Friday, July 4, 2014

Captured on Film, Part 1 -- Four-wheeled Ghosts

I spent the better part of this last winter creating high res scans of every image I'd ever committed to pro film that I thought might someday prove useful. That was quite the task.

I did that to better clear the path for my transition to digital capture and because given the pace of technological change in revolutionary times, there's no guarantee I'll be readily able to do that later and I needed to part with my commercial flatbed scanner for to get a new whiz-bang Mac and move forward.

Now my nearly twenty years in the making portfolio of 4x5 and 120mm chrome is finished: cataloged, duplicated and secure both on disc for the files and in library binders for the original images. If I've ever the time, I'll pull a couple hundred selects from my collection of vintage 35mm chromes  and digitize those too. I held on to the Nikon scanner for that, as it had no resale value.

Film is dead, long live film.

You might think that hundreds of hours spent scanning was drudgery and you'd be right, it was all of that. It was also a process of discovery because there were things I didn't remember and my understanding of image assessment has evolved. Then when we were together on the Odyssey, all I ever did was pick out a handful of hopefully useful selects and move rapidly on to shoot more, never looking back. Now for the first time I can view my entire body of work on film as an unchanging and completed whole, a useful perspective that not long ago would've been impossible were I not retired or dead.

I got a fair price for the flatbed scanner, though not enough for the Mac. That means I can't yet fully capitalize on the work I'm doing with the new Nikon, or even fully understand it. Which means I don't have much to show you.

So rather than try and fake it, I've decided to honor my creative legacy on film by delivering up chunks of it here, while I continue to swim the fast currents of technological change as best I'm able, behind the scenes. Please excuse the intrusive (and as it turns out rather indifferently sized) watermark on the images. Since I'll be putting these up in bunches, it seemed only prudent.

Anyway, nothing like a good 'ol American car show over the 4th of July, sez I...


Called F.O.R.D. (fix or repair daily), this old truck belonged to a friend and was captured on 4x5 transparency, while grinning at me in perfect light:



That same friend later acted as guide for a visit to an obscure wreck of a stamp mill in Ontonagon County, as there was something there he said I should see. The site itself was no great shakes as ruined stamp mills go and we'd have to climb down the attendant ravine to reach our goal. About halfway down, slipping and sliding with my 50# of gear, I was thinking This better be stinkin' good...

At the bottom was a classic Ford, from back in the day. As the ravine was immediately below the stamp mill, the trees that eventually crushed it weren't even seedlings when first someone'd managed to leave that car all the way down there. My friend was disappointed that the thing'd been crushed since last he'd seen it, but I damned near came right out of my shoes at the sight.

That afternoon I captured my favorite all time image of an abandoned vehicle, called Fit to a T or A Creek Runs Through It, which image I believe is likely already floating around on this blog somewhere, though I can't quite locate it to link to, imagine that.

But a rich trove of alternate images is part of what all that scanning bought me:



A bit up that same creek and mostly out of the ravine, we found this. Then instead of climbing back up the way we'd come in, we took the newly discovered easy way out and it turned out to be a really good day indeed.



I found this old Plymouth in Gogebic County and revisited it through the years, waiting for everything to be perfect. Finally it was and I captured a full set on 4x5 chrome that includes the image below. It turned out to be providential that I did that then, as not long after this Black Beauty was gone:



This next was a roadside curiosity also in Gogebic County and while it's situation didn't allow for satisfactory capture, there're so many bullet holes in this hulk that I simply had to throw a roll of 120mm chrome at it:



I'd travelled along the road between Ontonagon and the Porkies repeatedly over the years. But it wasn't until November of 2011 that I was there when the forest that hid it had dropped all pretense sufficiently for me to see this next. I recall driving right by, with my peripheral vision wide to each side of the road as always, then thinking Say what?!? before making a quick u-turn.

Captured on 120mm chrome with the Mamiya, because by then I was already using the last of the 4x5 and was jealous of it, a no longer winged messenger Mercury:



These last three have appeared on these pages before. They're selected from among the many 120mm images I took at the site during the last couple of years I shot on film. I've plenty on 4x5 too.

I'm not telling specifically where I found this pair, but offer the set as proof that if you wander along the back roads of U.P. and look around closely enough while you do, there's just no telling what sort of treasures you might find...








Friday, June 6, 2014

Notes From the Field -- The Devil in the Details

Or, timing is everything...


Flowers, with Ice

When on the Superior Basin I mostly work and sometimes fish, as work allows.

Then long about May every year, for a couple of weeks I mostly fish and sometimes work, as fishing allows.

That's because though a freshening forest is inarguably enchanting, it's in chilly, swollen waters that leviathans come to play. And with every passing year, the spring song they sing compels me more.

I mostly put down the camera in May also because I realised long ago that when viewing this magnificent landscape primarily through a narrow lens, all authentic contact with it can be lost. May marks a willful surrender to wildness on the more civilized calendar of my years.

