I’ve made a lot of trips between northern Minnesota and northern Michigan. Usually I’m fishing my way across, hunting hex-eating browns and flats-cruising smallies in July, and backwoods muskies in November. By far the fishiest route is U.S. 2 through the Upper Peninsula and across the Mackinac Bridge down into the top of the mitten; it features three Great Lakes, four national forests, a handful of state forests, and so many lakes and streams that your neck gets sore from craning.
The most crane-worthy view is atop the bridge. From two hundred feet above the Straits of Mackinac, you can see Lake Michigan and Lake Huron and both of Michigan’s peninsulas. If you could see into the oceanic blue water of the Straits themselves, you’d see a twin ribbon of steel draped across the rugged lakebed, running parallel to and just west of the bridge.
This is Canadian energy giant Enbridge’s Line 5. Every day, the 64-year-old pipeline precariously carries up to 22.7 million gallons of crude oil and natural gas along the same route I drive, along or across those three Great lakes, four national forests, a handful of state forests, and 400 major waterways.
This is lovable country. Traver, Hemingway, and Harrison all loved it. People are sparse, and natural grandeur is easy to find, especially for a fly angler willing to hoof a bit beyond the parking lot. There’s plenty of good trout fishing around, but big-lake sight-fishing is the highlight. There’s simply nothing else like it anywhere in fresh water.
Great Lakes folks often say this, and it’s true: You forget how wrong the word “lake” is unless you’re standing on the shore of one. The limestone flat before you glows aqua for a hundred yards and then drops suddenly into the bottomless blue of northern Lake Michigan. Behind you is a teeming coastal marsh, and then ancient sand dunes that anchor wind-twisted white pines. The flashabou in your Clousers buzz in the wind. The place is so big, the water so clear, the solitude so complete, it seems impossible that man could harm it.
But harm it we have. When Étienne Brûlé took his first sip of the sweetwater seas in 1615, they were packed full of native fish and supported vast communities of native peoples. But they were also genetically naive and ecologically vulnerable. The opening of the Welland Canal in 1829 signaled the start of a 150-year onslaught of pollution and invasive species that left the ecosystems of the Lakes sparse and largely alien.
Northern Michigan is known for its trout waters, and when smallmouth bass are discussed, the focus is usually on chasing them in rivers. But ample food supply and plenty of room to roam make for some oversize smallies in the Great Lakes.
But when you walk these remote and vibrant shorelines, all that feels like ancient history. In the 1970s, the Clean Water Act and the EPA started the Lakes on a dramatic recovery. Today, the water is again crystal clear and sweet-tasting. Introduced, non-native, and invasive fish species persist, but the lake trout and other natives are bouncing back, adapting to their new neighbors. At your feet, native smallmouth bass are thriving, happily eating invasive and indigenous prey alike, along with Clousers.
It’s too easy to picture oil here, in the loose rocks and sand, the fragile sand-dune vegetation, the thousands of tiny backwaters. It’s especially easy for Michiganders, who lived through the 2010 Enbridge pipeline spill of 840,000 gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River, in what became the worst inland oil spill in American history (“Kalamazoo Comeback,” Spring ’17).
But Enbridge says the company has learned the lessons of Kalamazoo and “transformed its approach to safety, investing heavily in enhanced monitoring, safer pipelines, and more staff to keep operations safe.” The company also points out that there’s never been a leak in the Straits of Mackinac.
But Line 5 has had its share of spills. The National Wildlife Federation recently reported that there have been at least 29 “releases” of oil or gas on Line 5, including the 1999 spill in Crystal Falls, Michigan, of 222,600 gallons that forced the evacuation of 500 residents and led to a 36-hour fire.
As part of the post-Kalamazoo settlement with the EPA, Enbridge has spent millions on safety and preparedness the past few years. But an envisioned response to a Straits spill remains dicey. Even under ideal conditions, the EPA expects only 30-40 percent of a spill in the Straits would be recovered. If a spill happened today, the U.S. Coast Guard says a response effort would be short on workers, boats, equipment, and training, and might have to wait for the weather to cooperate. In 2015 the Detroit Free Press reported that rough weather in the Straits could prevent or delay response operations nearly a third of the year. Some nightmare scenarios, like an undetected small leak occurring beneath winter ice, have never even been studied.
