“I’m curious; how do you know so much about the Koehlers?”
“Their dad Max was one of my best friends for over 30 years. I was the doctor for him and the boys growing up. There isn’t much about him, or his kids, I don’t know. I met Jeff’s wife, Charlotte, when he brought her back to Michigan for a reception after they were married. They lived out in Bozeman, Montana. She worked at a resort, and he worked as a guide for an outdoor adventure company that offered rafting trips on the Gallatin River during summers and elk hunting in the fall.”
“Four years after they married, the tragedy struck. I’ll never forget the night Max called me to tell me the sad news. The couple decided to take a vacation in the Grand Canyon and hook up with a rafting tour on the Colorado River. Something happened on the trip, and Charlotte drowned in the river. Jeff was devastated but stayed out West working for the State of Montana Wildlife Division until Max died. Then he finally returned to Michigan and helped his brother, Grant, at Koehler for a while. Now I hear he has his own photography business. He always was a quiet, introspective young man, even more so since his wife died.”
“The youngest brother is Eddie. He always seems to be job hopping but now is working at some company selling cryptocurrencies. I don’t understand that, so I can’t say exactly what he does there. The only way I know anything is because he tried to get me to invest money in the company at one point. Eddie loves to gamble. He never misses a card game or chance to hit the casinos in Bangate. He dresses flashy and drives new cars. He’s quite the lady’s man, I hear. From what I understand, Eddie spent much time alone after his mom, June, died from breast cancer when he was only eight years old. Max spent lots of time running Koehler Iron Works, and Eddie had to fend for himself. I think that had something to do with the way he acts today. Like I said, the Koehler boys may all have the same rugged good looks, but their personalities are nothing alike.”
Carrie and her uncle talked a bit more about the Koehlers before the conversation turned to their medical practice. Joe was finally recovering from the long-haul COVID he caught from a patient several months ago. He reassured her it would only be a short time before he could return to the office on at least a part-time basis. After dinner, Carrie was tired and bid her Uncle Joe goodnight.
Despite having stitches in his leg, Jeff couldn’t curtail one of his favorite activities. Since boyhood, he hiked the trails at their family hunting camp with his father, Max. That tradition continued despite Max’s passing. As often as time permitted, Jeff would load up his dog Steele and drive the 20 minutes to the property for walks, enjoying all the sights and sounds of the forest.
The camp got its name shortly after Max Koehler acquired the property. Jeff and his two brothers assumed ownership after his father passed. Max had been scouting for hunting property and had not seen anything that offered the excellent deer habitat and isolation he wanted. In the spring of 1940, he found himself on an old isolated logging road that wandered through a hardwood forest. Max followed it until it abruptly ended about a mile off the main road. He walked around the area, fell in love with it, and sought out the owner. Max made an attractive offer on the 480-acre parcel that the owner immediately accepted. He decided to name his camp Roads End.
Roads End’s northern border lies adjacent to over 3000 acres of state land. The southern edge ends at a county road leading to a town named Manson. On the property’s western boundary, an outfitter leases over 1000 acres for guided hunts. He rents cabins for tourists and calls the operation Silver Lake Lodge. The eastern property edge abuts the Campbell farm, owned by long-time friends of Max’s, Cyrus, and Martha Campbell.
The camp sits on acres of rolling hardwood ridges with a virtually impenetrable white cedar swamp covering almost a third of the property. Cutting through the center runs Keegan’s Creek, a small meandering stream filled with brook trout. All the Koehler boys fished the stream in their youth, but none did so with the passion of Jeff. He would head to that stream as soon as he arrived at Roads End with earthworms picked from their yard. It became a rare occasion when Jeff returned without four or five fresh trout for the evening meal.
Now, walking past the large beech tree where he and Charlotte had carved a heart with their initials, a sudden rush of memories flooded Jeff’s thoughts. He remembered how he’d hoped Charlotte might fall in love with his Northern Michigan home and agree to relocate here. But while she found the area beautiful, Charlotte believed nothing could compete with the majestic Rockies. And while Jeff loved Roads End, he loved Charlotte more.
Vivacious and strong-willed, Charlotte’s personality contrasted with Jeff’s quiet, easy-going temperament. Mutual friends often questioned the attraction, and some snidely suggested that Charlotte loved having someone she could easily manipulate to get her way. Even Charlotte’s father pulled Jeff aside at the wedding and warned him not to be a pushover.
For Jeff, Charlotte’s passion for discovery and adventure infused him with joy. Seeing her face light up when he agreed with her plans made him happy. And so it was when she came up with the idea for the Colorado River rafting trip at the base of the Grand Canyon. Charlotte had researched the trip and talked endlessly about joining an outfitter to raft the formidable Lava Falls, the most famous class 10 rapids on the mighty Colorado River. Jeff agreed even before Charlotte promised him a “big surprise” after the trip. Noticing his wicked grin, she’d shot it down with, “It’s probably not what you’re thinking right now!”
Jeff’s thoughts darkened as he relived the trip. All had gone flawlessly until they finally reached the churning cauldron of the rapids at Lava Falls. The guides scouted the falls before deciding to run the rapids without guests. The guests were instructed to hike along the river bank and join their rafts at the end of the run. The only exception was that several river guides wanted a volunteer for the front of their rafts for weight and stability. The guide first selected Jeff, but Charlotte insisted on taking his place. This was her dream, and she wanted to experience it to the fullest. At first, Jeff resisted but acquiesced, knowing once Charlotte made up her mind, nobody could change it. The guide instructed Charlotte to hunker down in front of the raft while he steered the boat. Halfway into the rapids, the raft spun in the current and entered the rapids on the wrong line. Large rocks upended the raft. Charlotte and the guide were flung into the rapids. The guide emerged downstream, shaken but unhurt. Charlotte became pinned under the raft and drowned. Authorities airlifted her body out of the canyon that day, and Jeff never forgave himself.
