This Week's View

by Deanna Lee Birkholm

February 7th, 2005

A Pumpkin Seed In Ossineke

I've only 'owned' one boat in my life, and if you want to get really technical, I didn't own that one either. My dad said it was mine, but since I was ten years old it probably didn't matter a whole lot.

The boat did matter. It was different. Dad called it a pumpkin seed and the name stuck. A local fellow in Ossineke, Michigan built it; his name is lost from my memory, but he had a bit of a reputation as a boat builder. The boat was made from local cedar, and lapstrake...but not in the usual configuration which would be from bow to stern. The wood was laid up from rail to rail. probably from whatever wood he had - it was war time. Overall length was about eight feet, and if you are visualizing a canoe, you are close but that's not it either. It was a double-ender, with a perfectly flat bottom and was wider in the middle like a pumpkin seed. Just a little row boat. Varnished.

My world extended from the mouth of the Devil River upstream until it was too shallow to row the little boat. The river emptied into Thunder Bay, Lake Huron. I was forbidden to go out into the bay, which didn't keep me from doing it, and I did get caught a time or two. Thunder Bay is well known for bad storms coming up unexpectedly, so the forbidden wasn't done without reason. The river was pretty big and deep at the mouth. My dad kept his fishing boat on one side of the river, on the opposite side another commercial fisher also had an operation. These were not 'sport fishing' boats. Both were big working boats capable of staying out in really bad weather.

Upstream was neater. The water drained two swamps and also came out of Devils Lake. The name Devil River was a mis-translation of the tribal name for the waters draining the swamps which the local tribes had designated a bad place. Like many of the streams and rivers in Michigan the water was tea-colored from the cedar swamps, but clear, so every stone and pebble and brook trout was clearly visible. I spent hours hanging over the side of the little boat watching whatever was there to see. The river went under one bridge as I recall, and there were always some larger fish under the bridge. There was a sweet smell to the whole area, not the cattail swamp smell of rotting marsh, just sweet. Sunlight dappled through the overhanging trees where they didn't block out the light completely. It was a magic, wonderful place. I never saw another person upstream. But there were all sorts of birds flitting through the branches, colors in streaks like fireworks.

I was not yet a fly fisher, and I don't recall fishing at all that summer. That came the next year when I started spending summers a bit farther north with my grandparents in Rogers City, Michigan.

Being an only child I spent a lot of time in that boat, but I did make friends with a brother and sister whose family had a summer cottage on the point right at the mouth of the river. I could tie my little boat to their dock and stop in for lemonade and cookies. They taught me to play dominoes. I don't remember ever playing the game with anyone else.

There weren't any phones in the region then (much less cell phones) so if I was supposed to come home my mother had a novel way of 'calling' me - she yodeled. There wasn't anyone else who did that, so there wasn't any question as to who was being 'called.' I'm reminded of that when I'm outside since someone in our neighborhood here calls their kids by blowing a conch shell! You don't hear that everywhere.

I did have a 'job' that summer. When my dad and whomever his helper was that summer came in from lifting nets I had to be at the dock. They always put fish which had lampreys on them into individual wooden boxes and I went through those boxes and pulled off the lampreys and threw them into a barrel of very salty water. They died in the heavy salt water and a local farmer came and got them and used them for fertilizer.

This was before the really terrible infestation of lamprey which came after the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway and decimated the fish population of the Great Lakes.

If I haven't made it clear, my dad was a commercial whitefish fisherman in the spring and summers on Lake Huron, he fished what are called pond nets. These are large box shaped nets with a tunnel which the fish swim into but can't find their way out of. There are floats on the top edges and weights on the bottom edges which keep their shapes. Fish caught this way can be easily and safely released if they are the wrong size or specie.

Once on board they are put on ice, and then back on shore, more ice added, and in the "old days" off to refrigerated railroad cars and shipped to market. All that has substantially changed now of course, but that is the way it was done back in the war years.

I wish I had a good photo of me during those years. I was too tall, very skinny, really brown from too much sun (probably the beginning of my skin cancer) with long braids, truly the ugly duckling. But I could sure row a boat. ~ DLB

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