By Drew YoungeDyke (Originally published in the May 2021 issue of Woods-n-Waters News)
On vacation on Kauai a few years ago, I took a surf lesson on Hanalei Bay from Titus Kinemaka’s Hawaiian School of Surfing. As a souvenir, I bought a ballcap from the surf shop with his name and the words “Kai Kane” on it, meaning “waterman.” I’ve seen the term waterman used often since then as I’ve read more about surfing, referring to someone who makes a living from the water like lifeguards, guides, and surfing instructors, and is well-rounded in water sports like surfing, stand-up paddling, paddling kayaks and canoes, fishing, diving, sailing, and swimming. I’ve wondered often how the concept of a waterman – or waterwoman – would translate to Michigan’s Great Lakes and inland waters.
Waterman seems to be a term that is more than the sum of its definitions. It’s a term of reverence. It’s used for people like Duke Kahanamoku – the “Father of Surfing” – who won several Olympic gold medals for the United States and set world records in swimming in the early Twentieth Century, popularized surfing around the world, and once rescued 24 people from an overturned boat off the California coast. Or Eddie Aikau, a big-wave surfer and the first lifeguard at Hawaii’s famed Waimea Bay, who rescued hundreds as a lifeguard and died himself while paddling his surfboard for help to rescue his crew of an overturned replica of an ancient catamaran in 1978. More recently, the term is used for people like Kai Lenny, a champion surfer and kiteboarder from Hawaii who once kiteboarded across Lake Michigan.
As best I can tell, waterman is an aspirational concept that you can’t really just call yourself. It’s not like saying “I hunt and fish, so I’m an outdoorsman.” It seems to be more like when all the other hunters and anglers say, “we all hunt and fish, but old so-and-so is a true outdoorsman.” It’s not just reserved for men, either – it’s one of those terms that isn’t gender-specific in common usage even though it literally is written as such. A waterman seems to be someone inextricably connected with the water. With 3,288 miles of Great Lakes coastline, over 51,000 river miles, and over 11,000 inland lakes, I know there are some men and women in Michigan for whom waterman might be an apt descriptor. I asked a few folks who I know and think embody that term what it means to them in a Michigan context.
Brian Kozminski is a fly-fishing guide and the owner of True North Trout in Boyne City, a sales rep for Temple Fork Outfitters, and a river rafting guide for Jordan Valley Outfitters:
“I am not a waterman in the aspect of being a lifeguard or surfer, unless you dig deeper into the definition of life guard - I protect and look out for the well-being of my inland lakes and rivers, the voice or the guardian of these sacred places that carry so much vitality. The rhythms of the waves or the flow of a river are a part of me, they are my serenity and it is near the water that I feel connected to life and being alive. So I guess in that sense, I am a surfer, with my children as we seek out adventure along the Great Lakes in a canoe or SUP, or in a stream where we turn over a rock to inspect the macroinvertebrate life that resides in these hallowed spaces. These rivers and lakes give me purpose and fulfill my soul - thereby, I am a waterman.”
Brian’s answer gave me a lot to think about. There’s an inescapable element of conservation in it. I’ve fished with Brian and, drifting down the Manistee River, he knew every eddy, every current, every cut bank. He understands the water and what’s happening in it. And he lives it, from recreation to conservation. He’s active in several conservation organizations like Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Trout Unlimited, the Great Lakes Business Network, and the National Wildlife Federation. In addition to guiding anglers from his drift boat, I’ve seen him fishing from a stand-up paddleboard and you can watch him drifting a motorboat backwards down a river on Season 2 of MeatEater’s Das Boat series.
Another person I thought of was Tom Werkman, owner and guide at Werkman Outfitters on the Grand River. I asked him what it would mean to be a waterman in Michigan.
“It means I intimately have a connection to the river on which I guide, the Grand River. It means I have a responsibility, as a guide, to educate my clients on the history of the Grand, that it’s one of ruin to recovery. It means, I need to get my clients on fish so they can make a connection to the Grand. If all of this happens, it means, for me, that I have done my job of showing my clients that the Grand River is a viable urban fishing corridor worthy of protection.”
