Friday, May 23, 2014

The Presque Isle River, Part 4

 Paddling the River of Memory

Winter has at last released its grip on the Northwoods. Signs of renewal spring through the forest even as I write.

It's more than a year now, since I've stood beside my river. That makes maybe two years during my entire adult life that've passed without at least a visit.

Which means I'm overdue. But come hell or high water, by this time next week I'll be there.

So should you happen to hear a great sigh echoing down from the north, that'd be me.


Some years ago, I returned alone to that stretch of the Presque Isle where Heather & I shared our greatest youthful adventure. Should you like, you can read The Bear Story here.

I'd not been back there since and that particular year, while caught in the melancholy of a fast fading autumn, on a bright day in late October I decided to examine the authenticity of my own personal narrative, just to see what could be seen.

What I found was this...

Presque Isle (Revised)

Autumn is full upon the ground.

Burnished bronze through brilliant gold are faded and fallen. Cut by the wind, the world breathes ragged at its edges. Resonance withers and what remains stinks of nostalgia. Season and spirit are unbound.

Repelled at the scent of decay, whisperers in the woods are silent. Water over rock murmurs in muted voice. With winter just beyond a fast dimming horizon, effort lent song now would prove ill spent later, when darkness runs long and flow turns cold. Only the wind boasts full voice, chilled even from the west and never silent. It roars, subsides, draws deep and then freshly rising throws a thin veil of grey over an otherwise radiant afternoon.

The sun dims in acknowledgement. Long shadows mark the land, no matter midday.

Buzzards ride updrafts, alert to failed spirit. They crane on the fly and peer straight through thinned forest, down to the moist maze of dead color at its floor. There nothing stirs save mortality on the breeze. The great black birds with dried blood heads peel off on a gust, soar sideways to the south and are off to richer fields. In a moment, they're not even specks against the sky.

That's not easy to do, when one hasn't wings.

Once, we knew how to fly. Or maybe only believed we did. The distance between the two is so small, who can rightly say?

We drew full the nuances of autumn and soared upon its spirit. Owners of time, we pleased to call Death arbitrary. Then the future was whole with the past, Janus-faced and vibrant. Awareness made us weightless and at liberty to soar. Should a salamander live in a fire pit, the great owl stand guard at the gate and otters disdain foolishness with gruff rebuke, we knew the way those signs pointed. Or told ourselves we did, which is just the same.

And in our moment, we weren't even specks against the sky.

History outweighs promise. The ground is nearer than ever. Maybe time demands that, to prepare us for a more intimate relation with the Earth. Flight becomes the province of dreams, lest memory invite the acid of old age and slayer of spirit, regret.

Autumn is full upon the river.

Slow water dons a semblance of day as a mask for a heart run cold. What's seen on the river's face is as real as real can be, with heaven overturned.

Only the faintest ripple betrays a canoe sliding across liquid sky. Clouds part before the bow, pass on in silence, then with a visible shiver reform behind.

Shining blue pierces dark current and the life of the river is revealed in the sky. Little fish seek precious warmth in shafts of light, unmindful of exposure. Now and then, slender green tendrils dance in bunches, waving with revealed rhythm.

At its center, the world meets upon itself. Distinctions of perspective are healed. Stones hover, weightless. Grasses weave in every direction. Forest rises from forest, reaching clouds above and below. The wind comes from nowhere and everywhere.

A great heron rises from the river to take a wide, slow arc across two skies before coming to rest again downstream. Unseen, but near to where recall resides.

Memory is writ so large that sometimes actuality disdains to contain it. A remembered torrent is a trickle, distance is squeezed and once manifest courage long mitigated by the weight of perspective is revealed as speculative.

It's not that memory lies. In its time the moment was true and so remains.

There the dead thing was, life reduced to muck and ooze. And here's the spot where determination rose to the occasion and two spirits joined forever in lifelong pursuit, mostly up to the task. The woods were thick, the trail obscure and we blazed it with fortitude as chill darkness fell.

Thus is narrative created.

Memory is a stain indissoluble. And if the size of it doesn't fit the present, it's only that history has grown so large as to make the past seem small.

The day turns late.

It's no trouble to paddle upstream. Only occasionally do watery headwinds urge to the side, with course correction achieved on but a bit of will and a gentle push. A pair of tiny ducks lead the way. Their delicate, duplicate forms effortlessly maintain safe distance.

An otter appears. Its smooth fur throws river on the rise.

The injury of time fades. If scolded for daring, convergence would be complete, old acquaintance made fresh, the past resurrected something like whole.

Daring being in scarce supply, instead the otter is playful and curious. Repeatedly it dips behind the clouds then reappears to make inquiry with a melodic string of delicate chirps and whirs. A slipstream in the sky marks its underwater path.

Then the otter is gone. As happened long ago, in a heartbeat unnoticed, an invitation is withdrawn and some secret briefly there for the asking is again withheld.

Now history augments flight and seasons come undone.

The paths of rivers and otters and men intersect to render memory irrelevant. Autumn comes full upon me. In a moment, I'm not even a speck upon the sky.

The trip upriver is leisurely. Air and water are one. Earth and the heavens are indivisible. Firelight streams through all.

All around, schools of tiny fish leap, fall back and leap again like black specks turning together in a great flock across high sky. A few lingering golden leaves sway brittle in an evening breeze. The river runs as deep as heaven is high. Winter is at the horizon, with night just beyond.

Steady against the current and with memory tucked safely again into its bed of dreams, flying proves instinctive.

