Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Stump Man

             
A stump resists the force of the Fox River
     The people you meet in the back country of the Upper Peninsula are worth getting to know because they have good stories, often ones that will help you learn about the landscape.  The central U.P. where I’ve spent many days fishing and hunting is a flat, often brushy area. But it’s the stumps that get my attention. There are vast areas of old pine stumps left by lumberjacks from the 19th and early 20th century.
     For some reason, probably soil conditions, the forest didn’t return to those areas, and the stumps are surrounded by grass lands. The stumps are partly charred black by countless grass fires that have swept across the plains. I think of them as tree cemeteries, each a tombstone bearing testimony to the birth and death of a stately white pine.
         Many of the stumps are tall, some three to five feet, and when my sons were young they’d ask me why they were.  I use to tell them, knowing it wasn’t the truth, that the lumberjacks use to be bigger than people are now, like Paul Bunyan. The truth is that most the trees were cut during the winter and that the tree cutters were standing on the snow pack.
          During the peak of the lumbering era in the 19th century the nearby town of Seney where the mills and railroad were located was a town of about 3,000, but that has dwindled to about 300 these days. It’s hard to imagine that the motley collection of motels, gas stations and a few restaurants and bars that stretched along M-28 was once a thriving community.

The river system
           The Fox River snakes through the town, and eventually feeds into the Manistique River system further downstream just north of Germfask. The Fox has two branches, the east and west, and it offers good brook trout fishing for those willing to do battle with the tag alder and mosquitoes.
           I’ve been fishing the west branch since the mid 1970s, and rarely encounter other anglers, so I return at least once a year to a special spot on the river, and informal camp ground on state land that’s marked by a white pine that escaped the saw and axe. As an angling friend says, “I’ve got a lot of bad habits, but I keep them up because they work.”
                My bad habit is going back to the places where I caught fish, because I know they’re there. The trouble is you don’t find new places. 
                During one trip to the Fox, I decided to fish a new part of the river, upstream from my usual haunt, a spot where two branches met. I figured there’d be a deep hole at the spot. To get there, I had to drive upstream toward the Wagner Dam. I’d driven there before, but never fished it. It’s an eerie place with hundreds of burned pine stumps, and it had kept me at a distance for years.
 But as I drove the two-track toward the river, I found a certain beauty in the stumps. They were survivors and a reminder of when the area abounded with white pine, the knotless kind favored by 19th century carpenters.  They’d never dull your saw.
  There was no-one in sight on the warm summer day, and I had the place to myself. I parked and rigged up for a day in the river.  I tried on a favorite fly for the Fox, a royal coachman. Long ago I’d decided either rightly or wrongly that the red and black fly imitated the leaches in the water.

Where two rivers meet
I waded in and headed downstream toward the juncture where the two rivers met, fishing along the way.  Casting the fly so it floated under the tag alders that cover the river in many places yielded a few brook trout, small ones. 
At one point a large white pine blocked the river, and I sat on it for a while thinking about what would happen if I dropped dead right here. I was alone.  The thought quickly passed because I’d had similar thoughts in the past, and could even envision my carcass floating for a while and eventually getting snagged on a log. It wasn’t a terrifying image.
The day was getting hotter when I finally arrived at my destination, and I worried the heat would put the fish down. I favor flies that can be fished either dry or wet, so I put some goop on the royal coachman so it would sink and cast it into the hole.  Several casts later I landed a fairly large brook trout. I can’t say exactly how large because I no longer even carry a net, and usually don’t take pictures, figuring that injures the trout’s dignity.
I’ve read so many articles about trout fishing, that I’m actually more confused now than I ever was, but I am pretty certain that there are only one or two large predators in each hole, and once you catch one, chances are you won’t get another.
I headed back towards my truck, wading upstream against the current. Unlike many Lower Peninsula trout streams, there are very few fishermen’s paths along the Fox, and it’s nearly impossible to push through the brush.
The Fox is like other rivers in that it snakes around and creates bends just because it wants to, but there are also straight runs, usually alder covered that are deep, and I often go in over my waders.  That happened that day, and when I got to the Jeep, I pulled off my waders and drained the water from them.

