what was done with her. During her 2009-2010 deployment to Iraq, she stole diplomatic cables, daily intelligence reports, and combat footage; she fed that information to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, then separately admitted to as much to a grey-hat hacker named Adrian Lamo, who in-turn contacted U.S. Army Counterintelligence.

She was convicted in 2013 on 17 original charges and four more amended charges, including violating the Espionage Act, for her role in illegally disclosing over 700,000 pages of classified documents. To date, Manning has been tried, convicted, imprisoned, and as of yesterday, scheduled for release.

As such, Manning has been a specter in the background of the Obama presidency and a central figure in national debates about everything from Iraq War policy, to the security practices of the Intelligence Community, to the weaponization of information, all the way to conversations about how the LGBTQ community is treated both in and outside the military. Likely few-to-none would have predicted such an unassuming person would be at the center of so much controversy. That is, unless you met her when she first joined the Army and she started down a trajectory toward infamy. In hindsight, maybe it was obvious.

Chelsea Manning and I enlisted in the U.S. Army during the Surge in the fall of 2007 and attended the same U.S. Army Basic Combat Training (BCT) at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. As new recruits, we were assigned to Charlie Company, 82d Chemical Battalion, 3d Chemical Brigade. Training began 12 OCT and for me, it ended 14 DEC. For Manning, however, graduation from Charlie Company never came. Her problems began the moment she arrived on station.

During Reception and Integration, Drill Sergeants conducted what is known as “the Shark Attack”: the company’s entire Drill Sergeant cadre descends on a busload of new recruits to welcome them to their home for the next nine weeks. It is intense and it is intentionally disorienting. If the recruit displays any emotion, non-verbal reaction, or any appearance of weakness, they will immediately receive the unrelenting attention of the Cadre. They probe for mental weakness and emotional triggers, assessing who will likely need the most shaping, molding, and mentoring. To ensure sufficient stress during this event, our Cadre’s Shark Attack was enabled by a simple instruction: hold your duffel bag in front of your face. Do not let it drop below your eyes.

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Private Manning, C Co, 82nd

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Private Manning during the “Shark Attack”

Every recruit had the same packing list with the same items in that green duffel bag. They all weighed the same amount. Whether you were 6’4” or 5’4”, male or female, all recruits had to carry their own weight. Understand, that no one breezes through this exercise – everybody hurts, everyone drops their bag at least once, and everyone pays the price for it, including myself. During this exercise, Manning’s problem wasn’t that she was too small or not strong enough. The problem was, she quit. As the rest of the platoon faced one way, gritting their teeth and baring it, whispering words of encouragement to each other, she stood at an about-face the opposite direction, and said she simply could not pick up her own bag.

After the first day, lights came on promptly at 04:20AM every morning, accompanied by the booming voice of a Drill Sergeant blasting through the intercom system, announcing the uniform of the day. By 04:30 we were expected to have bunks made, personal hygiene conducted (clean shaven, teeth brushed, pit stick applied, etc.), wall lockers secured, and already be outside, in formation, waiting for the Drill Sergeants to initiate Accountability Report and then Physical Training (PT).

No one could accomplish all of those tasks in ten minutes. Therefore as a matter of custom everyone woke up at 04:00AM and silently conducted their business in the dark. At 04:20 when the uniform of the day was put out, half the company would be conducting personal hygiene in the latrine area where the intercom system was too faint to hear. Everyone knew that if you heard the uniform of the day, you repeated it to everyone you saw – you shouted it out. It was a team effort to achieve uniformity, because if even one person was in the wrong uniform, then the entire group was at fault. Faulty uniforms meant poor communication; poor communication indicated a lack of discipline. Undisciplined Soldiers are like nails sticking up from a wooden board: they must be hammered down.

One morning at formation there was an audible rumble on the other side of the PT pad in Manning’s direction virtually as the Drill Sergeants were walking up and long after anyone should have even been whispering. What was going on? According to most, the general story went: Manning called out the uniform of the day, waited until her squad was dressed and had moved out to the morning formation, when she then put on the real, correct uniform of the day and ran to catch up. The commotion at the formation was her saying that she heard at the last minute what the real uniform was and it wasn’t her fault they were wrong; the rest of the team apparently was having none of it.