This May's trip got delayed by lingering winter, which proved considerable even by U.P. standards. Around Superior the brutal season came early and stayed late, piling on all the while then kicking folk when they were down. It was like tales told to youngsters by Grandpa and now tomorrow's grandpas have tales of their own to tell, to children not yet born.

It seemed only prudent to give things a chance to recover, timing being everything when it comes to the courting of leviathan fish. So I marked my own time...


...then arrived at the Presque Isle unit of the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness the exact same day as did our official Upper Peninsula state bird, the mosquito. It's like swallows returning to Capistrano every year, except U.P. mosquitoes are bigger than swallows and eat human flesh too.

The river looked in great shape -- high and strong but clear and dropping. Turns out, leviathans were post spawn and if you don't know what that means for fishing, think of fish lolling around in bed smoking cigarettes while bathed in a satisfied afterglow.

It took a lot of work just to get a bit of their attention. The second morning suckers flooded in to have their turn and that was pretty much that for spring river fishing.

Off I went to work. There's that fancy new Nikon and the whole transition over to being a digital imagist, after all...


I then spent a few sublime hours at camp lounging in an easy chair through late afternoon, reading the first novella in Jim Harrison's The River Swimmer straight through -- a signed, 1st Edition gift given me by a dear friend. Which copy I'd dared bring along only in hope of such perfect occasion.

With any hint of an offshore breeze, the temperature surged and the screen on my canopy came alive with furiously buzzing mosquitoes hard to my right, incensed that I somehow remained beyond their reach. When the breeze turned onshore, the temperature plunged to something like 47° and scattered the angry buggers like so many seeds to the wind.

The sun shone brilliantly throughout, fresh air rustled the spring green trees every which way, the birds sang constantly and occasionally, an iceberg floated by on the big lake...



It was splendid. I cooked a big steak and crawled into the tent by 8:00pm, with the sun still bright in a clear sky. Later, I'd special work to do. And my timing had better be precisely right. I set the alarm for a quarter past one in the morning and eventually fell asleep.

*

Throughout my entire career in film, I tried to get film to do what it couldn't.

I shot in the dark, a lot. Sometimes even to surprising result. But apart from a few mostly ineffectual hours spent shooting beneath a full moon, even I wasn't dumb enough to work in the dead of night.

Digital capture's provided for that opportunity. And as with the song of spring leviathans, I can't resist its call. We mightn't yet have agreed on a proper name for it, but celestial landscape photography is the sort of opportunity I've waited for my entire life.

Half past one in the morning in the wilderness is quite the thing.

Regular people don't go there. Even mosquitoes lay low. At most, some folk are huddled around a fire, swapping tales as the great woods listens in. Most are snug in their campers or tents, trusting no wild cry in the night disturbs their otherwise happy dreams.

Thrilled to join the night shift, I went off to work.

I shot the Presque Isle beneath the Milky Way from two separate vantages. Neither set merits showing here, as my timing was off. Then I turned my attention to big water and maybe learned why the early bird sings so loudly...

Lake Superior, @ the mouth of the Presque Isle River

That image was captured @ 2:22:57, pretty much the official dark of night. Nothing but starlight was visible to my eye. Yet there, from so far beneath the horizon that day isn't even a whisper and nearly two full hours before I could barely see to tie a knot and fish, the sun cast unseen fire over the edge of a still sparkling night sky.

I'm gonna dig this digital imagist stuff.

Breaking camp I was reminded that water buffalo in Africa are said to sometimes hurl themselves off cliffs to their deaths, to escape marauding insects.

It was predicted to rain the next day couple days, then mostly didn't. I brought the Nikon to one of my favorite spots in the Ottawa National Forest. I was well prepared and didn't get eaten alive, though being there was like enduring the 7th circle of Dante's Hell.

I suppose the best I got out of that was this, which is more credit to the camera than me, 'cause it's tough to work with clouds of mosquitoes trying to bite your eyeballs...


So I opted instead to spend quality time in my canoe at Bobcat, which is where I ought to have been all along. Though I rarely do well there beneath an afternoon sun, barbarian hordes of insects rarely follow out on the water and no time spent fishing is ever wasted.

While making acquaintance with a handful of bass including one feisty post-spawn not quite leviathan female, the light, variable breeze fell to nothing and the entire surface of the lake captured the real world as no photographer ever could.

The forest hushed, as if in awe of its own image on the water. A loon came right up to me, as near as one of those shy creatures has ever been. Apparently satisfied, she fished all around me while I watched until she'd moved to safe distance. As a kid I once almost hooked a seagull and that was close call enough for me.

Only for a single moment did I regret not carrying a camera. When paddling through a small cove the beauty of everything everywhere was such that it would've easily overwhelmed any resolve of mine to stay in the moment.

I quickly shook off the archivist in me and proceeded to loll around through one of the prettiest evenings I've ever spent on my favorite lake, completely undisturbed by further documentary impulses.