The stranger
I stood in my wet socks and pants on the sandy road, looking more like I belonged to the river than the world of fly-fishing as presented in romantic ads or magazines.  It was hot and I sat on one of the stumps.  It was then that I realized I wasn’t alone; another truck was parked nearby.  It was one of those ageless pickups with an old camper cover on the back that you see in most small U.P. towns.
I figured it was another angler. I scanned the horizon in all directions and didn’t see a soul, and was a bit miffed that this interloper had invaded my solitude.  After a few minutes the pickups owner arrived, and looked a bit surprised to see me.
Backwoods encounters between two people are usually a bit awkward, and this one no different. It was as thought we had caught each other in some sort of illicit act.
We nodded, and I looked at his license plate that carried the name of a deal in Escanaba, one of the bigger towns in the U.P., and figured he was a local.
He said hello, and it took me a moment to respond. I often spend whole days and sometimes several days alone, not speaking, and the sound of a human voice jerks me out of my inner world of random, mostly useless thoughts.
“I’m looking for a stump,” he said.
I laughed and said: “Well you’ve come to the right place, plenty of them.”
He didn’t find that amusing, and went on to say that years ago he and his step father would often fish the river, camp here and make a cooking fire in a certain stump.
“They’ve got the charcoal already – you just need to get them lighted.”
I filed the information away for possible future use, and we kept talking. He was a welder from Escanaba and hadn’t been here in nearly ten years. His step father had since died, and he wanted to find that certain stump.
I wandered around with him, looking at the stumps, some of which he rejected as being too low and others, too high.
I’ve never been one to rain on anybody’s parade, and the older I get, I’m even less likely to do so. Who was I to point out the absurdity of finding a certain charred stump among thousands?  I’m a fly fisherman who never brings home any fish. God knows what people think of me. I’m a backwoods wanderer looking for my own version of the welder’s stump.
After looking for a while, my welder friend decided to try another bend in the river and he drove off on the sandy two-track in his rusty truck.  When I think of him on occasion and hope to God he found it.


Friday, September 12, 2014

Try Manchester for a fall color drive

 
Downtown Manchester
      Manchester is a quintessential small, southern Michigan town that offers fall color tours, an apple cider mill and an old fashioned Sunday drive to get away from the hustle and bustle of the Detroit/Ann Arbor urban core, and all without driving to northern Michigan.
     There are plenty of hardwoods, maple and oak that display their colors during the autumn season. The town offers restaurants and small shops.
     The drive is part of the fun. Manchester is about an hour west of metro Detroit and is on M 52 just south of I-94, so it's a quick trip, but if you want to take your time, take US 12 (Michigan Avenue), starting in Ypsilanti, which takes you through the countryside and through Saline, which is worth a stop, too. US 12 is the old road to Chicago, and runs through southern Michigan and is dotted with small towns.
     One option would be to drive a loop, taking US 12 west from Ypsilanti to M 52, see the town, and then head north on 52 to Chelsea and pick up I-94 for the ride home. Chelsea is another town worth a stop, and is home to the Common Grill, a full menu restaurant www.commongrill.com.
     The River Raisin runs through the village of Manchester, which has about 2,000 resident.  The river attracted the first settlers in the 1830s, who built water powered mills, sparking the growth of the town.
Alber Orchard and Cider Mill 
     In the fall, the big attraction is Alber Orchard
and Cider Mill, 13011 Bethel Church Rd., 734-428-9310. Admission is free for some attraction. There's a corn maze, a you-pick pumpkin patch, and an animal area. There is a small charge for hay rides. The orchard is a bit difficult to find, its about 2.5 miles east off M 52. For a good map, go to their website, alberorchard.com.

