Skip to main content
Original Issue


Forty years ago Hemingway fished the Two Hearted River and wrote an immortal story. Here is the river as it was in the week of his death

At this time of the year in the country around the Two Hearted River of northern Michigan the sky is light by three in the morning. Because the land is flat and lakes lie to the east, the sun seems at eye level for a long time; the tops of the trees look as if they were lit by floodlights from below while the woods are still shadowed. The Two Hearted flows almost due east for most of its 20 miles, so the morning sunlight strikes the river too, and the surface changes from a thick, roiling black to a tannic-acid brown, with wild silver patterns where the light coming flat strikes the riffles. Closer to the bank, the water looks coppery, or a thin bronze-brown, or golden in some lights, or even rose-colored because of the red-sand bottom. Behind fallen cedars the eddies are black and covered with foam, and before the woods are light, the vapors that steam upward from still water are shapeless and ghostly.

Even in the little clearings where the sun is strong there are beads of dew on the tall thin grass until 7:30 or so. For no apparent reason tiny spirals of vapor rise occasionally in little explosions of mist, the wilderness counterpart of the small dust whirlwinds that gyrate over the southwestern plains. The Two Hearted River rises in a maze of minute lakes at the base of a hardwood plateau only eight miles from Lake Superior. The longest branch, the west branch, is never more than eight miles from the lake. For more than six of its 20 miles it is racing along only a mile from the lake shore, a sand cliff 20 or 30 feet high forming one bank and thickets of brush and small trees forming the other.

Because there are only short stretches of the river that can be used for camp sites, it is possible to pinpoint within a few miles the place where Nick Adams camped more than 40 years ago in Hemingway's early short story Big Two-Hearted River. The country itself has changed very little; nothing has been built along the river's banks; no roads worth the name reach into its wilderness. But major changes are coming soon, and after this fall the Two Hearted will be very different from what it was when Hemingway fished there.

Hemingway wrote Big Two-Hearted River in Paris in 1924, when he was 25 years old. It is largely based on a trip he had taken into the country soon after World War I. The story tells how Nick Adams gets off a train and hikes an unstated number of miles through country that has been swept by forest fires. Everything has been destroyed. The earth is charred. Even the insects are covered with ashes. Nick is as alone as he would be if he were the sole survivor of a cosmic catastrophe. He is so conscious of the universal destruction that he cannot free his mind from it for a moment: when he first sees the river, he tells himself with grim humor that at least the river is still there. He walks on and on, carrying a heavy pack over a shadeless burned plain, sweating and telling himself that it cannot all be burned. When he comes at last to green timber, he makes his way into a grove of pine trees and sleeps until nearly sunset. Then he hikes on, makes camp in a meadow on the riverbank, cooks a meal and beds down for the night.

In the morning Nick Adams eats breakfast, and begins fishing downstream. He takes a small trout and carefully releases it, hooks a big one and loses it, then takes two good ones and goes back to his camp. That is all the action in the story, and its art is in the clarity of its details, its freshness and simplicity, and an effortless immediacy in the writing. It is no disparagement of Hemingway's later work to say that he never wrote so well again: no one ever wrote better in this particular field.

Today the river is the same as it was then, so much the same that a traveler who knows Hemingway's story has the feeling that he has been there before. "In the morning the sun was up and the tent was starting to get hot.... There was the meadow, the river and the swamp. There were birch trees in the green of the swamp on the other side of the river. The river was clear and smoothly fast in the early morning. Down about two hundred yards were three logs all the way across the stream. They made the water smooth and deep above them. As Nick watched, a mink crossed the river on the logs and went into the swamp."

A present-day camper isn't likely to see a mink, but deer are everywhere. Coming up from the river, I met one standing beside the road, wearing the wistful expression of a hitchhiker, so close I could have hit it with a stick. Bear and bobcat are hunted along the river, and moose are sometimes seen. Far upstream, beyond the last tarpaper-covered shack that served as a camp—now closed and desolate—and beyond the last overgrown stretch of old logging road, there are half a dozen beaver colonies.

