A story of passion, sobriety, and second chances.
By Drew De Vries
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” -Statue of Liberty, New York, New York. 1883.
Brian pulled on the oars as we cut further into the dense fog. My headlamp felt obnoxious when I realized it only shown three feet into the morning darkness, so I focused its beam instead on my coffee, timing sips between the bursts and lags of strokes. Clearing the cobwebs from our early start took a few minutes, but I eventually caught a boost from the caffeine. It could’ve just as likely come from the stoke of the unknown, which carries plenty of buzz in itself.
Brian Kozminski or “Koz” to friends and clients, operates True North Trout outfitters. He and I met while at a Backcountry Hunters and Anglers event in Detroit a few years ago. This was our first time connecting in person since then. We’d set out to fish the final hours of a Hex hatch on the Jordan river outside East Jordan, MI. The Hexagenia Limbata is a species of mayfly that hatches in droves during a short window in summer months. This phenomenon turns large nocturnal fish away from their banks to feed, and it happens to many an anglers’ delight. The catch is at its best during the dark of night, and Koz hadn’t even returned home from dropping off his prior clients before meeting me in the parking lot of Cafe Sante at 4:30 a.m. He was on hour 22 of a very long day, and his attitude was notably chipper, all things considered.
Our conversation meandered in sync with the river, and I learned his past is somewhat ugly, admittedly riddled with poor decisions. Partying, sleeping around and bartending the then up-and-coming posh restaurant scene in Grand Rapids. He explained he was a functioning alcoholic, attending AA meetings while at the same time carrying on with his alternative lifestyle for much of his twenties. This continued until Easter Sunday of the year 2001, when he awoke from a lengthy night of bingeing to a dark unfamiliar apartment with no electricity or running water. The reality of his plight sank in and he made a vow to change his lifestyle. After dressing and heading out, a friend from AA called him out on his b.s., the final nudge needed to get serious about recovery. Things began to stabilize, and a few years into his sobriety he met Lesley. Soon after, they married and had a daughter, Simone. When Simone was a year old, Lesley posed a seemingly preposterous idea. “How about we move away and live up north?” Brian was all about it, and within weeks they packed up and headed out to raise their family in beautiful northern Michigan.
After an initial stint in the town of Petoskey, the Kozminski’s came to Boyne City, which has become their home since moving “Up North” permanently in 2006. It’s is a quaint little town of under 4,000 residents in Charlevoix county bordering the gorgeous shorelines of Lake Charlevoix and Lake Michigan. Lesley now works full-time managing a law firm, and Brian pursues his passion for fly-fishing by guiding trips each summer on the trout streams nearby, including the premiere fisheries of the Jordan, Boyne, Sturgeon, Au Sable and Manistee rivers.
In between coffee refills and a delicious scone from the Boyne City Bakery, we landed on topics of heritage, cultural cuisine, and the passed-down stories of turf wars between the immigrant Dutch Reformers and the Polish Catholics in the Grand Rapids West Side, notorious for its blue collar Dutch and Polish roots. There’s an appreciation for hard work ingrained here, something not missed on either Brian or myself, each a direct descendent of these opposing groups, now peaceably representing each side in a boat together.
We targeted the few fish showing interest on the surface, but the conditions had mostly killed off the bite. If you haven’t already caught it, Koz is a ball of energy. He juggles the roles of husband, father, mentor, and fly-fishing guide, and is also a sales rep for Temple Fork Outfitters and Umpqua feather merchants, and he waits tables during winter months, too. He and Lesley have 2 biological children and parent two foster children, whom they’ll continue to serve until safe permanent housing is secured. We continued trading stories of prior work, including food, guiding, and the Outdoor Retail industry. He gave a college-level lecture on the river’s ecosystem and etymology, and our need to participate in protecting access to wild places. We discussed the healing provided by fishing, and the worthwhile hustle required to make up-north living possible. We covered our mutual hopes and aspirations for the next generation, and the beauty that is America where, with hard work and the right attitude, you truly can make things happen. Eventually we put away the rods and simply enjoyed our remaining time rowing back to the launch. By now the sun was baking off the fog, and the summertime heat was coming fast.
While pulling back into the Cafe Sante parking lot, the landscape had entirely transformed from a sleepy little town to pure energy. People were everywhere. Foot traffic was buzzing at all the shops, a race director was on a megaphone, setting course markers for a Triathlon. There were food trucks and generators, the whole bit. Today was the Fourth of July, a time when friends and family across every town come together to celebrate America and her promises of freedom. Regrettably, this came as an afterthought, like “Oh, yeah, of course…4th of July.” The truth is, in 1776, fifty-six courageous leaders from 13 colonies signed a document severing our allegiance to a very powerful British empire. The fight they picked was massive, a Revolutionary war in every sense, and we citizens owe a debt of gratitude to those brave souls who’ve given their lives defending the worthy cause of liberty. I’d come to realize, without America, there’d be no economic gains to chase by way of fishing, or celebrations taking place over The Fourth. Without America, there’d be no state campgrounds, or public access to these wild streams, and Brian and I certainly wouldn’t be laughing about our bickering ancestors, those same immigrants who once came through Ellis Island tired, poor and yearning to breathe free.
I’m proud and grateful to live in this great nation of second chances. Even though there’s no lady in the Charlevoix harbor, I’d bet my bottom dollar if you asked Brian about his gateway to freedom, his own Ellis Island per se, it’d be somewhere on a river, right here at the top of the Mitten State – his True North.
To book a guided trip with Brian, visit truenorthtrout.com
For more on Backcountry Hunters and Anglers visit backcountryhunters.org