19 December 2014


Many words have been written about the stark beauty of a sunlit snowscape. There is a lot to say for one. The North Woods are at their aesthetic best, perhaps, under a cleansing blanket of fresh cold powder that dazzles the eyes and frosts the pines and spruces, turning them almost black with contrast, especially in the post-snowfall deep cold that settles in and makes the air itself seem brittle and crystalline.

But there is a rarer and more solemn beauty in foggy overcast. Today is just such a day, a mid-December thaw that has collapsed the snow on the ground into greasy almost-slush and set the trees dripping so that the woods sound of a steady rain. The air is thick and heavy with mist that obscures the grander vistas but accentuates the depth of the woods by its shading, nearer trees standing out clearly and more distant ones losing first color and then shape.

Slowly the gloom can even become oppressive; apart from the tree-rain the woods seem silent. Unlike the crisp carriage of sound that cold clear air allows, this wet stuff muffles all noise and keeps it close. The residents seem to feel it as well. There are no chattering chickadees roving about and the rabbits and grouse and even the red squirrels are quiet.

An all-day late-season blackpowder hunt is my reason to be out in it. An empty freezer and a free weekend send me back into the woods for one last try. But the day soon seems to hold little promise. Presently everything, including my rifle, is wet. Will it even fire, if a soggy deer does cross my path?

I sit it out anyway. At the end of the day all I've seen are a pair of hurried grey jays and a raven that croaks and gurgles unseen above me in the overcast, his wings carving loud hollows in the thick atmosphere.

01 July 2014

It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: You will outlive the bastards.
― Edward Abbey

15 April 2014

I’ve moved home.

The grey morning after the last day of deer season, 2009, that I left Duluth for lower Michigan was a lifetime ago, by my reckoning, the four and a half actual years overfilled with new jobs, new friends, my marriage and several others, and four addresses. But finally, this spring my wife and I moved home.

I’ve heard it said that home is where your stuff is. True to a point, but not absolutely, as discussed over late beers in Escanaba, Michigan, while all my stuff was in the U-Haul parked outside.  

Home has always been the North Woods. Growing up on their southern edge, where the Laurentian Plateau descends into Lake Superior, made them the bedrock of my concept of home. Of course, I have grown to also love the sand country of Michigan and its jack pines and trout, its predictable hatches and rich dry-fly heritage, and its three coastlines with sight-fishing flats. But I am not really home until I've seen the sun set over a rocky, tannin-dark lake and watched the stars spin around Polaris – near directly overhead – next to a spitting fire of spruce and birch.

Lastly, and most naturally, home is where my people are. As I consider this, it is clear that I've left behind a home in Michigan, now, too. Friends met and made over moving water – or at least the discussion of it – that will keep a home for me in Michigan when I return, even if only occasionally.

My last weeks in Michigan were filled with fly tying, trip planning, and even some long-shot fishing, made more poignant by the impending move. And the first weeks here in Minnesota have been filled with reunions, over water and over beer, made more cheerful by not ending with “see you next year,” but instead “see you again soon.”

I suspect, however, that I’ll be returning home, if only briefly, to Michigan soon as well. When the spring flood passes, there will be Hendricksons and Isonychias and drakes and Hexagenia. And friends to chase them with. 




13 January 2014

On Traveling

Rosy of cheek and toothy of grin, the three Yankees burst through the automatic doors of the Super Wal-Mart in McMinnville, Tennessee. River water that had parking-lot flash-frozen on their waders melted again in the relative warmth of the store and their Vibram soles squeaked offensively on the tile.

They were in town to find and document a Tennessee musky; the polar vortex was in town to set records. These three hardened winter steelhead anglers from Minnesota, Illinois, and Michigan had come farther south than ever before in their lives only to fish in the coldest temperatures of their lives: six degrees above zero, Fahrenheit, was the high that afternoon. And they had moved muskies. They had coaxed the outboard motor to life, cursed at iced rod guides and flies that stuck to every metal surface, and stomped frozen wooden feet – but they drew muskies from deep within the steaming and impossibly green water.

And that afternoon, in the actual last hour of light, they had caught a fish. Not a monstrous fish, but an eleventh-hour keystone musky that sanctioned their suffering and prevented them from having to say “we didn't get the shot, but it was still a good trip,” yet again to their families and friends – and editor.

