Trout, fire, and blueberry fields forever

A nice trio of brook trout from the Fox River in Michigan’s U.P.

By Tom Cross – 

Where once stood tall jack pine in the Lake Superior State Forest was now brushy fields of wild blueberries and young jack pine seedlings as far as the eye could see. In 2012 over 21,000 acres burned in the Duck Lake Forest Fire, the third worst in Michigan’s history. However, no lives were lost. The fire started just before Memorial Day by a lighting strike just west of Tahquamenon Falls State Park in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, burning a path 10-miles long and three-miles wide heading straight north toward the Two-Hearted River Campground and Lake Superior.
For over 25 years the Two-Hearted River state forest campground on Lake Superior was our default family vacation spot. The three children would walk across the foot bridge over the Two-Hearted and build driftwood forts on the shores of Lake Superior. My wife, Judy would pick blueberries, beach berries, and other wild fruit from the surrounding forest. Once in a while we’d hike the North County trail a mile of so along the beach or hike to Crisp Point Lighthouse prior to its historical reconstruction on the perilous 412 forest road.
We’d load up a bucket of smooth stones to take home and occasionally found an orphaned jack pine or birch tree and replant it in Adams County. We would drive 30 miles on sand roads to the little harbor village of Grand Marais just to get a pizza. The Two-Hearted River store at the top of the hill had ice and ice cream and would rent canoes. We floated the Two-Hearted on a couple of occasions, catching more rainbow trout then we could count. My oldest son Ben and I would sneak off for a day’s fishing, catching all the brook trout we wanted from the Fox River near Seney and would clean them and have them for dinner that night. Once in a while we’d drive over to Little Lake, a remote harbor on Lake Superior, just to look at it. We ventured into the Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore once or twice and always visited the shipwreck museum at Whitefish Point. The days were always clear and the temperature was always cool. It was a place we believed the Almighty had blessed.
It had been 10 years since the last time we visited the Two-Hearted and the forest is gone. Over 32 square miles of it up in smoke, replaced by a lush understory of ferns, wild blueberries, and knee high jack pine. Forest regeneration in full bloom for all to observe and perhaps the world’s largest continuous blueberry patch. For as far as the eye can see a green carpet laid out across miles and miles of gently rolling sand hills dotted with a few still standing dead trees, but life was returning. Deer were more abundant, the blueberries will fatten bears for hibernation, and a pair of eagles had a nest in a big dead snag along the river bank. The DNR and birding enthusiasts are hopeful the young jack pine will soon host rare Kirtland Warblers. The old fishermen foot paths to the streams needed clearing and were almost impassible and the off-the-map back roads to discreet fishing locations were blocked by fallen trees and needed a chainsaw. Across some of the smaller streams, trees had fallen into a jumbo of snags, great for fish, bad for the fishermen.
My wife picked over three gallons of wild blueberries while I concentrated on catching trout. Every morning she would fix blueberry pancakes, eggs, and sausage. At night it was hot dogs over a campfire, or trout if I was lucky that day. We still drove the 30 miles of dusty sand roads to Grand Marais to get a pizza, only difference being that the old pizza place closed down and a new one opened up. The road to the Crisp Point Lighthouse was much improved but still treacherous and now they have a parking lot at the old lighthouse. Dukes Sport Shop in Newberry has a new owner, but the remote Two-Hearted store at the top of the hill where we used to get ice and ice cream had burnt down along with other 50 homes in the fires path. The countless unmarked sand roads we got lost on now have new road signs. But Lake Superior is still there and the ageless Two-Hearted River is still the trout river in Hemingway’s Big Two-Hearted River that he immortalized in a story written in 1925.
Perhaps most importantly the old state forest campground on the banks of where the Two-Hearted meets Lake Superior survived. “A small dot of emerald in a sea of black burnt forest,” said one old timer who was there. Not only did Two-Hearted escape the fire, the campground at Pike Lake survived as did Little Lake Harbor from the flames. The fire came to the very edge of the Two-Hearted campground, then I was told, a strong northeast wind blew in from Lake Superior and like an unforeseen hand pushed the fire back up the hill away from the campground saving what surely would have been complete destruction of the campground and the foot bridge over the Two-Hearted. The same thing happened at Pike Lake and Little Lake Harbor, a sudden strong wind from the great lake changing the course of the monster fire at the last minute to save those small special places. The fire finally ended 15 days later at the shoreline of Lake Superior.
After two weeks in Michigan, looking for lighthouses, searching for fish wherever they may be found, and picking gallons of blueberries, the coffee and the pancake batter ran out and it was time to go home. We walked across the footbridge one last time to take in a view that needed to last, shut the tailgate of the truck, and drove the sandy road south out of camp through the blueberry fields that stretch across the horizon and seemly go on forever with the smell of a campfire still on our clothes.
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