At this time of the year in the country around the Two Hearted River of northern Michigan the sky is light by three in the morning. Because the land is flat and lakes lie to the east, the sun seems at eye level for a long time; the tops of the trees look as if they were lit by floodlights from below while the woods are still shadowed. The Two Hearted flows almost due east for most of its 20 miles, so the morning sunlight strikes the river too, and the surface changes from a thick, roiling black to a tannic-acid brown, with wild silver patterns where the light coming flat strikes the riffles. Closer to the bank, the water looks coppery, or a thin bronze-brown, or golden in some lights, or even rose-colored because of the red-sand bottom. Behind fallen cedars the eddies are black and covered with foam, and before the woods are light, the vapors that steam upward from still water are shapeless and ghostly.
Even in the little clearings where the sun is strong there are beads of dew on the tall thin grass until 7:30 or so. For no apparent reason tiny spirals of vapor rise occasionally in little explosions of mist, the wilderness counterpart of the small dust whirlwinds that gyrate over the southwestern plains. The Two Hearted River rises in a maze of minute lakes at the base of a hardwood plateau only eight miles from Lake Superior. The longest branch, the west branch, is never more than eight miles from the lake. For more than six of its 20 miles it is racing along only a mile from the lake shore, a sand cliff 20 or 30 feet high forming one bank and thickets of brush and small trees forming the other.
Because there are only short stretches of the river that can be used for camp sites, it is possible to pinpoint within a few miles the place where Nick Adams camped more than 40 years ago in Hemingway's early short story Big Two-Hearted River. The country itself has changed very little; nothing has been built along the river's banks; no roads worth the name reach into its wilderness. But major changes are coming soon, and after this fall the Two Hearted will be very different from what it was when Hemingway fished there.
Hemingway wrote Big Two-Hearted River in Paris in 1924, when he was 25 years old. It is largely based on a trip he had taken into the country soon after World War I. The story tells how Nick Adams gets off a train and hikes an unstated number of miles through country that has been swept by forest fires. Everything has been destroyed. The earth is charred. Even the insects are covered with ashes. Nick is as alone as he would be if he were the sole survivor of a cosmic catastrophe. He is so conscious of the universal destruction that he cannot free his mind from it for a moment: when he first sees the river, he tells himself with grim humor that at least the river is still there. He walks on and on, carrying a heavy pack over a shadeless burned plain, sweating and telling himself that it cannot all be burned. When he comes at last to green timber, he makes his way into a grove of pine trees and sleeps until nearly sunset. Then he hikes on, makes camp in a meadow on the riverbank, cooks a meal and beds down for the night.
In the morning Nick Adams eats breakfast, and begins fishing downstream. He takes a small trout and carefully releases it, hooks a big one and loses it, then takes two good ones and goes back to his camp. That is all the action in the story, and its art is in the clarity of its details, its freshness and simplicity, and an effortless immediacy in the writing. It is no disparagement of Hemingway's later work to say that he never wrote so well again: no one ever wrote better in this particular field.
Today the river is the same as it was then, so much the same that a traveler who knows Hemingway's story has the feeling that he has been there before. "In the morning the sun was up and the tent was starting to get hot.... There was the meadow, the river and the swamp. There were birch trees in the green of the swamp on the other side of the river. The river was clear and smoothly fast in the early morning. Down about two hundred yards were three logs all the way across the stream. They made the water smooth and deep above them. As Nick watched, a mink crossed the river on the logs and went into the swamp."
A present-day camper isn't likely to see a mink, but deer are everywhere. Coming up from the river, I met one standing beside the road, wearing the wistful expression of a hitchhiker, so close I could have hit it with a stick. Bear and bobcat are hunted along the river, and moose are sometimes seen. Far upstream, beyond the last tarpaper-covered shack that served as a camp—now closed and desolate—and beyond the last overgrown stretch of old logging road, there are half a dozen beaver colonies.
The Two Hearted country is a unique natural enclosure, a fragment of the original wilderness preserved miraculously in a couple of hundred square miles of unpeopled woods, and the instinct that led Hemingway at the start of his career to appreciate its individual character gave him his best story. To the north lies Lake Superior, where a great highway is soon to run along the shore; to the east is the resort country of Whitefish Bay; and south and west are farmlands growing more settled every year. But the Two Hearted country is still unknown, a region of legends and strange characters, none of whom can agree on where the trails run or what any part is like. It has always been mysterious, and even a little feared. There are three legends as to the origin of its strange and haunting name. Because the north branch and the east branch are distinct streams, it was said there were two hearts pumping to form the main river. Then, too, one branch forms in the Two Hearted Lakes, vaguely heart-shaped, supposedly dug by Paul Bunyan in a romantic mood. And, finally, the early settlers were so generous that people said they had two hearts. They even welcomed a Confederate veteran who fled north at the end of the Civil War, built a cabin on the headwaters of the Two Hearted and lived there until his death 50 years later. No one lives there permanently now, anywhere in the Two Hearted country.
" Eddie Cicotte used to hunt at his brother's camp on the Two Hearted after the Black Sox scandal of 1919," Joe Villemure said. The retired postmaster at Newberry, the nearest town, he is a bright, sharp-eyed, leather-visaged elder statesman of the woods who has had a camp on the Two Hearted for 40 years. Like Cicotte, he is a descendant of the original French settlers of Michigan. "Cicotte was up here much of the time in those years. We hunted and fished together a good deal. Later on he and his brother bought a camp together. The Hunter brothers finished logging and left a big clearing with a building on it. Cicotte and his brother bought that, and Eddie lived there.
"Once when they were up here hunting deer, Cicotte saw a cow moose. It was about 10 o'clock in the morning, and it was by a stump right close to the camp where we were. And a relative of Eddie's—Eddie was so anxious to prove to this relative that he had seen a moose, that this relative went to the stump to look at the tracks. And while he was there, a bull moose came along."