In the Army, if everyone is wrong together, then they’re still right; uniformity is one of the highest virtues in our military. If one person is technically “right” but the rest of the team is uniformly wrong, then the technically “right” person is still wrong; everyone is still punished equally. By week two everybody knew that, lived it and lived with it. Everyone, except Manning.

For the trainees of Charlie 82d, the sound of Chelsea Manning’s voice may forever elicit the two words so commonly overheard from her during her six weeks: “I can’t.” In our comparison of memories over the years, fellow recruits in C Co. have confirmed for me: when the going got tough, Chelsea said, “I can’t.” jerry-can-run The first time I heard her say it, it was during Jerry Can training.

A common physical exercise used by the Drill Sergeants during the first three weeks of training to correct a deficiency was aerobic and anaerobic work while holding a five-gallon Jerry Can of water. Pushups. Sit-ups. Overhead military presses and squats. Any exercise you could do with body weight, we did with 5-Gallon jugs of water. If a recruit thought no one would notice and emptied out their jug to lighten their load, then the Cadre would order another recruit to carry two jugs. Selfish acts which caused others to suffer were dealt with swiftly within the platoons.

A typical exercise sequence bear-hugging the Jerry Cans always started slowly, but rapidly escalated:

“Run in place. Now on your face. Now roll on your back. Stand up. Faster.”

“Move like your hair is  on fire, and the only way to put it out is go faster!”

“Run in place, on your face, on your back, Faster!”

“Runinplace,onyourface,onyourback. Faster!”

I remember Manning during one of these exercises, because she was struggling. We had to hold the Jerry Can over our heads, arms fully extended and locked at the elbows while we did squats, in cadence, counting from 1 to 10. If we made it to ten, the exercise was over. However, if a recruit got out of sequence and stood when s/he should have been squatting, we started over at 1. If a recruit dropped the can, we started over at 1. If we didn’t all count together, we started over at 1. Manning couldn’t hold the can and do the exercise, but the truth was, nobody could. The purpose never was to really to get to 10. It was to inoculate you to stress and to teach you to never quit, no matter how much it hurt or how hopeless even the simplest group-task had become.

When the Drill Sergeants finally reduced the goal to a 5 count, and then 3, and then to a 1-count held for just 10 seconds by everyone in unison, they let us stop. That is, everyone who had tried their hardest. A handful needed additional motivation and had to keep going. The Drill Sergeants, as intense yet consummate professionals, circled around Manning and matter-of-factly laid out the task, “get it over your head now!” It was the rest of the recruits in the group who saw this and told Manning, “C’mon, don’t quit. You’ve got this. C’mon Manning, you can do it.” And then, in that most Soldierly of acts, a handful said “Here, we’ll do it with you. We’ll do it together.” Her immediate battle buddies picked up their jugs and stood around her, doing more of the exercise, trying to coordinate with and motivate her. I remember watching with the rest of the group. She never made eye contact with any of them. There was no connection to the people trying to help her. Instead, I saw her face turned scarlet, sweat pouring off her face, grimacing. And through grit teeth, she moaned in agony, “I can’t,” and she dropped her Jerry Can.

The sheer amount of physical work we did every day meant chow time was sacred. We had to march in lock step into the Dining Facility, secure our trays, keep head and eyes straight forward, elbows locked to the rear and backs straight. We had to keep communication with the kitchen serving staff short, crisp, and quiet, then move out to our tables. The Drill Sergeants waited for every chair at the table benches to have a recruit behind it, all still standing at attention, head and eyes straight forward, holding our trays exactly at chest level before they gave the commands:

set down—TRAYS
“You have two minutes and forty-five seconds. Eat!”

We ate with spoons because forks and knifes took too long. We only picked food that didn’t require chewing anyway. We were entirely silent; no one would dream of talking at moments like that, and besides, we were all too hungry.

“Two minutes and fifteen seconds remaining,” the Drill Sergeants would call out across the building. We swallowed every mouthful with a swig of water so it would go down faster. We knew we’d be near throwing it up in less than 30 minutes, but for that – “one minute and fifteen seconds remaining –” that we still had food, we were happy to eat anything. Our meals were taken at only that Dining Facility, or in the field. Any food taken, consumed, or even found anywhere outside the Dining Facility was considered contraband and would be punished under Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Chow time was sacred.

At 10 seconds, the Drill Sergeant would start the countdown. God help you if you were still chewing when the count ran out.