And from this vantage, one can see that the Evening Star will find its proper place upon the river, so to be cast by it back to the sky as once was a midday sun.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Presque Isle River, Part 3 -- Dick, from Wakefield

Though beautiful under any circumstance, when you visit the Presque Isle during a season of drought you'll wonder what all the fuss is about.

On the high trail parallel to its final run from the lower falls to Superior, in times of low water you can easily chart the bottom of the river through a few clear feet of cool, gently running water.

Revealed beneath is a needlework of cauldron holes snaking through steep ridges cut with millennial persistence through some of Earth's older rock.

Which means you get a pretty good notion of what the bottom of the river looks like in those dark stretches you never see, not even in the lowest water.

Then consider the wildly carved walls that rise above the river, where water once had a fierce way with stone across geologic time and you understand that what you can't see is unlikely to be forgiving.

Which knowledge provides ample cause to try and stay out of the thing.

Especially in autumn when storms swell the river with late riparian life, drawing Superior life in to work the maelstrom and fatten up ahead of winter. That brings fishermen who brave dark skies, wind and rain to work along slippery slate in pursuit of all manner of things, from simple sustenance to lasting glory.

Decades after Johnny's semi-miraculous escape from the Presque Isle's clutches, I was told the story of another fisherman gone into my river, just where I love it the best. I first heard the story secondhand, from a fellow river rat.

Quite unexpectedly, I was later given a firsthand account, which was a gift of profound generosity.

This is the story of that...

Dick, from Wakefield (Revised)

Spend enough quality time in a place and you’ll meet other folk who feel about it much as you do, for reasons entirely their own.

Then, whether generous of spirit or jealous in their private prerogatives, decades erode most things down to the nub and so it is with people too. Years of seeing someone’s approach to fellow travelers, wild waters and especially the creatures that thrive in those mightn’t leave you with a person’s full, legal name. But it provides a decent window on their character all the same.


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 too, which marks a man.

Dick was taciturn in the way of men who're most at home in the woods and on wild waters.

Already well along when first I encountered him, his keen eyes flashed 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 hand.

Most times there was also a length of line expertly played out through Dick's other hand, so his bait’d ride the torrent in and out of cauldron holes face to face with fish.

For years we nodded across our river or offered a quick “How ‘ya doing?” when paths crossed. Sometimes we'd pause to share a bit more, always centered on our mutual love of place. But we were there for fish, so gave each other ample room to have at it.

As Dick was the best fisherman on the river, he got plenty of that from me. No braggart, his prowess was evident mostly through the bulging Duluth pack, though I saw him land a whole bunch of fish over the years when the rest of us couldn't.

Except that one glorious, bitingly wet morning when from some distance Dick from Wakefield watched me return an in-season, trophy walleye unharmed to the water.

I can still see the look on the old man's face. He’d spent his life on the river and had long since grown accustomed to my release of fish, but it's just possible he’d never seen anyone do that before.

I'd heard Dick from Wakefield went into the Presque Isle and lived to tell the tale the year after it happened.

A season or two later, we met along a narrow trail that runs close under the bridge then down to a deep, fast run between the falls, where little fish thrive and sometimes big fish thrive there too.

Dick was headed up off the river while I was going down, which spoke poorly for my prospects. We stopped together along the narrow path. The morning sun was bright.

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 not often seen on our river.

Dick cast a glance down at my gear. One’s choice of tools carries weight with certain men. Our shared judgment went in my favor.

I was a mite embarrassed to be caught by this old river rat while wearing an inflatable pfd, which device is my sole hedge against the vicissitudes of loving as fickle a partner as the Presque Isle River. We exchanged pleasantries.

Then, like no time before or after, Dick from Wakefield told me a story...

Dick had been working his spot on the river -- beneath the suspension bridge, from the edge of the slate just past the last set of falls. He misstepped. Dick’s balance shifted, aged reflexes proved insufficient and before he could draw a breath, he plunged into swift water.

The river carried him quickly downstream. Dick realised a tourist on the bridge had seen him go in, but 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 river had him fast. The old man said it tried to yank his boots off. I’d heard that before, though didn’t interrupt to tell him Johnny'd said that very thing.

Dick from Wakefield desperately tried to pull himself from the river by its slick slate edge, only delaying a fate that seemed to him inevitable.

On the east side of the river at its mouth, cut rock pinches steeply. There, even slack current gains terrible strength with depth to make a final rush into Superior.

Dick approached the point of no return and 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. 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. A lover to whom he’d devoted himself so well for so long had sought finally to claim him completely. We stood silently together for a moment, each of us caught in a private current of fearsome 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 as usual was closed tight about his throat. He slowly slid it down a bit to offer me a peek beneath.

Hidden securely from the curious gaze and sometimes summary judgment of tough old river rats -- men who knew him well and whose respect was long since granted under any circumstance -- Dick from Wakefield wore the exact same inflatable life vest as I.

Our river laid claim to him and he’d barely escaped. Only a fool would count on a second chance and Dick was no fool. Unwilling to forsake the Presque Isle 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 chose to reveal his secret to me.


I've been told for certain what's long been suspected, that Dick from Wakefield passed away. Considering each successive season with him absent our river, I knew that. Didn't even have to hear it secondhand. It was understood.

In response to my initial post of this piece in April of 2012, members of Dick's family reached out. They've been most kind in their comments and now they too will be with me whenever I think of their father.

That'll include each autumn morning I fish the Presque Isle River where it offers up whatever it can grab to Superior's big water. Times when some might visit the place and find it frightening, but a few are there because we've been called.

And by virtue of that, some of us know that even when caught in the raging torrent of Death's watery grasp, a good fisherman might yet land a bit of saving grace.

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

Dick's spot on the Presque Isle. Right side of river, beneath the bridge.