Friday, August 8, 2014

The Kettle Pond

the kettle pond

A few years ago I took a walk in a huge swath of forest that is officially part of the National Lakeshore, but which is weirdly cut off from the rest of the park, in the middle of Leelanau County. That time, I got lost. A friend and I had gone looking for these remote kettle ponds—old glacial scrapes that are spring fed and stay full of water—and after we'd explored the ponds and marshes, we tried to take a bearing and head over a high ridge by way of a shortcut back to the dirt road where we'd parked my car. This was not a great idea. We became disoriented and wandered around for hours before seeing an optical illusion of a barn through the trees—a barn that turned out to be nothing more than a grove of red pines in eerily formal rows, such as they were planted by the CCC in the 1930s. But there was a two-track along the pines that lead back to the road we'd taken in the first place, so eventually we found the car.

The feeling of being lost in the woods stayed with me. On the map the area doesn't seem so big; the National Park Service barely (and even then, ambiguously) identifies it as part of the Park, and there are no signs. In person, its valleys and ridges are overwhelmingly enormous. There are not really any trails to speak of, except for meandering deer paths and occasional random four-wheeler tracks that abruptly end, leaving you facing an uncertain infinity of choices in terms of which direction to go. What appear at first to be straightforward slopes turn into undulations that loop back on themselves, and it is just the most uncanny feeling to be unsure of whether you've seen a certain fallen aspen before, or if this is a different one, and if so, where are you now, it looked like the same place, but you've been walking for ten minutes and you should be somewhere else, unless you got turned around somehow, oh wait, there's a trail ahead, oh no, it's just a slight depression caused by natural drainage after the last thunderstorm....

These perceptions are especially fresh in my mind because last week I went back out to this place twice. While I had never quite shaken off the thrill of being lost (and of course finding my way back), there was another part of those woods that stayed with me: in one of those kettle ponds, when I crept up to the edge of the crystal clear water, I stared wide-eyed as two big (at least for this northern climate) largemouth bass swam within feet of me, looking up at me as if in sheer curiosity. The vision of those fish stayed with me. I wanted to get back out there with my fly rod.

Can you spot two bass in the shallows?

So I returned to the kettle pond with my fly rod, only sort of getting lost the first day, and only vaguely the second day (but feeling ready to be completely lost again at any moment, both days). I discovered the pond to be full of bass as well as some strange hybrid sunfish with larger-than-normal mouths. The fishing was exciting to say the least, but it was no walk in the park (even if it was, in a way). First there's the hike there, which was riddled with mystery—at one point the second day I found myself convinced I'd lost my way, and I felt ridiculous standing in a valley of ferns with no water in sight, holding my fly rod. But finally the cedar thicket materialized and the pond was there.

The fishing proper was rather exhausting and maddening, as the pond is basically a bog; there is no sandy bank to stroll along or wade into. While it looks shallow, the bottom is essentially depthless. You sink right in up to your waist and are surrounded by the tall bulrushes that encircle the pond, whose barbed spikelets manage to constantly grab your fly line, your fly, your short, you find yourself totally tangled up about every three minutes.* The bass would shoot across the shallows dramatically and grab my fly off the surface of the water, but then they'd burrow down into aquatic micro-forests of muskgrass, creating the impression of suddenly having the entire world attached to the end of the line. Or they'd take long leaping runs across the pond, the reel drag screaming against my palm. And every time I'd want to move along the shoreline, I had to heave with great effort to break the suction around my feet and legs as I would have slowly sunk deeper into the silt muck as I'd been fishing. And while the fish are relatively gregarious, it's still very easy to spook them; in the glassy water they are used to having to flee from osprey and eagles who perch on maple and oak branches fifty feet above.

I'm trying to write this in a way that it isn't merely a fishing story, and isn't simply stock nature writing. I'm writing this with the beginnings of my next book in mind, the book I'm now calling (borrowing from the title of a chilling Hemingway story) Up in Michigan. I've got this idea of writing a hybrid book that blends my jaunts in Michigan with my long running interests and teaching in literature & environment. I don't know how this is going to work, or if it even will, but I've got the inkling of something, some narrative collection of essays that at once celebrates a place, and explodes 'place' as a concept.

A valley of maiden hair ferns disrupts my sense of place

*At dinner a few nights later, a couple great friends told me they'd taken up the minimalist fly fishing technique Tenkara, and it occurred to me that this would be a perfect way to fish the kettle pond.