True North

The sweet, sweet ride of Michigan musician Mike Crittenden, aka “The Colonel.”

People talk about orientations in a number of ways.  In terms of politics.  Sexuality.  Even astrology.  In different times, people were described as either phlegmatic, choleric, melancholic or sanguine.  Their constitution was dominated by either wood, water, fire or earth.  Today I offer a new rubric for temperament and personality: your true self faces either north, south, east or west.

For me there was never any question. I was born and raised in Chicago, from which vantage point there seemed to me nowhere to look but North. East was smokestacks, Indiana.  West was flat highway cleaving soy fields, then Iowa, followed by a geographic ambiguity that only resolved itself with the Rockies.  South was cornstalk horizons and power plants.  But north was Michigan and Wisconsin, places where you could fill your lungs and unfurl your spine.  It was not just north but North, that capital ‘N’ standing tall and straight as a white pine.

On the trips of my childhood my dad would roll the windows down just after we passed the Wisconsin border, then yell to us backseaters over the roaring beats of highway wind: Smell that fresh air!  And we would oblige, gaping our lungs, gulping it in till we were dizzy.  Fresh air.  Northern air.  Chemically, it was likely little different from our suburban Chicago air—we crossed the border just south of Milwaukee.  Spiritually, however, it was purging, restorative, a bilge pump for the soul.  The lost baseball game, the failed test, all those small but life-threatening dramas of childhood were quickly dispatched, sucked out the window like the smoke from my uncle’s cigarette.  They were replaced by a superior reality, a place of cheese factories, bait shops and Blatz signs flickering in bar windows.  This reality meant worm dirt beneath fingernails, fish slime on hands, living in one pair of clothes for a week, sleeping in ballcaps.

Now it’s a few decades later but I’m doing the same thing, driving north, crossing visible and invisible thresholds.  A few details have changed.  I’m no longer a student but a teacher.  I’m fleeing metro Detroit instead of suburban Chicago.  My trips North last longer—long enough for several beards to come and go—and I actually drink the Blatz.  But I’m still an itinerant, impermanent wayfarer.  I still must eventually return to where my bread is baked and buttered—not yet the North. Maybe one day.

Koz in the kingdom of brookies and beavers.

This past week I fished with a fellow Northlander of the spirit, Brian Kozminski, aka Koz— guide, fly tier and camp chef extraordinaire at True North Trout.  Unlike myself, however, Koz made the move north a permanent one back in the day, and now the land permeates him via a kind of osmosis.  Tiny brook trout swim amongst the corpuscles in his blood.  Browns sulk in the rifts and ledges between the lobes of his brain.  He’s doing his life right, if you call spending so much time in the water your core body temperature is permanently lowered right, if you call teaching school children about macroinvertebrates in your free time right—and I do.

We fished a river system that had preoccupied my thoughts for years.  It’s just a bit further North than my usual rivers.  A bit less accessible.  A good deal more mysterious—partly because less is written about it (and this narrative will not upset the balance by naming its name).

We spent several days fishing, floating the sluicing, sparkling middle stretches—canoe water that Koz somehow managed in his skiff—watching the olives come and go, watching the year’s first Hendricksons sputter aloft, plucking browns from likely and unlikely lies alike, not seeing another soul on the water, though we spotted one or two on the banks.  It was the kind of hauntingly beautiful water I knew I’d be returning to often, in person and in mind, a Northern Michigan Innisfree with riffle-loud glades.

We also fished the brook trout water, the getting to which cost Koz’s suburban an axle, which he shrugged off as the ticket price to brook trout heaven.  We bushwacked through forests of tamarack and birch, where pangaeas of snow—the season’s last, probably, hopefully—drifted shrinkingly apart, until we came upon the sucking, swamping marshland, a labyrinth of water where the river braids and trifurcates, sometimes according to the whim of the land, sometimes the whimsy of beavers. The only trail extant was in Koz’s mind. It got me thinking about that word: guide.  We use it to describe the guy or gal that brings us to fish.  That takes us through what is usually a process. But here I felt a connection to a more fundamental meaning of the word, someone who’s achieved a mastery of place, someone who makes the unnavigable navigable. My own North—in the figurative sense, the literal sense, and any sense not yet discovered—was expanded. And I was grateful.

“Turning to face north, face the north, we enter our own unconscious. Always, in retrospect, the journey north has the quality of dream.” – Margaret Atwood

And then, too soon, it was time to move on. Northwest, in my case, over the Mackinac Bridge. Through the U.P. And on to another North, in another state.