The last time I drove between the spires of jack pines that line the road to Wa Wa Sum, I had just turned 20 and was working summers for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. It was a dream job for a fisherman, living on the river in a tent, building logjams, stump covers, islands, and bank riprap to improve habitat for trout in the Au Sable River. This was the stretch known as the Holy Water, the first flyfishing-only trout stream in the country. It was a tea-colored current over a bottom of sand that was a blank spot on the map into the early 19th century, and since the days of my childhood had been more of a church to me than any built of stone.
The footpath wound upriver through a cedar swamp where night had staked its claim, and in the beam of my headlamp the roots bulked out of the ground. I remembered my dad telling me that the roots were the arms of giants banished to the swamp, who lived under the ground and were trying to climb out of the muck so they could hunt at night. I asked what they were hunting and he said little boys who tripped on them. If he was trying to scare me, he succeeded. More than five decades had passed since I’d first followed the glow of my father’s pipe along this path, and I still whistled in an attempt to fool a heart that was beating faster than it had to.
My father was a locomotive engineer for the Pennsylvania Railroad, whose own dad had no interest in the outdoors, and who had come to fishing through the writing of Ray Bergman and Al McClane in the pages of Field & Stream. Every summer, our family made the drive from Ohio to Michigan to pitch a tent on the Au Sable. There we would stay for a month or more, on occasion trading our campsite for one on another river if the mayfly hatch was peaking there, but never for more than a few days and always coming back. One of my earliest memories, certainly the most indelible, was made here.
Just down the hill from the campground, which was a field of grass studded with pines and red oaks, the river ran against a bank that was braced against erosion by a log riprap. The riprap was mossy and rotted, held together with tenpenny nails that had become exposed as the log sections shrank, and one day when I was 4 or 5 I crawled out onto it on hands and knees. Peering down between the logs, I saw a baby trout hovering over the bottom where an underwater spring made the sand spurt like a miniature geyser. I brought my face down to see through the surface reflection, and the trout and I stared at each other. It had parr markings and its fins were so transparent that only their stirring registered. The trout was there, then gone. It had to be my secret because the riprap was dangerous and strictly out of bounds.
Taste something delicious, be told that it is forbidden, and you trip the trigger of obsession. The next summer I would dangle a Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear on a length of leader tied around my finger between the logs of that riprap and catch my first squirming trout. When I was a little taller, I would follow my father wearing too-big waders that accordioned around my legs.
The time would come when who was holding whose hand across the deep part changed. I would add my own words to those of Dad’s literary heroes. I would fish around the world. It was like riding on a magic broom, with the fly rod as my broom. An arc of life. It all had started here.
Following the trail, I found myself at the water’s edge a half mile up the river. Wa Wa Sum, the old fishing lodge that lent its name to this stretch of the Au Sable, means “plain view” in the Ojibwa language. When Chief Shoppenagon christened it in the early 1900s, the surrounding countryside had been logged of its sentinel white pines, creating vast vistas. But the country had grown back in black spruce and soft maples, jack pines and white cedars. Now the world was reduced to a slot of sky, the river a series of hourglasses necked down by cedar sweepers that reached toward one another from the opposite banks. In places the tips of the branches were nearly shaking hands. Witches’ fingers, my dad had called them. It was heart-in-your-throat wading, even in daytime. When I stepped into the river, all but one whip-poor-will had quieted for the night.
I tugged up my waders and crossed, the river rising within a couple of inches of the wader tops. I could have chosen less intimidating water, the shallows of Dogtown on the South Branch or the gentle flows below Chase Bridge. But it was Wa Wa Sum that called to me. I’d caught my biggest trout here, a brown of 22 inches. In fact, if you went up or down a few miles in either direction, a lot had happened here. First big trout, first beer, first beer too many, first kiss, first massasauga rattlesnake. Other firsts.
The rattlesnake I’d admired as it warmed itself on the shoulder of a road. Worried that someone would run it over, I pinned its head and carried it into a field to release it. As I carried it, its mouth was open, venom dripping from the erect fangs, and its tail buzzed like a hornet in the palm of my left hand. Looking back, I’m pretty sure that snake was the least dangerous of the temptations I would first succumb to on the Au Sable River.
