The Big Water story is so big it will take two books

Tales of the Au Sable River, told by one who knows it well


The body of literature on the Great Lakes would fill a library. Still, in his new book, “The Big Water,” Thomas Buhr takes us inland to the Au Sable River, a 138-mile-long ribbon of delight that nearly bisects Michigan’s lower peninsula from Kolke and Bradford creeks to Lake Huron at Oscoda.

Buhr is among many enthusiasts drawn to the AuSable to fish for brown trout, an elusive fish that has spawned stories for more than a century and a half.

For “The Big Water,” Buhr only examines the history of the lower half of the AuSable as it courses from Mio to its mouth, bordered by national and state parkland. The author is working on a second book that will trace the Au Sable from its source to Mio.

Early on, Buhr decided that the first book would be a companion piece to the 1960s book “The Old Au Sable,” written by Hazen Miller.

Buhr said Miller’s book mainly focused on the Upper Au Sable and that since it was published in the ‘60s, it missed significant events since then.

Buhr clarifies what the Big Water means: The Au Sable becomes a “different animal” as it moves downstream from the Parmalee Bridge near Mio. The river speeds up and widens as the land grows more remote and wild.

Buhr begins his journey where he should: with the indigenous population and their early interaction with Lewis Cass and Henry Schoolcraft as their land was stripped away through treaties.

Buhr follows the region’s history through the timber clear-cutting era, from when loggers blew off steam and sought out women in the small-town saloons to the arrival of homesteaders who were lured by cheap land and deceptive advertising.

Buhr also fills readers in on the major fires that consumed the area and the subsequent success of the Civilian Conservation Corps, an FDR program in the 1930s and ‘40s that saved natural resources on federal, state and local land.

Buhr doesn’t duck not only how rapacious capitalists destroyed the forest and land but also how the Grayling, once a common fish found in the river, was overfished to extinction. (It has recently been reintroduced.) He also retells the story of the passenger pigeon hunted to extinction by professionals.

A history of the lower river would only be complete with an in-depth look at the five dams built between 1912 and 1924 to power modern Michigan.

Although the dams are not the size of those in the western United States, they are massive in the context of the Au Sable and provide the power needed downstate. They also fundamentally changed the Au Sable, creating massive backwaters and lake-like artificial natural areas.

When I was a child, my parents took me fishing below those damns because that’s where massive smallmouth bass lurked. I once caught a near-record bass below Cooke Dam and landed on the legendary Mort Neff television show. We ate it for dinner.

As the recreational canoe industry flourished and mostly drunken revelers thrashed downstream, the dams were barriers that needed to be portaged.

“The situation with recreational canoeing has ratcheted down,” Buhr said. He attributed that to the public’s rejection of the proposed 2020 alcohol ban on the Au Sable.

Buhr also tells us about the gangsters from the Purple Gang who would go to the Au Sable area. “Having a hideout in the sticks is a cliché straight from every gangster movie of the era, but in this case, the cliché was based in reality,” he writes.

Buhr said he has been exploring the river since he was 10, when his father gave him a three-horsepower, 10-foot-long boat and said, “See you at dinner.”

Like most dedicated fly fishing enthusiasts, Buhr will talk your ear off about flys, hatches and legendary fly fishermen.

“You have to pay close attention to nature to be successful,” he said. “You have to know when the various hatches occur, for example.”

In one chapter, Buhr also delves into the state’s role in contributing to the pollution of the Au Sable and its cleanup. He delves deeply into the roles of the bureaucracy and the influence of Govs. William Milliken and John Engler, and environmental issues emanating from PBBs, Camp Graylin, and PFAS plumes from the airbase at Oscoda.

He said his experiences on the river have gotten him much closer to nature, and as a result, the book’s proceeds will be donated to conservation on the Au Sable.


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