Jeff Brooks + Au Sable National Scenic River

Contributed by Paul Di Salvo

I met Jeff Brooks recently at The Wildlife Society Annual Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico this past September. We were in a meeting of TWS’ working groups, trying to come up with ways to put together a mentorship program. We got to corresponding since the conference, and although Jeff currently lives in Alaska, he was very fond of his time on the Au Sable National Scenic River in Michigan. The Au Sable is 138 miles, with 23 miles designated as a National Scenic River that flows through the Huron National Forest. For over 20 years, Jeff went on an annual canoe trip with friends and family in this special place.

Paul: Out of all the public lands in the country, why did you choose the Au Sable National Scenic River?

Jeff: This area has always been special to me. You may notice from pictures that the water is pretty clear. The upper part of the river is Blue Ribbon Class trout stream, even the parts that aren’t protected. I started in the summer of 1987 taking a group of friends there for a yearly canoe trip. The group would canoe quite a way down the Au Sable and stop each night at a different place to camp. When we first started, the focus of the trip wasn’t fishing, but it wasn’t until a couple of years later when my younger brother joined us; he is an avid angler and couldn’t resist going without bringing a rod and a handful lures. He would start catching fish during the day as we were floating along, and eventually we would all bring a pole, and each year we would fish more and more, and it became a fishing trip.

The group still goes on that trip every year but now they go in September because the fishing is better in the cooler fall temperatures. Sometimes in July and August it gets so hot and bright on the river that the fish don’t bite, and they hang low and deep in the water, being not as active. When we are in the faster moving water, we catch trout and small-mouth bass. We get behind small hydroelectric dams on the lower part of the river where there is more of a pond or lake habitat and that’s where we can catch pike and walleye and bluegills. So the guys still go, but they no longer canoe. They haul 2-3 small boats with outboard motors up to the river, and they fish in those ponds behind the dams. They stay at one of our favorite campsites and use it as a basecamp, fish every morning and every evening, and then go to the basecamp at night to cook, eat, party, play cards, and tease each other about who lost the biggest fish that day.

Jeff (left) on the banks of the Au Sable (Jeff Brooks)

So you had stopped going because you moved out of state and it wasn’t a canoe trip anymore?

No, it really wasn’t a canoe trip anymore. One year we substituted that canoe trip on the Au Sable for a 10-day fishing trip in Ontario, Canada on the far north shore of Lake Huron. I remember driving up there and going right over the Au Sable before crossing the Mackinac Bridge. I felt like I was turning my back on a good friend. So yeah, it turned into a fishing trip and the experience had changed. When I first started my new job, I didn’t have a lot of leave time like I did when I was a free and easy student working seasonal jobs. When I moved out of state, I was really far away and didn’t get back as much, it was expensive. I have young kids, and I shared time with my wife’s family in Wisconsin so it just didn’t work out.

So did you grow up in the area around Huron National Forest? Is that how you ended up going to the Au Sable NSR?

I grew up about 3-4 hours south of there in more of an urban area. My parents are from a small town near the mouth of the river on Lake Huron and in fact, my dad grew up on the Huron NF hunting and fishing and spent time on the Au Sable as a kid. The connection with that area has been in the family for a while. Growing up, I would go with my parents back to the area to see my grandma, but we never spent much time on the river. We never grew up canoeing, but I got into it later in life. The Rifle River, which is closer to where I grew up, is popular with canoeists but it has more sediment so it is not as clear and scenic and the fishing isn’t as good as the Au Sable. In high school and college, I did get the chance to get up to the Au Sable to canoe, but it wasn’t until a friend of mine in college invited me to go canoeing. The first trip was 3-4 couples, our dates, and I think the next year we went again, but I took two of my buddies from high school. On the second year, there were three of us in one canoe, and we did about half the river over a 3-4 day trip.

The yearly canoe trip started from that trip, and we just kept going back. The core group grew from 3-4 to about 5-6 people. Various people would come and go and join us for a year or two or three and once and a while someone would bring a guest, but there is kind of a core group of 4-5 people that always went. I started to build a relationship with those guys and the river centered on the experience of the annual canoeing trip. While a river corridor is a place, it is really more of an experience, and for us it was a social experience. We knew each other from high school and a couple of these guys grew up together and went to grade school together. One of the guys was my brother. The guys continually interacted with one another in ways that communicated who they were and what they were all about; we were expressing our identities to each other on the river. There was a lot of male bonding and masculinity expressed during the outing and eventually competition for the fishing trophy

How did you see your identity change from when you first started to visit Au Sable NSR to now?

I think we all changed over the years, some more than others. I saw some people go from not having, what I considered, much of a leisure identity to actually becoming competitive fishermen and good canoe campers. My brother taught some of those guys how to fish. One of the guys had never fished before until he started hanging out with us and now he wins the trophy every once and a while. We were just trying to get out there to have a good time, get away from town, and be young, and crazy, and free, and some of us were single, so we had little family responsibilities. The guys with families really enjoyed the trip as a way of being out of their usual element. We would have a good time on the river together, camping, and eating, and drinking beer, and playing Euchre. We all got into the scenery and wildlife. When the weather was nice, it was great, and when it wasn’t so nice, we made the best of it and had fun.