Tom, too, has an unmistakable conservation message in his definition: conserving his waters, being connected to them, and connecting others to them. I’ve also fished with Tom, and like Brian, his connection to and knowledge of his waters and their history is paramount. Tom is also a member of the Great Lakes Business Network, several conservation organizations, and has used his platform to speak up for Michigan’s public lands and against dredging the Grand River. And in addition to guiding anglers from a drift boat, he also surfs and competes in triathlons.
What does it mean to be a waterman in Michigan? While I can ponder it, it’s not up to me to define it. From two people I respect who make a living on our waters by connecting other people to them and spending their free time conserving them, though, I suspect it involves a genuine visceral connection to the water, making a living or spending a great deal of time on the water, understanding it deeply, connecting other people to it, advocating and volunteering for its conservation, and being well-rounded in water-based sports and modes of transportation.
I think there’s an element of water safety to it, too. The Great Lakes can be deadly. 30 years later, I still remember the fear of being caught in a Lake Superior rip current swimming when I was 11 or 12. I’m learning more about that and Great Lakes currents while learning about freshwater surfing. I think about that when I read about the increase in Great Lakes drownings the past few years, often people swimming out too far or being swept off piers. The great Hawaiian watermen were revered not just for their skill in water sports, but for their heroism in saving others and their deep understanding of how to safely move in the water to be able to make those rescues.
The point of this exercise is not to label people, though, as waterman or not; that’s not my call to make. It’s to think about qualities that all of us who spend time around and on the Great Lakes and Michigan’s inland lakes and rivers can strive to emulate. If we fish a river, we can learn a little more about its history and ecology. If we participate in water sports, we can learn more about water safety, both for ourselves and to help others. We can learn and improve our skills at new water sports and modes of transportation so that we can be out there more often in more diverse conditions. If we spend time on the Great Lakes, we can learn more about its cycles, currents, aquatic life, and waves. We can leverage our own existing connections to the water to introduce new people to them. And we can all put more of our time, effort, and attention into conserving and protecting our waters.
By Drew YoungeDyke (Originally published in the Spring 2021 issue of Michigan Out-of-Doors)
The drive up US 23 along the Lake Huron shoreline is like a trip back in time to the glory days of northern Michigan lakeside cottages and motels for working-class Michiganders with extra money and time to spend. A faded mural proclaims Oscoda, Michigan, as “Paddletown, U.S.A.,” a town where the Au Sable River exits the Huron-Manistee National Forest and flows into Lake Huron. A town where you can boat in the Great Lakes, fly-fish the Au Sable, or swim in idyllic inland Van Etten Lake.
It’s also a town which once supported an air base, Wurtsmith Air Force Base, which operated from 1923 to 1993. The air base had a fire training area and used firefighting foam both to put out fires and for training. In recent decades, the dangers of these firefighting foams have become more widely studied as they contained a group of chemicals known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) – nicknamed the “forever chemicals” due to their failure to break down in the environment over time – and linked to a range of human health effects including cancers and reproductive harms.
The former air base – and its fire-training area – abut the Huron-Manistee National Forest and a wetland complex within it called Clark’s Marsh. Clark’s Marsh includes three ponds improved by Ducks Unlimited projects and boasts excellent wildlife habitat for waterfowl, birds, and deer, as well as warmwater fish like bluegills and pumpkinseeds. However, the PFAS contained in the firefighting foam used at Wurtsmith Air Force Base leached into the soil, where it continues to leach into Clark’s Marsh and through it to the Au Sable River, just to the other side of it.
PFAS testing has resulted in consumption advisories not just for the fish in the ponds and the Au Sable River in that area, but also for white-tailed deer within a five-mile radius around Clark’s Marsh, after a single deer was found to have high levels of PFOA (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid), one of the chemicals in the PFAS family, in 2018.
