AuSable River, Michigan: A Father’s Day reflection

By Matt Payne

One night while my family vacationed in the Northern Michigan town of Harbor Springs, my father suggested that we go fishing. The nostalgia-filled, stop-sign-only resort town is located on Lake Michigan at the tip of the Lower Peninsula, just two hours north of the famed AuSable River.  That was where we were headed.

At just 17, I was well aware that the AuSable River is one of three Michigan rivers that inspired the coming-of-age tales of Ernest Hemingway’s famed character Nick Adams, who spent his youth pulling trout from these pristine waters.

An outdoor enthusiast, my father echoed Hemingway’s fascination with the river, offering that the AuSable is a fly fisherman’s dream. The relatively wide river, which cuts through one of Michigan’s many Jack Pine forests, is said to be abundant with both rainbow and brown trout. While there were more than a dozen other rivers between Harbor Springs and the AuSable, the river’s history and reputation made it well worth the drive, despite the potential for afternoon thunderstorms.

kirtlands warbler, birdwatching, grayling
Kirtland’s Warbler

My dad was, and still is, a birdwatcher. He and a friend had driven thousands of miles across the United States in search of birds they had yet to see. To this day he keeps a lifelong list of every species of bird he has seen. As an avid birder, he was not above stopping to “pish” (something between a whisper and a whistle) at a bush in order to coax out nesting birds. He always had binoculars and had even been known to slam on the brakes of his car to identify something that turned out to be as common as a wren on a fence post.

As we loaded up the car and hit the road, I learned that my father’s reason for choosing the AuSable extended beyond the river’s lore.  Sure he wanted to fish, but really he wanted to see the Kirtland’s Warbler. This small rare migratory bird spends its summers nesting beneath Michigan’s Jack Pines near Grayling.  Like most kids my age, I was impatient, eager to get going on this father/son trip that involved the thrill of pulling in a sixteen-ounce trout from the fast-moving river. With impending thunderstorms and limited time, looking for a bird, no matter how rare, was not part of my plan.

The Kirtland’s Warbler is an extremely endangered bird. The fewer-than-a-thousand birds left on earth spend the fall and winter months in the Bahamas, migrating in the late spring, by night, to just a few counties in Northern Michigan. Having been a birder for nearly twenty years and having seen hundreds of species in America, my father was thrilled by the chance to see such a rare bird as the Kirtland’s Warbler, an opportunity as rare as the bird itself.

The nesting area was a few miles off the exit to Grayling.  A barbed wire fence, suited for the perimeter of a prison, lined a dirt road. According to the yellow warning signs, this fence was there to protect the warbler’s fragile nesting areas.

Also lining the roads were RVs with bumper stickers that read things like “I brake for roadrunners” and license tags from all over the country and Canada. Outside the RVs, their owners sat in lawn chairs, binoculars in hand, eyes trained on the tree lines.

“We will recognize the Kirtland because of its yellow belly, bluish grey back, and, most important, the broken ring around its eyes,” my father instructed me.  “You have to see the broken ring for the sighting to count,” he re-emphasized.

As we waited, rain clouds looming, he and his fellow birders swapped stories like old war buddies, occasionally pausing to check out a bird in a pine only to dismiss it as a sparrow. He was in his element and happy. My attention remained only on my watch and the rain clouds that drew nearer.  My day on the river was getting away.

My face grew hot with frustration. Frustration at the clouds. The bird. My dad. This is my vacation, I thought to myself, and he’s ruining it.

And as that thought seared itself into my mind, a bird with a yellow breast landed on a stump.

“That’s it,” I exclaimed.

My dad and the thrilled birders drew their binoculars to their eyes to catch a glimpse, but only quickly enough to see a flash of yellow before the bird vanished into the woods. Birding is highly honorable. Going on my word would confirm for all of them that they had seen the warbler.

“Did you see the broken ring around its eye?” asked one of the birders, not aware of how little I cared.

“Of course,” I lied.

“Are you sure?” asked my dad. I scanned their faces, then the clouds.  Rain was coming.

“Yes. Let’s go!”

He looked at his fellow birders and then at me. They waited, hoping for the confirmation.

“I saw it,” I managed.

“Guess that was it then,” he said, though his confirmation sounded more like shame and resignation than confirmation or accomplishment.

The car ride was silent. The way he said “Guess that was it,” weighed on me. He had hoped for years to see this bird. Seeing it should have been a moment and I had taken that moment from him. I had to make it right.

I didn’t see the ring,” I confessed. “All I saw was the yellow.”

“It’s okay,” he said.

But it wasn’t okay at all. I wanted to go back. I wanted to go back more than I’d ever wanted anything.  The river was no longer important. All I wanted was for my father to see that bird, but it was too late.

“Please…” I managed.

“We’re going fishing,” he said, the light now gone from his blue eyes.

We arrived at the AuSable. Two muskrats played along the bank and a kingfisher snagged flies from a hatch. Within minutes, it began to rain. Before long it was pouring. There would be no fish pulled from the AuSable that day. At least not by us. It was time to go home.

My dad and I in 2012
My dad and I in 2012

As we drove back towards Harbor Springs, I thought of all the fishing trips he and I had been on over the years. And as I played those memories back, I couldn’t remember any of the fish we caught at all. Just that we’d been together and that while we fished he would show me the birds. He loved them and he loved sharing them with me. I had loved just being with him.

This day had been different. We had set out to see something that we may never see again. That someday no one may ever see again.  I had been a child when we had left earlier that day, and somehow in that dark, sad moment as we drove, felt I was no longer.

“Next time,” I managed to say as it began to pour and we headed back to Harbor Springs, “We’ll see it next time.”