“3. 2. 1. You’re done. You’re done! Spit it out! SPIT IT OUT. YOU ARE DONE WHEN I SAY YOU’RE DONE, DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME.” Everyone understood – Drill Sergeants are not to be messed with. Their rules are laws. You do not cross them, you do not question them, you do not deviate in any way from the norms and behaviors they established way back on day one. Everyone knows that.

Except Manning.

After five weeks of this same lock-step script at the Dining Facility, rehearsed the exact same way three times a day, a commotion in the middle of the facility broke everyone away from their food. Manning was standing up, away from her seat, in the middle of an aisle. What the …

Red in the face, coughing and gasping and holding her throat with one hand, Manning gurgled out, “Drill Sergeant, I’m choking. I’m choking, Drill Sergeant. I can’t breathe, I can’t – ” when she reached out a hand, and physically placed that hand on the Drill Sergeant’s forearm.

The earth might as well have split open; a private made physical contact with a Drill Sergeant. Intentionally. In one ferocious movement and a grip of steel, the Drill sergeant threw Manning’s hand from off his arm and barked,

“Private get your hand OFF ME or I will RIP your arms out of theirs sockets and I will beat you to DEATH with them. Now SIT DOWN and SHUT UP!”

Manning stopped choking instantly. She put her arms down at her sides, turned away and said, “Drill Sergeant, yes Drill Sergeant, it won’t happen again.” She sat back down, and finished eating.

The last time I saw Manning in person, it was in the Field during a training exercise. I remember that exercise because nearby there was a hold-over recruit from a previous BCT class who had failed his final Army Physical Fitness Test and was always around. He never quite trained with us, but he always in the field with us wherever we went. He thought he knew the answer to everything, and he thought he was somehow in charge because he had been in the Army nine weeks longer than the rest of us. But what stood out the most about him was that he always had candy.

Candy was like food, only worse. It was not allowed to be purchased or kept, consumed – it could not even be mailed in a care package unless there was enough for every member of the platoon to have some (I’ll never forget when Private Pletz’s mother sent 42 Butterfinger candy bars in the mail just so her son could have one). Still, everyone knew that the holdover somehow had contraband packages of Snickers Bars and M&Ms all the time. During my basic training cycle, he came under investigation for allegedly offering to exchange packages of candy for sexual favors from the female recruits. His days were numbered, and everybody knew to steer clear of him. That is, everyone but …

At the end of the field exercise, that holdover was walking up to groups of us, offering to sell us candy for $20 a package. We all knew to keep our distance from him – he was untrustworthy, he was in trouble, and he was only going to get you in trouble too if you associated with him. And yet, Chelsea Manning bought a package of M&Ms from him for $20. I remember that scene, because Manning was not quiet about it. She was practically bragging out loud that she had contraband candy. At six weeks into basic training, it just wasn’t worth it, and yet that scene has stayed with me all these years, because for Manning, it somehow was worth it. Maybe by then, she thought she had nothing else to lose.

That was the last time I saw Chelsea Manning in person, in Basic Combat Training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. I graduated in December and moved on to Advanced Individual Training (AIT) for Mandarin Chinese in California. In 2013, I met a Senior, fellow Chinese Linguist at language training class at Fort Bragg, NC who told me he had known Manning in 2008 while they were both at Fort Huachuca, AZ for training. In that same Chinese language class, I spoke to another Senior linguist who told me he had met Manning in 2009 in Iraq as he was rotating out of the country, and Manning’s unit was rotating in.

I don’t know what it means that you can trace half of Manning’s career in the Army based on which Chinese Linguist was closest to her at the time, but I do know that she’s in the background of nearly every career of every U.S. Army intelligence analyst active in the last decade. Her actions changed fundamental practices in the DoD. Manning altered not only the way we think about information security, authentication and confidentiality, but also about the grave damage posed by the insider threat.

The final point which need be made is not about whether the punishment fit the crime, about whether Chelsea Manning’s actions were justified, or whether the leaks endangered lives or saved civil liberties. Those are important, heady issues, but they’ve also been rehearsed and rehashed, debated, plotted, and picketed many times-over since 2010. Instead, the final point which need be made is about the environment in which Chelsea Manning grew up in the military.

Its relevant that someone finally speak on the composition of Basic Training classes, Charlie 82d itself and more generally, the Army at large. That characterization is relevant for understanding Manning’s state of mind leading up to and during the theft and leaking of classified national intelligence, and in-turn helps to interpret Manning’s legacy.

