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Color doesn’t matter, I thought as I tied another one on. I convinced myself, tying trout flies back in grad school. But I can hear our UW-Extension instructor in my mind saying it for walleye jigs too. Nick and I took the class. Something biophysical, about attenuation of light in deep water, I used to know why (I have a certificate to show) but I’ve forgotten the fine details. I suppose that’s the point.

I’d like to forget, if only for a bit. Some angry stuff. Some anxious stuff.

Thirty years as a scientist, I access scientific objectivity like flipping a switch on a fundamental tool, but I find it serves me less well these days. My soul is sore from chafing at the constraint and sometimes you need to give in.

I climb north on highway 53, across that gentle green landscape and I watch boreal character ascend and overtake the farmland and coulees. My phone Bluetooth plays his albums in sequence to pass the time and fill my sails. An hour or so in, the most sublime 24 minutes and four seconds in all of rock music as a 24-year-old genius poet sings his raw B-side heart for Puerto Rican Jane, Rosalita, and Diamond Jackie — by turns longing, triumphant, and jazzy.

Pundits dubbed him the new Dylan back in the day and the Iron Range is Dylan country, but the comparison isn’t fair to either of them. Dylan used poetry’s spare conventions to tell you something important. Bruce used poetry to take you somewhere. Somewhere where you’ve been before, where it all mattered urgently. I miss that.

I think my free-range thoughts and sing myself hoarse with distance from Madison. Dream time and windshield wisdom, stitching together the friendly and far horizons of grace. Swallow me up, body and soul.

The Great Lakes regions deserve their singers and scribes and poets, and I need to look harder to find them. Dark water, dark forests, dark-matter hearts and imagination stalking the shadows.

I climb the Canadian shield, out of the Laurentian, across the border and here again. Here on a tannin-stained flowage on Hudson’s Bay’s watershed. Here where ancient gray rocks show their bare glacial polish and fall craggy into water. Here where aspens reign in the scars and black spruces release in boggy wetlands.

Here where my own raw heart ranges. Eagles call from white-piney margins and we saw a lynx once, on the rutty gravel road into Manion Lake. Red squirrels in scratchy spruces. A wolf on Hwy 105, halfway to Red Lake. A raven speaking, hidden in the trees.

We have our division of labor. Brother Nick is our tactician, studying maps and plotting. He fries the fish. I do the potatoes and most of the filleting and make things work in the background. Dad used to do the dishes, but we took over this time. They’re talkers. I listen mostly. It’s comfortable that way.

He did it all the first time, decades ago on Longlac, at the far end of a washboard gravel road. He tucked Nick and me into our knotty pine bunks and then got us up early again for pancakes and bacon. He humped the little outboard into a little bush lake and gave us an origin story with a moose in the middle of the river. It was simple then. Daredevils trolled slowly. Red and white for pike, black and white for walleyes. A steel stringer clipped in the oarlock. He cleaned the fish and cooked them and we learned to pick y-bones.

Once, when I was in high school, we stopped at the visitor’s center to get a map and the dark-haired girl behind the counter smiled at me and stopped my heart. It was the most beautiful thing in the world, ever. Funny what you remember.

Another time on Eric Lake, Nick couldn’t come. Dad and I moved the chairs out on shield rock that rose above the water like a patio, and we stared past the stars into the depths of the universe into dark heaven and talked about my impending anxious fatherhood — and mice. I don’t remember what he said but he had it right.

“Spot on the spot” the man said. Find the school and stay there. Open the bail and hold your line in the crease of your finger and feel for the buzz.

I hold these things tenderly. I have never lived on the shield or worked there but the liminal landscape of lake and forest and rocks from the basement of time soothes and speaks and holds my memories gently. I love the smell of fish on my hands. The cousins all came one time, and we learned about essential perogies from the grocery in Ear Falls. Al was failing one summer, and I tied all his jigs and kept him with a line in the water. He rewarded me at the duty-free shop. Empty seats at the table now. I am haunted by waters too.

The sun was rich red and punched through a brown haze of old amber smoke hanging on the horizon. Strange summer heat. Last time the smoke was closer and before that, we gawked from the hot-wind chop at an island on fire before punching through hot-wind-driven waves and nearly emptying the tank on the way back. We tell the story through the soft-focus of memory, but I don’t remember this much smoke, this often.

He holds my hand now to step out carefully. Nick pulls the boat close, and I wrap the line around my other wrist and pull the gunnel into the dock to stiffen it as much as possible. I wish it were easier for him again. I wish we could do this forever.

On the last day, the red sun set through the smoke in a cloudless sky save for a lone contrail that appeared to trail behind it like it was falling out of the sky and gassing itself out on the way down. It felt that way. Scientific objectivity aside.

Red again. An otherworldly red.

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


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