The cold had the town shut down, except for the Super Wal-Mart. Enter the heroes, now, seeking a bottle of real Tennessee whiskey with which to properly toast the fish, the trip, their hosts, and anything else within range.

“You guys carry whiskey here?” they asked of the first cashier they came upon, a girl likely not of drinking age, who was too startled by their waterproof bib overalls and ice-beards to answer immediately.

But the crone at the next register was ready. She had seen their kind before. Her small eyes twinkled with joy, but she did not smile as she croaked: 

"This here’s a dry county.”  

07 November 2013

Old Country

This is old country.

The wilds we paddled this fall are not much changed in a hundred centuries, despite the warring and logging and fires and mining and recreating. For beneath the visible scars the country is old. Old beyond all human understanding, beyond our disloyal memory with its sliding temporal scale and romantic filters.

We paddle through this country, on a watercourse slipping backwards over the great ancient bottomland, having reversed its flow after the grand deluge drained the liquid glaciers to the sea. We drift over the scoured and pulverized earth which has since become soft and peaty and full of life, this life itself a remnant, clinging to what was the edge of eternal ice just a breath before. Subarctic creatures, which have clung here since long before they were called by Latin names, before English and French names, and even before they were first called by words of men, now lost.

And we paddle, speaking their English and Latin names as if those words have any real significance. We pass into the wild more as spectators than intruders, really. Encapsulated, like the foreign bodies we are, in our Gore-Tex and polypropylene and language, we go mostly unnoticed. The dark tannic water and its microcurrents absorb the whirlpools made by our paddles, and moments after we pass it is not certain that we ever did.

Yes, of course, we catch some fish. We have tied garish hair and holographic hydrocarbon synthetics to forged nickel steel hooks and we swim these flies deep, beyond where the shallow northern sunlight penetrates, in a world we cannot see or understand.  Presently, a fish will strike the fly with calculated emotionless violence, and is hooked.  Through the electric throbbing of a fly rod we transcend our exile and truly intrude – participate – in the wild. We are pinned taut to an ageless beast of coiled fury and teeth that knows nothing of us or that he is called Esox or that even in this remote wild his flesh is tainted with heavy metals that fall from the sky like some steampunk plague. He knows only the waterborne rhythms and images that tell him of prey or danger, sensed with organs stropped to a razor-edge by eons of death and killing; like a mathematical equation worked and reduced to its most simple and perfect form, and in its solving is the reduction of fish, frogs, mice, and ducks to elemental protein. 

So in our arrogance we count coup on them. We hold them in our warm alien hands and regard them with ape-like curiosity and they stare back with reptilian indifference.  They do not wonder at us, and they do not hate us any more than that same mathematical equation can hate.  We do not understand this and we try to reason out their motivations and urges in an attempt to feel more connected to their timeless existence and to the place itself.

We camp on a rare sandy hill within that soggy muskeg waste, raised longwise like a new scar from the glacial flatness of the outwash plain. Wolves are close, invisible but one ridge away, and they howl late into each night, whether to just to each other or also to us we do not know; that they know of our camp, it being upwind and stinking of plastic and canvas and man, is certain. We wonder aloud about this and about their lives and goings on.

But ascribing to them human motivations prevents us from asking too seriously why their howls cause our blood to chill and our small hairs to stand up. As the cadence of distinct voices washes over us, it resonates deep, the perfect pitch, vibrating forgotten primal chords. The tone is one of fear: of shining eyes in the night and heavy padded footfalls just outside the firelight; fear of awakening to hot breath and cracking teeth. This fear, however obsolete, may well be the only emotion we truly share with the wolves, who perhaps associate with our scent some inherited memory of crushing leghold steel and snapping rifle shots.

So we sit opposite our small cookfire and speculate on their schedule and what they might be saying, as if each echoing rise and fall were a verse of words to be translated. We avoid the truth of it: that words are neither sufficient nor appropriate to describe their speech or their existence, the enduring trail of death and blood that wolves live and must live lest they cease to be wild, cease to be wolves.

We will never find communion with the wolf by seeking his humanity; he has none. Instead, we must accept that within us is the very same crimson predatory instinct that drives the wolf.