Eating out

     There are several restaurants in Manchester that range from sandwich shops to pizza joints. If you're looking to do an old fashion Sunday drive, try stopping at Habb's Restaurant, 18 W. Michigan Ave., Ypsilanti, www.haabsrestaurant.com. The menu of basic American food is refreshing in these days of gimmicks and ethnic foods. The price are moderate. The place traces its roots back to the 1870s, and the decor is a bit time worn, but has a class feel.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Try shooting black and white


      Shooting photos of activities is part of any outdoor experience and there are many dazzling scenes to be captured in Michigan.  The image, above, was taken on the Au Sable River with an iPhone, but instead of snapping it in color, the photographer P.A. Rech used the black and white mode, which gives it a haunting, timeless feeling.  It was taken late in the afternoon when there were long shadows and good contrast.  On the Labor Day weekend, plenty of folks will be out  and about with their phone cameras. Try taking a few pictures in black and white to send out some different images to your friends. They stand out in a world of color.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Detroit's Greektown is losing its ethnic feel

   
Monroe Street was the center of a thriving Greek community.
      The waiters in Greektown don't put their fingers in the water glasses any more when carrying them to the tables, they're not insulting, and most don't appear to be Greek. They do a good job of lighting cheese on fire, but that's not real Greek food.
      Saganaki is for tourists and no self respecting Greek grandmother would light goat cheese on fire in her house. The flaming Greek cheese is a symbol of how Greektown has evolved from an ethnic enclave for newly arrived immigrants into a suburban shopping mall with gambling casinos, and along the way it lost its Greek flavor. The developers have destroyed the thing that attracted them to Monroe Street in the first place. Gimmicks and gambling, not real Greek culture.
      There are now only two full-service Greek restaurants remaining. The most recent casualties have been the Laikon and New Hellas, both mainstays for decades.
      For my wife, who is Greek-American, the Laikon was her place. She says it offered food that would be cooked in Greek homes. She has given me a vantage point to watch the changes in Greektown since the late 1960s, along with teaching me the good swear words in Greek. In the early 20th century it was a Greek neighborhood. My mother-in-law was born there along with countless other Greek-Americans in the Detroit area.
       Detroit was a white, WASP city in those days, and Greeks were prohibited from moving into certain neighborhoods, which kept Greektown cohesive. Those prejudices faded and Greeks moved to other neighborhoods, but came back to Greektown for baptisms, weddings and other events, even after many had moved to the suburbs.
       They also went to college, and those of my generation abandon the traditional occupations of restaurant owner or waiter. My wife didn't want anything to do with a bar or a restaurant, as her father and both grandfathers had toiled in them. That was the beginning of the decline of Greek flavor.
      Sure, they still serve lamb, but there are now a barbecue joint, a New Orleans style place and pizza parlors, and they outnumber the Greek places.
      Greek food and culture were exotic to a white bread boy like me whose family had roast beef on Sundays instead of lamb, and the image of my father-in-law with a lamb's head on his plate will never leave me. There was also the taste of olive oil and oregano, which we never had in our house. Grape leaves? That was trash, wasn't it?
