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.

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