Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 23, 2012

Life on the Boardman

Charles Frye, has lived downstream from Brown Bridge Dam for 66 years


TRAVERSE CITY — Charles Frye, 92, learned to fish so early in life that he can't remember the first time he held a pole or baited his hook.

A Traverse City native son, he has lived along the Boardman River for 66 years, just a few miles downstream from Brown Bridge Dam.

Frye has seen a lot of changes along the river during his life. The Boardman was pristine when he moved there.

"No moss, no weeds, no nothing in the river," he said.

As a school boy in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he and buddies at the old Boardman School on Boardman Avenue used to swim off the nearby old Oval Wood Dish property during their noon hours and dive down to see the sunken logs of an earlier era.

His stepfather worked as a welder on the Brown Bridge Dam in 1921-1922 and told stories of its construction.

Frye has stayed away from the public debate over the dismantling of Brown Bridge Dam this year and planned removals of Boardman and Sabin dams by 2015. But he said he thinks it will restore health to the river in the long run.

Frye doesn't fish much anymore, partly because of his age and partly because the fish he catches are so small, he said.

He bought his place along East River Road in 1946. It was a small cabin that needed work with 1,000 feet of frontage on both sides of the river.

He was 27 and had just returned from three years on convoy duty in the Atlantic Ocean with the U.S. Coast Guard. Only a handful of people lived along the river then.

"When I first came out here, I used to catch speckled trout, but I haven't seen one in at least 20 to 25 years," he said.

He remembers caddis fly hatches in the spring that used to be so thick he couldn't see 50 feet across the river.

"Now, we haven't had one in 25 years," he said.

He attributes the vanishing speckled trout and insects to sediment caused by human activities upstream washing down over the years into spawning beds. Water warmed by Brown Bridge Pond flowing downstream also created poor conditions for cold-water fish species and water insects, which fish eat.

In the 1970s, Frye began to see patches of oil and drilling wastes float by his dock. Oil was first discovered in that area in 1971. Department of Natural Resources conservation officers asked if he would volunteer to take water samples twice daily and keep records. He did.

The pollution problem got better, he said, after the DNR ordered Shell Oil to install filters around their drilling sites to block oil and waste spills in what is now the Brown Bridge Quiet Area.

Frye knows the Boardman, its moods and idiosyncrasies — for instance, the way the steam rises from the river, then freezes and encrusts plants and trees in ice and icicles. In warmer weather, he said he often sits outside listening to the river and the sounds of its perpetual flow toward Traverse City and West Grand Traverse Bay.

"It's beautiful," he said. "The river is always moving."

Fish and aquatic biologists predict the river will run faster and colder once the dams are gone and will naturally flush sediments off old spawning beds for cold-water species like trout.

These changes would also create better egg-laying conditions for aquatic insects that provide fish forage.

Frye said that could take a long time because human activity like horseback riding, four-wheeling and other recreation will continue.

He worries about novice paddlers and anglers on the river who don't realize its strength, especially in high-water times or after big storms when its current can sweep kayaks and canoes into trees and fill waders of fishermen who step in holes.

He and his wife Nancy, who died in 2003, rescued a few people from the river over the years: a doctor, who went in over his waders and almost drowned; a young woman pinned in her canoe against tree limbs who screamed in pain until Frye could free her; and a woman severely stung by wasps when the river pushed her canoe into a tree where they nested.

What has the Boardman River taught him over the last 66 years?

"Respect for Mother Nature itself," he said.

"I don't think you're born with it," he said. "I think you adapt to it and that it is part of life and living.

"I love the outdoors," he added. "I love the river. It's something in life you hate to leave."