Thursday, October 30, 2014

Captured on Film, Part 3 -- Stark's Cabins

Some of you may have noticed last month was the first month since September 2011 that this blog lay fallow. At the last, I was out and about around Superior wrestling with the Nikon through a brief window of autumn weather so splendid that if we'd ever seen the like back in the day when each autumn Johnny, Heather & I bustered around the place trying not to get in too much trouble but only just enough, it'd now be revered as the halcyon days of our youth.


Standing together in contemplation of all that late season Northwoods splendor, a dear friend helpfully suggested You've still got a few days... But I wanted no part of that. Starting work in September then finally playing hooky in September three years later had suitable symmetry and I very much needed to be full in the moment without needing to think about translating that down for you on deadline.

I pushed both myself and the Nikon hard. It purred. Next time out I'll have to push it harder. After the first of the year, we'll examine what I did.

In the meantime we'll just stick with an established theme. Film is dead. Long live film and the ghosts captured with it...


All images scanned from 4x5 transparency film

I call these Stark's Cabins because on U.S. 2 near Watersmeet 40 miles or so to the east, Stark's Cabins Restaurant and Trout Pond was run by James Stark and his wife Molly from 1946 to their retirement in 1984.  Maybe this strikingly similar set of roadside tourist cabins near Wakefield was never owned by James and Molly Stark. Maybe there came a time when most cabins in the region were built this way and at that time there was for some reason a lot of red paint to be had cheap. There're a couple more like these, now outbuildings on a spread between Wakefield and Marenisco and also hard to the road.

Anyway, Stark's Cabins these'll always be to me. One thing's pretty certain -- the cabins near Wakefield closed before my time on the Range, which began in earnest circa 1978. In my time, I believe these were always derelict.



1946 was the first year without a World War in quite the while. America was flush and stood astride the known Universe. Our love for the automobile and the open road blossomed, as new and luxurious touring cars were introduced at prices we could afford, when paid for on time. Kinda like this beauty, though I can't vouch for the model year:



Throughout the great northern wilderness, roads had been cut and facilities built back during that brief time between World Wars when Depression struck and government put citizens to work making improvements to government land in order to help save the country from wrack and ruin. Many of the facilities constructed by the C.C.C. still stand as gorgeous examples of American craftsmanship, but those aren't why we're here today.

By 1946 we'd hit the road in earnest and have yet to stop.

Born 1896 in Vienna Austria, James Stark had in the meantime made his way to the northern wilderness by way of Wisconsin, where he'd married the young Molly Harper. They owned a potato farm for a while but eventually turned to logging then apparently followed the fallen forest north to Watersmeet. Near some of the last remaining old growth forest in the region, they staked a permanent claim.



In 1946 the Mighty Mac was still just a dream and the U.P. remained the edge of the stinkin' world, cut off on two sides by two Great Lakes and the formidable channel between them.

It was a long drive to there from anywhere. But when you finally arrived at what's today the surviving remnant of that aforementioned old growth forest (the famous Sylvania Wilderness), James and Holly Stark were there to greet you with the latest in Northwoods style, one-stop shopping roadside convenience. Even a trout pond, in case you really didn't care to venture beyond sight of the road for to catch some of those.

I worked this set of cabins near Wakefield on and off through the years. James and Holly's verifiable cabins out near Watersmeet got torn down before I got serious.

The thing that tickles me most about these is that in their heyday, they came festooned with neon. Neon! Just imagine evenings spent with the bzztt bzzzt bzzzt of glowing tubes drawing cumulus clouds of an all but unimaginable variety of insects while secure in rough but modern creature comfort, fly strips swinging gently in the summer breeze, you lifting bourbon in a metal cup in honor of Northwoods glories past, present and yet to come.

I'd have given a lot, to have seen these cabins properly lit up just once. Look closely, that light fixture is about half-filled with dead flies and so much for yellow bug lights, eh?


These cabins near Wakefield proved deceptively difficult to shoot. Bad light, lousy timing, mostly. Then in 2005 I was determined. It was a Red Flag Day when the light felt right, the kind of day that 130 or so some odd years before Chicago had burnt right to the ground.

And for the first time ever my old Bogen tripod betrayed me as the 40+ mph breeze that shook the woods shook the Linhof too and most of the images from that set into terminal softness, two of which I've included here just the same. Armed with a great new tripod, a couple years later I returned to finally seal the deal with Stark's Cabins. Except in the interim, this set of vintage roadside tourist cabins had been bulldozed then got burnt to the ground.



James Stark died on June 16th, 1984 in Watersmeet. Holly Stark followed her husband on March 4th, 1988. From their union came three daughters, 28 grandchildren, 28 great-grandchildren and Stark's Cabins, Restaurant and Trout Pond. Having put themselves in the right place at the right time and willing to meet opportunity with industry, together they served adventurous Northwoods travelers for nearly 40 years.

*

Though I never stayed in the cabins, ate at the restaurant or fished the trout pond, I nevertheless have a related story...

Johnny, Heather and I annually rented our big-assed Grumman aluminum canoe from Sylvania Outfitters in Watersmeet. Heather and I rode one of those into the Bear Story. I've long since owned my own canoe but Bob Zelinski has run his place now for more than 40 years and I recommend him to you. It may even be that Stark's old trout pond is hard by Bob's parking lot, I don't rightly recall.