Jeff discovered her “surprise” after the autopsy. Charlotte was several weeks pregnant with their first child. When Charlotte first brought up the idea of starting a family, they’d been married for four years. Four glorious years in Jeff’s mind. He wondered if a baby would impact the lifestyle they knew and loved. This was why Charlotte hadn’t shared the knowledge of her pregnancy right away. The rafting adventure would be her “proof” that a child wouldn’t slow them down.
The double loss of his wife and baby crushed Jeff. Charlotte’s parents barely acknowledged him at her funeral, huddling instead in whispered conversations with their relatives and friends. Jeff overheard bits of the discussions, but they weren’t any worse than what he had asked himself. “What kind of man allows his wife to take his place in a raft on dangerous rapids?”
It had been a busy week since Jeff received his stitches. He secured a contract with a conservation non-profit called "Friends of Wildlife" to create a brochure. It would feature sandhill cranes on the group's new 1200 acre parcel. After a couple of days in the field, Jeff finally had the photos he needed to finish the project. His photography career started slowly as most new business ventures do. He didn't have a client list and had to learn how to make his hobby a viable business. The photographer he worked for in Traverse City steered some clients his way, but he really needed to generate more business to be successful.
His big break came on a Spring morning in April while stationed in a blind, or a "hide," as they call it in the photography business. His hide overlooked a small field near his hunting camp. He hoped to get some pictures of fox kits living in a den on the edge of the opening. Fox pictures always were popular at art fairs and local galleries. Jeff hoped to capture photos of the kits for an upcoming show. Suddenly he saw movement on his left when a red hawk swooped in, talons extended, and latched onto a black squirrel scurrying along the field edge. Almost assuredly, this would signal the end of that squirrel, but something extraordinary happened. Another squirrel nearby ran forward in a flash and jumped onto the back of the hawk before leaping off almost immediately. Jeff reacted quickly, and his multi-shot camera began taking photos in a rapid-fire manner. The hawk appeared startled and confused. He released the black squirrel from is grip before swooping off in the opposite direction. The released squirrel quickly disappeared into a bush. The hero, or heroine squirrel, scampered into the brush following the intended victim. Fortunately, Jeff captured the entire event and got some fabulous shots of the squirrel in mid-air leaping onto the back of the red hawk.
When Jeff returned home that day and finally got a chance to examine his photos, he knew he had captured something extraordinary. He posted the pictures on his JK Wildlife Photography website and uploaded them to his brand-new YouTube channel. What happened next was unbelievable. Several noted wildlife photographers heard about the photos and started blogging about them. The media caught wind of it, and the photo appeared extensively on local TV. The images went viral, and before the week's end, they received over a million downloads. Jeff was bombarded with requests to talk about the shots. Soon an unknown. photographer named Jeff Koehler became a local celebrity.
It didn't take much time before Jeff could capitalize financially on his unique photos. This came with the help of a local woman named Francine Walker. Francine, a neighbor, helped Jeff by watching his dog and bringing in his mail when he traveled. She also owned a picture framing shop on the main street in town. Jeff represented a major client for her with his numerous framing projects and the occasional art shows that Francine helped him with. Jeff and Francine devised clever ways to frame and market his signature squirrel/hawk photos. Jeff thought some ideas were corny, but the pictures and posters sold rapidly. They developed slogans featuring the squirrel on the hawk's back to market the photos. Some of the most popular prints said "Get off my Back," "Friends don't allow Friends to get Eaten," and "No Fly Zone." Jeff's business picked up dramatically and for the first time he felt confident that he could make a successful career in photography.
When Jeff's sandhill crane shoot finished, he headed straight into Granite Cove. He'd volunteered to buy food for the camp's upcoming work bee. This was an annual event attended by all the camp members to prepare for the upcoming deer season. The group always ate well on these weekends. Jeff's job today was to pick up steaks to grill. He rushed into the Big K supermarket in town and headed immediately to the meat section. There he selected seven ribeye steaks averaging nearly a pound each. He definitely didn't want to be teased about bringing "baby steaks" to the hungry men who would attend.
As Jeff exited the meat department and turned down the aisle for bottled water, he saw a cart being pushed by Dr. Cunningham. "Hey, Dr Cunningham."
"Oh, Hi, Jeff. Since we're out of my office, please call me Carrie. How are the stitches holding up?"
"Ok Carrie, they're holding up fine. I'm just doing my duty picking up food for our hunting camp work weekend, the official Roads End summer work bee."
"Roads End, huh. I'm sure there is a real story behind that name." Carrie looked down at Jeff's cart filled with ribeyes and nothing more. "Any chance some vegetables find their way into that cart? I like to see my patients eat a balanced diet," she grinned.
"Don't worry; we're not just carnivores at our camp. My very next stop is the veggie aisle for some asparagus to cook on the grill with the steaks. I may even break down and grab some salad to really keep the crew healthy."
"Good for you guys," Carrie said. "I'm here because my son demanded his Cheerios for breakfast tomorrow. I know it's not the most healthy breakfast, but it's the only thing I can get him to eat in the mornings. Also, I need to grab something I can get on the table quickly for dinner tonight or my kids will go crazy when they get home."