The sun fell as I threw my canoe atop the car. Mosquitoes tried to exact a heavy toll, but I outran them.

The next day brought partly sunny skies, with occasional deluge.


Even the two old ladies holding fort at Randall's Bakery in Wakefield said it was the worst year for mosquitoes in memory and their memory of such things is considerable. It took some pretty exquisite timing on my part, to show up just there, just then.

I'd a few more days of fishing in me, despite being too late for the best of it. And I thought to spend the next day chasing light up the South Boundary Road then back again, figuring that being able to compare images of where I've been with those of where I am would prove helpful with the digital transition.

Since my last visit, someone's built a compact but spiffy new Laundromat on the main drag in Bessemer and that's no small event. Not every local has access to their own laundry facilities, not to mention that it saves buggy, sweat soaked tourists a drive over to Ironwood. A local lady cheerily intent on helping all comers to work the newfangled machines pressed half a dozen quarters into my hand when I found myself short of change for the dryer.

Tolerating no refusal, she waved me off and said, "Pass it on".

Being between deluges, the light was good so while my clothes tumbled in random kindness, I went out to see.

North Bessemer School

Heading back to town required crossing the Black River. Heard it before I saw it, which is rarely a good thing. As I crossed the bridge, two great black birds lifted off from the far bank to hide in near bare trees. I stopped to have a look.

Where just the day before I'd chatted with young locals fishing in bucolic splendor, now the Black ran thick yellow brown and raged. It was freshly attended by a pair of brazen buzzards too, hoping hungrily to claim whatever death a flash flooded river might throw their way or for foolish fishermen to make their eyes bulge in rapt anticipation, just the same.

It'd take days for the rivers to clear. With wind in the forecast making the canoe no good option, what remained was the South Boundary Road, a fog of mosquitoes and a few more hours of real life lived in the clean air of spring.

With the next clear night for to stumble around the wild in pursuit of further celestial opportunity said to be some days away, I rather abruptly decided to leave. So much for needing clean clothes, but no less sincere thanks to you, local laundry maven.

Of course I wouldn't make a digital imagist of myself in a single trip, no matter how familiar the ground. Because I'd fully intended not to try, that was never at issue. It was fun just holding a camera in my hand again, something the Linhof wouldn't allow.

I'd have liked the fishing to have been more robust. It'll be another year yet again before there's a song of leviathans to answer and this last year between proved long.

They come in autumn and occasionally other times too, when rains fall and the river runs rich. But then the timing is even more critical, as none are distracted by romance and the caginess that allows a fish in keen competition with a hungry world to grow large into ripe old age remains sharp.

Still, I got what I needed if not all I wanted, a fresh shot of healthy perspective being always helpful and a critical necessity in these, our times.

I've already marked on my more civilised calendar when the moon promises to be new in September. Then the night will come early, stay late and maybe frost will clear the air while turning the dark forest to crystal.

That is, if my timing's right and it doesn't rain for five straight days, as it does with some frequency around Superior, especially in late September.

At least I know for certain that the official state bird of the Upper Peninsula still flies wild, staggeringly fecund and free.

Forward, boys. Ever forward...


Friday, May 23, 2014

The Presque Isle River, Part 4

 Paddling the River of Memory


Winter has at last released its grip on the Northwoods. Signs of renewal spring through the forest even as I write.

It's more than a year now, since I've stood beside my river. That makes maybe two years during my entire adult life that've passed without at least a visit.

Which means I'm overdue. But come hell or high water, by this time next week I'll be there.

So should you happen to hear a great sigh echoing down from the north, that'd be me.

*

Some years ago, I returned alone to that stretch of the Presque Isle where Heather & I shared our greatest youthful adventure. Should you like, you can read The Bear Story here.

I'd not been back there since and that particular year, while caught in the melancholy of a fast fading autumn, on a bright day in late October I decided to examine the authenticity of my own personal narrative, just to see what could be seen.

What I found was this...


Presque Isle (Revised)

Autumn is full upon the ground.

Burnished bronze through brilliant gold are faded and fallen. Cut by the wind, the world breathes ragged at its edges. Resonance withers and what remains stinks of nostalgia. Season and spirit are unbound.


Repelled at the scent of decay, whisperers in the woods are silent. Water over rock murmurs in muted voice. With winter just beyond a fast dimming horizon, effort lent song now would prove ill spent later, when darkness runs long and flow turns cold. Only the wind boasts full voice, chilled even from the west and never silent. It roars, subsides, draws deep and then freshly rising throws a thin veil of grey over an otherwise radiant afternoon.

The sun dims in acknowledgement. Long shadows mark the land, no matter midday.

Buzzards ride updrafts, alert to failed spirit. They crane on the fly and peer straight through thinned forest, down to the moist maze of dead color at its floor. There nothing stirs save mortality on the breeze. The great black birds with dried blood heads peel off on a gust, soar sideways to the south and are off to richer fields. In a moment, they're not even specks against the sky.