Charlie 82d was a non-infantry, Basic Combat Training class composed much the same as all BCT classes, and the same way the Army as a whole is composed: by everybody, and every body-type; every ethnic background, religion, personality, and yes every sexual orientation all filling the ranks. Those variables were distributed across a bell curve of aptitudes, education levels, socio-economic status’ and geographic hometowns. In 2007, the U.S. Army was habitually failing to meet its monthly recruiting goals; the application standards relaxed and a great cross-section of humanity ended up reporting for duty that warm October at Fort Leonard Wood.

In the company, there was a 17-year-old who had enlisted with a waiver, and there was: a 42-year-old mother of three who was terrified of needles; a new grandmother to a brand-new infant granddaughter; and a former coffee distributor in South America in his mid-thirties who everyone still called “Grandpa.” One recruit ironically named “Goesforth” went AWOL within 48 hours of arrival, deserted the military, and was never seen again. One recruit in fourth platoon had been homeless before he joined, and another had blown his entire first university semester’s tuition on OxyContin before he dropped out and enlisted. One recruit was a Mexican citizen who was willing to go to Iraq and fight for the United States in exchange for expedited citizenship. Another was a female with dual German/American citizenship who was so short, the German Army wouldn’t take her, so she joined up with the Americans instead.

Charlie 82d had dads in their mid-thirties, and it had dads not yet old enough to buy beer. My platoon had a single mom who had been working as a an exotic dancer before she raised her right hand and took the oath; another had married young, got divorced and wanted to get as far away from her Ex as possible; she figured the Middle East was probably far enough, but if he tried to find her there, he’d probably just get blown up by an IED – problem solved. Like the Army itself, the Basic Combat Training company into which Chelsea Manning entered had on-hand and present for duty the living, breathing testimonies of virtually every story within the American experience.

Its relevant that you know the character of Charlie 82d, because meanwhile Chelsea Manning’s defense team and her supporters drew upon a very different picture of life in the military in order to bolster her defense. Their case for leniency began with establishing sympathy for someone who was purportedly picked on, harassed, and bullied throughout her service in the Military. In a 2011 video produced by the Guardian in which reporters interviewed friends of Manning, a fellow Soldier in the discharge unit with her at Fort Leonard Wood said:

“He was a runt. And by military standards and compared with everyone who was around there – he was a runt. By military standards, “he’s a runt so pick on him”, or “he’s crazy – pick on him”, or “he’s a faggot – pick on him.” The guy took it from every side. He couldn’t please anyone. And he tried. He really did.”

This is where we need to set the record straight, because if you buy the premise that Manning had a heart of gold but was perpetually picked on by bullies anyway, then it’s a foregone conclusion that she had to finally fightback when the time came to face the biggest bully of them all.

These are the facts: Chelsea Manning was timid and small, but she certainly wasn’t the only one. There were dozens of recruits – male and female – in the last cycle of Charlie 82d that autumn who were under 5’4” and couldn’t have weighed more than 140lbs. Some were physically uncoordinated and seemingly had never spent a day outdoors in their entire lives. Others were natural athletes with a killer instinct that always seemed to put them on top, no matter what the challenge. Some had nothing to prove, and some had everything to prove. It wasn’t size, or stature, or speed, or strength, or even the ability to finish all the events that decided how high a recruit could hold her head in the community. That is a fact.

What is not accurate is the false and felonious image of the U.S. military on which the defense of her conduct has been, at its root, predicated: that somehow everyone in her formative years in the military was practically part of a tribe of 6’2”, overly-aggressive Alpha males pumping testosterone out their pores who ganged up on the smallest in the group and tore her apart out of hyper-machismo intolerance; that War is so brutish and nasty, that Warriors too must be. That is simply not accurate.

Chelsea Manning wasn’t being picked on at the Shark Attack when the Drill Sergeants said she had to lift her own bag like everyone else, and she said she couldn’t. She wasn’t being picked on when those Soldiers tried to help motivate her to lift the Jerry Can over her head and even picked up their own and did the exercise again, with her, out of solidarity. And when she faked a choking fit in the middle of the Dining Facility, it wasn’t because someone else was tormenting her – she was tormenting herself.

