Thursday, June 6, 2013

Notes From the Field -- Gone Fishing

Sometime during our 14 month 26,000 mile Odyssey around Superior, I realized that I’d need to reestablish a relationship with the place that wasn't primarily intellectual and strictly about work.

Then when a too long winter was followed by a recalcitrant spring, an injury suffered early on in the fieldwork necessitated surgery and convalescence chained me indoors just as the seasons finally turned. I suffered greatly for the timing. No intellectual appreciation for the cultural, historical and natural landscape of the Superior Basin could sustain me.

What’s true is that the overriding value of wildness to humans isn’t what we think of it, but how it makes us feel. Landscape exists within as well as without. It informs us.

That’s a deeply personal connection -- an intimate, ancient and ongoing relationship with the real world that’s unique to each of us. This is why we've so much collective difficulty protecting wild landscapes, as their profound value resists easy translation via reductive formulae everyone can understand -- like resource extraction vs. wetland preservation. Measured strictly by dollars, wetlands inevitably lose.

It’s while fishing that my most intimate relationship with the real world is consummated, especially so on my beloved Presque Isle River, just up from where it pours its heart into Superior. So that’s where I’ve headed, after my winter of discontent.

I've a bit of work to do while here, places to go and people to see, all of which will end up on these pages in one form or the other in time. But mostly, I’m just hanging out on my favorite landscape in the world and will encourage it to fill me once again with that sense of wonder and awe and magic and quietude that set me off in search of perfect light to begin with.

Norman Maclean closed his magnificent “A River Runs Through It” with these sterling paragraphs, among the most evocative in all of literature. Would that I could write so well but I can’t, so I’ll lean on Norman to help see us through:

Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, though some friends think I shouldn't.  Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening.  Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.  The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.  On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops.  Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.

Of course, I’m no fly fisherman and my river is the Presque Isle in Michigan, but Norman nailed it and for all time. He knew, as do I, that wildness is the best medicine for what ails us.

The Presque Isle too, suffered through a long, tough winter. Evidence of that is everywhere, in the form of shattered slate and tumbled trees. But she’s running as healthy now as anytime I've seen her in years. The river is heavy, like when it tried to claim Dick from Wakefield or my friend Johnny.

And just downriver from that, at the edge of the maelstrom, I coaxed out this:

The photo is through the kindness of a passing tourist who couldn’t help but notice when this trout cleared the water five times before coming to the net. A moment later the fish was back in the river. A few moments after that, she was out of my hands and again cruising the depths -- unhurt though perhaps a bit wiser about the deceptions of man.

What’s true is that after today I’m a bit wiser about the ways of trout and the Presque Isle.

The afternoon turned sodden and cold. Near nightfall, clouds rose from the Bessemer Bluffs in the way that they do.

It’s dark now, chill and wet. The spring chorus of frogs is in full and celestial voice all the same.

And this morning from the grey ash of objectivity and intellect I rekindled the flame of true love, on a wild river at the big lake. I’m a better man for that, no matter how unwell. More healing to come it’s hoped, in the days ahead.

Geez but it’s good to be home…


  1. Wonderful post, Frank. I love the picture of you and your fleet friend.

  2. Thank-you, Nonnie. I'm genetically reluctant to post pictures of myself, but that's about as happy as I can look, so...

  3. Frank, I adore this photo of you. The joy.

  4. Thanks, Ginger. I don't imagine that I ever look much happier, at least not in public...

  5. I just visited the Porcupine Mountains three weeks ago, the first time since last October and again was awed by its beauty. I only had one day to visit, and it definitely wasn’t enough. Each season is different and magical. Stopped off first at Bonanza Falls with the water flowing over the entire length, this is one of my favorite waterfalls, hard to believe there was once a rail line running through it. Then the magnificence of Superior, the waters were still muddy brown and the surf coming in high waves during a long walk along its shoreline. Next stop was Lake of the Clouds where a group of eagles soaring over the bright green of the new foliage on the hills and the blue of the lake was the highlight of my trip. A hike and picnic lunch on the Escarpment (most of the other trails were too wet for enjoyable hiking, at least in my opinion). Then while driving across the park the carpets of wildflowers everywhere had me pulling over just to enjoy their sheer numbers. Giant clumps of trillium and plots of trout lily especially by Overlooked Falls. The Presque Isle Waterfalls where the river was almost overflowing its banks in comparison to later in the year, with the waterfalls pounding and the mist flying. Finally, a long stopover at Lake Superior at the mouth of the river, with the water an amazing dark blue.

    It always shocks me how so many people will make the long trip out to the park and then it's like they're on a quest; they'll hike to a vantage point, take a picture and leave. I just don't understand how some people can't stop and enjoy the moment without hurrying off to the next stop. I always have to pry myself away at the end of the day, knowing that I have over an hour and a half drive home.

    The next day I visited the Black River Waterfalls which are incredibly powerful and wild in the spring themselves, with so many wildflowers you couldn’t help yourself from constantly stopping just to take in their their beauty. The entire forest floors were absolutely covered with so many different species of flowers.

    You need to start posting photographs again, so that when I’m back in my office during the long work weeks, I can check out your blog and enjoy the UP through your eyes. Thanks Liz

  6. The place is Wonderland and make no mistake. Every season brings different gifts and those change throughout, sometimes by the day or even the hour. Probably the greatest gift of my residency at Dan's Cabin was that it provided me the opportunity in a single trip to experience autumn through from peak splendor all the way to the grey, cutting edge of winter. I'm now permanently informed by my stay there.

    The rivers remain full, while the woods are fast changing from spring ebullience to summer quietude. One result of all the water is that during an evening spent on a quiet forest lake, I was accompanied in my canoe by more mosquitoes than I'd had to bear in any one place for a very long time. Even Paradise has biting insects, eh?

    As to the photos, while I'm still working my way through the great mountain of fieldwork gathered during the Odyssey, I'm also devoting time and resources this summer trying to transition over to high end digital capture. Working in film is increasingly difficult to maintain, while digital imagery has advanced to the point where the work is (in critical ways) superior to what I'll ever capture on film. In order to continue, I must evolve.

    In the interim, I'll be putting together a slideshow consisting of highlights from the entire project, set to music and running through the seasons. I'm also working on further essays about issues facing the region, intended to tie together the narrative threads already touched on here. That's substantive work and mighty time consuming, as I've got to get it right.

    I'll keep everyone informed of my progress, but I should expect these summer months to be sorta quiet around here, as more work is engaged behind the scenes than in public, so to make it ready for these pages.

    Thanks for stopping by and for sharing. We, each of us, bear a responsibility to speak for these remaining pristine landscapes because without our active participation, much if not all of it will eventually be lost and we'd all be the poorer for that.