22 Dec

Rusty Gates’ legacy as an environmentalist will live on

“Now his work here is done, and it’s up to the rest of us to take his legacy and move it forward.”


Free Press Outdoors Writer

GRAYLING — If you want to experience Rusty Gates’ legacy, drive this winter to the Mason Tract on the South Branch of the Au Sable River and snowshoe or ski through the snowy, hushed woods to the banks of one of the least despoiled streams in Michigan.

Listen to the wind sighing through the pines, the occasional soft “plop” of a clump of snow falling from a high branch, the startling “grawk” of a passing raven.

Then listen to what you don’t hear. Drink in the silence when the wind dies, a quiet so intense, it can be unsettling, and absorb a solitude that can be experienced in few places in a state with 10 million people.

Realize that is a rare view into what the world was like before the airplane and automobile, before highways and the logger’s axe. And know that the reason you don’t hear the “tunk, tunk, tunk” of an oil well or smell its rotten-egg odor in this special place is largely because of Calvin Gates Jr., a valiant defender of the Au Sable River system who, on Saturday, died far too young of lung cancer. He was 54.

Rusty Gates faced his death the same way he faced life, with a wry dignity and courage, surrounded by family and friends who, for the last month, took turns sitting with him at his home on the banks of the Au Sable River mainstream a short distance from the family trout-fishing lodge that he had worked in for 40 years and owned for nearly 20.

A funeral service will be held at 1 p.m. Wednesday at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Grayling. A final visitation will be held at the church from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. for the many friends coming from long distances.

Gates founded the Anglers of the Au Sable in 1987 to defend the river system from a constant barrage of threats, ranging from polluted storm water runoff to oil drillers, and was the organization’s president through this year.

“He taught us what to do and how to do it,” said Marvin Roberson of Marquette, a close friend and one of the 900 members of the Anglers of the Au Sable. He has adopted Gates’ beloved Gordon setter bird dog, Buster. “Now we need to pick up his mantle and keep it going.”

“Rusty had a sweet and gentle side, although he did a good job of hiding it,” said Roberson, a forest policy specialist for the Sierra Club. “But in the last months, more and more of it came out. In the last days, he was happy to just sit and watch the river and enjoy his new favorite drink, RC Strawberry soda.”

Josh Greenberg began working in the Gates’ Lodge pro shop 15 years ago and, last summer, took over as manager at the age of 30. He will continue to manage the business with Gates’ wife of 21 years, Julie.

“I think it was harder for most people to accept the end than it was for Rusty,” said Greenberg, who grew up under Gates’ professional tutelage. “He was a master at recognizing a situation for what it was and making the best of it, and he did it this time, too.”

It was nearly a year ago that Gates called me to say he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. A two-pack-a-day smoker, he never tried to blame anyone or anything for this misfortune except “bad lifestyle decisions on my part.”

Gates’ dad, Cal Sr., was a high school music director in Oscoda who, during the April-September trout season, often spent five evenings a week driving 100 miles to Grayling to fish the Au Sable. He finally got tired of the commute, and in 1970, he and his wife, Mary, quit teaching jobs and bought the defunct Canoe Inn at Stephan Bridge about 10 river miles downstream from Grayling.

It was Cal Gates who irreverently named the flies-only stretch of river from Burton’s Landing to Wakely Bridge “The Holy Water,” and despite the doubts of many locals, Cal Sr. and Mary built a thriving business where Rusty began working as a fly tier and guide while still in high school. Rusty took over management with his wife, Julie, when Cal died in 1983, also at the age of 54.

Rusty Gates could be a prickly character, the polar opposite of his hail-fellow-well-met father. During the 35 years I knew him, I more than once heard longtime customers wonder aloud “how the hell he stays in business” after they met him on a day when he was displaying his crusty side. But they usually came back because they knew that under the shell was a shy, bright, funny man who not only knew nearly everything there was to know about fly-fishing but about how to try to preserve fly-fishing for future generations.

After being diagnosed, Gates never showed bitterness nor anger, and his public face only became more outgoing and cheerful as he savored every moment that was left to him.

“It actually gets easier once you know what to expect,” he once said, a comment that left me at a loss for a reply.

John Walters of Vanderbilt, president of the Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited, was a veteran fly fisherman who wasn’t involved in the environmental side of the sport “until I started hanging out at the fly shop and listening to Rusty.”

“He knew what was important and how to get things done, and I learned a great deal from him,” Walters said. “Now his work here is done, and it’s up to the rest of us to take his legacy and move it forward.”


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