Chelsea Manning was not picked on or harassed because of her gender or identity; she was not bullied because she was small or appeared easily overpowered or dominated. No, Chelsea Manning was ostracized. Because some unknown in her character prevented her from ever truly entering into that covenant of self-sacrifice upon which collective group defense depends, she could not ever satisfactorily contribute to the welfare of the group. In a social schema where the defense of the group becomes the perpetual rationale for why the group should even continue existing, Chelsea Manning either could not or would not sacrifice enough of herself to inspire loyalty among comrades.

Soldiers usually adopt these values in reaction to physical and emotional stressors, to the demands of group accountability, and to their dependency on the group for survival. For that reason, by the end of Basic Combat Training most grudges have been put aside, and any rivalries have abated; this happens exactly because Soldiers have by then learned those lessons in loyalty and self-sacrifice. Everybody learns those lessons.



You Can Now Buy a Humvee from the U.S. Government for $4K

Need a new vehicle? For the next few days, the United States Department of Defense will sell you a military Humvee for a real bargain. The surplus inventory needs to go, so they’re priced to move.

In fact, most surplus Humvees and trucks cost between $4,000-7,000 in an auction-style format. Even better? Most have extremely low mileage. As in, somewhere between 10,000-35,000 miles. A lot of them come from the 1990s.

 You can check out all the available inventory at That’s the official site sanctioned by the U.S. Government for selling military surplus. But you better get a move on.

So far, the site has moved about 3,800 military Humvees altogether. Fewer than 100 remain, and given their price, it won’t take long to move them all. And since they’re so cheap, feel free to search the surplus site for trailers and other goodies.

The Humvee in many ways embodies the U.S. military image. The nickname actually comes from the full name of the vehicles: High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle. Adapted from World War II-era Jeeps, Humvees first came into prevalence in the early 1980s.

These light tactical vehicles have been used by the U.S. Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and National Guard. Most vehicles were distributed by AM General or Oshkosh, and feature a v8 diesel engine and three-speed automatic transmission on a troop carrier body (sorry, machine guns are not included).

Before they were demilitarized, the Humvees were used both in the USA and in countries like Iraq. Now, these military vehicles are located in sites across the country, including California, Utah and Georgia. You’ll have to pay a little extra if you want your new vehicle shipped to your home.

Nowadays, the average cost of a fully-equipped military Humvee is over $220,000, which makes the one you’re about to drop a couple thousand on a real steal! Of course, modern military Humvees have a few more upgrades (and armor) than those available at surplus.



Good-bye to cabin life: U.S. government tells owners in U.P. to leave

OTTAWA NATIONAL FOREST — The cabin belongs to the mice now, and they make their nests at will.

In the past they never had enough time to get a good nest going. But the family that owned the cabin was recently forced out, and now the little piles of mouse shreddings grow without interruption in the rafters, and in the corner where the stove used to be, and along the wall where beds once were.

Armas Ojaniemi looked at the fluffy nests. The lifelong Yooper was standing inside Woodtick Camp, the name he gave his family’s cabin a quarter century ago, when they’d used a sled to haul timber down a high hill, a few boards at a time, and spent a whole summer working hard to build this little hideaway just yards from the Ontonagon River, deep into the woods, far from any town.

“It took a lot of work to get here,” said Armas in a thick Upper Peninsula accent. “Our uncle Willie, he had polio when he was a boy, and he was pretty crippled. He crawled up and down the hill to come help build it.”

To get to Woodtick Camp, you take a gravel road to a hidden trail. Then you need a four-wheeler or a snowmobile to take you a mile and a half into the woods. From there you have to hike 300 feet down a steep slope while holding an old rope tied from tree to tree to keep you from falling down the hill. Then, after a hike through the forest, you reach the cabin. If you didn’t know where it was, you’d never, ever find it.

For years, this was a second home for the 60-year-old logger. He even built a little sauna behind the cabin. “We’d come over here quite often,” he said. “My wife and I would come down and stay for a month or so, stay down here and enjoy the spring like right now, when the ice would go out.”

More from John Carlisle:

But those days are now over. Their cabin, which had been in their family for three decades, is no longer theirs. They’d already emptied it out. And soon they’d have to abandon it.

Since the 1950s, a local power company had leased little plots of land it owned to 155 locals for a few hundred bucks a year so they could build cabins along the Ontonagon River. Then, in 1992, the federal government acquired the land, and said the owners had to move their cabins or abandon them after their final 25-year leases expired. Any structures left after that deadline would be demolished, and the trails leading to them would be blocked and smothered.