That's not easy to do, when one hasn't wings.

Once, we knew how to fly. Or maybe only believed we did. The distance between the two is so small, who can rightly say?

We drew full the nuances of autumn and soared upon its spirit. Owners of time, we pleased to call Death arbitrary. Then the future was whole with the past, Janus-faced and vibrant. Awareness made us weightless and at liberty to soar. Should a salamander live in a fire pit, the great owl stand guard at the gate and otters disdain foolishness with gruff rebuke, we knew the way those signs pointed. Or told ourselves we did, which is just the same.

And in our moment, we weren't even specks against the sky.

History outweighs promise. The ground is nearer than ever. Maybe time demands that, to prepare us for a more intimate relation with the Earth. Flight becomes the province of dreams, lest memory invite the acid of old age and slayer of spirit, regret.

Autumn is full upon the river.



Slow water dons a semblance of day as a mask for a heart run cold. What's seen on the river's face is as real as real can be, with heaven overturned.

Only the faintest ripple betrays a canoe sliding across liquid sky. Clouds part before the bow, pass on in silence, then with a visible shiver reform behind.

Shining blue pierces dark current and the life of the river is revealed in the sky. Little fish seek precious warmth in shafts of light, unmindful of exposure. Now and then, slender green tendrils dance in bunches, waving with revealed rhythm.

At its center, the world meets upon itself. Distinctions of perspective are healed. Stones hover, weightless. Grasses weave in every direction. Forest rises from forest, reaching clouds above and below. The wind comes from nowhere and everywhere.

A great heron rises from the river to take a wide, slow arc across two skies before coming to rest again downstream. Unseen, but near to where recall resides.

Memory is writ so large that sometimes actuality disdains to contain it. A remembered torrent is a trickle, distance is squeezed and once manifest courage long mitigated by the weight of perspective is revealed as speculative.

It's not that memory lies. In its time the moment was true and so remains.

There the dead thing was, life reduced to muck and ooze. And here's the spot where determination rose to the occasion and two spirits joined forever in lifelong pursuit, mostly up to the task. The woods were thick, the trail obscure and we blazed it with fortitude as chill darkness fell.

Thus is narrative created.

Memory is a stain indissoluble. And if the size of it doesn't fit the present, it's only that history has grown so large as to make the past seem small.

The day turns late.


It's no trouble to paddle upstream. Only occasionally do watery headwinds urge to the side, with course correction achieved on but a bit of will and a gentle push. A pair of tiny ducks lead the way. Their delicate, duplicate forms effortlessly maintain safe distance.

An otter appears. Its smooth fur throws river on the rise.

The injury of time fades. If scolded for daring, convergence would be complete, old acquaintance made fresh, the past resurrected something like whole.

Daring being in scarce supply, instead the otter is playful and curious. Repeatedly it dips behind the clouds then reappears to make inquiry with a melodic string of delicate chirps and whirs. A slipstream in the sky marks its underwater path.

Then the otter is gone. As happened long ago, in a heartbeat unnoticed, an invitation is withdrawn and some secret briefly there for the asking is again withheld.

Now history augments flight and seasons come undone.

The paths of rivers and otters and men intersect to render memory irrelevant. Autumn comes full upon me. In a moment, I'm not even a speck upon the sky.

The trip upriver is leisurely. Air and water are one. Earth and the heavens are indivisible. Firelight streams through all.

All around, schools of tiny fish leap, fall back and leap again like black specks turning together in a great flock across high sky. A few lingering golden leaves sway brittle in an evening breeze. The river runs as deep as heaven is high. Winter is at the horizon, with night just beyond.

Steady against the current and with memory tucked safely again into its bed of dreams, flying proves instinctive.

And from this vantage, one can see that the Evening Star will find its proper place upon the river, so to be cast by it back to the sky as once was a midday sun.


Friday, May 2, 2014

The Presque Isle River, Part 3 -- Dick, from Wakefield

Though beautiful under any circumstance, when you visit the Presque Isle during a season of drought you'll wonder what all the fuss is about.

On the high trail parallel to its final run from the lower falls to Superior, in times of low water you can easily chart the bottom of the river through a few clear feet of cool, gently running water.

Revealed beneath is a needlework of cauldron holes snaking through steep ridges cut with millennial persistence through some of Earth's older rock.

Which means you get a pretty good notion of what the bottom of the river looks like in those dark stretches you never see, not even in the lowest water.

Then consider the wildly carved walls that rise above the river, where water once had a fierce way with stone across geologic time and you understand that what you can't see is unlikely to be forgiving.

Which knowledge provides ample cause to try and stay out of the thing.

Especially in autumn when storms swell the river with late riparian life, drawing Superior life in to work the maelstrom and fatten up ahead of winter. That brings fishermen who brave dark skies, wind and rain to work along slippery slate in pursuit of all manner of things, from simple sustenance to lasting glory.

