Exploring the rivers and streams of Hemingway’s youth

Editor’s note: The following is the first in a two-part series of rediscovering the Michigan of Ernest Hemingway’s youth. Part two will run next week.

Anymore it’s impossible to have heroes, what with all the television, print and social media. Unfortunately there seems to be more interest in someone’s failings rather than their successes. It wasn’t so long ago that the media polished rather than tarnished our heroes.

One of the biggest heroes of the 20th century was the famous writer, outdoorsman, fisherman, decorated World War I veteran, and companion to the rich and famous, Ernest Hemingway. He was a hero to many, before we learned to see him through a different set of lenses; before we realized the personal price such people pay.

Hemingway was the son of an Oak Park, Illinois, physician. During the summers of his youth, the family often visited their cottage on the coral blue waters of Lake Walloon near Petoskey, Michigan. It was here that his parents encouraged his love of the outdoors, though he probably needed little coaxing. Here he could mimic, as one writer said of him, the rough men of the woods, learn to fly fish, be a delinquent and get away with it.

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After World War I and just shy of 20 years of age, he returned to the happy place of his youth. He wanted to mend his badly injured body, and perhaps, to set his sails straight again.

He left the state at about the age of 21 and entered the world stage, no longer seeking the trout of Michigan’s Fox, Two Hearted or Au Sable Rivers. Instead his writings and notoriety allowed him to hunt African big game and fish the waters of Cuba or Key West; to live in Spain and Paris. His endeavors were varied and accomplished and sometimes gluttonous. It is said that he is known to only have ever visited Michigan one time the rest of his life.

In April I met up my friend Joe for a trip fishing steelhead trout on the Little Manistee River in central Michigan. Floating down this lazy little river, Joe and our guide Cody educated me on other fishable rivers in Michigan, and Hemingway’s presence on them.

It sounded intriguing. So much so, that before we got off the water I decided I was going to “chase Hemingway.” I read a compilation of his earliest writings, “The Nick Adams Stories,” loosely based on his life in Michigan, and acquainted myself with the towns and rivers I would be experiencing nearly 100 years after he last visited them.

My trip started on a hot and humid June night, spent in a tent near Seney, Michigan, like Hemingway did, thunder rumbling in the distance as I set up camp. Sweat stung my eyes as I swatted at the armies of mosquitoes and deer flies, like he did. I crawled into the tent for an early night, an hour ahead of a violent thunderstorm that ripped through the area. With rain pelting the tent, I struggled to stay awake and enjoy its music. Tired, I soon fell asleep only to be awakened time and again during the night to the sound of thunder, wind and the flash of lightning.

Morning came and it found me at the train depot in Seney, standing on the same platform where Hemingway stood when he returned from the war. Locals say he simply got off the train, crossed the street and walked directly to the Fox River, not 300 feet away, and began to cast.

In “The Nick Adams Stories,” the writings about the Big Two Hearted River is the most popular and put him on the world stage. Locals and historians have a strong opinion that the Big Two Hearted River, a river farther up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, was not the river Hemingway fished and wrote about.

Rather it was the Fox River here in Seney, the brook trout fishing so good he didn’t want to give away his secret. Also, the Big Two Hearted River was too good of a name to pass up for a story. In Nick’s words, “The river was there. It swirled against the log spiles of the bridge. Nick looked down into the clear, brown water, colored from the pebbly bottom, and watched the trout keeping themselves steady in the current with wavering fins … Nick watched them a long time.” Hemingway was starting to heal, though he never really mentions the war in the story.

Trees here are rebounding from logging, and small 400-square-foot cottages are boarded up and neglected, appearing to be swallowed up by the ground and overgrown grass around them. The area is long past its prime, if it ever had one; a hardscrabble area, even harder 100 years ago. It’s a gray, overcast day, low hanging dark clouds depositing a light mist. It seems to suit the area.

Tag alders choke the riverbank now and make fly-casting nearly impossible in many areas. It’s not really a river, just a 20-foot-wide deep stream. Out of necessity the fly rod has given way to small, five-foot spinning rod outfits used to cast Mepps spinners or Rooster Tail lures.

I walked the same 300 feet from the train depot and eased down a slight embankment, worn from foot traffic. A street bridge was on my right, Hemingway’s train bridge on my left. A train slowly rumbled by, my eyes even with its wheels, only 10 feet away.

I was afraid the sound would scare away any fish so I waited five minutes before casting a lure. The locals claim the native brook trout are still here but my meager attempts yielded nothing but two lures lost in the alders’ web. No doubt a local could have filled his stringer. Ignorant of how to fish them, and less than enamored with the aesthetics of the area, I called it a day. The next day I would chase Hemingway south to the Lower Peninsula.