Twenty-five years ended on New Year’s Day this year, and the extra 90 days the owners were given to clear out ended on the last day of March. Any day now, the cabins will be torn down or burned to the ground. The U.S. Forest Service now owns the land, which has been made part of the Ottawa National Forest, and the agency is against private property on public land.

The cabins, the Forest Service has said all along, have to go. This land, they have insisted, should be open to everyone, not just a few cabin owners. And even though everyone knew this day was coming, it doesn’t make leaving any easier for the handful who are left.

In the Upper Peninsula, a cabin is called a camp, a term that describes not so much a location but rather a lifestyle. It’s a place where the world is stripped for a while to its bare essentials — fresh water, hunted food, candles and flashlights, family and friends. Families pass them down through generations. They’re an integral part of U.P. living.

For the families who are losing these camps, this isn’t just the loss of property. It’s the end of a big part of their lives.

“It’s not right,” Armis said. “Just don’t seem right at all, you know, for all the time you put in here and stuff, to have to lose it. But that was somethin’ we were told at the beginnin’, but we said we’re still gonna do it, build a nice sauna and everythin’ and enjoy it for the 25 years that we got, and hopefully they’ll change their mind is what we all said.”

He stood in the cold, empty cabin, maybe for the last time.

“They didn’t change their mind.”

‘It’s just not right’

The Ontonagon River starts as several branches spread throughout the western U.P. that come together as one before flowing into Lake Superior. The river spawns several waterfalls and skirts dozens of lakes on its way. And it’s tainted a muddy brown because the red clay and sandstone beneath it stain the water.

For years, much of the forest around the river was owned by the Upper Peninsula Power Company, which serves two-thirds of the population of the U.P. and which bought the land in the early 1950s to build dams for generating hydroelectric power.

Since the company had no real use for the land on either side of the river itself, UPPCO leased scattered 1-acre parcels to local residents who couldn’t afford to buy their own property so they could build small cabins near the water, where there was good hunting, great fishing and beautiful scenery.

People built structures in all shapes and sizes, and gave them names like Bar None Lodge, Doe Haven, Altoon’s Alehouse, Da Troll Camp and Fuzzy’s No Road Condo. Most were bare-bones log cabins without power or running water. But they were solid camps that lasted for decades.

When all this happened, 25 years seemed like a long time away. Surely something could be worked out in that time, most owners figured.

Nothing changed, though.

As the deadline approached, efforts by local politicians to sway the Forest Service failed. A resolution was passed last year in the state Senate calling on the agency to grant exemptions to the families, partly based on the roughly $45,000 in total taxes and fees that cash-strapped local municipalities stood to lose from all of the camp owners each year, and partly based on the 15,570 single-family cabins currently permitted on National Forest System lands throughout the country under the Recreation Residence Program. Why not, they argued, add these mere 155 people to that number?

It didn’t work.

“It’s just not right,” said state Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, the sponsor of the resolution. He argued that the trails leading into the woods were provided and maintained by camp owners, and with those trails soon to be gone, only the most adventurous hikers would ever make it this far into the woods, thus defeating the Forest Service’s stated purpose of opening the land for everyone.

“They say it’s for all of us so we can enjoy it, and then they turn around and block things off, which means you and I can’t go out there.”

Casperson said he has brought the issue to the attention of federal officials both inside and outside the Forest Service, with no luck. “The clock has ticked down here,” he said. “I think if the right people were aware of it and the appropriate people stood up it could be changed, but it’s getting late. Once these people tear these things down, it’s over.”

Three years ago, Armas’ daughter Kristin, a director at a TV station in Wisconsin, began shooting a short movie about life at her father’s cabin. “To tell our story, you know?” she said. “My dad’s camp is being taken away. In a few years he’s not going to be able to come down here and use it anymore.”

Soon, she met other camp owners in the same situation, and her short film snowballed into a full-length movie called “Up a River,” a two-year project that took her to 30 of the camps, where she interviewed the owners, filmed their lives and captured some of their last days in their cabins. The film was shown at a number of regional film festivals, and she drew further attention to the issue by writing letters to politicians and starting online petitions to get the camp leases extended or grandfathered.

It didn’t work.