While the popularity of flyfishing for carp has continued to grow in recent years, the stereotype remains that they are ugly urban fish found only in waters that are less-than-pristine. a day of Great Lakes carp fishing will prove this notion false.
A 2016 University of Michigan Water Center study modeled how spilled oil might move in the Straits under a range of weather patterns and spill volumes. The “worst case scenario” models predicted that 700 miles of shoreline and more than 15 percent of Lake Michigan’s surface— and almost 80 percent of Lake Huron’s—is vulnerable to a spill in the Straits, depending on which way the oil goes. The study concluded that the Straits would be “the worst place in the Great Lakes for an oil spill.”
Animations of these models are on YouTube, and they bring a map of the Straits area to life. The oscillating currents of the Straits operate similar to human respiration, and—just like cigarette tar in a 1990s D.A.R.E. cartoon—simulated “oil” sticks to mile after mile of shoreline. Even in Enbridge’s own “worst case scenario,” which assumes their safety shutoffs work in limiting a spill to 207,000 gallons, coastal areas in the Straits are still mostly doomed. Same goes for Beaver and Mackinac archipelagos, depending on currents and weather.
I know these doomed coastal and island areas well; they are where the fishing happens. My friend Jason Tucker first brought me here in 2012. That day, three-foot rollers had us half-wading, half-swimming on the edge of a remote limestone shoal. Being a northern Michigan native, Tucker measures smallmouth bass in pounds, not inches, and the first one he caught that day was pushing six. It wore a Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) jaw tag from Beaver Island, some forty miles away as the bass swims, a reminder that these lakes are vast, dynamic systems, arguably organisms in their own right. And through their pumping heart, the Straits, Line 5 hums with oil.
“These critical coastal habitats and communities will be impacted the greatest by an oil spill in the Great Lakes,” Michigan DNR Fisheries Lake Huron coordinator Randall Claramunt told me in an email this spring. He likened the habitat in the Straits to that in the Gulf of Mexico, where shoreline systems were most vulnerable to the oil. “Preventing an oil spill from ever happening is in all of our interests.”
And not just in the Straits. Line 5 has 640 inland miles of pipe, that cross beneath hundreds of rivers and streams, all of which drain to one of the Great Lakes.
Take Michigan’s Au Sable, the birthplace of Trout Unlimited and one of the first and best brown trout dry-fly rivers in North America. On warm summer nights, dozens of the river’s indigenous Au Sable boats are poled over Line 5’s pipe, carrying second- and third-generation guides and anglers. It crosses just upstream of Parmalee.
Flats fishing, Michigan-style. Patience and a decent double-haul helps. Mackinac Bridge in the background.
“People don’t realize that Line 5 crosses numerous inland bodies of water,” said Tom Baird, president of Anglers of the Au Sable, a Grayling-based conservation group. “A break like that experienced on the Kalamazoo would be disastrous.”
After meeting with Anglers of the Au Sable in 2010, post-Kalamazoo, and looking to spend good-will safety money, Enbridge added remote shutoff valves both above and below the Au Sable crossing. But in the event of a breach there, even a perfect shutoff leaves about 300,000 gallons of oil between the valves, 60 percent of which would likely end up in the river.
A little farther north, Michigan flyfishing guide Alex Cerveniak hosts backcountry trips in the Pigeon River Country State Forest (PRC), home to a wild elk herd and the Lower Peninsula’s only remnant native brook trout. Alex and I traced the route of Line 5 on a PRC map this spring, finding where it crosses the remote and swampy upper reaches of his home waters.
“I don’t even want to think about something like this happening here,” Alex said. He brings a 3-day pack on his brookie trips, and knows the remote cedar swamps and beaver ponds of the PRC as well as anyone. How do you clean up an oil spill in that country? “It’s not an option,” he said. “It would be devastating.”