Reaching the far bank, I turned my back to the current and switched on my headlamp. The mouse fly had looked mischievous when I tied it to the leader; now it only looked ridiculous, with its muskrat-strip tail and beady eyes. But I left it on.
Fly selection was voodoo when I began fishing this river. My father’s workingman’s fingers were so blunt they made a mess of fur and feathers; the flies he tied looked like an electroshock experiment. I soon took over the vise and by 7 had become the designated fly-tier for the campground. Most afternoons would see me tying at a card table unfolded under an oak tree that a fisherman named Bic, who ran an Arthur Murray dance studio in Lansing, called the Wishing Tree. I would take orders and hook the finished flies into the bark of the tree to let the head cement dry. A fly that produced a good trout would find a permanent home on the tree if the angler was willing to part with it. Over the years dozens of flies had taken a position of honor, from giant Michigan mayfly imitations to lime green inchworms. Besides a few corroded hooks, there was never any trace of them left by the following summer.
Dad’s contribution was a simple bucktail with a body striped red and white like a barber pole, sometimes with the addition of a band of green. Jerry Derring fished a black woolly worm with a red tail. When he returned it to the tree, all the material had been chewed off but the body. Mason Bradley was a hillbilly from West Virginia who had seven daughters and a weary-looking wife—no wonder. He’d caught a trout with an undistinguished rodent in its belly and refused to eat it, leaving his portion for the girls to share; he wanted me to tie a fly that looked like a vole. The length of the tail was too long and I cut it shorter, a quarter inch at a time, until he nodded. Another angler we simply called the German had found feathers in the stomach of a brown trout he’d caught on a run named the Castle, where the foundation of an old ruin stood on the bank of the South Branch. He asked me for a baby grouse, which I tied by lashing feathers to a wine cork. He wore spectacles and drank martinis that he mixed in a mason jar. I can remember my father talking quietly to him, the men off to themselves, and wondered if they were talking about the war. Most of the men who fished out of the campground were veterans of World War II or the Korean War. They were islands to themselves, casual friends who struck off in different directions to fish, each distinctive by his gait and the way his flashlight shone. They had seen things to fear. They weren’t afraid of a river in the dark.
I dragged the hook point of the mouse fly across my thumbnail to test for sharpness and switched the light off. It took a while to dial in to casting by the feel of the rod loading and the sawing sound of the line. But I worked back into the rhythm and with the half-hearted effort the moon was putting out, I could see a little. Still, the fishing was a hope and a prayer. The Au Sable was not a river to give up its secrets without a lot of asking. I’d fished all night long many nights without a fish. I hadn’t come 1,500 miles for the fishing, anyway.
Why had I, then?
The short answer was I’d been dreaming about coming back for years. The ghosts of my past were here in the trees along the river. I would chase them as I sought the answers to questions that were no less relevant for sounding prosaic and sentimental. Can you go home again? Or will there be nothing but an echoing hollowness behind walls of old canvas, a country changed, a river singing in minor key? Boats against the current, as Scott Fitzgerald wrote.
One of those ghosts of an earlier life was Bill Buc. A former Navy fighter pilot, Bill had spearheaded the habitat restoration program and hired me during the summers of my college years. I hadn’t seen Bill in 40 years, but he had gotten in touch, promising that if I ever came back to Michigan, he would float me down the river in a classic Au Sable River boat. We would drift past the Masterpiece, the name Bill had given a structure I’d built in 1974. I’d been given a free hand and built an island, sodded it, and planted trees. Bill thought there was a decent chance it was still there. The Au Sable, fed by thousands of seepage springs, is one of the most stable rivers in the world.
Fighter pilots age better than most of us. Bill was well up in his 80s but he had those clear sharp pilot’s eyes, and his face was tanned and healthy looking under his white hair. His friend Steve Sendek, who had built the elegant stealth craft with his sons, took the pole, and we floated through the heart of the Holy Water. The habitat project had taken shape because the summer canoe traffic banged at the cedar sweepers that provided cover for the trout. But it was the first of October now, the maples all gone up in flame, and ours was the only boat on the river.