Decades after Johnny's semi-miraculous escape from the Presque Isle's clutches, I was told the story of another fisherman gone into my river, just where I love it the best. I first heard the story secondhand, from a fellow river rat.

Quite unexpectedly, I was later given a firsthand account, which was a gift of profound generosity.

This is the story of that...




Dick, from Wakefield (Revised)

Spend enough quality time in a place and you’ll meet other folk who feel about it much as you do, for reasons entirely their own.

Then, whether generous of spirit or jealous in their private prerogatives, decades erode most things down to the nub and so it is with people too. Years of seeing someone’s approach to fellow travelers, wild waters and especially the creatures that thrive in those mightn’t leave you with a person’s full, legal name. But it provides a decent window on their character all the same.

*

On the lower Presque Isle you could mistake Dick’s last name for Wakefield ‘cause the appellative came so firmly attached, as in -- “Dick from Wakefield’s upriver. He’s got fish.”

And frequently when no one else had fish too, which marks a man.

Dick was taciturn in the way of men who're most at home in the woods and on wild waters.

Already well along when first I encountered him, his keen eyes flashed from wary to twinkling and back again at moment’s notice. I never saw him without a Duluth pack, an old camo jacket hung comfortably from his sharp shoulders and a sturdy fly rod with battered old reel in hand.

Most times there was also a length of line expertly played out through Dick's other hand, so his bait’d ride the torrent in and out of cauldron holes face to face with fish.

For years we nodded across our river or offered a quick “How ‘ya doing?” when paths crossed. Sometimes we'd pause to share a bit more, always centered on our mutual love of place. But we were there for fish, so gave each other ample room to have at it.

As Dick was the best fisherman on the river, he got plenty of that from me. No braggart, his prowess was evident mostly through the bulging Duluth pack, though I saw him land a whole bunch of fish over the years when the rest of us couldn't.

Except that one glorious, bitingly wet morning when from some distance Dick from Wakefield watched me return an in-season, trophy walleye unharmed to the water.

I can still see the look on the old man's face. He’d spent his life on the river and had long since grown accustomed to my release of fish, but it's just possible he’d never seen anyone do that before.



I'd heard Dick from Wakefield went into the Presque Isle and lived to tell the tale the year after it happened.

A season or two later, we met along a narrow trail that runs close under the bridge then down to a deep, fast run between the falls, where little fish thrive and sometimes big fish thrive there too.

Dick was headed up off the river while I was going down, which spoke poorly for my prospects. We stopped together along the narrow path. The morning sun was bright.

Everything about him was as ever save that instead of a fly rod he held the exact same outfit as mine -- a fairly upscale pairing of rod & reel not often seen on our river.

Dick cast a glance down at my gear. One’s choice of tools carries weight with certain men. Our shared judgment went in my favor.

I was a mite embarrassed to be caught by this old river rat while wearing an inflatable pfd, which device is my sole hedge against the vicissitudes of loving as fickle a partner as the Presque Isle River. We exchanged pleasantries.

Then, like no time before or after, Dick from Wakefield told me a story...

Dick had been working his spot on the river -- beneath the suspension bridge, from the edge of the slate just past the last set of falls. He misstepped. Dick’s balance shifted, aged reflexes proved insufficient and before he could draw a breath, he plunged into swift water.

The river carried him quickly downstream. Dick realised a tourist on the bridge had seen him go in, but when the startled man tried to run to the rescue his legs went out from under him and he fell flat upon the bridge.

“That’s that”, Dick thought.

The river had him fast. The old man said it tried to yank his boots off. I’d heard that before, though didn’t interrupt to tell him Johnny'd said that very thing.

Dick from Wakefield desperately tried to pull himself from the river by its slick slate edge, only delaying a fate that seemed to him inevitable.

On the east side of the river at its mouth, cut rock pinches steeply. There, even slack current gains terrible strength with depth to make a final rush into Superior.


Dick approached the point of no return and spied the tourist waiting for him with outstretched arms.

As he hurtled by, Dick from Wakefield reached out for one last time and didn’t miss. The tourist held strong. In a moment, Dick was again high, if not dry.


The dappling sun along the trail seemed to dim in response to Dick’s story. The old man looked downriver and far, far away.

 “I dream about it every night”, he said quietly.

There was in his voice a hint of sad betrayal. A lover to whom he’d devoted himself so well for so long had sought finally to claim him completely. We stood silently together for a moment, each of us caught in a private current of fearsome memory.

Then the old man did something extraordinary.

A slow smile spread over his craggy face. He reached for the zipper to his camo jacket, which as usual was closed tight about his throat. He slowly slid it down a bit to offer me a peek beneath.

Hidden securely from the curious gaze and sometimes summary judgment of tough old river rats -- men who knew him well and whose respect was long since granted under any circumstance -- Dick from Wakefield wore the exact same inflatable life vest as I.

