By James McCullough
Illustrations By Gary W. Odmark
Born a bartender’s son in Ishpeming, John Voelker began writing under the name Robert Traver in the Upper Peninsula, where he was elected district attorney. Later on, he was elevated to the Michigan Supreme Court before leaping to fame with the success of his bestseller “Anatomy of a Murder” (1958), a novel that was soon after turned into an Academy Award-winning film starring Jimmy Stewart and George C. Scott.
Impressive as they are, his political, legal and artistic successes did not immortalize Voelker in the world of fly-fishing; rather, he was immortalized by his willingness to abandon them.
At the height of his power, fame and influence, he chose to “flee the baying hounds of success” by stepping down, returning to his simple home in the rugged U.P. and devoting the rest of his life to his passions: fishing from spring to fall and writing about fishing all winter, a routine that produced such classics as “Trout Madness” (1960), “Anatomy of a Fisherman” (1964) and “Trout Magic” (1974).
He became more ritualistic as the years went on, meeting his friends at the Rainbow Bar, driving over 20 miles of dirt road to avoid one mile of pavement on his way to fish camp, fishing until the five o’clock cabin break for cocktails and cribbage.
But all the while, in mind and in motion, he pursued the shy, native brook trout that haunt the vast waterways of the Escanaba River basin, especially — particularly — the “mermaids” in a remote stretch of spring-fed water he owned, where my father and I would join him.
The Road In
I met John Voelker 26 years ago, near the end of a trip that began when my father and I loaded his Scout II with fly casting and camping gear and began a weeklong expedition north from our home in Petoskey, west, along the route Hemingway’s character Nick Adams takes by train to Seney in the story “Big Two Hearted River.” Nick hikes past the town into the lush countryside to recover from an unspoken wound, and catches trout with every cast using live grasshoppers.
We fished all day while getting peppered by deer flies, and caught nothing.
But the real reason for the pilgrimage lay further north, beyond the great boggy flats to the rugged, glacier-worn northern rim of the Upper Peninsula. There we would fish with John Voelker.
We met him in the parking lot, shook hands, and he smiled right away, calling me “Shamus” though that is not my name. I liked him immediately. Tall with big hands, he was dressed in khaki pants and shirt with cigar sticking out of the pocket, worn leather boots and a round hat with small brim.
“Well,” he said, then.
My father and I piled into our Scout and followed him out of town at 10 miles under the speed limit, slower still when we hit dirt roads, then snailing along on two-tracks for miles, watching the back of his white Jeep, brake lights on more than off.
“Where’s he going?” I asked my father, who shrugged.
Then he stopped. An arm extended out of his window and a finger pointed to something on the ground: a nest of white orchids, delicate, cupped like children’s hands, hidden. He got out and clipped one.
There was a pause, then my dad asked, “Aren’t those protected?”
“Well,” he said, “from time to time I have to bend the statute, sir,” and placed the flower in a bucket of water.
After an hour or more of four-wheel sauntering, we followed him onto a lesser-worn dirt two-track that descended through second-growth pines over a huge glacial rock, then dropped us down a gully, through a muddy stream and up into a canopy of maples where we read a hand-painted sign (“Warning: Bridge Out”) and a few mufflers were strewn. Past another sign that said “Home of the Upper Peninsula Cribbage Champion,” we weaved through an ancient stand of red pines and bumped over roots round as my thighs to a more open plain with aspen and bracken fern, some “No Trespassing” signs.
Then his Jeep appeared to fall headlong into a hole.
The road dropped out from under us also, so steeply that I had to put my hand on the dashboard, but in seconds we were stopped on a flat glacial rock. I got out and stretched.
On my right, the sloping rock and lichen path down to the pond Voelker called at times Frenchman’s (“for that is not its name,” he wrote). On my left, a rough-hewn cabin not much larger than our car.
He could have hired architects to erect a monumental home on some western river, or over the Escanaba or Lake Superior, but instead he and his friends found the only solid, flat slab of ground on Frenchman’s and built a cedar and pine cabin shaped like a miniature barn, tucked between hemlocks a stone’s throw from the pond.
Outside they built a brick stove, a table opposite the cabin door, a storage shed and a rail fence leading to the privy, a sign warning: “Bare Area.” There is no running water or electricity at Frenchman’s.
Beside the cabin, they chained a cooler to a tree behind an old picnic table, and over the years added knickknacks and oddities to the trees and shelves along it: license plates and wood-carved minstrels, a thermometer and such. Facing the cabin, an old bell still hangs over the door. I have never pulled its rope, but imagine its tone echoing down to the pond.
Inside, the cabin is three paces wide and six deep with sliding glass windows on three sides and a wood stove on the fourth. Memorabilia adorn most shelves and wall space: an old advertisement with a curvaceous mermaid taunting, “You’ll never catch me without a Griffin reel!”; an original cover of “Trout Magic”; a faded copy of his “Testament to a Fisherman.” Also, the echoes of male yearnings: postcards of nudes, a glass that reads CAUTION: CONTENTS OF THIS GLASS MAY LEAD TO INTERCOURSE. Handwritten and painted greeting cards, faded photos of friends, a line of spent bourbon bottles — the cribbage board, resting on a custom table with drink shelves built into the legs.
For years I held a reverence for the memorabilia inside this cabin. But this year, as his family began cleaning and rearranging the cabin, I confess I snooped one night after fishing, alone. There is a hanging shelf with blankets. I was taking a blanket down when I noticed a box full of heavy papers that with a glance I found were maps.
My father and I used to keep plat maps of all the counties where we hunted and fished. We always noted the good grouse hunting with an exclamation mark or the access roads to rivers. I thought, could it be that I have found the fountain of knowledge from the high priest of secrecy, the master woodsman? I pulled down the box to find over 20 maps of Baraga and Marquette counties and flipped through them one by one like mad, searching for a single mark, a comment in the margins, anything to indicate success or failure.
What I found were the glossy pages of pristine maps, and the truest lesson of Voelker’s legacy: Go, young man, and find it for yourself. ≈
James McCullough teaches English and education courses at North Central Michigan College.