My identity probably matured to being not as carefree and easy going into more of doing this trip because I loved being on that river with those guys. It turns out to be quite of bit of work. We ended up having to do some portaging to get across to the other side of these reservoirs. And when you have three people, it is easier to cook than when you have five or six. And you’ve got so much gear and equipment; each year we seemed to bring more and more stuff. I ended up doing a lot of the work in terms of packing, cooking, and trying to stay organized at camp. I still loved it, but I found it was becoming more laborious. So, we started doing things like camping at one of our favorite places for more than one night and then moving along. So, we slowed it down, we got older, we kind of got more stuff, some of us got out of shape, and eventually the fishing was just the main driver I believe. Things changed for me. I actually do like to fish a lot, but I never really associated that trip with fishing; I did it because I like moving down the river from place to place, enjoying the scenery, camping at a few different sites, and being mobile.

The Au Sable National Scenic River (Huron-Manistee National Forests)

So essentially the canoe trip, which was originally intended to be more of an adventurous trip, changed.

It was adventurous. I would say that my identity image at the time was adventurous. And that’s really what I’m talking about is an image that someone portrays to the people around them, and not necessary a self-identity so much as a leisure or recreation identity image, where I seek to portray myself as an adventurous type. My brother seeks to portray himself as a hunter and a fisherman. For people who do wilderness backpacking, not only do they do these things with people they want to communicate with, they go and buy all the gear and wear the hiking clothes even when they are not on a trip. We do these things to express a certain identity to others about who we are. The competition of fishing, while it was always there and more so in the later years, it didn’t really play a role in that trip for me and kind of conflicted with why I was there.

It sounds like while although the fishing aspect was not your ideal vision of the trip, it sounds like it got some of the other guys more interested and involved in nature.

I think it did. To be honest with you, I think the experience is different but, for me, to be with those guys doing it would be almost as ideal today. For instance, if I were to come home in the fall and go with them on their fishing trip, I know it would be a lot of fun and enjoyable, because I knew I would be going on a fishing trip.

It’s funny how sometimes the mentality going into a trip, the self-imposed things, are what drive your perception of what you’re doing and where you are. 

Expectations are sometimes met and sometimes are not realized in outdoor recreation. Motivation theory was a big part of early recreation research, and for some it still is. There is some initial motivation to get into recreation, but over time, as you really get into it your motivations can change, and it may just be fostering and maintaining the social relationship with others that drives you, rather than getting to the end of the trail or catching the biggest fish. What you actually desire is maybe having a healthy relationship with others while being in a special place. The place provides a mutual experience that can be used to maintain a social relationship.

Do you value Huron National Forest because of specific attributes that are only present in that place, or because it is one of many places that holds attributes that draw you to nature in general?

For me, in the case of the river and the part of the Huron NF that I’ve been in, I like forested, clear running rivers no matter where they are, but the value of that place for me is because of all the time and experiences I’ve had there with special people in my life. It is also the connection to my home state, and my parent’s hometown, and knowing that my father had goofed off on the river long before I was even born. Being there, having some experiences and reliving them over and over when I get together with certain people, those aren’t substitutable to any other Wild and Scenic River in any part of the country unless it’s one with which I have a special place relationship. There are things that transfer across similar places. For example, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon all share certain things that people value like mountain vistas, but it is not necessarily the same for people who have lived near those places and visited those parks for a long time with their families, watched their kids grow up there, or got married there. All these social and personal experiences build meaning in our lives and are place specific. Things like trees, clean water, mountains, and beaches are universal, and you can find these almost anywhere. The relationships that we build through cumulative experiences and place meanings are the foundation of place relationships.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist surveys sea lampreys in the Au Sable River (USFWS)

If you asked a member of the general public on the Au Sable NSR, they probably wouldn’t know anything about the National Wild and Scenic River System, let alone that they were presently on a nationally-designated scenic river. When did you learn about the National Wild and Scenic River System for the first time and what has it come to mean to you?

I didn’t really learn about the Wild and Scenic River System until I was in my mid-30s in my PhD program. I was in a recreation program and worked for the National Park Service in several parks. When I got my first real position with the federal government with the National Wildlife Refuge System, I was doing NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 environmental compliance documents), and all these special designations played a big role in refuge planning. I then served as a representative for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the executive board of the Interagency Visitor Use Management Council. We were concerned over the visitor carrying capacity and were directed by law that managers must set capacities for visitor use on the National Wild and Scenic Rivers. We wrote position papers on visitor capacity and one of the main sections addressed Wild and Scenic Rivers.

Why do you think more people don’t know about the National Wild and Scenic River System?

I think it’s controversial because a lot of people think it limits access and use. Maybe the system isn’t advertised or highlighted as much as it could be. Also, there are so many layers of land designations and public land management agencies that most people do not know who the manager is for the place where they spend time or what is the difference between the various federal and state agencies in charge. I think we cannot expect many people who do outdoor recreation to be highly aware of the NWSR System.

What do you think is the future for our public lands and what actions can we take as a country to ensure the protection of these sacred places?

I think we have to control against large-scale privatization. I believe that public lands should remain public and some governmental entity with authority should be in charge of managing those public places and resources. In many cases, co-management models with stakeholders would be better than the top-down bureaucratic model, but maybe not in every place. There is a place for private concessions and allowing people to benefit economically from public lands. Having said that, we cannot make it entirely about jobs and income, because public lands are about cultural heritage and identity, and these places mean different things to different Americans. We need to recognize that not everyone sees the public lands in the same way.

Flat- or round-bottomed canoes?

We always used flat-bottomed aluminum canoes, the bigger and the stronger the better, because we would haul a lot of gear around, and we wanted the stability. Nowadays, I use a round-bottomed Kevlar, light canoe while camping with my family.

Cover photo courtesy of Jeff Brooks

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