Our river laid claim to him and he’d barely escaped. Only a fool would count on a second chance and Dick was no fool. Unwilling to forsake the Presque Isle and no matter that he’d first have to unzip his jacket to use it, the old man now possessed a secret weapon.

And that morning chose to reveal his secret to me.

*

I've been told for certain what's long been suspected, that Dick from Wakefield passed away. Considering each successive season with him absent our river, I knew that. Didn't even have to hear it secondhand. It was understood.

In response to my initial post of this piece in April of 2012, members of Dick's family reached out. They've been most kind in their comments and now they too will be with me whenever I think of their father.

That'll include each autumn morning I fish the Presque Isle River where it offers up whatever it can grab to Superior's big water. Times when some might visit the place and find it frightening, but a few are there because we've been called.

And by virtue of that, some of us know that even when caught in the raging torrent of Death's watery grasp, a good fisherman might yet land a bit of saving grace.

I say thee Godspeed, Dick from Wakefield. May your pack always brim with fresh fish and your boots be forever dry.


Dick's spot on the Presque Isle. Right side of river, beneath the bridge.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Presque Isle River, Part 2 -- The Bear Story

Stripped down & told straight up. About 19 hours in the woods...



Bobcat Lake is nestled in the Ottawa National Forest just a few minutes through the woods off U.S. 2 and once on that you can get anywhere you need. The lake is lovely and at seventy-eight acres is comfortably sized for a canoe.


We yearned to be there. I suppose in part because when loose in the northwoods our spirits seemed large, which hints of greatness were otherwise purged in the routine disinfectant of everyday city life.

During great years at Bobcat we caught mighty fish, ventured into the forest beneath glistening autumn skies, then with nightfall kicked back in wonder at the heavens and sometimes, the northern lights.

During not so great years we persevered all the same. We traveled a long way specifically to take what comes as it came and it wasn't much in us to surrender.

Like the time it rained for five straight days and the temperature never rose above 45°.

We mostly huddled at the picnic table beneath a tarp, peering up to a sodden sky. Nearby ran a trench dug 'round the fire pit to divert running water. On the sixth day, it snowed. Four inches. Which proved about the limit of our perseverance. We bragged on that vacation for years.

In the year of the bear, weather was fair for late September.  Eagles flew & fish jumped. We ate well and slept soundly. I suppose it’s simply human nature that we sought more, even when already gifted.

So it was that year when Heather and I decided to explore the Presque Isle River in a canoe.


We put in just downstream from the small dam at the Presque Isle Flowage, a weedy waterfowl impoundment in whose distant upstream reaches of flooded timber and obscure watery tendrils are said to lurk Musky as long as your leg. Couldn't prove it by me.

Our expedition would go with the flow of the river until past Marenisco and the bridge at US 2, where Johnny'd pick us up with the car. It figured to be a pleasant way to spend a gentle autumn's day.

Our eighteen-foot Grumman aluminum canoe held Heather, myself and everything we might possibly need. I wore sensible sneakers so if we went into the river, I'd not struggle to swim out of my boots.

We bade farewell to Johnny and pushed off.

Caught up by gentle current, it took only a few paddle strokes to pass under the bridge, after which the forest closed in on both sides of the river.  It seemed we'd traveled back in time.  Dependent only upon one another and well outside our experience, we felt as voyageurs.

After a bit, a pair of river otters joined us.

Curious and playful, they dipped beneath the surface of the river, popped up somewheres else entirely, took a good look at us, then did the whole thing over again.  Finally, the otters rose from the river fully erect and gave us their undivided attention by swimming backwards, supple bodies riding unreasonably high in the water, otters eyes peering intently into ours as they kept pace.

Musical clicks and whirs broken by gruff exhalations served for avid conversation.

This was why we’d come to the river.

The hissing of white water was likely audible well before we heard it.  In any event, we pulled hard to the right and landed the canoe at the riverbank as soon as the forest allowed.

Woods are typically thick with scent, but there something smelled downright foul.

At exactly that point, some late beast had died.  The thing was near primordial ooze, reduced in death by life to an indeterminate slagheap of picked over muck, matted bits of fur and raw stench.

Stepping carefully, we secured the canoe and on foot picked our way downriver to see what could be seen. The river curled hard to the left and the sound of rushing water grew louder as we went.

Over a few obscure yards, the Presque Isle turned fierce.


The river ran between a steep bank and a massive boulder to create a boiling chute pitched at a precipitous angle.  It then emptied onto a long flat, the surface of which was dappled by distinctive ripples that betray submerged rocks.

Going in, it'd never occurred to us that this stretch of the Presque Isle might prove unnavigable. Like Livingston on the  Zambezi, we'd seen the beginning and the end of our intended journey. What lurked between was another matter.