I flopped a marabou here and there, going through the motions. Somebody had to sit on the bow and do the hard work. To my surprise, several brook trout took issue with the fly’s intrusion. They were brave, but small. Between casts, Bill and I reminisced about the river crews I’d worked on, the rough young men who took seasonal work where they could find it, the more ambitious piecing together a college education, a course here and a course there, others working just enough to collect unemployment over the winter. Jack-pine savages, they called themselves, a clan in which I was an honorary member. John Hirvela, Bruce Milnes, Joe Kuck, Big Dave Myer, Johnny Hale, Doug Wonder, Dino McNeal. Fast friends who’d shared the river and the back roads with me during the best summers a young man could ever have, the kind of summers that parents just pray their kids get through alive. All but Dave were lost now to distance and time.
Then we turned a bend and there was my island. I was prepared for it to look smaller than the memory, but it was big, easily 60 feet long, treed over in tag alders with a lonely tamarack at the downstream end. I remembered planting the tree, or the tree that had provided the seed for the one that grew today, mostly because it was where I had kissed a girl who’d possessed the power to change the way the river sounded, just as the island had done when I’d built it, but without any need for hammer and nail.
At the time I met her, Vicki was living on the Au Sable with her mother, who was Chippewa, her father, who’d found work as an itinerant carpenter in nearby Grayling, and her bothersome little brother, who seemed to always be underfoot and literally was, for they were all crammed together in a truck camper. Vicki’s father was a man of few words, most of those expended to tease her mercilessly about her infatuation with Johnny Mathis, whose ballads of romantic love, played on a battery-operated cassette player, provided Vicki her only escape from the confines of her life.
A few days after the family pulled into the campground, Vicki’s mother approached my fire. She struck up a conversation and I told her about my work on the river. She said to wait right there while she got her daughter. They were camped some distance away, with a screen of trees between, and I could hear Vicki’s voice pleading “Please don’t make me,” and her mother telling her I was a college boy. She came into sight dragging Vicki by the hand. Vicki looked at her tennis shoes.
“I’ll leave you two young people to get acquainted,” her mother said.
What this has to do with the Au Sable being the lodestone to which I have returned, fishing through my fears in the deep water at Wa Wa Sum—all I can say is that some of the wonders a river can reveal to you have nothing to do with water. Before Vicki’s mother walked up to my fire, I was going to go fishing. My rod was rigged, leaning against a tree where my waders hung from a nail. I took one look at the young woman standing in the firelight, with her high cheekbones dusted with freckles and her hair down past her waist, and I didn’t go fishing for the rest of the summer.
Time is a highwayman, a thief who robs you of some memories while leaving others. I can remember Vicki’s eyes because they were dreamer’s eyes and all her hopes and sorrows were in them, and I remember that her long hair was always damp because she washed it each day with a bucket of water she toted up from the river. I can remember kissing her under the Wishing Tree. I can remember “Chances Are,” “Misty,” “It’s Not for Me to Say” playing on her scratchy cassette player. But I can’t remember how our own song ended that summer, and why I didn’t do more to stay in touch. I was older and had another life a thousand miles away, I guess, met someone there who was more sophisticated and less memorable.
After the idyll of that August, I would see Vicki only once again, when I was in graduate school at the University of Michigan. I tracked her down to where the family was living in a trailer park and surprised her with tickets to a Johnny Mathis concert. It was an outdoor venue—women with country-club tans wore breezy summer dresses, their men in brass-button blazers. A white-wine-and-sailboats world that neither Vicki nor I had ever known.
For two hours that evening she squeezed my hand and touched at tears that tracked down her cheeks with a tissue I got from a woman sitting next to us. By the time Mathis sang “Maria,” his encore, it had become a soft night with stars overhead. Vicki’s eyes lifted from Mathis and were in those stars, and then they came back to him, and I think it must have seemed that he was singing for her alone. We drove the hour or so back to the trailer park in complete silence. I thought I’d said something wrong, but she shook her head no. She was simply so moved that she was unable to speak. When I tried to get in touch not long after, the manager of the trailer park said the family had driven away in the night. He thought they might be headed for Arizona. If so, I never found her.
So maybe you can’t go back. The river may be as the eye recalls it, but those who sang its refrain have floated downstream through time. That’s where a river goes. You were in it together for a while, then you weren’t. Listen to a current too long and what you hear are the notes it is missing.
“Do you remember it?” Bill asked.