       To my wife, it wasn't special, its just what her family ate. Greektown made her proud of her culture and we went to the first Greek Festival in Detroit in the late 1960s, when it was held on Monroe Street and before it became a huge event and moved to Hart Plaza. It was an intimate gathering. The restaurants moved their tables and chairs onto the street and many of those attending were Greek.
      Although I was underage, I was able to order bottles of wine, which helped me in my first efforts to learn how to dance Greek style. It felt like a wedding in a Greek village, not the large commercial venture it later became.
       Apart from Greek dancing and swear words, my wife also taught me about the sexism that lays deep in the Greek culture. As a teenager, she would drive her grandfather to Greektown for regular haircuts and later pick him up at one of several coffee shops that catered to older Greek men. All are gone now.
      Once she made the mistake of walking into the coffee shop to get her grandfather, and was told to leave by the other men. No women allowed.
      In the 1980s I went into a Greek bakery on Monroe with some co-workers from a newspaper, and one feminist editor hesitated about buying some pastry. "Oh, go ahead," said a bakery worker. "Us Greeks like our women with some meat on their hips, so we can get a hold of them." It obviously wasn't the right thing to say.
      That intimacy and in your face Greek attitude has faded and even the Greek restaurants feel more like part of a corporate chain in a suburban mall. I can't help putting part of the blame on first, Trapper's Alley and later casino gambling. When Trapper's Alley opened in the 1980s, it gave the street the feeling it had become a suburban mall. Gone were the days when my wife would know half the people she saw on Monroe.
      The old restaurants evaporated. The notorious Grecian Gardens went. It had a back room where old guys would allegedly gamble and get drinks after hours in coffee cups, activities that now seem quaint with huge casinos operating and drug wars in the streets.
     The mainstays New Hellas and Laikon are gone. Gone also are the surly Greek waiters like one we had one night who threw a woman through the front door into the street. It was Greek Easter and families fast, attend church at midnight, and head to Greektown for dinner.
       We attended church that night and were sitting at a table having dinner. The crowd was a mix of Greek church goers and those who had closed the bars. The people at the table next to us had been at the bar, and were ordering lots of food, but when it came time to pay, the woman picked a fight with the waiter in an attempt to get out of the bill.
      She slammed the table toward us, my young son quickly moving his hand so it didn't get smashed. She then made a fuss in front of the home crowd -- Greeks. And at one point the waiter in a heavy Greek accent grabbed the woman by the neck and threw her out of the front door, yelling "You f---ing bitch." She'd picked the wrong night for her antics.
       I walked outside moments later, angry that my son had almost been injured, and saw her complaining to two Detroit police officers on horse back, one of whom I knew from high school. The cops smiled. They weren't going to do anything. The unwritten rule in Greektown was that cops ate for free in exchange for taking care of trouble on the street. My old high school friend recognized me, and asked: "Did you see anything?" I answered that the woman appeared to be trying to walk out on her bill. He told the woman to move along, which she eventually did, spewing her outrage as she walked.
       That was the old Greektown I miss, real Greeks and old style informal policing. I know things change. We're in a cleaner era, polite police and waiters, restaurants with new, modern kitchens, not ones you know you don't want to see in daylight. But I hope cops can still eat for free, and I'd like to see a waiter on occasion with his fingers in the water glasses he's carrying.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