There’s also Wisconsin’s Bois Brule River, the famous “River of Presidents” that hosts Lake Superior’s strongest wild steelhead run and some of Wisconsin’s best summertime hatches of big bugs. (For you locals, Line 5 crosses between Pine Tree and Highway FF.) From there, it’s about nine hours by canoe or oil slick to Lake Superior. A question to Enbridge about spill response at the Brule crossing went unanswered.
The Straits crossing remains at the center of the Line 5 debate, since this section is the line’s most vulnerable spot, both politically and physically. As pressure has mounted from environmental and business groups to shut down the line, the state of Michigan has been pushing Enbridge to improve transparency and accountability with regard to the condition of this stretch of pipeline. In other words, what kind of shape are those old pipes in down there?
“I believe this pipeline is in as good of condition as it was on the day it was installed,” Enbridge’s director of pipeline integrity programs, Kurt Baraniecki, told the State of Michigan in March, as reported by the Detroit Free Press. But that’s not exactly a strong endorsement, considering Line 5 was built with WWII-era materials and methods that wouldn’t be allowed today. Besides, since March, we’ve learned: that there’s documented delamination of the pipes’ protective coating; that sections of pipe are bent and “ovalized” and getting worse; that there are heavy encrustations of invasive mussels; and that the lake-bottom keeps washing out beneath the pipes, constantly creating new unsupported spans.
If you’re thinking of fishing in Michigan, consider wading the flats, marshes, and creeks of the northern Great Lakes for carp, smallmouth, or brookies.
At the Straits, Line 5’s 30-inch pipe splits into twin 20-inch pipes that lay along the rough bottom. These were designed to safely span gaps of up to 140 feet without supports, but Enbridge’s easement with the state of Michigan requires spans no longer than 75 feet. A report this spring from Dr. Ed Timm, a scientist formerly of Dow Chemical, showed that, upon the line’s completion in 1953, several long spans were left unanchored, including a 160-footer and two 150-footers—spans the original designers would have considered dangerously long.
I emailed Enbridge about that report in May. Spokesman Michael Barnes wrote back that he couldn’t directly comment on the validity of Timm’s report, but that the pipelines are in excellent condition.
“I want to make it clear that we’ve never had any long, unsupported spans for Line 5 in the Straits,” Barnes wrote.
But in June of this year, a 2003 inspection was released in which Enbridge discovered 16 spans longer than 140 feet, including a 224-footer and a 286-footer. Since 2003, Enbridge has been constantly adding new anchor supports to try to keep these pipes in compliance with the easement. Between 2005 and 2016, a report shows that noncompliant spans of pipe longer than 75 feet were discovered 250 times.
I immediately sent a follow-up email to Barnes at Enbridge. Do they not consider these spans “long” or “unsupported?” As of press time in late August, I’d received no reply.
Sightfishing a shoreline in the straights of Mackinac, with eight-weights and an eye for slow-moving targets.
Some sections in the Straits have spent nearly 50 years hanging without support, flexing beyond their design parameters while oscillating in currents that engineers in 1953 had no way of measuring. Fact is, Enbridge—and state regulators—simply ignored the Straits crossing for decades.
“Line 5 has taken a huge beating over the years,” Timm told me, saying it might be only one “peak current event” from failure.
Meanwhile, Enbridge says their inspection and testing methods prove that Line 5 is in excellent condition, while ignoring direct questions about the decades the pipes were dangerously out of compliance with the easement.
“We believe transparency is key,” reads a Line 5-specific page on the Enbridge website, titled “Michigan Residents Deserve Factual Information.” But the company’s position on Line 5 seems to boil down to: “We’re the experts. Trust us,” and the more documentation that comes out, the harder that gets to do. After all, the company said the same things prior to 2010 about their line that spilled into the Kalamazoo.
Maybe Enbridge is right and the pipes are in great shape. Maybe the odds of a spill are low. Still, the stakes are incredibly high, and the people and ecosystems of the Great Lakes are the ones with their chips on the table. So it’s worth asking: For what reward?
