Thursday, April 4, 2013

Northwoods Follies -- A Friend Indeed

Almost always, it'd be a Friday in mid to late September.

Johnny, Heather & I'd end our respective work weeks, head to our respective homes and pack. Some hours later I'd make the rounds to pick them up. We stuffed the car to bursting along the way.

Then late at night or even later, with little sleep or none at all, we'd hit the road and drive on through. Which was often an adventure in and of itself. Like the time the little arrow read "E" and we spent precious predawn hours fretting at the outskirts of sizable Fond du Lac WI, waiting for the only gas station to open. If you're reading this and younger than 35, just try to imagine that.

Thing was, we'd no time to lose.

Vacation in the Northwoods meant we'd soon be set loose in Wonderland. The first of so few, brief days at liberty had to count for more than just driving. If we pushed through the night we'd secure provisions at least for the weekend and set up camp in time to do something.

It was important.

When I told a story on the late Dick from Wakefield, I said I've known two people who'd gone into the Presque Isle River in heavy water and lived to tell the tale. Dick was the second.

My friend Johnny was the first.

From a 120mm transparency


Heather & I arrived in front of Johnny's house long about 11:00 pm, my big-assed black Oldsmobile '88 already pretty well packed. A pile of Johnny's stuff lay out on the walkway, the known quantity of which had space barely preserved for it in the car.

Gear taken for granted today was then still exotic and expensive to boot. Apart from my radical North Face tent, we camped much as our fathers did and their fathers before. Tarps. Axes. White gas stoves and lanterns. Thick flannel sleeping bags. Cast iron cookware, metal dishes. Every bit of fishing gear we owned. Our favorite hats, wide-brimmed and not yet made crushable.

And for a couple years at least, a 16mm filmmaking outfit, sans sound.

We carried lots of stuff.

A man approached from down the street, military gait undisguised by civilian semi-ease and make no mistake.

"Artie!" Johnny greeted the fellow with open arms.

Artie was just in, on leave from the Marines. He'd come over to see what his best boyhood friend Johnny was up to on a Friday night. You can imagine how it went:

Geez Artie, we're all set to leave for a week... I wish... Hey, do 'ya think?... I dunno... only a week... What else 'ya got to do? ...of course there's room... It's freakin' awesome up there...

O.K. What the Hell.

Don't ask how we did it, I don't remember. The car sure was crowded but as driver my space was sacrosanct so I didn't much care. At any rate we didn't have to lash Artie to the roof and there'd be room for him in Johnny's tent. As a Marine, Artie'd been unburdened of most personal stuff. What little was left he'd been well taught to keep tight. We were good to go.

So off we went together, spirits high and set firmly on adventure. For the first and only time, our happy little trio of Northwoods Players had added a fourth.


In the short afternoon of a late September day, we arrived at the Presque Isle unit of the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness. The place was mostly empty and we secured our two favorite campsites overlooking Superior.

From a vintage 35mm transparency

We ought to have set up camp but were like restive kids finally spilled from a full season of school. Excitement overrode judgment and instead of doing chores we headed down to the river to see what we could see. That was why we'd come, after all.

With the right wind at night and the Presque Isle running high, you hear the rush of the falls all the way to the far end of camp. That's a fair piece. Even more than the nocturnal rhythms of the big lake, it's probably my favorite lullaby.

You can't see my river from the trail leading down to it.

Over the years I've come to anticipate the state of things by what I hear of her from on high. When the river's white song informs the woods it sings mostly of good fortune. When she's silent, it generally means you'll work harder for less.

On this day in September, the Presque Isle's voice was full. As was the parking lot and with Michigan plates, another good sign. Locals don't much waste their time fishing where fish aren't but when edge seasons draw runs of mighty beasts from big water all the way up the river to the falls, locals take full advantage.

Down the stairs we tumbled, clumsy with anticipation. What sights awaited us at the bottom!

Jammed shoulder to shoulder, fishermen lined every reasonably safe spot along both sides of the heavy river. On the suspension bridge we stood agape as dozens of Coho salmon were hooked, disgorged and rudely tossed to the rocks behind, with fresh lines quickly laid out then all but instantly hooking another silvery fish. Behind every fisherman there flopped a pile of not quite yet dead salmon.

