Hunting for stories with the RiverWolf: Downriver history and memories with Dick Whitwam

Fellow longtime duck hunters and fishers on the Detroit River know Dick Whitwam as “RiverWolf.” 

The affectionate nickname feels spot-on as he and his wife, Pat, show me around their yard and home, which they have graciously invited me to for our interview. Even though we are inside for much of our conversation, it feels as if the river has washed up into the house and settled in to stay. Painstakingly hand-painted duck models that Dick has done himself over the years to use as decoys swim at a still on various shelving units around the house.

A view of one side of Dick Whitwam’s backyard, which faces one of the region’s canals. A piece of driftwood nailed to the fence reads “Home of the RiverWolf.”

The vibrant, painted-on feathers look so real that I feel as if I would touch soft down if I were to pet them. Pointe Mouillee State Game Area memorabilia and Waterfowl Festival merchandise fill in the corners of the house. Photos of hunters in layout boats and paintings of waterfowl that Dick has crafted over the years positively plaster every inch of wall. There could be no doubt in anyone’s mind. The RiverWolf lives here. 

A corner in the dining room of the Whitwam’s home. One of Dick’s original pieces of waterfowl art adorns the wall.

Dick has lived downriver all his life. When he gives me the grand tour of Brownstown, Rockwood, and finally Trenton, I’m struck by how local he and his family have stayed. Each road that we drive down holds some special significance for him. He grew up on a farm on Vreeland Road until 1950. After that, he moved not ten minutes away to a place at the intersection of Allen Road and Gibraltar until he met Pat in 1960. They’ve been living on the same canal in the Maple Beach area ever since where Dick has easy access to the river, the game area, and the Detroit Wildlife Refuge. “This western basin is all I’ve ever known,” he tells me, but because Dick has stayed so local, he knows an incredible amount about this parcel of the river—even the history he didn’t witness firsthand. 

A car side view of the edge of the Detroit River at Lake Erie Metropark. Before the park was developed, Dick used to frequent this spot to hunt.

A shot of the boardwalk that runs along the marsh at Lake Erie Metropark near where the Whitwams live. It is a popular spot for local fishers.

“This was all swamp and farmland here back in the day,” he tells me as we look out over his yard and the canal that winds by in the back. “Back in the teens and the twenties. That’s when they dug these canals, and they used a drill to fill in the lots where these houses are too.” Although the community is still relatively small, it has since experienced an uptick in growth. To hear Pat tell it, a “For Sale” sign around here doesn’t stay up for even a week. When Dick and Pat moved to this area, summer vacationers primarily inhabited the few houses that were here. Some folks would buy single-floor homes with the intention of using it as a stakeout for hunting and fishing. The two-story house that the Whitwams live in now was just one of these spots; they constructed the second floor themselves in order to accommodate their four children. 

As I talk more with the Whitwams, it becomes clear that they are self-taught and self-sufficient in more things than just home construction. In fact, Dick got his start in duck hunting as a boy when he met another hunter at Elizabeth Park in Trenton. The rest seems to be history. Initially starting from stationary duck blinds, he eventually moved into hunting from sneak boats and layout boats (one of which he built himself), which allowed him to target diver ducks such as bluebills and canvasbacks. In his time as a guide and hunter on the river, he learned much of what he knows from the community of avid duck hunters that once regularly stalked the downriver shores. He speaks often of Jim Foote, a fairly prolific and well-known DNR biologist, decoy carver, waterfowl artist, and duck hunter who was especially active in the 70s. When we visit the Lake Erie Marshlands Museum, many of Foote’s decoys are on display, and I am struck all at once by how much cultural heritage Dick has witnessed in this region.

In many ways, Dick seems to hail from a golden age of Detroit River duck hunting that has faded out in favor of fast boats and fishing, which Pat says young people seem to prefer nowadays. “I don’t think the hunting’s the way it used to be. It used to be the die-hards. There’s a few new ones, younger ones, but they’re getting in their 50s. I don’t think it’s such a young sport anymore,” she remarks reflectively, but it also feels improper to consign the history of hunting here to the past altogether. Dick speaks fondly of the annual Waterfowl Festival, which has been going strong for seventy-three years now. The Whitwams also tell me that every October the Gilbatrar’s Duck Hunters Association does a youth hunt that draws in a younger generation of kids who might not otherwise get the opportunity to try hunting. Waterfowl hunting is very much still alive here, and Dick’s stories and legacy are part of what keeps it going. 