The Two Hearted country is a unique natural enclosure, a fragment of the original wilderness preserved miraculously in a couple of hundred square miles of unpeopled woods, and the instinct that led Hemingway at the start of his career to appreciate its individual character gave him his best story. To the north lies Lake Superior, where a great highway is soon to run along the shore; to the east is the resort country of Whitefish Bay; and south and west are farmlands growing more settled every year. But the Two Hearted country is still unknown, a region of legends and strange characters, none of whom can agree on where the trails run or what any part is like. It has always been mysterious, and even a little feared. There are three legends as to the origin of its strange and haunting name. Because the north branch and the east branch are distinct streams, it was said there were two hearts pumping to form the main river. Then, too, one branch forms in the Two Hearted Lakes, vaguely heart-shaped, supposedly dug by Paul Bunyan in a romantic mood. And, finally, the early settlers were so generous that people said they had two hearts. They even welcomed a Confederate veteran who fled north at the end of the Civil War, built a cabin on the headwaters of the Two Hearted and lived there until his death 50 years later. No one lives there permanently now, anywhere in the Two Hearted country.

"Eddie Cicotte used to hunt at his brother's camp on the Two Hearted after the Black Sox scandal of 1919," Joe Villemure said. The retired postmaster at Newberry, the nearest town, he is a bright, sharp-eyed, leather-visaged elder statesman of the woods who has had a camp on the Two Hearted for 40 years. Like Cicotte, he is a descendant of the original French settlers of Michigan. "Cicotte was up here much of the time in those years. We hunted and fished together a good deal. Later on he and his brother bought a camp together. The Hunter brothers finished logging and left a big clearing with a building on it. Cicotte and his brother bought that, and Eddie lived there.

"Once when they were up here hunting deer, Cicotte saw a cow moose. It was about 10 o'clock in the morning, and it was by a stump right close to the camp where we were. And a relative of Eddie's—Eddie was so anxious to prove to this relative that he had seen a moose, that this relative went to the stump to look at the tracks. And while he was there, a bull moose came along."

In 1920 the only bird that Nick Adams noted was a kingfisher. It pitched headlong up the river, the trout darting diagonally in the stream when it passed. Kingfishers are still there, flashing as fast as swallows over the water, but so are innumerable other birds. As the woods grow light, they set up a terrific clamor, whistles, knockings, rattles, cheepings, squawkings and cluckings—the soft whistle of orioles and the dry mew of catbirds, the rapping of woodpeckers and a wild spiraling melodious song, very beautiful, that I had never heard before, and which, I deduced from the Field Book of Eastern Birds, might be the song of the veery.

On a windless July dawn on the Two Hearted the birds are so loud it seems strange that Nick Adams did not notice them. But at the time of the story, in 1920 that is, the country was blighted by the forest fires and the birds may have been few. Now the whole length of the Two Hearted River is enclosed in Lake Superior State Forest, with a national forest to the east and a federal wildlife refuge to the south, and at Newberry there is a state conservation head-quarters with a staff of 20, whose radio-equipped cars cruise constantly and report over the air to the office fire hazards and violations of the fish and game laws. If they rarely report from the Two Hearted itself it is because there are few people there and no real roads to travel on. The Two Hearted is all open hunting but, since the regions around it are either protected or fairly civilized, its wildlife is still abundant, at least in birds and the small animals that flourish with the suppression of predators.

There is no longer wolf-trapping on the Two Hearted, though it was a recognized livelihood back in the days when Hemingway was there. And today, as in his time, the wilderness closes down within a mile of the road. The auto bridge over the Two Hearted is a makeshift metal affair with a resounding plank floor, known as the High Bridge, 20 miles from Newberry, on a new-surfaced road that leads to Lake Superior. Now ground is being cleared for a new bridge a quarter of a mile upstream—a 176-foot concrete span, to be opened in November, which will be the first real opening into the Two Hearted's wild. There are clearings near the bridge, road crews, piles of logs. But a mile upstream, the world where Nick Adams fished is unchanged. It is so essentially wild that it sometimes seems nothing can change it, not even civilization in the shape of superhighways. At the bridge itself, beside a weathered sign reading HIGH BRIDGE RESORT FOR SALE, there is a placard offering $100,000 reward for information as to the whereabouts of one David Meredith, a Detroit visitor who was last seen in this vicinity on May 19, 1960, and has never been heard from since.