One year back in the day I'd traveled from Bobcat over to Watersmeet to rent our canoe and found the shop closed. I wandered over to a sizeable building nearby, hoping to inquire. I recall the inside as something of a rectangular shed full of miscellaneous stuff and noticeably dim, with shafts of light from the bright day outside intruding to catch dust dancing in the air.

At the far end of the building two bent old ladies dressed in dark clothes sat together at a table, listening intently to a radio. I excused myself. They didn't look up. Uncertain but about half desperate, I stepped forward and excused myself again, thinking perhaps they'd not heard me over the din of the radio.

They replied in unison, with sharp glance and even sharper SSHHHH!!!

I'd not realized they were playing radio Bingo. Hell, until that moment I'd not realized there was radio Bingo. In time I was allowed to make my apologies, received the information I needed and ended up back at Bobcat with that season's canoe. For years I thought the story was about radio Bingo.

Today I'm pretty sure that building was what remained of John and Holly Stark's restaurant.

And though I can't say for certain, I prefer to believe that one of the old ladies who so admonished me that day was the estimable Holly Stark, widow of James Stark, who with her husband once upon a time made a fine life together in the woods.



Friday, August 15, 2014

Captured on Film, Part 2 -- Whitecap Mnts Manor

Perhaps a friend first pointed me in this direction, I don't rightly recall. Or maybe I got lucky, which can happen on rain days salvaged by wandering previously unexplored back roads just to see what's there.

At any rate I didn't used to wander Wisconsin much, yet in 2001 I came across this:

From 4x5 Transparency, circa 2001

It was a gloomy day. I've never been able to coax a great scan from my first image of this grand old Wisconsin dairy barn abandoned to Iron County wilderness, but by my next visit the inscription had faded. The above is the only capture I have of it, misspelling of any generally accepted abbreviation for mountains still largely intact.

Periodically, I returned to the site. In time, Whitecap Mountain Manor became one of my favorite places to shoot and I've a raft of images from it. This barn was built by hand to last, with materials mostly gathered from the magnificent landscape around it.

By any measure, a vintage American barn of authentic merit.

From 4x5 transparency, 2009

Off to the left of the barn stood an outbuilding that turned out to be nearly as enticing as the barn itself, what I came to call the Whitecap Mountain Manor Annex:

From 4x5 transparency, 2009

That's a potted marijuana plant basking in the sun at the upper window. I got close enough to know it, then discretely went about my business. That's the thing about working abandoned places -- you never can tell who or what you'll find. Prudence is frequently essential to the skillset.

At WCMM the next year, I captured one of my favorite images in my architectural portfolio on film. Sometimes, you can find stars out even during the day:

From 4x5 transparency, 2010

Then in 2011 at the beginning of this Odyssey I took the Linhof and new Mamiya to crawl around the place but good. By that time the barn was in some serious disrepair. I invited a friend to come along in both mutual interest and for safety's sake, since I intended to finally work where prudence suggested I oughtn't...

From 120mm transparency, 2011

...including somehow getting myself and the Linhof up to the 2nd story of the main structure:

From 4x5 transparency, 2011

What's a little tilted floor among friends, right?

Once up there it was plain to see where floorboards were cracked and even given full away beneath the weight of other wanderers before me. I stuck to the hand hewn support beams cut big around as my thigh in support of the outside edge, while my friend stood by below to catch the Linhof if I tumbled.

Again on safe ground, I figured that for the prize of the day. I was mistaken. From the upper window of the Annex, I later captured this with the Mamiya:

From 120mm transparency


In my portfolio there're many images of things that no longer exist. 

Somewhere along the way I figured out that those represent the most valuable aspect of the fieldwork. Even though each time I revisit a site only to find what I'm looking for is vanished, a little part of me vanishes too.

So it was last week with Heather on vacation, when with my spiffy new Nikon in tow we took a run down to Whitecap Mountain Manor for to see what the most brutal winter in years had done to the place and to continue my documentation of its long, slow slouch into terminal wreckage. This time I came armed with digital wizardry that had me very much looking forward to the interior shots a bit of HDR capture might earn me.

Except we found my favorite incredibly sturdy if well worn example of rustic Wisconsin dairy barns that'd long since become like an old, reliable friend was just gone:

Nikon 800e digital capture, August 2014

A Realtor owns the place. Fresh signage is up. You could buy it, if you chose. No doubt crumbling Whitecap Mountain Manor finally proved too much a burden to the land, at least for purposes of selling it.

Now all that remains to tell anyone that something proud ever stood there is a surprisingly small patch of brown dirt, laid flat by virtue of bulldozer.

And of course, there's my film of what was. Which is a big part of the reason I decided to continue the gig, even without there being any more film.

*

I've been unable to uncover the narrative of Whitecap Mountain Manor.  Being just another wreck in the woods, it never shared the architectural distinction of the Annala round barn and no one saved it.

But should anyone reading this know any part of the story of this farm, I invite you to please drop by and share it.

I'm gonna miss the place...


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.