Steelhead are not native to Lake Superior. They have, however, made their homes in the great lake and its tributaries since the late 1800’s. In the minds of some local anglers, this fabricated fishery is a simple two-stage process: put and take. For others, it’s a more nuanced affair.
The states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota each stock the lake’s watershed with young rainbow trout. The State of Michigan, for instance, plants rainbows in nine of the Upper Peninsula tributaries to Lake Superior: about 100,000 seven-inch fish in the spring; about 500,000 three-inch fish in the fall. Many of these fish die before reaching the big lake. Others, though, grow large and powerful in the dormant depths of Superior and one day respond to a genetic force that tugs them back toward moving water. Some of those return to the place where they were planted, but the mavericks among them are drawn to creeks and streams they’ve never seen. Once there, they plant the seeds of a new generation. Those fish—the ones that are born according to a plan that didn’t need approval from a horde of Lansing bureaucrats—are the ones that I adore.
Despite its natural beauty and allure, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is a harsh environment. The hardy men and women who lay roots in its towns and villages are in many ways similar to the authority-defying steelhead that populate its rivers. The motives for living in the U.P. are as diverse as the people who reside there, but—if you needed one succinct explanation—a pithy response from one of the headland’s most accomplished natives would do. The photographer Bob Kelley once asked John Voelker “what magical lure there was about trout fishing that would make a presumably intelligent man, one endowed with a four-karat legal education, quit a more or less permanent job on the state’s highest court to flee home to chase trout and write yarns about it?”
“Just lucky, I guess,” the cagey judge replied.
Today, about 300,000 lucky people live in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. With about 18 residents per square mile, it’s not as sparse as Alaska or Wyoming or Montana; however, the population of its largest city is only 20,000. It is the most wild and remote region of the Midwest, and being a Yooper demands a near-daily struggle with nature. Biting winds in the winter. Biting bugs in the summer.
The “why” of the U.P. can be hard to explain, and I’ve often searched for the right words to describe the bond that Yooper’s feel with their home. I ultimately found those words in a book by Jerry Dennis:
“But you have to be hardy to live here. On cars and trucks throughout the Upper Peninsula you often see bumper stickers printed with the Finnish word sisu. Derived from a cognate meaning “inner” or “interior”, and pronounced “SEE-sue,” it is usually translated into something like stubborn determination, perseverance, or strength of will in the face of adversity, though it suggests more nuanced qualities as well. In English it is most closely approximated by “guts,” but that familiar slang swaggers with masculine valor and battlefield heroics, whereas sisu transcends gender and ignores momentary courage to honor the more difficult valor of enduring without complaint a lifetime of ordinary hardships. It is the Yoopers’ humble anthem, adopted by those who have survived a single winter as readily as those whose ancestors immigrated to work in the copper and iron mines. It is stoicism stripped of its philosopher’s robe and dressed in a Woolrich hunting coat and a Packers cap, with a chainsaw in the back of the pickup and a snowmobile rusting all summer in the yard. It means sticking to a job until it is finished, no matter how difficult it is or how long it takes, and one of those jobs, the one that requires the greatest endurance and the most courage, is life itself. In a harsh climate and inhospitable land, sisu helps a person get by with dignity.”
So, what does sisu have to do with a wild steelhead—one who has yet to abandon the small remote stream of its birth to mature in the greatest of the Great Lakes? Look carefully. The answer is in its eye.
(click on photos to enlarge)