Tess Nelkie is an avid fly angler, a board member of Anglers of the Au Sable, a retired teacher, and owns the Nordic Sports shop in East Tawas, which sells fishing clothing, paddling gear, and rents cross-country ski equipment. I joined her and her husband on the Au Sable River, just outside of Oscoda, in March to hear how PFAS contamination and both fish and deer consumption advisories have impacted both the community and the outdoor recreation that draws people to it.
“If you were to start at the headwaters, you’ve got a narrow trout stream with wild brook trout and as you come down here we have steelhead and Atlantic salmon, and soon to have Coho,” she tells me, as we’re standing thigh-deep in a beautiful stretch of the Au Sable within the Huron-Manistee National Forest.
“PFAS came here from the former Wurtsmith Air Force base. When they were putting out fires they used firefighting foam which had PFAS. It went into the ground, which went into the groundwater, and now those plumes in the groundwater are moving around the area. They moved into an area called Clark’s Marsh that directly flows into the Au Sable River. And then there’s another plume which directly touches the Au Sable. And through PFAS, we now have ‘Do Not Eat’ mandates for certain resident fish because they are contaminated with PFAS and it’s unhealthy for human consumption.”
Almost on queue, a patch of foam floated past us on the river. PFAS accumulates in foam on the water, though not every patch of foam is PFAS. In waters near the base, though, foam accumulates at the waters edge wherever the wind blows it: in the fallen cedars at the edges of the ponds in Clark’s Marsh; along riverbank lunker bunkers in the Au Sable; on the public park beach at Van Etten Lake, looking apocalyptic amid the foreground of empty children’s swingsets and a public water drinking fountain next to a warning sign about the foam.
The Air Force recently proposed an interim remedial action to install additional filters to catch some of the PFAS leaving the base in the direction of Clark’s Marsh, but community members content that this proposed action doesn’t address the full scope of the PFAS contamination leaving the former base and that the Air Force didn’t include community input through a Resource Advisory Board in formulating its plans. Additionally, representatives from the Air Force recently stated that they did not have to design the remedial measures to comply with Michigan’s more protective standard of PFAS clean-up. It’s left a bitter taste in the mouth of the community which once embraced the base.
“The difficult thing is that people don’t even know – at a scientific level – what the Air Force is presenting,” Nelkie said. “It seems like they’re trying to get out of prolonged, any kind of clean-up here. Recently, they released a remedial plan, and the remedial plan said it did not have to meet the Michigan standards for PFAS and PFOA.”
Gov. Whitmer sent the Air Force a letter at the end of March invoking her authority under the federal National Defense Authorization Act to require adherence to Michigan’s stronger PFAS remediation standard through an amendment in the 2019 bill sponsored by Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.).
“The communities around Oscoda, that have been knowingly exposed to toxic PFAS from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base for over a decade, deserve assurance that clean-up will meet the highest standards and the Governor invoking this authority is a critical step in that process.” said Mike Shriberg, Great Lakes Regional Executive Director for the National Wildlife Federation, in a statement. “This added layer of accountability for the Air Force is a critical step in helping to restore trust and transparency in the clean-up process and ensure that people, wildlife, our land and water are the priority.”
Beyond the administrative wrangling, the plans, the agencies, and the laws, it still comes down to the water. The community wants clean water and the natural resources that go with it. That’s what Tess Nelkie wants to see.
“Make it so people can eat fish again. Make it so people can eat deer here. Make it so people don’t have to worry here that when they shoot a duck or if they’re hunting that they have to worry if they’re poisoning themselves by eating the wildlife.”
Drew YoungeDyke is an award-winning freelance outdoor writer and a Director of Conservation Partnerships for the National Wildlife Federation, a board member of the Northern Michigan Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, and a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers, and the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association.
All posts at Michigan Outside are independent and do not necessarily reflect the views of NWF, Surfrider, OWAA, AGLOW, MOWA, the or any other entity.