Among the next generation of hunters are Dick’s own children and grandchildren. “Even our granddaughter has been out there hunting. She loves it too, which is unusual–not a lot of women hunt. Our son also hunts and takes his dog,” Pat tells me proudly. When I ask the Whitwams what keeps Dick and his family coming back, Pat responds simply: “He has so much fun. Comradeship.” 

A photo Dick shared with me of one of his winter duck hunting outings with fellow sportsmen. Dick is the second from the left.

In Dick’s stories, it seems as if he has formed that relationship of camaraderie not only with people in the hunting community but also with this place, his home, the river, itself. As someone who has been out on the water for so long, he has witnessed firsthand the changes that the water levels and wildlife population have undergone over time. As someone who uses the canals frequently, he has petitioned multiple times with the DNR to raise the bridges over the canals so that boats can pass safely under them even when the water rises–alas, to no avail. 

Pat interjects to tell me that unless you hunt or fish down here, you simply won’t know about the water on quite the same level. I can hear the loss of that knowledge in her voice as she reflects on the decreased number of hunters in the area, but I can also hear the depth of familiarity with which Dick speaks about the water and its feathery inhabitants, and I’m certain as I listen to him that these stories and this knowledge are here to stay so long as folks like him are around.  

With folks like Dick in the area, I also have faith that there will be people protecting the water. “Back in the 60s, we had a big waterfowl die-off because of the pollution. We had to gather up the dead ducks,” he explains. “There were thousands of them that died. Took ‘em to Lansing and threw them on the capitol steps. After that, actually not long after that, there was a big effort to clean up the river. Now you got McLouth’s steel, which is up the river. They’re closed now–tore that place down. All the big manufacturers down the river were required to put in pollution controls. That made a big difference. The lake is cleaning up.” I see from this story how hunters and fishers in the community have historically served as vital messengers on behalf of the river’s rhythms and its ecological health. 

Nor is Dick a stranger to the ways in which pollution can negatively affect a person’s livelihood, particularly in areas like the western basin which have depended on healthy aquatic wildlife populations for sustenance since the French settled there. He describes in detail how the water treatment plants in the area have struggled and ultimately failed to effectively dispose of human waste. He believes that the resulting pollution may have, in part, caused the decrease in fish numbers that he witnessed during his time as a commercial fisherman in 1962 as well as the business’s eventual shutdown. 

In the early 60s, Dick and Pat also fought with the community against plans to build another steel mill and then a trailer park where the Lake Erie Metropark sprawls extravagantly and lushly for 1,607 acres now. When Dick gives me a driving tour of the park, I savor the sight of folks fishing, boating, biking, and enjoying the riverside views of Detroit and Canada with the knowledge that this almost never was. At our next stop, the Detroit River Wildlife Refuge, the bones of an old Chrysler manufacturing facility loom over the former factory grounds. “Take a picture of that,” Dick chuckles. “Because it’s not going to be there much longer.” 

At the Detroit River Wildlife Refuge, an old Chrysler factory looms to the left of the Detroit River. In its continued efforts to restore the area, the refuge will be demolishing the factory soon.

Dick, himself a member of the board of directors for the International Wildlife Refuge Alliance, has watched the new refuge replace what was once the site of the Trenton Chemical Plant. Today, the large park provides an easy access point to walleye fishing for avid fishers in the community and no shortage of views and walking paths for everyone else in between. It is the only mile of undeveloped land left along the Detroit River.

One of the riverside views at the Detroit Wildlife Refuge.


The RiverWolf is here to stay, and so is the river and the community of duck hunters, fishers, and outdoor enthusiasts he has reinforced around it. In my quest for locals’ visions of what the river’s future might hold, I find myself continually returning to its past. During our last stop on the grand tour that Dick gives me of the area, we stop next to the Huron River to look at the Old Corduroy Road, which once served as the only link between Detroit and Ohio. I have arrived after one of the many heavy rainfalls this summer, so the water has flooded the bed of logs, but the message remains clear: Rivers run full with stories. Sometimes they aren’t quite visible unless you peek under the surface in the quieter places with quieter people. Who knows? The RiverWolf might be lurking there, waiting patiently to share his wealth of memories with you.

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