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.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Presque Isle River, Part 1

Derived from the French presqu'île, Presque Isle means 'almost an island'. For me, that name's proven to be rich with more than merely geological meaning.

Rising from near the Wisconsin/Michigan border, the Presque Isle River slips generally northwest. It defines a rich swath of Ottawa National Forest with a mostly gentle meander as it goes, picking up voice from the chorus of creeks and streams that populate the woods. There it becomes a signifier for my ancestral home.

As the forest rises to meet the Porcupine Mountains, the Presque Isle quickens.

Near the designated wilderness of the Porkies, the river cascades through a rock canyon some call the Presque Isle Gorge, though that name doesn't appear on my Gazetteer. There it reads simply, "Rapids", and I bet that's true.

Through the Porkies the Presque Isle mostly rushes down slope in a determined blur, dark water foaming on hard rock between steepening slopes, singing an increasingly urgent song.

Until right at the end where my river earns it's name by forking a quicksilver tongue then disappearing with a roil into Superior.

I’ve fished at or just up from the mouth of the Presque Isle River into Superior for a long time. 40 years, I figure. That’s fair time gone. And the place whipped my ass for maybe half that, but I've been an ardent suitor.

Then this stretch of water and I seemed somehow to reach a rough accommodation. I’ve no need to beat the Presque Isle and would prefer it not beat me. And as an old married man, I know a sign of lasting love when I see it...

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

What's true is that the careless are occasionally carried down from the falls and sacrificed by the river to icy Superior, where sometimes one’s mortal remains remain forever lost. I’d be of mixed mind, as to that.

Yet this glistening ribbon that rises from lowland to inform a great forest before cutting a tumble at the end is my river. It's song runs through me, even as it does the great, wild forest.

And the Presque Isle's terminus at Superior, where hard rock does indeed become almost an island because the river's cleaved it in two, that place is my anchor in this wilderness...

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 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.


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

We carried lots of stuff.

A man approached from down the street, military gait undisguised by pseudo-civilian ease.

"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.

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.

I don't remember how we managed. At any rate we didn't 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, spirits high and set firmly on adventure. For the first and only time, our little trio of northwoods explorers 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.

We ought to have set up camp but like restive kids excitement overrode our judgment and instead of chores we headed down to the river to see what could be seen.

You can't see my river from the trail leading down to it. You have to commit, though over the years I've learned to anticipate the state of things by what I hear from her on high.

On this day in September, the Presque Isle's voice was full.

So was the parking lot and with Michigan plates too, a good sign for the fishing. Locals don't much waste time where fish aren't but like to take full on advantage of where they are.

Down the stairs we tumbled, clumsy with anticipation.

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.

We'd never seen the like and stood, 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 to build the essentials of a camp. Day slipped towards dark while we made ready. Which was why we carried Mr.Coleman's portable sun to begin with, to blast the night.

Flush with anticipation, at dusk we headed back to the river.

The parking lot stood empty, as did the riverbank below. That left all the choice spots for us. 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, nearest the falls. Heather came next, then me. Artie ended up downriver, submerged in near total darkness. So full was the river, you couldn't hear much of anything beyond its song. Turbulent air over the water ate the light from the portable sun and we threw our lines into fathomless blackness, hoping for the best.

Above the white rush of the falls, an existential alarm sounded.

Out of the night Heather ran right along the cruel edge of slick stone and wild water, yelling for all she was worth, arms waving wildly. I'd have scolded such dangerous abandon, but something worse caught my eye.

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.

The current flung him to me. I stretched out my fishing pole. Johnny grabbed it and maybe slowed for the space of half a thought. Then he hurtled irrevocably past, to what in my horror I 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 and was unexpectedly hauled hundreds of miles overland to find himself precisely in the two square feet of all existence at the exact moment when he'd be the last person able save his best boyhood friend's life, which he did.

We gathered around Johnny. He shivered cold and wet, about as relieved as ever I've seen anyone. Together we made it off the river, up the stairs and back to camp.

Where we built the sort of bonfire that lights the night to let life know you're there.

Tuned out it was just the slightest misstep that pitched Johnny full into the river. He told us that the Presque Isle tried mightily to drag him beneath the undercut slate and claim him for its own.

Johnny said It tried to yank my boots off, which exact same words I was to hear some decades later, offered by an old man standing high above that same stretch of river on a sparkling autumn morning.

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

Life had chosen Johnny. We remained at liberty to howl at the moon, our purpose for that day in that place forever secure.