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Thursday, October 15, 2009
Return to Hemingway Country

By W. H. "Chip" Gross
Special to ESPNOutdoors.com

SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. — Seated in the stern seat of the canoe, guide Rich Robinson dipped his paddle into the water and exploded a Hemingway myth.
Fall colors in Michigan's U.P. will peak during the next few weeks.
"The upper peninsula of Michigan has the Two Hearted River — the one we're currently paddling — and the Little Two Hearted River, but no Big Two Hearted River, the one Ernest Hemingway wrote about in his stories," he said. "In fact, Hemingway never even saw the Two Hearted, let alone fished here.

"This region was so remote during Hemingway's lifetime that there weren't any roads. Nevertheless, it's a river he's made famous."

Born in 1899 in Oak Park, Ill., 20th Century author Ernest Hemingway spent many of his formative years in Michigan fishing, hunting, hiking, and absorbing the feel of the wild country. These early influences were to play a large part in Hemingway's later writings, especially The Nick Adams Stories, portions of which were published posthumously.

Sadly, after a stellar writing career that included the Pulitzer Prize (1953) and the Nobel Prize in Literature (1954), Ernest Hemingway committed suicide in 1961, killing himself with one of his own hunting guns.

Most people enter Michigan's eastern Upper Peninsula via the Mackinac (pronounced Mackinaw) Bridge, a five-mile engineering marvel spanning Michigan's upper and lower peninsulas.

Cross the Mighty Mac headed north, and you enter a wilderness world filled with black bears, ravens, porcupines, pines, firs, balsam, and white-barked birch trees, as well as thousands of clear, cold inland lakes and rivers — a true North Country outdoor adventure land.

No doubt, Michigan's Upper Peninsula has changed since Hemingway's day, the Mackinac Bridge opening the region to millions of tourists over the past half century. But despite the influx of people, the U.P. has managed to retain much of its natural beauty and wildness, a major draw for hunters and anglers. Its forests are in even better shape now, having grown back following severe logging that took place a century ago.

Few game wardens were around in Hemingway's day to keep track of sportsmen. There are significantly more today, but the face of modern-day wildlife officers is changing.

A few female conservation officers now patrol the woods, a concept unheard of in Hemingway's time. One of those officers is Kellie Nightlinger. Assigned to the U.P. by the Michigan DNR 11 years ago, Nightlinger worked for various law enforcement agencies before landing her dream job as a state conservation officer. And she's the real deal, even surviving being dragged more than 100 feet by a poacher's vehicle several years ago while making an arrest — for fishing without a license, of all things!

Asked if sportsmen ever resent being stopped by a woman conservation officer, Nightlinger answered, "Some do, but most are just surprised to see a woman in uniform," she said. "After I talk with them for a while and check their licenses, many tell me they're glad to see a conservation officer in the field doing their job."

Nightlinger said the biggest challenge she faces as an officer in the U.P. is with some residents who think they're entitled to kill wildlife any time of year, in season or out.

"They think hunting and fishing is their right, not a privilege," Nightlinger said. "That kind of thinking is slowly changing, but it takes time, as some families have been poaching for generations."

Like wildlife officers, the gender of some outdoor guides is changing, too. If you think the typical North Country guide is still a big, burly guy with a beard wearing a plaid shirt, think again. It may instead be a competent young woman.

Such is the case with Jessie Hadley, owner and operator of Woods & Water Ecotours, headquartered in Hessel, Mich. Hadley has been guiding for eight years in the Les Cheneaux Islands area, offering her clients kayaking, biking, hiking, birding, skiing, dog sledding, and snowshoeing adventures.

"I didn't grow up in the U.P., but as a kid it was my family's favorite vacation destination, and I was always bugging my parents to bring me back here," Hadley said. "I love the North Country, its people, and the laid-back lifestyle."

Through the years, Hadley has learned that guiding can be a tough business, both financially as well as physically. "Michigan's economy has taken a severe hit during the recent recession, but somehow my business has survived," she said. "When I look at my bottom line from year to year, I'm always amazed. I like to think that 'Someone' wants me in the guiding business."

Another change in the U.P. since Hemingway's day is the number of museums now dotting the landscape. And one not to be missed if you're an outdoors history buff is the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point on the shore of Lake Superior. The museum is not large, just several smaller buildings, but all the exhibits are extremely well done.

The centerpiece display is the 200-pound bronze bell salvaged from the Edmund Fitzgerald, an ore freighter that went down in Lake Superior during an early-November storm in 1975, just 17 miles north-northwest of the museum.

Made famous by the Gordon Lightfoot song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, the ship took her entire crew of 29 men to their deaths in the icy waters. The sinking is a sobering reminder of just how dangerous the three Great Lakes surrounding the U.P. can be: Huron, Michigan, and Superior.

But Michiganders don't dwell on the dangers of the out-of-doors. They simply respect the natural world for what it is and what it offers, then venture out and enjoy it. A favorite saying in the U.P. is that "There is no bad weather, just bad clothing."

Yoopers, residents of Michigan's U.P., are genuinely friendly, fun-loving outdoors people. But before you plan a hunting, fishing, camping or float trip to the Wolverine state, it would be wise to learn a little of the lingo so you know what the locals are talking about.

For example, residents of Michigan's Lower Peninsula are humorously referred to as Trolls, because they live "below the bridge."

And tourists to the U.P. are called Fudgies, because they buy and eat all that great Michigan fudge. Call me a Fudgie if you like, but I'll be returning to Hemingway Country as often as possible.

If you'd like to plan a float trip of your own down the Two Hearted River, guide Rich Robinson may be contacted through Rainbow Lodge (www.exploringthenorth.com/twoheart/rainbow).

W. H. "Chip" Gross of Fredericktown, Ohio, is a frequent contributor to ESPNoutdoors.com, and may be reached for comment about this article through his Web site, www.chipgross.com.