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The village is beginning to fill. Some of the people are farmers in bib overalls on their traditional Saturday visit to town with their pickups full of sacks of feed and groceries. But there are many out-of-county and out-of-state license plates, and the bars and restaurants are full. I talk to dozens of people, and their reasons for coming are varied, ranging from "I never missed one" to "I like the parade" to "A chance to visit the home town."
Everyone seems to know everyone else, but this is the sort of camaraderie caused by good weather and the prospect of a parade. It occurs to me that nothing really happens at a festival, no daring feats of excellence, but that no matter how artificial the point of celebration might be, these events provide entertainment, an excuse to go someplace, a break in what up here is the arduous process of making a living. Now that much of our countryside is less intensively agricultural, festivals compete with county fairs in popularity. A great number of misplaced farmers have gone south to the factories of Flint, Grand Rapids, Lansing and Detroit, and they look for any excuse to return to the country with their aluminum campers and pale city children dressed in what are considered locally as outrageous costumes.
I decide to take a short tour of the streams to see how the fishermen are doing. There are three reasonably good trout rivers within 20 miles of Kalkaska: the small Rapid, the medium-sized Boardman and the large Manistee. In addition, inside of a two-hour drive you can reach the Pigeon, Sturgeon, Black, Au Sable, Betsie, Platte, Pere Marquette and Pine, plus innumerable smaller creeks. A large stretch of the Au Sable has been brought back from relatively degenerate conditions by an organization called Trout Unlimited, which is the fly fisherman's court of last resort. This provides adequate fishing for all but the most adamant whiners, among whom I number myself.
I was horrified in Livingston, Mont. last year to hear Joe Brooks, the famous angler, say that Michigan fishing was fine. After all, I had traveled nearly 2,000 miles to hit the honey buckets. There is no question that the streams are not what they were, say, before 1955. The reasons are the usual ones—newly developed resorts, cottagers, road builders, oil interests, industrial effluents, virulent pesticides.
None of these need cause irrevocable damage, but getting government aid is difficult. Other forms of fishing—trolling for lake trout and coho salmon, for example—have a larger constituency and command a larger share of the money and the attention of the state's Department of Natural Resources. And so, the charter business is booming and the boat manufacturers are happy. Large coho and Chinook are being caught in quantity, and it is difficult to begrudge their advocates the fun of catching them, though trolling seems to me a desperately boring form of fishing. The coho, however, have disturbed the steelhead fishing by jamming the mouths of rivers emptying into Lake Michigan with spawning fish in their death throes.
All the fishermen encountered on the Boardman complain about the warm and sunny weather except a young boy who has three nice browns about 14 inches apiece. Most of the anglers are using worms, and none flies. I drive over to Sharon (pop. two or three, seriously) on the Manistee. The story is the same—too much heat and light. It has often troubled me that, no matter, truly cunning fishermen invariably catch fish. Their methods must be plastic and unconstrained, perhaps unsporting. During July and August on the Boardman, when I mostly catch spiritless hatchery fish, a few crafty old men catch large browns by chumming the stream with quarts of grasshoppers, then placing a small hook to make one of the bugs a fatal meal. Though effective, this seems, to my way of thinking, a bit low.
Ernest Hemingway fished the Boardman as a young man and complained in a letter home that the swiftness of the water made wading difficult. I think this was part of the novelist's imagination because there were, even in his time, four dams on the last 20 miles approaching Traverse City. The final two-mile stretch is now murky and exudes a shameful stench. And it is not simply a matter of saying that things "aren't what they used to be," which is neither helpful nor interesting. I am privately in favor of the death penalty for any form of pollution not speedily rectified. If you are keen on trout fishing, I advise that you log thousands of hours a summer because the signs, short of radical ecological surgery, point to its demise.
When I return from my streamside tour around noon, Kalkaska is choked with people, though a wombat most assuredly can choke on a single kernel of corn, and I have no idea how many people there are. I park in a shady residential district and walk the five or six blocks to the center of town. The lawns are neat, the houses modest but in good repair. What do people do? Take in each other's laundry and throw festivals? Our land is full of incomprehensible wonder, and naysayers should be raspberried.
On Main Street, Cliff is up on the bandstand in a boater and a string tie. Hank Snow's country music blares from a public-address system that tweets and howls and screeches, drowning out the lyrics. Cliff makes some garbled announcements. He is a mixture of booster and carnival barker. I remember he once lured the International Sled Dog Races to Kalkaska for the slow winter months.
Perhaps in an age heavily flavored with the artificial and the often very distant spectator sport, a celebration of trout or dog is a good thing despite the heavy dosage of sheer hokum. A Silent Majority spring rite laced with streaks of yokel patriotism.