A week alone in the Porcupine Mountains

The author alone in the Porcupine Mountains. 
     We've all read the warnings in outdoors publications: "Don't go alone."  It's good advice, anything that can happen will, if you tempt fate enough.  But on occasion you need to ignore common sense and head out by yourself. There are rewards, but to receive them, you have to take responsibility for yourself.
     These days most of my lone trips are taken in my fishing kayak and are on fairly well-used recreational rivers or lakes. There's also the ultimate umbilical cord, a cell phone. I carry mine most of the time, even though I don't always have a connection.  It doesn't worry me, I wandered in Michigan for more than 30 years without one and I'm alive to tell my story.
     I yearn for the days when I wasn't connected. There was more of a sense of adventure, dangers to overcome and a sense of accomplishment when you finished a solo trip. I'm glad I had my basic training during the unconnected era. These days, people are prone to get into trouble because they think  a GPS and cell phone will get them out of anything. It makes them reckless. When you know it's just you, more thought is put into your actions.
     Over the years, I've taken two lone significant off the grid trips, and countless smaller ones. All have been rewarding, but the two long ones helped guide me through difficult times in my life and set the tone for things to come. Since I saw no one for a week on each trip, I've learned how to be alone in the woods and enjoy it. I also learned to move slowly, so as not to hurt myself. Those are lessons I used in my shorter ventures.      When you go into the woods alone, you never come back the same. It's like a temporary stint as a hermit. A favorite nature writers, Sig Olson wrote an  essay on hermits he'd met in northern Minnesota and Alaska and concluded that some are nuts, especially those who don't come out of the woods. It's important for those who come back to tell their stories so others can learn to be alone.  I'm trying to do that.
     My first long, solo trip laid the ground work for much of my life. It was a backpacking venture in the Porcupine Mountain Wilderness State Park in the mid 1970s. I was living in Bay City Michigan, and my wife had family obligations in Detroit for a week, so I headed north. I'd backpacked once before, nearly a decade previously on Isle Royale, but had a companion, plus there were lots of people on the island, and I expected the same in the Porkies.
Lake Superior in the Porcupine Mountains.
     Backpacking was experiencing a boom then, with lighter equipment, better camp stoves and freeze dried foods. I expected the park to be  well used in late August. It wasn't. I spent six days without seeing a soul and it tested me. The first shock was a warning from a park ranger to watch out for black bears, as a camper had been attacked by one a few weeks previous. The hiker was cooking in his tent, a dumb move, especially that year because the DNR had closed most UP dumps where the bears fed by ripping open plastic garbage bags. To bears a small tent with the smell of food on it looks just like a garbage bag.
     My first night was spent in a cabin, of which there are several in the park, and I safely slept without fear of them, but there were visitors -- mice. They ran through the place looking for scraps of food left by hikers. I used a flash light to keep them at bay, but didn't get a lot of sleep that night. Small feet make big noises when you're alone.
    I knew about the bear danger, and had tied bells to my boots to warn them I was coming, but I worried they weren't loud enough as I hiked the next day. When I entered brushy areas, I swore I could hear them, although I never saw one.
     The next night, I opted for my tent, no mice there. The camp site was in view of Lake Superior in an open area, so I could see if bears were around. I collected enough wood during a short walk to make a small camp fire, mostly for reassurance. It was in the 80s, and humid, with the look of rain.   I got a decent fire going, and retired to my tent hoping the blaze would keep interested bears away. The thunder started rolling over the lake and there were lightning strikes, but the fire reassured me I could dry out, if needed. A gust of wind hit, blowing  the logs out of the fire pit and they rolled in all directions, sparks flying, a scene from hell.
     It was only after I hiked out that I discovered a tornado had moved through the area. Without a cell phone or weather radio, I didn't know if I'd been in the middle of it. Perhaps that was good.
     As the week moved along, I got accustom to being alone, and spent time taking pictures with a heavy, old school, metal Nikromat camera.  The slides still have brilliant color.
     The experience was strong and confusing. Something powerful  happened to me, I knew it at the time, and for decades I was afraid to tell others for fear they'd think I was nuts. But in my 60s, those fears vanished. I've embraced my crazy side and don't care what others think. I know what happened to me, it was a Native American vision quest.  I realized that when I read Indian myths. Young Native Americans went into the woods alone, fasted for days and waited for spirits to visit them. Mine were  fire, storm and black bears. Powerful stuff to be inside your head. Those spirits told me not to be afraid when I was alone in the woods.
      That was about 40 years ago, and the spirits are still giving me good advice.
   

     For more information about seeing the Porcupine Mountains, check out my travel guide, www.barnesandnoble.com/w/explorers-guide-michigan-jeff-counts/1100203724?ean=9781581572018
   

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Misty day at Lake of the Clouds

 
































   The Lake of the Clouds in the Porcupine Wilderness State Park in the western Upper Peninsula is shrouded in mist on a summer morning, in the photo at left. For those with hardy streak in them, they can rent a cabin on the lake from the park and walk into the site. It's an alternative to tent camping at the park.

For more information on the cabin and the park, go to www.michigandnr.com/parksandtrails/details.aspx?type=SPRK&id=426

Thursday, July 31, 2014

It's the time of year for Michigan produce

     August is the time for buying local Michigan produce, and there's plenty of opportunities for it. Stores often mark where their produce is from, allowing consumers to make a choice.  Buying local not only supports Michigan farmers, but cuts down on the amount of fuel used.  Why buy tomatoes trucked in from some other state, when you can buy local. There are also farmers' markets in small and big towns, like Detroit's Eastern Market. Roadside stands are a favorite.

Here's a list of farmers' markets around the state to choose from: www.michigan.org/farm-markets/