I don’t spend enough time with the white pines. They don’t grow on riverbanks up here, and in the summer riverbanks are where I spend most of my time. In terms of conifers, cedars dominate that landscape. Their twisted sun-seeking sweeper trunks and their undercut-joisting roots are the literal and literary framework of many a Great-Lakes-state trout stream.
But today I’m seeking out the white pines. I am thick in the snowy balsam forest, in which the pines are scattered, and am about a mile from the river.
Or “The River,” I should say, as it has always been simply called in my family. It runs through the two front forties of the old farmstead where I grew up. Outside my boyhood bedroom window I listened to it cycle with the seasons: springtime roar and summer gurgle and winter silence. You have to cross over it to reach the road to town and so it and was both the border and the centerline of the landscape of my youth, a map of which would also contain proper nouns such as The Bridge and The Pool and The Beaver Dam.
It is barely a river at all, really. It is a small Lake Superior North Shore tributary, marshy and slow in its upper reaches, snaking south to the lake between hills of clay-bound glacial till and erratic boulders of incredible size and eventually tumbling over the rim of the Duluth Complex gabbro into the lake. Where I know it best, up high, it is rocky and mucky and holds a thriving society of creek chubs and also has just enough shade and gravel to support a speckling of brook trout.
That same Duluth Complex lava flow makes an excellent upstream fish barrier, by way of several sets of waterfalls, so any native Lake Superior Salvelinus fontinalis probably never made it this far upstream. It is not a native population of brook trout in my stream, but a mixture of stocked and naturalized wild fish.
They have been in this stream since at least World War II, having been planted for sure by the CCC and later the DNR. One time I watched a DNR fisheries tanker truck park at a bridge crossing, followed by a yellow school bus. Out of the bus filed a complete year-class of third-graders, and to each was given a bucket with a few trout in it. The kids dumped the trout from the bridge span into the stream, and in this way twelve hundred eight- to ten-inch brookies filter upstream and down from the road crossings every other year or so.
So maybe they are not native to this exact water, even if they are native to the same water after it flows a few miles downstream. In any case these brook trout are the fish that made me an angler, with their generous tolerance of the thrashing of a twelve-year-old with a hand-me-down Fenwick and badly-tied Wulffs and buggers. These fish taught me about eating trout and later about releasing trout and about conservation and river stewardship.
This time of year the trout are swimming beneath the ice, and on visits home I wander further afield. As always The River forms my understanding of the land and of where I am on it, and today I’m headed toward it cross-country, roughly southward, working my way through the smooth gray balsam trunks, from white pine to white pine. Two hundred years ago they ruled the hillsides but individuals are now isolated obelisks of the past, and easily spotted from a quarter mile away towering above the thick understory.
If The River runs through my childhood then the white pines frame it. The farmhouse I grew up in was built on an old logging camp site; the roads and trails we still use were first used to skid the massive trunks to the sawmill. Our front yard was in fact perpetually shaded by a bypassed stand of virgin trees, huge and old and strong but not strong enough to resist the blister rust, and one by one over the last decade they all died. But their progeny – a single generation of second-growth trees – is scattered about the property, presumably having taken root after the logging cleared the land but before the balsams carpeted it back over.
It’s impossible to believe it when facing one of these trees, whose future might be centuries longer than yours, but they are the last gasp of a once-mighty tribe. They have no successors here. For the last hundred years the balsams and quaking aspens−known locally as popples, unchecked by fire, have smothered the third-generation white pine seedlings. A plague of whitetail deer hungrily await any that do sprout. These trees cannot see their own doom and drop their giant sticky cones every five years to the delight of the red squirrels but not to much other use.
Still, their existence is meaningful, to more than just the squirrels. I am drawn to them on these woods-walks because their centuries-long reality connects me to a past that I will never see but strive to understand. They teach me to think on a time scale outside that of a human lifetime and to value wild places and remnants of old wild places, vanished or vanishing. Remnants like brook trout.
At the end of my walk through the balsams, touching the pines as I go, I fight through a strip of marshy hummocks and tag alders step onto The River. It is ice covered with a dusting of cold snow and silent except for just below The Beaver Dam where obsidian water rushes out of gaps in the snow like from a cavern. Deer tracks of myriad size and shape avoid this area of treacherous ice. Some are straight-line shuffling trackways and some are the perfect heart-shaped prancings of fawns.
In early June I’ll be back here again with a fiberglass three weight and some slightly-better-tied Wulffs and buggers. I’ll work upstream from bend to bend, through the smothering creek chubs, and hopefully from trout to trout. Within the trout there are touchstones, too, and these are what I am after: the small ones.
The four to six inch trout are the only ones that I know are wild fish. Their fins and spots are impossibly bright, and within McCarthy’s vermiculate maps on their backs is this country I grew up in and also the blue cold glacial waters that, receding, left the brook trout here as an arctic remnant eons ago.
It’s impossible to believe it with one in your hand, but like the white pines these brook trout are doomed. Our warming seasons will eventually push their suitable biome northward away from Lake Superior and someday there will be neither white pines nor brook trout here.
I don’t think in one lifetime I will ever spend enough time with the white pines and the brook trout. But I’ll try.