Thursday, April 19, 2012

Dick, from Wakefield

I’ve fished at or just up from the mouth of the Presque Isle River into Superior for a long time. Near to 40 years, I figure. That’s fair time gone even without bragging. The place whipped my ass for maybe half that, then in tantalizing stages relented to my enticements. Or maybe I learned better how to romance a river. At any rate we've reached rough accommodation, this river and I. And as an old married man, I recognize a key to true & lasting love when I see it.

Though the signage is specifically for vacationers, it offers a word to the wise all the same.

I’ve no need to beat the Presque Isle and would prefer it not to beat me. Careless tourists are occasionally carried by watery sinew down from the falls and offered up to the cold embrace of Superior, where one’s mortal remains might remain forever lost. I’d be of mixed mind, as to that.

Along our trip you’ll not escape this river, as others sometimes have. If we return here often, that’s because this glistening ribbon that rises in lowland to inform a great forest before tumbling through a hard rock cut at the end is my river and its terminus at big water my anchor in this wilderness.

Spend quality time over decades in a place and you’ll meet other folk who feel about it much as you do, often for reasons entirely their own. Then, whether generous of spirit or jealous in their prerogatives, time erodes most things down to the nub and so it is with people too. Years of watching someone’s approach to fellow travelers, wild waters and especially the creatures that thrive in those mightn’t leave you with a person’s proper name, but it will provide a decent window upon their character.


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, which puts a mark by a man’s name. I’ve known two people who’ve gone into the Presque Isle during heavy water and lived to tell the tale. Both were fishermen. Dick from Wakefield was the second.

Dick was taciturn in the way of men most at home in the woods and on waters. I say “was” as I’ve not seen him on our river for a few seasons running and suspect Dick’s story is likely well and truly told, some bit of it now only retold here with affection by me.

Already well along when first I encountered him, his keen eyes would flash 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 his hand, mostly with a length of line expertly played out so his bait’d ride through cauldron hole and maelstrom alike, always face to face with fish.

For years we nodded to each other across our river or offered a quick “How’re ‘ya doing?” when our paths crossed. Almost always he did better than me; evidenced mostly by his bulging Duluth pack, no braggart he. Except for one glorious, bitingly wet morning when from across the river Dick stood agape as I returned an in-season trophy walleye unharmed to the water. Though he’d grown accustomed to my releasing fish, I suspect he’d never seen anyone do that before.

One morning I met Dick from Wakefield along the narrow trail that runs close under the bridge then down to a deep, fast run between the final set of falls.

Dick headed up and I was going down, which meant I’d arrived too late. We paused together on the narrow path. 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 rarely seen on our river. Dick cast a glance down at my gear. One’s choice of tools carries particular weight with certain men and our shared judgment went in my favor.

As we exchanged pleasantries I was a trifle embarrassed, caught by the old river rat while wearing an inflatable pfd. That’s my sole hedge against the vicissitudes of loving as fickle a partner as a wild river and the funny thing is, I never wore one before that affair matured.

Then, like no time before or since, Dick from Wakefield told me a story. It went like this:

Dick was fishing his favorite spot -- upriver beneath the suspension bridge and hard to the edge of a shale shelf just below the last set of falls. One foot found empty air. Dick’s balance shifted, aged reflexes proved slow and before he could draw a breath, Dick plunged into dark, swift water.

The river carried him downstream. Dick realised that a tourist on the bridge saw him go in. 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 old man tried to swim out but the river had him fast. He said it tried to yank his boots off. I’d heard that before, though didn’t interrupt to tell him when or why. All the way down to near the mouth, Dick from Wakefield desperately tried to pull himself from the river. Like the sign says, rock is slippery when wet and all he managed was to delay what seemed to him inevitable.

