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Personally Speaking/Time Flows Like a River

Last August I needed to wade once more in a Northwoods trout stream. Classes would start in two more weeks, and the business of academics would become consuming. I traveled an hour north to a small stream with which I was familiar, although not this particular place on it. The dead-end road took me streamside to a large turnaround. Long gone were the tall white pines that made the Northwoods famous in the lumbering era.

Walking to the stream’s edge, I saw old bridge pilings still firmly anchored in the stream bed, their tops well-worn from ice hitting them each year during the spring thaw. This stream is perhaps 20 feet across, with plenty of sand, gravel and some big boulders. And it’s dark, stained of tannins from hemlock swamps in the headwaters. In places the trees hang so far over the banks they touch those on the other side. A brook-trout angler might call this stream a thin blue line, a nostalgic nod to the symbol used for small streams on original paper United States Geological Survey topographic maps.

We will never see the first maps of Wisconsin’s streams; they’re gone with the memories of the Native Americans who first entered this place we now call Wisconsin as the last ice sheet melted away. The first time we know this thin blue line was mapped in detail was the mid-19th century, after the U.S. acquired the Northwest Territory. Order had to be applied to the land – a grid of simple one-mile-square sections that allowed for easy sale to new settlers coming from the east. The compass and chain were the measuring tools, and the survey was tough work. Early surveyors described the forest here as so thick it was hard to get a glimpse of the sun.

I started to see more and more splashing – trout rising for insects on the water’s surface. These were brook trout, the only inland trout native to Wisconsin. They reoccupied nearly every cold-water stream in the state shortly after glaciation. Wisconsin is a trout state by nature: Geology and climate combined to produce thousands of miles of cold-water streams nearly everywhere.

But by the late 19th century, the numbers and distribution of brook trout had dramatically dropped. The worn pilings mark a railroad bridge placed by a logging company a century ago. Toward the end of the lumbering era, after the pine had been removed, the denser hardwoods had to be moved by train rather than stream. Nearly all of northern Wisconsin was left treeless – the Cutover – by the beginning of the 20th century. Northwoods streams suffered from logging dams, sedimentation, floods and log scouring. Fires were nearly constant, and the devastating Peshtigo Fire was only the worst of many.

Had I fished here a century ago, I would have seen pine logs piled 10 to 20 feet high, ready to float downstream; and, years later, smelled and heard a locomotive shuttling hardwoods over the new bridge – everything headed to Oconto. The forest would have been largely gone, and few trout would have remained here, if any at all. It wouldn’t have been a place to go for one last trip before summer’s end.

The legacy of times past still lingers – in places, the remnants of the dams slow and warm the water too much for trout. But the resurrection of the landscape and its water is remarkable.

I spend the next three hours going only 100 feet. There is no need to go any faster or farther. Plenty of trout mistake my surface fly, tied mostly of elk hair, for a caddis (a common aquatic insect in these waters). Ironically, elk were native to Wisconsin, too.

Streams, like people, always carry their past with them. And today, when I wade in a thin blue line to fish, more often than not I see the past in the present and contemplate the future. In less than half a century, the summer temperatures in northern Wisconsin are predicted to be too warm for this stream, and others like it, to support brook trout any longer. In a few more decades, my children will probably not fish for the only inland trout native to Wisconsin where they were supposed to be all along – where they started thousands of years ago.

On the drive home, I think about how long I’ll come back here and fish for brook trout. But it’s not really me I’m thinking about. Every August, from now on, I hope the last brook trout of the day won’t be the last one I or my children, or my children’s children, will ever see in this thin blue line. One more trout will always be enough.

July 3, 2015