We decided to press on rather than to retreat.  We mentally marked a path to likely success and headed back to the canoe.  We reviewed what little we knew about whitewater safety, climbed in, hunkered down and back paddled out into the river.

The otters were gone.  What remained for witness was only the great, indifferent eye of the dark forest and we two.

The chute was quick upon us.  With a great whoosh we went in, boulder hard to our right as planned.  Maybe airborne for a moment, the canoe pitched scarily downward but we flew right through to triumph.  Spit out upon the flat, we whipped completely around, dead-assed backward in swift current.

“Shit!” I said. Or words to that effect.

Paddling furiously to turn the canoe downstream, we twirled halfway 'round like on a carnival ride, careened into an underwater pile of rock then slammed to a sudden halt, stuck sideways and rocking back and forth in the hissing river.

But were no longer hurtling blindly backwards, at least.

Momentum wedged us solid and current worked hard to keep us there.  Unable to free the canoe without tipping it, after due consideration we decided the only course was to lighten the load. I'd step out, get a good grip, then pull us free by way of the anchor rope.

I climbed into the rushing water.  It reached to my thighs and did its best to force me over.  Carrying the anchor, I played out rope and carefully made my way through a submerged field of stone to the bank.

Once there, I meant to pull with all my might.  Should the river steal the canoe and cast Heather to an uncertain fate, I swore to myself it'd only be with me clinging to the rope like a played out fish on a stringer.

With a tug, the canoe came free.

Skipping over the surface of the water on my fulcrum, canoe and Heather too came to rest against the riverbank, a long rope’s length from where I stood. We’d navigated the chute, survived our brush with calamity and again stood upon firm ground.

The Presque Isle ran shallow over a crowded, rocky bed for as far as we could see.

With the River no longer inviting and knowing full well the afternoon would quickly chill as the hour grew late, we'd had enough.

We'd portage upriver, past the scene of our brief success as white water canoeists. Then paddle back to the landing, where one of us would hike off to camp and retrieve Johnny, bringing the day to a premature and disappointing end.


I took the rear of the canoe and Heather the front as we set off through the woods.  With each step our entire pile of gear shifted inside the boat.  Wet ground broken by glistening bedrock woven through walls of trees and everything covered in assorted detritus made for uncertain footing.

We weren't far in before I made a noise. Heather paused to ask what was wrong.

 A branch went through my foot, I said. Keep walking.

I’d stepped square on the sharp tip of a fallen pine branch.  It struck right through my sensible sneaker, pierced my foot, went hard against bone then reversed the process as I lifted my foot in stride.

The portage seemed a great distance. After a time we again came upon our dead stinking friend and in relief put the canoe back onto the water, where canoes belong.

We were cold, damp and not a little defeated.  My foot hurt like Hell.

The trip upstream proved easy and we made it back to the dam.  One of us then had to head off and find Johnny.   By that time, he might be at camp or at the bridge, wondering where we were.  Maybe he was even nowhere, lost in the woods like us.  Heather drew the short straw, since my foot had a hole.

Evening closed in and the forest grew tight to the road as Heather walked. She sang softly to whatever bears there might be, reassuring them she'd peacefully pass through if only they’d peaceably allow. It never hurts to be polite.

With time to pass, I stood flat upon a rock, pressed down hard to keep my foot from bleeding overmuch and commenced to fish.

In the parking lot to the flowage stood an older man beside a small pickup truck. He bent over the rear of truck’s covered bed and cooked a meal.  After catching no fish and seeing as how the man was done eating, eventually I hobbled on over.

Decades of weather and wind crisscrossed the man's face.  His outfit was dirty and torn.  Maybe fifty years old maybe eighty, this was a hardscrabble gent accustomed to time spent in out of the way places.  The truck’s bed was jammed with all manner of gear and enclosed by a rickety fiberglass top.

The old man seemed happy enough for the company, though he’d definitely have preferred someone closer his age.  He'd come up from Detroit to hunt bear and after a couple weeks, his tag remained unfilled.

This unrequited bear hunter was near to exhausted with bitterness and being alone in the woods was a solace to him, even without benefit of killing a bear. As his litany of complaint proved wearisome, I focused on the old man's halo.

Tight around his head hovered a living cloud of gnats and flies.  Every now and again he’d wave a gnarled hand past his face.  The cloud dispersed a skosh then quickly reformed, drawn like strewn iron filings toward a powerful magnet.  If the insects bothered him, I saw no sign of it.  I shuddered at his indifference.

Years later I'd recall this cranky old man, on that morning near the mouth of the Presque Isle when I became mostly indifferent to flies.

Light grew diffuse and provided poor warmth as evening turned gray.

The old bear hunter cleaned up from dinner and I returned to fishing, catching a northern pike of nasty disposition. I held it aloft for the man to see.  He grinned broadly but when I released the fish, shook his head as if I were addled.