“I really don’t know what their logic is for really wanting us out,” she said. “There’s way too many more pros than cons for us being out here.” She mentions the lost canoers who became stranded deep in the forest at night several years ago and were rescued by her dad, who happened to be at his camp. And the Boy Scout troop that sheltered in someone’s cabin one night during a rough storm. Most of the camps remain unlocked throughout the year, she noted, and camp owners encourage people to use them if they’re facing trouble or they’re lost. In that sense, they already essentially belong to the public.

“I think the U.S. Forest Service just doesn’t like people on their land,” she said. “They want the public to utilize it, but at the same time they’re kicking us out. It’s the public’s land, but I think they feel that it’s their land, not really the public’s land.”

Lisa Klaus, public affairs officer with the Ottawa National Forest in Ironwood, said there’s no provision to allow people to keep their camps, no matter how sympathetic forest rangers might be.

“As you can imagine up here it’s hard for some people to lose access to those cabins, so we totally understand that they want to stay,” Klaus said. “But we just do not have the authority to extend those leases.”

The Recreation Residence Program, which started in 1915 to entice people into America’s newly designated national forests, ended nearly 50 years ago, and while those cabins already on federal land at the time were grandfathered in, no new private structures have been allowed on federal property since the program ended. And having private property on public land simply goes against the concept of “public.”

“The Forest Service inherited these camps as part of a land purchase in 1992, and typically the Forest Service does not acquire private property when we purchase land, but because of the unique situation we’ve been working very closely with these lease holders,” Klaus said.

“We truly do understand the attachment these leaseholders have and we recognize the challenge it posed for them, but the intent of the 25-year period was to allow them the time to find a place to move those camps.”

The last days

Alvin Hiitola looked out the window of his little cabin. Outside, the river swept past the snow-dusted banks on either side of it. This was a view he’d soon lose. And he had a culprit to blame.

“It’s the federal government,” said the Trout Creek resident, “and the federal government is beholden to the federal government. They don’t care what anybody says or does. They make the rules, and that’s basically it.”

It was just days before the deadline to clear out, and Hiitola sat inside his unheated cabin, sunk deep into an old couch, which was still there with all his other belongings — the stove, the fridge, the bed, the table. He hadn’t removed anything yet. He couldn’t bring himself to. Besides, he figured, it would be a long time before officials made their way this deep into the woods to tear down his cabin.

“I guess I’m still in a state of denial,” said the 59-year-old propane deliveryman, whose cabin is called the Agate Hilton, named for a nearby waterfall. “I can’t understand why they couldn’t work with us, extend our leases. I just can’t fathom that.”

“You think anybody’s going to come down here out of the blue? Where now we got a nice trail comin’ in where people can actually come down here and actually enjoy the forest? When this is gone they’ll have that road bermed off, gated off or whatever, and nobody will have access down here.”

He used to stand on his deck in the mornings, and the only sound he could hear was the rushing river and the faint sound of the waterfall that feeds it. A partridge living in these woods used to come greet Hiitola every time he came to camp because it was completely unfamiliar with humans. And just about every day, a bald eagle would swoop over the river, looking for fish. “Can’t beat that,” he said, smiling.

Inside the cabin, skillets and pans still hung from nails over the sink. Beer mirrors featuring images of wildlife still hung on a wall. Hornet nests that he collected from the woods were still hanging like decorations, delicate and papery, from the ceiling.

And he still had a framed photo of his partridge on the wall. “I had my camera, and he’d be pecking the lens,” he said. “He was there for seven years. Seven springs. And one day he disappeared.”

Hiitola built his camp three decades ago. He and his buddies tore down an old house to get the wood to build it. A lot of effort went into dragging those boards this far into the forest. And soon he’d have to abandon it.

“This will be 30 years we’ve had this camp, and to see it gone after all the work we’ve put into it, after all the good times we’ve had down here, it’s just sad,” he said. “And, I believe, for absolutely no reason.”

Too many memories to leave behind

The two old friends made their way up the long, icy trail toward their camp. Their two dogs led the way.

Tom Caudill and Pete Heidemann have walked this long path for 40 years. They’ve come to know every tree along the way, every dip on the path, every turn of the trail. They know which poplars blew over during a fierce windstorm, which valleys were the landing spot for cars that slid off the trail during winters, which tracks in the snow beneath their feet came from the wolves.