Despite Enbridge’s PR campaign to convince Michiganders that they need Line 5, most of the Canadian oil and gas it carries goes to Canadian refineries. Enbridge says that about 30 percent of Line 5’s crude is refined in Michigan, and some percentage of its natural gas is used by the U.P.’s propane customers. A report this summer that was criticized as industry-leaning estimated that without Line 5, U.P. propane prices could rise $0.10-$0.35 per gallon, and gasoline in greater Michigan might rise by $0.02 per gallon. In August, Ontario’s Energy minister issued a statement calling Line 5 “critical infrastructure.” This may be true for Ontario’s massive petrochemical industry, and for Enbridge, but is it “critical” for Wisconsin and Michigan stakeholders?
Perhaps the biggest giveaway that Line 5 isn’t critical is that Enbridge has no backup plan for replacing its capacity if there were to be a shutdown due to a breach or other emergency. The company isn’t talking about replacing Line 5 or re-routing it, even though they’re planning to spend almost $8 billion to replace the younger Line 3, which runs from Alberta to Wisconsin. Instead, when referring to Line 5’s future or projected lifespan, they use words like “indefinitely.”
Most likely, Enbridge and their Ontario customers know that Line 5’s days are numbered, and they’re pumping as much oil through it as they can before these numbers run out. They know the state of Michigan would probably never permit a new pipeline through the Straits. The Michigan Great Lakes Submerged Land Act, passed in 1955—only two years after Line 5 was completed—requires a strict permitting process to prove that public use of the Great Lakes resources, such as hunting, fishing, recreation, and commerce, would not be impaired. Even the Endangered Species Act could come into play, as some beaches near the Straits are protected nesting areas for an endangered shorebird, the piping plover. And there would still be the standard clean-water, fossil-fuels type protests and lawsuits that hinder almost every pipeline project.
And so the debate on Line 5 crawls along. This year was set to be a big one for the aging pipeline: Two state-commissioned independent studies were due to be released this past summer, one on the impacts and costs of a Line 5 spill in the Straits—which has never been done—and another looking at different courses of action at Straits crossing, ranging from continuing to operate Line 5 to shutting it down immediately.
The growth potential of its native smallmouth is reason enough to wade the flats of Lake Michigan. You can leave your four-weight at home.
Unfortunately, the first study was cancelled by the state after it found that the contractor conducting the study was also working on another project for Enbridge, creating a conflict of interest. The second came out, but the state panned it, among other reasons for underestimating worst-case-scenario spill estimates, ignoring the possibility of damage from the known decades of long, unsupported spans, and for basing its models on average Straits weather conditions instead of peak wind and current conditions. Michigan Sierra Club chapter president David Holtz called the report “the oil industry version of how to protect the Great Lakes.”
In June, Michigan attorney general Bill Schuette, a Republican, said that a “specific and definite timetable” for the closure of Line 5 was needed. As of August, no such timetable has been discussed, though Schuette and the state have the legal authority to revoke the Straits-crossing easement.
Today, Line 5 still throbs with oil through the woods and waters of the upper Great Lakes. By the end of this year, I will have driven its route six times. On the Fourth of July my wife and I hiked a Straits shoreline with our eight-weights, finding few fish but fewer people. We moved slowly along the rocky beach, scanning for fish.
At first, they look just like the rock-shadows that dot the flats by late afternoon. But these shadows move rhythmically—slipping, pausing, slipping, pausing—in the diffraction of each swell. I tilted my head to get a better polarizing effect from my glasses in the dropping sun. The pair of fish crossed sixty yards of waist-deep flat with the slow certainty of nuclear submarines, enjoying the warm turquoise water.
They turned parallel to the beach just out of casting range. We needed to get a little closer, but our feet crunching on the rocks—the dry ones on the beach—turned the fish back lakeward, without urgency but with finality, and they disappeared into the dark blue of open lake. In the far distance, the Mackinac Bridge shimmered.