The familiar tug, the comforting bend of the 7-weight, and another Michigan smallmouth—this one, 17 inches. Not a record, but it came to my net in a peculiar spot in an unaccustomed location; along a stretch of the Kalamazoo River west of Marshall, Michigan, where the tree-lined banks now give way to clear-cut fields and wildflowers. The late-spring sun simmers the brain on this part of the river now. It didn’t used to.
I grew up 12 miles away, in a snoozy, meat-and-potatoes town surrounded by a muted part of the Midwest. As kids, we shimmied up next to the sustenance fishermen, bait in hand at Ceresco Dam; an aging, overbuilt hydroelectric blockade that formed a 75-acre lake just a mile or two upstream from here. We fished for hours during summer break, occasionally catching a fish on our fathers’ spin rods. But mostly we snuck down to the river to smoke stolen cigarettes or the occasional joint and splash into the river from tattered rope swings.
STATE OF DISASTER. ON JULY 25, 2010, A 30-INCH STEEL PIPELINE BEGAN SPEWING TAR SANDS CRUDE INTO A TRIBUTARY OF THE KALAMAZOO, MARKING THE BEGINNING OF THE LARGEST INLAND OIL SPILL IN U.S. HISTORY. HERE, CREWS START THE PROCESS OF EXTRACTING THE DAMAGED PIPELINE.
But this smallie shouldn’t be here. Common sense and history say it should’ve died. Nearly seven years ago—before the 174-year old dam at Ceresco was decommissioned and demolished, and before the construction of a half-dozen new parks, boat ramps, and kayak launches—on July 25, 2010, the Kalamazoo River fell victim to the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history.
EPA RESPONSE CREWS SET UP SHOP NEAR CERESCO DAM, WHICH WAS REMOVED IN 2014. EPA PHOTO
At 5:56 p.m. on that fateful day, Canadian oil supplier Enbridge Inc. shut down pipeline 6B, a 286-mile underground line distributing heavy crude from the Alberta tar sands to a refinery just outside of Gary, Indiana—an economically depressed steel town on the outskirts of Chicago. Two minutes later, alarms sounded at Enbridge’s pipeline control center in Edmonton, Alberta, indicating an extreme drop in pressure at a pump nearly 1,300 miles away, just outside Marshall.
The alarms weren’t uncommon during routine maintenance shutdowns, but this time it wasn’t routine. The 30-inch steel pipeline had ruptured with a six-foot crack, spewing tar sands crude into Talmadge Creek, a small tributary of the Kalamazoo. By 9:30 p.m., county 911 dispatchers fielded calls from local residents complaining about a natural-gas smell near the site, but as darkness fell, authorities were unable to determine the cause. The pipeline continued discharging until the next morning, when a local natural-gas employee discovered the spill and called Enbridge at 11:16 a.m.
Enbridge employees arrived around noon—18 hours after oil began filling the river. Officials declared a state of disaster. A no-contact order was issued, barring swimming, boating, wading, or fishing from the spill site in Marshall to Comstock Township, 38 river-miles west. As many as 50 homes within 200 feet of the river were evacuated—many of which were later purchased by Enbridge in order to stem plummeting property values. In the aftermath, more than 300 nearby residents reported medical symptoms related to crude-oil exposure.
Jay Wesley, Lake Michigan basin coordinator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, was an early responder. “It was something we’d never seen,” he says. “Most of what we respond to in this area is a turned-over tanker. We definitely weren’t expecting anything of that magnitude.”
Within days, Enbridge and its contractors contained the spill with booms. All told, pipeline 6B sent an estimated 843,000 gallons of crude—roughly 20,000 barrels—into the river. By September 30, Enbridge and the EPA had removed 760,000 gallons from the water’s surface and the floodplain. The next four years were spent recovering the bitumen that sank to the river bottom.
Brad Parlato, a senior project engineer and Enbridge contractor during the remediation efforts that began in 2011, lived downriver from the spill and is the former chairman of the Kalamazoo Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited. “When the dredging began, I was brought on as a local engineer because of my familiarity with the watershed,” Parlato says. “The spill and the remediation were overwhelming.”