“The wolves have taken out a lot of bear dogs,” Caudill said. That’s why he walked with a pistol on his hip. “They’re efficient killers. By the time a guy can get to his dog, it’s half eaten. They kill ‘em quick.”

Freshly cut tree stumps lined the way, and just-sheared spruce branches were scattered along the trail. It made the air smell like a Christmas wreath. Somewhere up ahead, a logger contracted by the Forest Service was removing trees, widening the road to give the agency better access to the remote area.

On the way to their cabin they walked past the sites of other camps. One was nothing but an empty space between trees. The owner had cleared out last year. There was no sign a camp had ever been there.

Another was the empty cabin of an old friend who’d passed away not long ago. They went up to look it over.

“I’m sure the door is open here,” Caudill said.

It was freezing inside the cabin. The faint spring sun was too low still to make its way through the trees into the windows to warm the place. Their friend’s bed was still there, along with his stove, his table and his easy chair. It was as if he’d just been here. A beer even waited for him in the old fridge. Water trickled from the faucet. It came from a nearby spring.

“Don’t shut it off. It’ll freeze,” Heidemann said.

The camp passed on to the owner’s family after his death, but they weren’t here as much as he used to be. It just wasn’t the same. And soon they’d have to abandon it.

A quarter mile ahead and a sharp turn later, the two old friends finally arrived at their own camp. It sat in stick-throwing distance from the Ontonagon River, rushing past in its spring thaw. They’d had this place for 40 years. They called it Hillbilly Heaven.

Like most camps up here, the door was left unlocked, and they went inside. “The only thing that ever broke in there was a porcupine,” Caudill said. “The porcupine went in there and ate a table.”

After four decades coming here, every part of their camp was imbued with memories belonging to them, their friends, their families, the small towns around here.

The cabin was made of pines that were cleared when the state moved a nearby highway and gave the men the logs for free.

The floor boards were once gym bleachers in the school where they both taught.

The thick wood dining table was made by kids in their school’s shop class, and the names of countless friends and relatives had been carved in it over the years.

The heavy black iron stove came from a church in Ewen, and its layers of thick grease came from years of wild-game meals.

Everything here had a story, but none more meaningful than the hats hung on the antlers nailed over the front window that overlooked the river. Each hat had belonged to someone close who’d passed away, and each hat’s story spoke of how central the cabin had been over the years to everyone’s lives.

“My brother Bill, my brother Dick who just passed away, my sister Gery is the cowboy hat,” said Caudill, pointing to each hat as he spoke. “The corduroy hat is my dad, the hat underneath my brother’s is my father-in-law’s hat, the two old World War II hats are my uncles Clifford and Bud Murphy, and this is my wife’s uncle who used to hunt here for years. And then we have some other hats that are supposed to be up there. But we were tearing the thing down and it was such a mess in here they just got knocked off.”

To lose this cabin means losing many lifetimes worth of memories, of long nights talking at that carved-up table, days spent leaning out the windowsill to hunt, anxious good-byes for sons sent to war, happy homecomings when they got back safe. And soon they were supposed to abandon it.

With all that at stake, there was no way they were going to leave it behind. Unlike most of the other camp owners, the two old friends decided they had to take the place with them.

The plan was to try to move it out of the woods, up the narrow trail, and put it somewhere else. It wouldn’t be by this river, it wouldn’t be the same, but at least some stranger from some agency wouldn’t be able to tear it apart or burn it down.

They’d already torn off the back bedrooms, which were now just a pile of siding and timber. The front porch was next. If the cabin was made smaller, they reasoned, it might just fit on a trailer and make it out of these woods.

“We’ve had a lot of memories here,” Caudill said. “All my sons grew up here. My daughter, my grandsons caught fish here, shot deer here. I came from a big family of 11 kids, and all my brothers have been here for parties and deer season, and nothing but good memories here. Really nothing but fun.”

The two old friends stood outside their cabin in the slowly melting snow.

“Are we going to change the name after we move it?” Heidemann asked.

“I don’t know,” said Caudill. “Probably not, Pete.”

“When we move it,” Heidemann replied. “If we move it.”

“If it happens,” Caudill said. “It might fall apart. Who knows?”

“It remains to be seen,” Heidemann said.

It was so peaceful and quiet as they stood there, with just the sound of their dogs playing on the shore, and the river rushing forward, and the logger moving ever closer to their camp, bringing with him the end of their lives here.