Updated: Aug 20, 2021
The Two Hearted River is something that Earnest Hemingway has written about.
His travels brought him to Northern Michigan, where he based his short story.
“Big Two Hearted River”. He tells of a man coming back from war, trying to deal with his psychological disturbances. Camping and enjoying his surroundings, he finds a little bit of serenity in the situation. The story became a classic that drew many people to the Two Hearted River over the years. The reality is that there is a large possibility that he was actually confused on which river he was visiting. The Two Hearted River being located further north than Seney (a town he mentions in the story) would have been geographically impossible to be at. The Fox River is actually the river that flows close to Seney. Whether he had confused the two rivers, the fact still remains that he still refers to the Two Hearted. What fascinated one of the top authors of his time to write about a small river in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan?
Nestled in the back country of the Upper Peninsula, the Two Hearted River may seem small to some. Those that have traveled the likes of the Mississippi or the Amazon would say that the river might pale in comparison. The painted brown color of the river flows ever so gently at times, but will often flow swift at points as it makes its way across the rocks below. No longer than 26 miles in length, it starts close to McMillan, Michigan. It then wiggles back and forth across the land, until it culminates in a final thrust of water into one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world, Lake Superior. What a way to end your journey? The lake of all lakes, “Lake Gitche Gumee” as it’s called by the local Ojibwe tribe. The lake that took the famed Edmund Fitzgerald ship down below on a stormy evening. The historical significance of the famed Lake Superior will be told on another day. As for the Two Hearted, it’s a haven for fisherman that dare to deal with the thick layer of bugs that rush across their faces the minute they get to the rivers edge. The draw of pulling in a steelhead as it swims up the current to make its way out to the ocean. Or the brook trout that lies within one of the many fishing holes found on the river. It’s enough of a draw to keep the fisherman from heading home after various deer flies have penetrated his skin. The wonders of the river can be truly remarkable. It’s not the draw that pulls me in though.
Growing up in Newberry (one of the largest towns before heading out north) we would always make our way out to the river. My dad, a passionate outdoorsman and avid fisherman would always find his way back up north to the big Two Hearted. Usually we would bring various forms of fishing gear along with a canoe to travel the river. Packing snacks and a 6 pack of beer always made the trip a bit more relaxing. Beef jerky, chips and Pabst Blue Ribbon were the usual culprits in the relaxation process. Putting our canoe into the river at several places along the way, often having to get out to portage as we came across fallen logs. The flow of the river was quiet for the most part and could lull you to sleep with the gentle sound of a trickle in most locations. Nothing but nature and a fatherly bond to keep us pushing ahead. Simple enough, we would usually pack a carton of worms and the occasional bobber. We would entangle the worm on the end of the hook, and cast our fishing line down into the depths with the hopes of catching a large fish. Sometimes we would get lucky and find several fish making their way into our boat. Smiles across our faces could be seen for miles. Other times, the luck would dissipate and we would find ourselves looking down at a hook with no worm. During these times, we would not get discouraged. We’d simply think that this round went to the fish. Next round is ours for sure. Driving back, we would stop at the Wolf Inn, my dad would order chicken and rice soup, while I would have chicken strips. I would be given several quarters to play pinball or Ms. Packman. My father would sit and chat with the owners Helen and Gerald about local news.
Getting older, we started to drive our camp jeep to the river. The two track roads in Northern Michigan have a different degree of difficulty. Sandy patches along the way can get you stuck if you aren’t careful in the summer. Winter of course brings the challenge of large amounts of snow to make it through. On our trips to the river, we had the time of our life, singing songs from CCR or George Thorogood. It was always fitting when “Get a Haircut” would come on and we would annunciate every lyric with my dads name in it. The windows would be down and the perfect Michigan temperature would delight our young minds. My dad would often quiz my brother and I on the different forms of flora along the way. What tree is that? How could you use this plant? Most times my brother and I would guess to no avail. Our memory just never seemed to digest the information given to us about our natural surroundings on these trips. Partly for our excitement to just get on the river and start fishing. The other may be that we just didn’t have the attention span at the time to want to learn. As we made our way through trails, my dad would also point out the roads to different camps. This person’s camp is here or I built this guys chimney last summer. I was always fascinated by the amount of people that my father knew. When I was small, it felt like he knew everyone in the world. Our trips would usually end and we would get back to camp. We were allowed a sip of beer to celebrate the day on the river. It was such a simple time, but it sits lodged in my memory, like the deep roots of a redwood coursing through the soil.