None of us had ever seen the like. We were transfixed.

Then we shook ourselves and ran the steep steps up from the river two at a time, a thing I can no longer do regardless of circumstance.

We threw gear from the car and built the essentials of camp. Even so, the day slipped towards dark while we made ready. Which was why we carried Mr. Coleman's portable sun, to blast the night.

Flush with anticipation, we headed back to the river.

At dusk the parking lot emptied, as did the riverbank below. With fresh choice of spots, we clambered down a narrow trail to a smooth rock ledge along furious water. We fired the Coleman, rigged our gear and commenced to fish.

We rode astride the world, as intended.

Johnny stood upriver to my left and nearest the falls. Heather came next, then me. Artie ended up downriver, nearly submerged in total darkness. Fishermen and fish were both fled with the day. Only we four tourists remained, hard beside hissing water in the night. So close were the falls, you couldn't hear much of anything beyond river song. Turbulent air over the water ate the light from the portable sun.

We proceeded to catch exactly nothing but fished on, true to our purpose.

Above the white rush of the falls, an existential alarm sounded. I turned. Out of the night Heather ran to me along the cruel edge of slick stone; yelling for all she was worth, arms waving wildly. I inhaled sharply to scold such dangerous abandon, then something caught my eye and instead I looked down.

Johnny was in the river.

Were it not for flailing hands clawing at black slate I'd probably never have seen him. His head was roughly even with the ledge, thrown back in terror to keep from drowning then and there. I'll never forget the look on his face.

The current flung him to me. I stretched out my fishing pole. Johnny grabbed it and maybe even slowed for the space of a fleeting thought. It proved insufficient. He hurtled irrevocably past, to what in my horror I absolutely recognised for imminent death.

Johnny fast faded from sight.

Deep in shadow, Artie bent at the waist.

With a mighty swipe of a single Marine hewn arm, Artie clutched the shoulder of Johnny's sodden coat. In a single fluid motion he plucked Johnny straight from the raging river and into the air, then set him down gently upon the welcome stability of slippery stone.

Against all reason, Johnny wasn't drowned after all.

Because Artie'd taken leave from the Marines, then was unexpectedly hauled hundreds of miles overland only to find himself placed precisely in the two square feet of all existence at the exact same moment ever when he'd be perfectly positioned to save his best boyhood friend's life, which he did.

We gathered around Johnny who was alive. He shivered cold and wet, but just then was maybe less scared than any of us, considering. We made it off the river, up the stairs and back to camp at least as quickly as we'd made it down.

We built the sort of bonfire that lights the night to let the world know you're there.

It was just the slightest misstep that pitched Johnny full into the river. He told us that the great beast of the Presque Isle tried mightily to drag him below the undercut slate and claim him for its own.

Johnny said It tried to yank my boots off, which were the exact same words used some decades later by old Dick from Wakefield, high above the same stretch of river on a sparkling morning.

Through the night we four laughed and maybe cried as our fire shot sparks off to the sky over Superior. We spoke of life and death and life some more, always more.

Life chose Johnny and we remained at liberty to howl at the moon, our purpose for that day in that place forever secure.


  1. Having read this article, I comment that I have only seen the Presque isle and black river falls so full once. With the declining water levels over the years, the beauty has not faded, but the danger is perceived as fleeting, and for some other fool. Yet, I know its power runs deep and its danger is way beyond the outward beauty. Let's hope your work helps to maintain and restore this land to is ancient and respectable ancestry, while maintaining its integral beauty. If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.' — William Blake. I will stand only near the edge and in awe. Jessica

    1. Once during a great flood, I saw the place wildly outside its banks -- there were no waterfalls left, only a furious rapid and a noise I'd not care to hear again. The last decade of drought has been hard on things. Breaks my heart, to see the river so empty. All the same, even in the lowest flow there's a hole beneath the final falls that measures 25' and when tourists come along and get foolish I just turn away, having seen enough.

      Thanks for reading, and for taking the time to comment...