On the east side of the river at its mouth, cut rock falls steeply away and current gains strength with depth to make a final rush into the big lake. As Dick approached the point of no return, he 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, which was startlingly familiar to me. 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, that a lover he’d devoted himself to so well for so long sought finally to claim him completely. We stood silently together for a moment, each of us caught in private current of terrible 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 was closed tight about his throat. Then he slowly slid it down a piece to offer me a peek.

Hidden securely from the prying eyes and summary judgments often leveled by tough old river rats, men who’d known him for decades and whose respect was long since granted under any circumstance, Dick from Wakefield wore the exact same inflatable life vest as I.

Our river had claimed him and he’d barely escaped. Only a fool would count on a second chance and Dick was no fool. Unwilling to abandon his river 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 he chose to reveal his secret to me.

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


  1. At the top of Yosemite's Vernal Falls there's a quiet looking pool of water on the Merced River. It is a great place to dunk your aching feet in to cool down. But it flows to the falls so there's a sign there that says something to the effect: "Warning - no swimming. If you go over the falls you will die."

    No "may", "might", or "could" die. You will.

  2. Dick was a pro and I've seen tourists do things so egregiously stupid on this stretch of river that all I could do was to turn and walk away.

    Later, I'll have another remarkably similar tale to tell about this place...

  3. Hi Mr. Hutton, I just heard about this article and it is about my Dad. You met a great man. Fishing WAS my dad and he loved every minute of being out there bringing home his catch. After he told me the story about him falling in the river he was 'forced' to wear that inflatable!! He would call me and tell me about his fishing day and I would ask him if he was wearing his vest and he would laughingly reply 'yes, cuz if I don't there will be hell to pay'.

    You are right, he had great respect for the river and I miss hearing his stories as he passed away in 2011.

    Thank you for this article, it put a smile on my face as I was reading it because I could hear my dads voice in your words.


    1. After he stopped coming down to the river, I'd heard your Dad was ill. My condolences to you and your family, for your loss.

      Though until the morning he told me his story probably not more 200 words had passed between us over the years, I developed an affection and respect for your Dad because his approach to the place made it apparent that our love for the Presque Isle was mutual. Which meant it was always a better morning, to find Dick there.

      Along with my Uncle Ray from Bessemer, Dick was the finest fisherman I've ever met.

      Then the day he told his story was a rare gift, as by sharing it he was also saying that he'd been watching me all those years and that I'd made the grade. While there aren't many men whose respect I'd crave, your Dad was one of those and I'll never forget the favor he did me that sunny morning, on a stretch of wild river he understood and loved so well.

      I miss him too. But what's true is that every time I go down to our river now, I find your Dad's still there in spirit -- a shadow working the cauldron holes with patience and care hard beneath the bridge and maybe smiling quietly to himself as the rest of us flail, while his pack is forever full of fish...

      Cindy, when all this work seems a burden I occasionally wonder why I continue. Turns out, you're why. I'm humbled that you think I did your Dad justice in prose and am deeply gratified for that smile on your face as you read it. It makes everything worth it.

      Thank-you so much for the kind words and my very best to you and yours.

  4. Dear Frank, I'm Carol, Dick from Wakefield was my Dad. What an absolute treat to read your story. Your words gave him back to me for just a while as a smile and tears were on my face.
    Family went to the river after his funeral, we knew he'd be there fishing.
    My Dad's spirit is at the river, only to be called away by my Mom luring him with a fish supper.
    What a treat to have read your wonderful words. Thank you so much Frank.

  5. You're so welcome, Carol. As it turns out, my essay involving your Dad carries an unexpected resonance for all sorts of folk, even those who don't fish and who've never been within 1,000 miles of the river he so loved. To the extent that what's on the Internet lives forever, I'm glad that in some small way I've helped place your Father on that river for all time, which it seems to me is where his generous spirit most belongs.

    I'll never forget the look on your Dad's face on as I released the trophy walleye. I think it was that morning when we first came to understand each other. I'll be on that stretch of river in May and am sure that in some way, your Dad will be there too...

    My very best regards to you and your family.