An old logging road leads upstream into thin stands of second-growth pine. It consists of two deep ruts in hard-packed dry sand. Since it is the only road, Nick Adams must have followed it part way to fish the Two Hearted. It runs along the river, which can usually be heard beyond a screen of trees below the ridge. Two miles above High Bridge, there is a footbridge over Two Hearted, which is here about 35 feet across. The footbridge is anchored close to shore on two oil barrels, and in the middle it stands five feet above the water on a big rusty metal culvert set on end and filled with small rocks—a labor of love that makes you wince at the thought of the work it required, even as you admire the craftsmanship of the weathered hardwood beams and the neat spacing of the crosspieces.

Under the bridge the river is identical with the stream that Hemingway described in Big Two-Hearted River, the water pushing and swelling smooth again. Here it flows like water through a stone flume. It is of equal depth from shore to shore, and the current has smoothed out and leveled the stones so that they look like flagstones or a mosaic. The fish that can be seen—far fewer than when Nick studied them—poise in the racing current as an integral part of the design. Downstream there are three curving reefs of white water, the remains of an old logging dam. This is just such a scene from a bridge as Hemingway described in the opening paragraphs of Big Two-Hearted River, though for reasons of his own he moved the place a long way from this spot. "Nick looked down into the clear, brown water, colored from the pebbly bottom, and watched the trout keeping themselves steady in the current with wavering fins. As he watched them they changed their positions by quick angles, only to hold steady in the fast water again. Nick watched them a long time."

Two miles above the footbridge a side road leads to an old hunting camp called the Ohio Camp, but it is closed and a big birch log has been fastened across the road. From here on there are deep plunging holes in the sand, and dry sliding sand beside the ruts; a car might get through, but it is more prudent to walk. And beyond this point there is no longer an occasional beer can or a piece of paper; the wilderness is absolute, and mile by mile the country conforms to Hemingway's account of it. At one point there is a stand of big pines, the ground clear beneath them. Hemingway wrote: "There was no underbrush in the island of pine trees.... It was brown and soft underfoot as Nick walked on it. This was the over-lapping of the pine needle floor, extending out beyond the width of the high branches. The trees had grown tall and the branches moved high, leaving in the sun this bare space they had once covered with shadow."

A quarter of a mile beyond the pines there is a wonderful little clearing, perfectly flat, all grasses and wild flowers and small clusters of flowering shrubs, hemmed in by a hedgelike growth of small pines and taller birches. But the Two Hearted is never a picture-postcard river. There is always something ragged and tangled about it. Dim cedar marshes spoil the effect of sunlit clearings. Mud banks just after a rapids weaken the scenic impact. A mile beyond the clearing there is another little plain close to the river, an opening in the woods, an acre of level ground with scattered thick-stemmed ferns over it and a few gnarled trees that look like trees in an orchard. Another half mile along, one comes upon the head of navigation of the old logging road. It is still possible to proceed over it, but it is almost too rough for walking, and the tangled riverbank is better.

There is a grass-covered plot like a small terrace directly above the river. Thirty feet of reddish, sliding sand pitch down into the water. You can see where people have walked diagonally down the slope, the sand sliding with each step. A faintly defined path leads through the damp ferns, but no one has used it recently, and at the water's edge there are animal tracks—deer, coon and bear. The river races along the base of the sand cliff. There is a bit of underground seepage, dampening the sand a foot or so above the surface of the river. The Two Hearted roils and eddies, incredibly fast, coiling and uncoiling with a ceaseless busy turbulence, as if some conflict were going on under the surface. It is silent, or nearly silent, the only sounds sighing or pumplike sounds, the rhythmic float of a waving branch in the water, nothing like the cluck and chatter of the Liffey that Joyce wrote of in Finnegans Wake. Once in a while there is the splash of a big fish, or at least the sound of a fish making a big splash.

Another half mile of hard going leads to another deserted camp, standing in a hardwood grove, the powdery sandy soil almost covered with brown leaves, ferns two feet high growing in the road. A few pines have tried to push up into the leaf-filtered sunlight, their lower branches parched like those of Christmas trees thrown out into the street. There is only one sign of man's presence in the world. Someone has tacked a blue telephone-pole insulator on a birch tree, presumably to act as a reflector in case anyone driving up the road should miss the camp in the darkness, the least likely contingency I can imagine.