“Yes, I remember.”
The strike jerked me out of my reverie. The trout walloped at the surface, then bored deep. The line thrummed with the weight and I knew it was the one I’d come for.
“I got a good one, Dad,” I said aloud, “I got a good fish.” He would have pulled at his pipe, a cherry winking in the night. He would have brought out his much-mended teardrop net to stand beside me. I would have been enveloped in the smell of the pipe tobacco and the 6-12 he’d rubbed on his face to keep the mosquitoes at bay. “It’s a big feesh, Kam,” he’d say in his Appalachian accent. “Bring it in careful.”
I would like to say that his ghost was with me, but it wasn’t. It was just me, a father myself now, and a pulling on my arm and no net. The trout came thumping up, silvered the water, and bored back down. When it tired, I flipped the switch of my headlamp and saw it, the trout refracting in bends of colors and shapes through the smoke of the current. I wasn’t seeing one trout so much as a series of trout becoming one as it drew closer to the surface.
I jammed the rod under my arm and cupped my hand underneath the fish’s belly, not lifting it from the water. I tried to keep it calm while I fingered the camera from a pocket of my vest. I got the camera, fumbled it, and the trout twisted in my grip, and I reached for it as the camera fell into the river. I moved my head around, the light dancing wildly. The camera was gone. The trout was gone. I’ll give myself this much credit: I didn’t swear and I wasn’t going to give up on a waterproof point-and-shoot without a fight. I broke the rod down and lashed the mouse fly to the tip section and fished with it around my feet until the hook caught on the camera strap.
But that was the night, as far as the catching went. The clouds that had been riding the moon settled down to brood and it was as black a night as I had ever known. My casting went to hell, and then two boar raccoons started fighting in the swamp. I had heard coons fight before, and if you didn’t know what was making all those bloodcurdling sounds, you’d swear it was bears. It was a long wade down to the road end where I’d left the car, but frankly, I was more comfortable in the water, as fathomless as it was, than in the nightmare of the swamp with the raccoons and the arms of the giants my father had warned me about. Already the night was becoming a story. In the telling the trout would grow from 18 to 20 inches.
The campground where my journey began all those years ago is no more. It is not gone but moved back into the soulless jack pines, so far from the river that the current is both unseen and unheard. Bill had told me that all the riverside camps were relocated, and I was prepared for it. On the morning I had to leave, I parked at the river and walked onto the grassy flat studded with oak trees. Our tents used to make yellow patches of grass, but it was like a beautiful glen now, uneroded by human presence, and I walked around, looking for my initials that I’d carved into a fence post with my first penknife, conjuring all the ghosts who’d left their footprints in the morning dews.
The riprap was amazingly little changed from when I was a child. Mossy old log ends, protruding nails, water the color of Darjeeling tea. I made a fool of myself balancing on it and nearly falling in, brought my face down to the cracks where the spring still spurted little eruptions of sand from the bottom. But there were no trout in evidence. Perhaps a child’s eyes were needed to see them.
I’d bought a lawn chair at a garage sale and unfolded it on the bank where I could watch the water. It is good to have places to fish where a river’s currency is counted by the flashing coins of its trout, where length and weight can be assigned a denomination. But what about a river whose value cannot be calculated by arithmetic? If you catch a hundred dollars’ worth of trout in one river, and another yields but a few coppers, which is of the greater value?
Thomas Wolfe was right: You can’t go home again, not in the sense of repeating the past. That river has gone to sea. But then, when I think of the Au Sable, it is the home of the heart to which I return. I do not have to close my eyes to hear my mother’s and father’s voices after I wake from a nap on the back bench seat of the car. I know we have driven all night and we are in the North now. I can smell the pines and feel the cool morning breeze out the car window. Then we are turning down the sandy road, and I can hardly breathe. For the river is there, and I am out the door and running toward it, and the sound of it grows and flows through me. And with a few more steps I don’t have to go home, because I’m already there.
I would leave the chair for someone else to sit and wonder. The mouse fly was in my pocket, and I buried the hook into the bark of the Wishing Tree.
The sixth novel in Keith McCafferty’s Sean Stranahan mystery series, Cold Hearted River, will be published on July 4. Part of it takes place on the Au Sable River.