I secured everything into the canoe.  The old man drove away.  Disconsolate, I sat  upon my rock and wondered where Heather & Johnny could be. Winter lurked just beyond the horizon as if to pounce, biting down hard on the evening air. A day begun sweetly was sour by nightfall. 

Finally, headlights turned into the lot and my rescuers arrived.  We loaded up and returned to camp.

Despite being pruned in swampy moisture, the hole in my foot was easily revealed in the bright beam from a flashlight.  I didn't recall my last tetanus shot, so off we went to the hospital in Ironwood. It felt good to bind my foot with the dry snugness of a fresh boot.  We piled into the car. I drove.

Out of the dark between Wakefield and Bessemer, the dread lights of a state patrol car flashed behind us. Thankfully, the officer proved sympathetic to my tale of woe and sent us on our way with a word of caution about traveling too fast for conditions.


The hospital seemed quiet. I told the receptionist my story in brief and asked for a tetanus booster.  She apologized but said I'd have to wait, as the doctor on duty was busy.  Not long before our arrival, a man was rushed into Emergency.

He'd been mauled by a bear.

I settled alone into a room off a hallway, door left open.  Across the hall, inside another room with an open door, a drawn curtain shielded a gurney.  On the floor were bright pools of blood.  In what I took for an authentic lament driven by the sort of pain no medicine can heal, a rolling moan rose from behind the curtain.

Along with my tetanus shot, I got the story.

Hunting over bait is common means to bring home bear meat in Michigan.

Typically, a bear hunter deposits a smelly pile of bait at some likely spot in the woods.  Bears like the bait.  Hunter hauls in more. Bears acquire taste for bait. Then the season arrives and while sitting over fresh bait, the hunter bags a bear.

The moaning man in the hospital room across the hall had been baiting bear.

He'd sat perched in a tree at the ready, near his bait.  Daylight dimmed and at the ready he remained.  After nightfall, when prudent men gather 'round the fire to drink bourbon from tin cups in honor of heroics both real and imagined, the bear hunter stayed steadfast.

Something ambled out from the dark forest to the bait.  The man shot it, then climbed down to claim what was hard earned. A bear cub lay dead at his feet.

Momma bear roared down on him like the sudden wrath of a vengeful god.

The bear shattered the man's arm, broke his leg and smashed some ribs. She chewed hard on his face and shoulders. Somehow, the bear cub killer threw two shots into her. With the second, she tumbled off into the woods. He managed to crawl back to camp, from where his buddies rushed him to the hospital.

As we were staying in the woods, naturally we wondered exactly where this'd occurred.  But the only person around who knew wasn’t talking.

It grew late and turned bitter cold outside.  I got my shot. We went over to Scotty’s and a dinner of porterhouse steak, potatoes, salad & coffee. All for  $6.25, American.

Over dinner we reviewed the state of our affairs. A couple tables over a group of teenagers debated some dead kid's haunting of a local abandoned hockey rink. No lie.

Our options were down to just two: find a motel or head back to camp.  The Ottawa is something like zillion acres of woods and the hospital at Ironwood the only one in the region. Odds were overwhelming that the wounded bear wasn’t anywhere near our camp.

An ambulance streaked off east on U.S. 2., lights flashing, siren silent. It whisked the hunter to Marquette and the virtues of a surgically rebuilt face.  We piled into the car for the drive back to Marenisco, followed by a short jaunt through the woods to camp at Bobcat Lake.

The sidewalks in Marenisco rolled up long about 9:30 every night, 'cept near the three taverns clustered at the far edge of the main drag.  It was fully 11:00 by the time we turned off the highway and into town.

Where all the bear hunters and State Police in the world awaited.

Emergency lights reflected off vehicles, buildings and men with rifles who milled about in groups.  We drove slowly through the crowd, there being no need to ask what was up.

At camp, a couple of miles and a world away from anyone who cared, we decided to gut it out.  Once in the tent I placed an axe by my side. Then I lay down in my sleeping bag, put my hand around the handle of the axe and fell to fitful sleep.

Morning dawned gray and wet.

While making breakfast, we heard the shots that killed the bear.  If she’d wanted for more trouble, we'd been ripe.  Wounded and distraught, she’d instead sought refuge in the woods. 

That was understood.



A day or two later, Heather and I waited on a short line at the checkout of Leo’s woeful little grocery in Marenisco.  In front of us stood a woman, three years older than dirt.  She was tiny, wrinkled and bent.

We all paused to listen as a voice on the radio recounted the tale of the man and the bear, bear cub conspicuous for its absence.  Then the bear hunter himself spoke from a hospital bed in Marquette. He told of holding closed the jaws of death with his bare hands, like a modern day Daniel Boone.

The radio play ended and everyone stood silent for a moment, considering what we’d heard. What we all knew.

The old lady shook her head then said to no one in particular, Son of a bitch should've died.

Which was true of course, except for that some days you get the bear, while other days the bear gets you.

And so it goes.