Nick Adams went way beyond this point. He must have been near the headwaters, and probably not far from the ruins of the homestead of old George Whorl, the Confederate veteran who was the first to make his home on the Two Hearted. But even at this point the truth of Hemingway's picture of the country is evident. There is the complete sense of isolation, the distance from permanent habitations, the absence of any other person, the wilderness reality in which animals and birds seem at home. There is the hypnotic appeal of the wilderness, the curious way in which one's disquiet is taken up and absorbed and transformed into an interest in the life of the woods, an exhilaration and a confidence. "Nick was excited. He was excited by the early morning and the river." The truths in Hemingway's story are not only the literal facts of the setting; they are a subtle and profoundly significant commentary on the impact of the wilderness. They make Big Two-Hearted River the finest story of the outdoors in American literature—one of the best, surely, in world literature as well.

The river that inspired Hemingway was almost a community secret. The land south of Lake Superior was logged in the 1880s, a maze of pines, hemlock, spruce, white cedar, yellow birch, hard maple and beech, laced with innumerable streams, all the color of iced tea from the leachings of the bogs. The big and famous river of the area was the Tahquamenon, the golden river that Longfellow wrote about in The Song of Hiawatha, with two great falls as it emptied into Whitefish Bay. The Tahquamenon was also the center of logging strategies and scandals, whereas the Two Hearted—aside from its name—was merely another of the little streams down which logs were floated to Lake Superior.

Long before names like Dullsville and Squaresville were invented, there was the real thing in this country: it was Dollarville. Dollarville was the creation of Robert Dollar, a logging-camp cook who acquired an interest in a land company that had purchased the land grants ' of a railroad. Dollarville was exactly what its name implied; it was strictly for money, and for money alone, and some of its doings carried the old robber-baron devices to the point of parody. Since much of the land company's land lay on the Tahquamenon, Dollar persuaded a group of Edinburgh capitalists to build a mill on that river. After they had done so, they learned they could get logs only from the land company, which demanded prohibitive prices. The land company then took over the mill, but it was discovered that the original land-grant charter to the railroads did not permit timber-cutting, and Dollar wound up owning both the mill and the land company. With his operations thus hampered, he gradually abandoned lumbering to build up his shipping business in the Dollar line, and Dollarville became a ghost town.

Just west of Dollarville was Seney, once a lumbering metropolis of 6,000, swollen by thousands of lumberjacks when the camps closed. Seney had 10 hotels with bars, 21 saloons, 2 mammoth bawdyhouses on the outskirts and scores of smaller ones on its back streets. Most lumber towns were wide open, and the legends of their vice are extensive, but Seney was "a hell-camp of slavery. Strangers were shanghaied to the frontier, shunted into box cars in the camps, held in chained peonage, tracked down by fierce dogs when they attempted to flee," according to a contemporary account. Leon Czolgosz, the assassin of President McKinley, was a section hand on the railway at Seney before he set out on his lethal mission.

Around the turn of the century Seney was obliterated by a forest fire. That left Newberry, 20 miles east of Seney, a lumber and farming community of 2,000, as the only place of any size near the Two Hearted. The attitude of the people of Newberry toward the region—and toward Hemingway's story about it—is mixed. In general, they are inclined to doubt that anyone from any place else can understand the country along the river. They take a certain pride in their hardihood if they have fished the headwaters of the Two Hearted. In the past they tended to be contemptuous of newcomers just because they didn't know the country, BABES IN THE WOODS was the headline of a front-page story in The Newberry News in the summer of 1920, the time of Nick Adams' trip. The news story told how a group of Detroit sportsmen arrived to fish the Two Hearted River, were then lost, and finally came upon some Newberry fishermen. "Thoroughly frightened now," said The News scornfully, "and their nerve gone, they refused to leave unless the Newberry men consented to drive them back."

About this same time The News reported that bootleggers were making extensive use of the old roads of the county to haul illegal liquor from Canada. If so, they were doubtless more impeded by the condition of the roads than by the alertness of the police. And in any event their operations must have suffered in the forest fires. These fires reached their peak early in the summer of 1919. On July 4 The Newberry News reported that the Dollarville mill was then burning, eight towns were in the path of flames driven by high winds and "Newberry is surrounded by fire on every side."