As Enbridge dredged contaminated sediment from the river, the company used surrounding timber and other habitat to create new banks. It also missed its EPA deadline to finish dredging by September 2011. To appease authorities, the company upped its cleanup contribution to $700 million, exceeding its $650 million insurance policy. Enbridge Partners, the U.S. subsidiary of the Canadian firm, reported its first ever loss in 2010, going $138 million in the red.
Along with traditional remediation, Enbridge agreed to continue several other monitoring and restoration efforts on the river, in addition to constructing four new public recreation-access points. Today, Parlato, who helped engineer the new boat ramps and kayak launches at the spill location, stops just short of saying that the river is better off from the oil spill. “People are seeing the river as a resource,” he says. “There was a dam removed, and an engineered habitat created—you just don’t see this happening everywhere. I became an environmental engineer to work on projects like this.”
Though cleanup took nearly four years, by June 2012 most of the more than 30 miles of damaged river reopened. “The Kalamazoo is now clean, but we also feel that we’ve improved it,” says Ryan Duffy, a spokesman for Enbridge. “If you talk to people who live in the area, the river is being used for recreation much more now than it ever was in the past.”
SHADY, FLY-SWALLOWING FOLIAGE HAS ITS SMALLIE REWARDS.
TWO INEXPERIENCED and unsteady kayakers entered the river in Marshall as I organized my fly gear and triple-checked the beer count.
“Good fishing out there?” asked one of the paddlers, with a slight southern drawl—out of place in the upper Midwest, but a common quirk in this part of the state, where there’s a penchant for blue dog Democrats and country music.
“Doubt it,” I told him, not really knowing. Logic pulls at the heartstrings of fishermen and environmentalists. An oil spill of this enormity certainly must have decimated the fish population, as it did to the turtles and bird species near the fractured pipeline. But I had suspicions. I’d heard rumors. Wesley, who has spent the past six years working with the state’s DNR to survey and study how the spill has impacted fish, confirmed the reports: “There were no catastrophic effects to the fish population,” he says. “Seriously. We haven’t found anything significantly wrong.”
I didn’t want to believe him. I didn’t want our desire for cheap oil to go without a reprehensible reminder of its costs. I wanted to pull smallies from the river that had three eyes, with crude oil leaching from their gills, so I could shove them into the face of every truck-driving yuppie (like myself) and say, “See? See what you’ve done?” I contacted Jay Wisnosky, a flyfishing instructor and my go-to guide from Schultz Outfitters in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I wanted to float the Kalamazoo directly through the spill site so I could disprove Wesley’s science. This was a fact-finding mission.
Wisnosky consented—no qualifiers, no hesitation. I thought maybe I piqued his adventurous spirit. Maybe he and the rest of the Schultz team wanted to know more about the Kalamazoo, since they’re usually guiding or fishing the Huron, a 125-mile smallmouth factory that zigzags its way through five southeast Michigan counties before emptying into Lake Erie.
But they already knew. Wisnosky downplays the river and its fish, despite knowing better. The Kalamazoo River is still a secret, see, a honeypot hiding in plain sight, tarnished by an unnatural disaster and lasting impressions. Or it was a secret, anyway.
At the put-in southeast of Marshall, Wisnosky and I shoved off. Upriver from the spill site at Talmadge Creek, this generic section of the Kalamazoo could be almost any other river in Lower Michigan; the banks lined with fly-swallowing foliage and an unforgiving bastard of a canopy. “Watch your backcast,” Wisnosky bellowed every few minutes. Tossing Blane Chocklett’s Game Changer streamer brought us a few fish. But they were unremarkable specimens from an uninspired stretch of water.
As we approached Talmadge Creek, things changed. The canopy unfurled, direct sun washed over the boat, and the banks widened. It was like we’d been transported to a new, foreign locale. It’s not Patagonia, exactly, but it doesn’t feel like Michigan either.
We passed under the bridge at 15 Mile Road, floating toward Saylor’s Landing—a 3.4-acre swath of land that Enbridge acquired from two families following the spill, in order to install a new boat launch, pavilion, and picnic tables. Enbridge contractors on lunch break stood around smoking cigarettes and chucking plastic lures into the river. The company, under the direction of the DEQ, is working to rebuild natural habitat along the riverbank.
Downriver, orange-vested workers loaded four-gallon chemical sprayers into a pair of jet sleds. “Testing?” I asked.
