Reaching out into the dark waters with his paddle and drawing it toward the boat, J pulls the bow out into the river. For a moment, I hold the stern fast against the bank, allowing the current to catch the bow and spin us around and into the fast flowing stream. It’s almost noon. And hot, too hot for being this far north. At first we don’t fish much and make good time, crossing the highway at Seney
and a few minutes later the rusty trestle of the Soo Lines. In 1919, when Hemingway visited this river, the line from the ferry at St Ignace on the northern side of the Mackinaw Straits all the way to Duluth, Minnesota. Today, the rusty rails of light iron have been severely amputated and stretch only from the main line at Trout Lake to Munising. There’s not much rail traffic left, mostly logs and shipments to and from a paper mill.
Continuing to paddle, we enter “The Spreads” about a mile below the tracks. Trees disappear and like an artery leaving the heart for the body, which splits into smaller ones, the river splits into numerous deep channels cutting through tall grass. The channels are lined with shrubs, mostly tag elders, providing shade over the deep holes. We dig out the rods. At one of the bends, J, being in the front, pulls a small brook trout out of a hole. I continue to navigate the canoe, getting an occasional chance to fish, but with no luck. After a mile or so, the river comes back together and the banks rise higher. We’re making good time. Tammarks, hemlocks and jack pines first appear. But as the stream draws us deeper into the northwoods, maples dominate the shoreline standing as sentries at guard. Others have fallen prey to the forces of water, creating log dams along the river providing us with both an obstacle and an opportunity.
This is the country Hemingway describes in “The Big Two-hearted River
.” High wooded ridges overlooks a river filled with log dams under which deep holes are carved out. Trout hid in these holes. At first, instead of cursing the obstacles, we seize the opportunity. Approaching a jam, we beach the boat upstream in order not to spook the fish, jump out and fish the holes before portaging the boat over the logs and continuing downstream. This works well and by mid-afternoon, we’re approaching our limit of Brook Trout, a small but tasty native specie.
It’s still hot at six o’clock. J and I have caught our limit and, being good friends, offer to help H and B catch up on theirs. They’ve spent most of the day behind us, often forgoing fishing for swimming. However, we are also beginning to realize that these log dams, which have become so frequent that they’re now at almost every bend, are slowing our progress. In order to make miles, we begin to pass up some good holes.
At seven, we stop fishing. We’re still pulling over log dams. We haven’t reached the confluence with the East Branch. The deerflies are nasty, swarming around our heads. I zip the legs onto my pants and pull on a long sleeve shirt. A few minutes later, I pull the mosquito netting down over my face. It makes it difficult to see, especially obstacles right below the water line, but the netting provides relief from these deer flies that seem to have an immunity to Deet. Only my hands are exposed and for the next hour, I chum the river with dead deer flies, on one occasion killing four gnawing flies on one hand with a single slap. We’re making good time, having perfected the art of portaging over the log dam, but the East Branch is still no where to be seen.
In the summer, this far north and west in the time zone, the sun sets at 9:30 P.M. I begin to wonder at what point it will be prudent to pull over and make camp for the evening. I decide not to bring the subject up until after the sun is down, knowing that we’d still have a good half hour to gather firewood, clean fish for dinner, and to make as comfortable of a camp as possible. If we camp then, we’d only have six or seven hours of night, and we could get back on the river at first light. We finally pass the East Branch right around sunset and the water level rises and pace quickens. I know we have four or five more miles to Germfask, probably six or seven to the bridge where we’ve dropped a vehicle. I pitch the idea of camping overnight on the bank, informing everyone that I do have some extra food and a lighter stashed away, but no one wants to quit. I’m concerned that in the dark it will be easy to tip a canoe and although I don’t think we have to worry about drowning, I worry about losing equipment, maybe even boats, in the dark.
A half mile past the East Branch, we join up with the Manistique. The river widens and there are fewer obstacles. We paddle furiously. The canoe guidebook suggested this is a five or six hour trip, with the author bragging that he made it in 4 ½. I wouldn’t buy a used car from the guy. As the light fades, we continue to paddle, but drop our speed in order to be extra careful. Right before dark, J and I split a energy bar. We haven’t eaten since lunch, nearly seven hours earlier, and I’m still not hungry, but need the energy. A few stars begin to appear. We keep close to one another, staying mostly in the middle of the channel. When my paddle hits the bottom of the river, I realize that it has changed from sand to rock. Occasionally we shoot across a rock garden with small waves splashing on the boat. I spot the constellation Scorpios just above the trees on the southern horizon.
At a little after eleven, we spot a fire up on the bank. It’s surrounded by a group of campers. We hail them and they’re surprised. Someone shines a flashlight at a spot where we can easily get the boats to shore. After pulling the boats on shore, we walk over to their campfire and ask if one of them would be willing to drive us to the car. “I’d love to, man,” one of them said, “but we’re all shit-faced, we’ve been drinking all day.” Looking around, it's evident he’s telling the truth. Only a few of them are awake, several more are asleep, or more likely passed out, lying next to the fire. Since B’s vehicle is at the bridge, I suggest he and I hike back to get the car. “Maybe we’ll get a ride,” I suggest. We start walking up to the highway and through the town of Germfask. Only two cars pass us, but no one stops. Coming back, we clock it at 1.7 miles from the bridge to the campground. We quickly load the boats onto B’s trailer, and drive back into Seney. It’s now midnight.
Not feeling up to cooking up fish, we head to Andy’s Seney Bar
, the only place open in town. A few patrons sit at the bar, another couple are shooting a game of pool. We asked the bartender if we could get something to eat as we’d just come off the river. He confides that the cook left at 10, but offers to bake us some frozen pizzas. We ordered a couple and some beers. Hearing that we’d just gotten off the river, everyone in the joint begins to ask us about our trip while J. hustles a few games of pool. One guy suggests he’d allow at least 12 hours for paddling the stretch we did. Someone else digs out a fishing guide book, whose author suggested to allow 11 hours for just paddling and that if one wanted to fish, to make it a two day trip. We agreed with that estimation and long to ring the neck of the author of the canoeing guidebook. Now that we're safe, we laugh and enjoy another beer.
About 1 AM, we head back to the campground north of town where we all quickly crash, only to be awaken at 6 AM by a severe thunderstorm. The wind howls, breaking off limbs, and the clouds open up, sending a deluge of rain and providing a spectacular lightning show. It wasn't suppose to rain. It’s a good thing we didn’t spend the night on the river, after all.