Times changed and our family got older. We split off to different areas of the country. My brothers moving to lower Michigan and North Carolina, myself to several places across the United States. The river always brought us back. Our camp sits overlooking the Dawson River and the Two Hearted. The camp itself is closer to a home than a camp from a Yooper (person living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan) perspective. Yooper camps are pretty simplistic for the most part. Our camp has several bedrooms, a beautiful wood sauna outside and a front garage for extended visitors. Toys galore with ATV’s, snowmobiles and snowshoes. Plenty for anyone to do in all seasons in the Upper Peninsula. The deck surrounding camp was a perfect location for us to launch rocks off of as kids. Trying to hit the larger boulders sitting within the river below. Each knick on the rock would gather excitement as we continued to challenge each other. The fire pit outside was a gathering location each night. Whether we placed a large grate across the fire to cook corn or simply sit around for warmth, it was always a social destination on our trips. The sauna would be our final stop on most nights. Grabbing a couple of beers and dilly beans (pickled green beans), we would soak up the heat until our pores had opened enough for wind to blow through them. If it was the winter, we would take breaks from the sauna by jumping into the snow outside and then running back in. Feeling the sharpness of cold meeting an extreme heat would throw your body into a whirlwind.
I just recently got back from a family get together at camp. Seeing family that I hadn’t seen for over 20 years, it was such a humbling experience. We took our tours down to the two hearted river on the Kubota. It was something special as I rode down to the river with my father and goddaughter. Seeing her eyes light up as we traveled through the trails was so memorable. Even more as she took the wheel and steered, while my dad placed his foot on the gas. My dad looked over at me on the trip and simply said, “these are the times that I cherish the most”. It made me think of the feeling I would get when we took the camp jeep out as kids. What an amazing feat to see a new generation experiencing what I was able to. Getting back to camp, we had drinks, great food and laughed until our stomachs hurt while playing euchre. The final day was our normal canoe trip down the river. Riding down and placing our canoes into the water, we felt a sense of normalcy. Our trip could usually be done quickly, but we prefer to take our time by attaching our canoes together and enjoying the float. Stopping at various points on the river to take a jello shot or the occasional bathroom break. We’ve had trips where the rain came sweeping from the heavens like it was the end of the world. This trip was perfect. The weather couldn’t have been better. Surprisingly nobody tipped their canoe, which has been a pretty normal occurrence over the years. As we made our way down to the mouth of the river, we stopped off at the last area and made our way down to Lake Superior. Jumping in, our bodies felt a rush of extreme cold as the water surrounded us. Some of us quickly jumped back out, while others stayed in, and enjoyed the small amount of warmth that occurs after being in water for a lengthy period of time. Monday morning came and the vehicles started to leave camp. A somber experience to leave this small part of the world that locals refer to as “God’s Country”.
I think back to the experiences I’ve had out north and the time on the famed Two Hearted. In part, I feel a little sad that I’m unsure Ernest Hemingway ever made his way this far north of Seney. The Fox river is a wonderful place and I won’t take that away from it. The Two Hearted River that I know has it’s own place in my heart. The place that I learned to drive and fish. The location of my unforgettable spring break in college, where I ignorantly decided to snowshoe across it after thinking that it was fully frozen over. Better yet, the place that my family has gotten together now for over 30 years. The laughter shared around a camp fire or a game of euchre. The challenge of winning horseshoes or withstanding the agony of the heat in the sauna, as you wait for your family to reach their limits first and make for the exit. The two hearted river is a perfect name. One side of my heart may be in California, but the other could surely be tracked down to the famous Two Hearted River.
Chris Hetrick. www.thethoughtsofatraveler.com.