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.

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