Winter Special

One day I drove up along the water through Pshwabetown, a small enclave of Chippewa and Ottawa Indians who are much the worse for wear. Naturally at one time they owned all the land around here. Now there is little or no running water, few indoor toilets, a ghetto shabbiness if it weren't for the fact that there is space to roam. Most of them are kept busy in the winter cutting wood for their stoves. An uninsulated shack can use an astounding amount of wood. I glassed a small cluster of fishermen about a mile out. In the tavern the night before someone anonymous (I must protect my sources) had claimed he had taken seventeen lake trout with a combined weight of over 100 pounds in just a few hours. This is well over the legal limit, but there is simply too much ice for the game warden, Reino Narva, to cover adequately. Concern is minimal, however, as the lake trout population is approaching the vastness of earlier in the century through concerted plantings, lamprey control and stringent but perhaps unfair regulation of commercial fishing.

I cut across the peninsula to Leland, a beautiful little harbor town. People here are upset over the government's acquiring 70,000 acres of local land for a National Seashore. Of only slightly less concern is Bill Carlson's attempt to regain some of the commercial fishing waters taken away by the Department of Natural Resources. An additional severe irritant is the state and federal DDT regulation: most varieties of Great Lakes fish have close to ten parts to the million, which is above the legal allowable limit for shipping. I eat all the fish anyway because I am young and fat and reckless and love the forms of danger connected with eating. I feel sad, though, when I watch the magnificent steelhead leaping against the dam in Leland: all subtly poisoned, though expensive equipment is needed to determine the fact. They still look like steelhead. The breakwater is mountainously covered with ice, but still some waves break over the ice, pushed by our third gale of the season.

Bill Carlson is a fourth-generation fisherman. The nets around his shack remind me of Cape Ann. But far out beyond Cape Ann the swordfish are gobbling mercury below waves dotted, according to Heyerdahl, with eraser-sized gobbets of oil. And then above them a storm petrel or sooty shearwater or plain old herring gull wheels in ordinary gyres carrying a special freight of poison. There is a certain boredom in anger.

I was down on Good Harbor Bay when the ice was breaking up. The bay is about five miles wide and the equal of any tourist-photo bay I know of, though ungraced by Noel Coward and suchlike who go to Montego. A few days before I had walked out two miles on the ice to see Richard and his father Dick and Bruce Price. I followed Bruce's footprints as he weighs nearly 300 and I wanted to feel safe. I stepped over a two-foot-wide crack and peeked for a moment down into the dark clear water. They hadn't had any luck. And Richard was angry. He had dropped a twelve-dollar augur while spudding a hole, and there it would rest permanently 100 feet below us. I said that I had stepped over a crack and they said the crack hadn't been there in the morning. But there was no offshore wind that would drive the ice out toward South Manitou Island. I felt edgy and got the creeps as if Lon Chaney were under the bed, turning into a man-wolf hybrid. I neatly tiptoed back to the car, listening for any rumbles or giant sighs that would announce my death by cold water. Poet Drowns, the local paper would read. Or probably Man Drowns, as there is a prevalent notion in the upper Midwest that poets are invariably "dead people."

Back on shore a man was whistling hopelessly at his Labrador, who was busy sniffling around the juniper bushes that abut the shore. Dogs. I had recently apologized to a neighbor about my male Airedale Hud "covering" his own dog, but he said it was okay because his dog was male, too. Nature! Then the Labrador came over and sniffed my leg, smelling my penned bitch Justine. He looked at me soulfully and I quickly removed my leg to the safety of the car.

I drove to the tavern in the evening, and Richard said he had called the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce and asked about a petition that would attempt to keep the oil freighters out of the harbor during the prime fishing months of February and March. An unnamed party suggested that the malcontents should be out looking for work. Bumpkin vigilante action has been talked about--say a string of snowmobiles in a freighter's path. Count me out. The ice fisherman is low on the economic totem ratings for logical reasons. One can equip oneself for five bucks. And ice fishermen aren't big spenders in the tourist operations. A five-dollar frozen steak is for Detroiters.

I got up at 5:00 A.M. to go steelhead fishing, but when I got there my rod guides kept icing up and the line wouldn't move freely. But a week before I had stood on the discouragingly thick ice and cast my fly, a mylar dace, and lost it to a floating iceberg. Oh well. Last year I had broken a rod trying to cast strongly in the bitter cold. Will real spring never come? I said to myself, echoing the poets of yore. I meditated on the difference between a fly rod and chugging paddle, which resembles a fraternity (or sorority) paddle with no initials carved on it. Pulling a fish in hand over hand has an atavistic glee to it; the fish imparts directly to the senses his electric struggle far below. Meat on the table! The provider! The "little woman" will be right proud of her jolly though indigent hubby. Pull that lunker out on the ice and cover him with snow to prevent the effects of dehydration and fish sunburn. I wandered around the creek estuary until I tore a foot-long hole in my waders. The water pouring in was horribly cold. I walked up the shore to an empty cabin, and a thermometer on the porch read twenty-four degrees. How stupid. I built a small fire out of driftwood and warmed my foot, watching some buffleheads circle above. From out in the bay, the birds were barely visible. I could hear the tremulous cry of two mating loons. I was frankly tired of cold weather and I imagined that the loons were also tired of running into icebergs, and the steelhead were tired of dozing in the cold water with their brains asleep to the spawning run.

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