These were the fires whose effect Nick saw the next year. Rain fell in time to save the town, and also to save the green timber where Nick rested after crossing the burned plain. When Hemingway set the time and place of the story in his opening sentences, he distorted things slightly, and that has annoyed and perplexed the people of Newberry ever since. Hemingway had Nick get off the train at Seney to start his fishing trip. "There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country. The thirteen saloons that had lined the one street of Seney had left not a trace. The foundations of the Mansion House Hotel stuck up above the ground. The stone was chipped and split by the fire. It was all that was left of the town of Seney."

Seney, of course, actually had been destroyed a generation before. Yet there had been another fire there in 1919, so that discrepancy did not particularly irritate the local readers. What angered them was a tiny detail meaningless except on the scene. Nick walks down the railroad track to the bridge to look at the river, to watch the trout. "Ernest Hemingway was never on the Two Hearted!" exclaimed Lee Anderson, a conservation official at Newberry. "He was never anywhere near it. The Two Hearted doesn't flow through Seney. The Fox does." He seemed almost angry about it, and all around the area people insist that Hemingway was a phony whose ignorance they are determined to expose. "Another thing," said Anderson. "It's miles from Seney to where he must have fished the Two Hearted. And he has that fellow carrying a big pack and he gets there in a few hours, and he says he goes through that hardwood over there. Well, I cruised that hardwood, and I could hardly get through it myself. It's a good story," Anderson concluded, "but Hemingway couldn't have known anything about the country, or he wouldn't have put the Two Hearted in Seney. I often thought of writing him about it, but I never did."

On the banks of the Two Hearted River, the matter appears simpler. Hemingway's story is and is not about the stream itself, too much like the real river not to have been inspired by it but with a universal meaning that seems almost startlingly pertinent in these woods. Because he communicated a sense of the place to perfection, everyone could recognize his own stream in Nick Adams' mythical river. There was a deliberate distortion, not an elementary error of fact, in placing the Two Hearted in Seney, just as there was in picturing the town as if it had recently been destroyed by a fire, when it had been destroyed a score of years before.

The fire in Hemingway's story is an elemental ruin that has wiped out all life. It is a symbol of a blighted world after total war, or maybe a premonition of a blasted and lifeless planet. As Nick makes his way across the burned-over plains he is so conscious of their lifeless-ness that he regards the ash-covered grasshoppers with a kind of awe—he even talks to them. The love of life that grows hourly along the river is irresistible; when Nick releases the trout he has caught he feels an exultant interest in its escape, a deep satisfaction that it has gone, "gone in a shadow across the bottom of the stream."

So Hemingway's story properly begins in Seney, and the holocaust that has taken every green and living thing has also wiped out that logged-off Sodom and Gomorrah. Beyond that point he named nothing. Obscuring the details prevented a concrete here and now for every scene in the story. Of course, even the deepest wilderness of the Two Hearted River is going to be penetrated eventually. This year, on opening day of the trout season, there were 35 fishermen at the mouth of the river, an unprecedented number. There will be more after the new bridge is opened and more roads built. A good local estimate is that right now a man camping for a week on the headwaters of the Two Hearted might meet 15 fishermen in those seven days. To the local people that is a lot; in the old days no one would be met in a month—or a lifetime.

The real Two Hearted is going to change more rapidly in the future than it has in the past. The Two Hearted of Hemingway's imagination is going to live as long as people fish, and as long as English is read. It is a revelation of the genius of its author that nearly 40 years ago he deliberately altered distances, directions and names, to place his masterpiece in that geography of lasting truth where time's changes could not affect it


On the Sunday afternoon of July 2, when he heard the news of Ernest Hemingway's tragic death, Robert Cantwell, critic and literary historian, moved at once to prepare a tribute to the man who had had such an amazing influence on the art of writing. Cantwell set out for the Two Hearted River in Michigan's Upper Peninsula—the country that inspired what he considers Hemingway's most distinguished story. His purpose was to relate the setting to the work that Hemingway distilled from it, and to record the changes since the author fished there long ago. The result of Cantwell's trip is presented here. John Groth, the artist, an old friend of Hemingway's and his companion in World War II, interrupted a vacation to paint this new portrait of the young Hemingway, as well as the illustration on a following page of Nick Adams fishing the Big Two-Hearted River.