It is with this in mind that I prepare for another week in the wild: hundreds of miles westerly but a very similar place – old country. There, too, packs of wolves range widely, loping in ancient and bloody pawprints, crossing man’s roads occasionally but his immediate path almost never. And the waters there are dark brown, only recently the ice-blue of glacial melt, and harbor the northern pike in their terrible and prehistoric economy of death.

Instead of a fly rod I will carry a rifle, a transition made every November, an urge rather than a choice, whether brought on by the smell of dying leaves or shortening photoperiod or some other older indication I do not know. Fishing companions will be traded for hunting companions, though some of the people are the same, and for a week we will live in these woods much the same as hunting men have for eons, since before there were rifles, before English or Anishinaabe words were spoken here; even before the very first words were spoken in these woods – that primitive tongue long lost.

At night we will laugh and talk about the hunt and stare into fires and into the stars; sometimes, wolves howl and we stand silently in the dark, heads thrown back, our breath rising into the cold starlight as if we, too, were howling. In the frosty mornings we will listen to ravens carve across the sky, chucking and hooting like heralds of a returning ice age; and we will listen to our ears ring, unaccustomed by modernity to the stark silence of the woods, and we will commit acts of killing and blood, and we will be part of the wild order of things, somber and honest and vulnerable.

*     *     *




07 August 2013


We drove west toward the setting sun, which was disappearing into a heavy cloud bank. The put-in was only a few minutes’ ride from our campsite, but we spent it mostly in silence. 

“I’m kind of nervous,” I said at last.

“Me too,” JT answered quickly, as if he had been thinking the same thing, or had been about to say it himself. 

Both of us had night fished before, and are accustomed to the weirdness of a nighttime river. But neither of us had ever done anything quite like this.

It wasn’t that the trip we were about to begin was particularly dangerous. We had floated it earlier in the day to make sure it was passable. In a few spots, it almost wasn’t, even for my small canoe -- nobody has been through with a chainsaw, maybe ever. There are trees and logs to haul over and scrape under and carry around, and some just under the surface waiting to spill us.   

But if we paddled slowly and remembered the deadheads and sweepers we had seen that morning we would be fine; the canoe had proved responsive to our paddles and we had proved able in our joint handling of it in tight spots. We had digital and analog navigation aids and extra batteries for our LED lights. And eight-weights.

Still, a twinge of apprehension. Maybe actual fear. We knew that once we let go of the bank and began moving downstream on the black slick, it would be many hours and miles of severe darkness and skilled maneuvering before we could rest. We also knew there would be no occupied structures nor any public roads to offer an escape along the way -- which is of course a major part of the reason we were there.  

The stream is legally navigable, as the ancient saw-cut logs in the deep holes prove, but narrow, and choked with wood: cedars and white pines generations dead, petrified in the icy water. Its course is nothing but switchback corners, bottomless holes, and undercuts; it is far too deep to wade in most spots and the banks are high and unclimbable anyway. It flows cold and clear and in the daylight glows with a strange greenish glacial tint.  The tract of prehistoric seafloor it carves across is now a river bottom of cedar, willow, and marshy meadow, undeveloped and unwelcoming. No manicured banks or cabins with porch lights; just a few old foot bridges, some wrecked, to break up the wet wilderness.

Rumors of big trout in this region and previous foot expeditions around its margins had led to this idea, and the land-that-time-forgot atmosphere of the place haunted us, so there we were. Just after sundown with rainclouds mustering and distant lightning silently flickering, we carried the fifteen-foot aluminum Grumman Aircraft Eng. Corp. double-ender canoe through the head-high grass and lowered it several feet down to the water. I handed down to JT our rods, packs, and paddles, and we neared our event horizon. The current, irresistible as gravity, was about to take us somewhere black and unknown.



We let go of the grassy bank, allowed the magnetic water to draw us downstream, and in an instant left behind the road bridge and the car and the easy way back. 

*    *    *

No photography that night. Between the dark, wet, and concentration on boat handling and fishing there was no opportunity for it.  Instead presented here are pictures from the days before and after -- it is also grasshopper season and while the trout we caught were small, the fishing was excellent, the stream beautiful, and the company good.