“Killing,” a worker responded with all the authority of a foreman. “Invasive species.”
DESPITE A RESOURCE ON THE MEND, ANGLER TRAFFIC REMAINS MOSTLY GRIDLOCK-FREE ON MOST SECTIONS OF THE KALAMAZOO. The dredging and clearing of habitat, as well as the removal of debris like shopping carts and tires, provided ample breeding ground for invasive aquatic plants like Eurasian watermilfoil, which devastates native plants and chokes up flows.
“We’ve now moved into a new phase with the state of Michigan for long-term monitoring and invasive species control,” Duffy told me. “We made a promise. We accepted responsibility. We will not forget the Marshall incident.”
Wisnosky and I were now floating along the bottom of the lake that filled the floodplain upriver from Ceresco Dam. All that remains at the site is the dam’s derelict powerhouse and the thick concrete walls that once anchored it to shore. Enbridge completed the dam removal in 2014 amid a small but vocal crowd of naysayers. Some Ceresco residents viewed the dam and its lake as part of the town’s historical tapestry.
“This is not the river that anyone here has ever known,” Heather Rocho, noted town historian, told local newspaper MLive in July 2014. “The Kalamazoo River in Ceresco has been dammed since 1839. To us, the ‘river’ means nothing.”
Landmarks, or what passes as landmarks in Ceresco, were wiped out by the oil spill and its cleanup. Gone are an old rail trestle, a few houses and barns, and one of the scarce retail outlets in the town of roughly 1,650. “The old John Deere store was razed,” Rocho said. “Ceresco is a ghost town compared to what used to be here. I realize that happens in a lot of rural areas, but it doesn’t happen because of oil spills.”
Wesley insists that the removal of Ceresco Dam, which was critical to the betterment of the river’s ecology, wouldn’t have happened without the crack in Pipeline 6B. “Improvement projects like that have a lot of competition from all over the state,” he says. “With the Enbridge settlement, we were able to accomplish a lot all at once. All of this work probably would have taken 20 more years, maybe longer.”
THE ALL-NEW KALAMAZOO MAY BE UNRECOGNIZABLE TO SOME, BUT THE ‘OL BRIDGE HOLE IS AN ALWAYS-FAMILIAR STOP FOR BASSERS IN SEARCH OF THE BIG BASTARDS.
ON TOP OF THE $1.2 BILLION Enbridge committed to river recovery, the company also reached a settlement with the State of Michigan worth up to $75 million, including up to $30 million for wetland restoration. Enbridge also agreed to a $177 million settlement with the Justice Department and the EPA that includes $110 million for improving its pipeline safety, and $62 million in Clean Water Act penalties. (President Trump’s 2017 Executive Order to revise the Clean Water Rule likely lowers the chance for these types of reparations in the future.) Despite an improved resource, river traffic remained slow most of the day. Jet sleds, unsympathetic to our quest for smallies, careened along the river. Aside from the contractors and a few innertubers, the Kalamazoo was ours. That’s okay with Parlato, a fellow flyfisher.
“My fishing buddies and I were never familiar with that stretch of river before the spill,” he says. “Mostly because there were no access points. Now we can float through it, check out a beautiful stretch, and explore waters we’ve never seen before.”
Wisnosky and I traded places, with me moving to the oars and him to the bow. “There are big fish in here,” he muttered with waning confidence. “This sun isn’t doing us any favors.”
We boated a dozen smallies. Wisnosky claims the river holds 20-inchers. We didn’t find any that large, but the mystique and romanticism of the Kalamazoo didn’t evade us completely. Fishing is faith, the quest for unrequited love in the form of a grab. These are new waters for most of us, which is exactly what we yearn for—familiarity in unfamiliar places.
“The Kalamazoo has always had a solid smallmouth fishery,” Wesley says. “There’s something unique about the river.” And as the state and Enbridge continue to restore habitat, the fishing should only improve.
Landing at Riverside Park, 3.5 miles from the former Ceresco Dam, I still felt unfilled. Like I’d missed the rapture. There was a smallmouth in that river that I should have hoisted above my head—a gold-and-green trophy to mark a river once wounded and now championed. It wasn’t my day, but I will return.