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An old cat and the fish

By April 7, 2017 No Comments

During my college years, the highest I ever rose on my summer job was about five feet off the ground aboard an army surplus caterpillar. I’m not sure why the boss made me the designated driver, but he did. So there I was, most days, at hand levers that controlled the old beast, a faded yellow wonder whose huge engine banged, banged, banged along the beach as if it had but one mammoth cylinder.

We must have seemed quite the motley bunch coming up the beach, four or five us, me aboard the cat when we had to move ahead, all of us armed with rakes and shovels, cleaning up an endless mass of dead fish. Back then, Lake Michigan—or at least our corner of it—was a cesspool mess.  Alewives by the millions washed up on the shore, some of the heftier ones bloating in the sun.

Swimmers hated them, and so did the boss.  A couple hundred thousand no-good alewives washing up on the beach each day didn’t please him. Didn’t even please the seagulls either, who considered their palettes far above alewife rabble and only pecked out their eyes once they got up on shore.

Two or three guys would go out front and rake ‘em up, and another would follow with a grain scoop, me at the controls of that tank of a cat. My sense of smell isn’t acute, so I don’t remember the stench all that well. Still, it was the boss’s concern that we get the minnow-ish plague picked up pronto, then dumped in a hole we dug back in the dunes. During the height of their spawn, we started the workday on the beach, which always bugged us because there were no bikinis out at nine, not on the western shore of cold Lake Michigan. Raking alewives wasn’t a bad job; the boss could have stuck us with much worse. Afternoons were simply more opportune.

I think of that long-ago experience when the psalmist of that glorious vision of God’s natural world, 104, talks about the sea “teeming with creatures beyond number.”  Sure, I wish I had more beatific memories–coral reefs maybe, South Sea Islands, snorkeling through an underwater world teeming with rainbows. All my memory dredges up is a swamp of dead alewives on otherwise pretty darn clear Lake Michigan sand.

We certainly thought they were “beyond number”—the alewives.  For a month at least, a.m.’s rolling waves pushed them up by the thousands and turned the place into a silvery dump. The lunkers were no more than six inches long, but most of them were no bigger than your finger and nowhere near as thick.


We were told the overcrowded schools of alewives were created by the lamprey eel, a hideous looking thing who hitched itself to the lake’s precious game fish, then simply rode out their host’s long and torturous death. Horror movie stuff. The virtual disappearance of game fish in Lake Michigan in the 50s, the boss told us, created a population boom among the alewives.

I’m told that theory is highly questionable. Swarming schools of alewives came into the Great Lakes through the Saint Lawrence Seaway, and their ocean-going respiratory systems simply don’t do well in the fresh water of any of the big lakes. Life is a tussle, especially when they spawn. Thus, the lowly alewife all too soon swims no more.

At just about the time I worked at the park, researchers introduced salmon to the lake, given the abundance–the plague!–of alewives. Game fish thus made a dramatic recovery, and the alewife–genuine biblical proportions of them thereof–eventually moderated. That army surplus caterpillar has been long been retired, I’m sure; whatever lowly alewives are still about are hungrily devoured by the now teeming trout and salmon.

Psalm 104 is grand and glowing and inspiring, a 360-degree panorama of God’s natural world: “The earth is full of your creataures,” he says. “There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number–” (he’s right, of course, and it’s not his fault I think of alewives) “living things both large and small.”

I’m thinking maybe here or there it could use a footnote, and, yes, I know it’s a poem and not a dissertation.

Psalm 104 snapshots most all of God’s natural world, creating a great circle in nature, and I’m no more Lakota than I am an ecologist. But something there is that links us and them—two-leggeds, four-leggeds, and even a lakeshore host of silvery sliver-y alewives. Something there is that loves us all.  That’s what the Bible says in Psalm 104, a virtual cyclorama of “my Father’s world.”

But once in a while, it seems, someone’s got to drive the old cat to the dump.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

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