Reflections on the ‘big wild river of no return’

John Pepin

“But I’ll see you in the sky above, in the tall grass, in the ones I love,” – Bob Dylan

Walking in the sunlight, over the rusted pine needles covering the trail along the river, I was listening to the sound of the water as it rushed through granite boulders and tumbled over logs stranded midstream.

The grasses on the banks of the river were golden and dried, skeletonized by the wind, the trees bare and forlorn.

A few more steps under the blue skies and the green boughs of tall pines, there came a slow bend in the river, a place where light, water and wonder coexisted.

Here, an image of peeling white birches and green cedars was cast over the surface of the water – still, like a looking glass. Though the slow nodding current pulled and smeared the picture, I could make out the details enough to make me stop walking – to stand and look, like people do, to take a snapshot.

To me, this is what the end of the year is like, pausing to glance over my shoulder at my blurred reflection, while the river keeps moving on.

Sometimes, this is an unhappy thing when sadness, grief and loss have had their way with the calendar. Other times, the look back reminds me of sleeping in a cabin in the rain, walking along the rim of a marsh, sitting on a high, rocky hill and the warmth of summer nights.

This is a parlor trick I play on myself – smoke and mirrors – sleight of hand.

Deep down, I know the big river is going to carry me downstream whether I’m ready for it or not, no matter what I feel or think about it.

Still, somehow, I have this feeling that if I take a few moments to reflect at the end of the year, I’ll be better prepared for whatever lies ahead – rapids, waterfalls or deep, quiet pools.

The vision I see is a mirage.

Anaïs Nin said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

An example of this to me is how we seek to lend human form to features of the natural world. We name storms after humans. We look for human faces and figures in everything from craggy trees and rocks, to clouds and constellations.

“Slave in the magic mirror, come from the farthest space, through wind and darkness I summon thee – speak. Let me see thy face… magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?”

When I was a kid, New Year’s Eve meant being babysat and the next day finding weird noise makers and cardboard hats in the house, brought home by my parents.

It also meant eggnog, banging pots and pans at midnight and Guy Lombardo on television, in black-and-white, or as my dad called him, “Guy Lumbago.” I think he might have thought he was a pain.

Lombardo was said to play “the sweetest music this side of heaven.” In later years, he appeared on television at our house in color.

Under his direction, brightly-jacketed orchestra members would play and sing, while the high-life crowd danced live in New Year’s attire, including dinner jackets and ties, fancy dresses, hats, bunny ears and crowns.

A traditional staple, the 48th annual Guy Lombardo New Year’s Eve broadcast, ushering in 1977, was his last.

“And now, from the world-famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, on fashionable Park Avenue, where New York’s glamorous high society is celebrating New Year’s Eve in the grand ballroom,” the announcer said. “It’s the Royal Canadians and Mr. New Year’s Eve himself, Guy Lombardo.”

Lombardo once said that when he died he was going to take New Year’s with him.

He died in 1977.

It didn’t work.

New Year’s is still here.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?

We’ve blown way past Lombardo and even Dick Clark.

Beyond seeing human faces in clouds and elsewhere, some of us see people we’ve known, who’ve gone down the river before us, in the nature around us.

We also feel them and hear them. They can still make us laugh aloud in the middle of the woods all alone. Sometimes you just think he or she sure would have loved a day like this.

Or maybe there’s just something about the smell of the wind, the taste of your sandwich eaten outside or the cold of the day that draws your mind back to a cherished time before.

These fleeting instances seem to show us a place to leave heartaches or to find new strength. But they have two sides. They can also make you sad and wish for things that can never be.

I’m not much on New Year’s resolutions, but I think there is something beautiful about the hope in the idea of visualizing or imagining possibilities as a first step in finding some new kind of reality.

It’s like a dream, a reverie.

I envision getting outside more often, going to places I’ve heard about but never seen or finding more direct ways to make closer connections to nature.

Which brings me back to the reflection in the water.

That day shines in my mind as an early winter day, not long ago, when I was accompanied on my woods walk by the adventurous 12-year-old “Tater.”

We unwrapped an abandoned paper wasp nest to see the honeycomb. We got wet jumping between the river rocks, touching the water’s root beer foam. We saw the tangled roots, packed with dirt, on the underside of a mighty tree fallen to its resting place.

We each tasted a rose hip and considered a lot of questions about how things work out there. We climbed the bank from the river to the trail, finding our way through the dead leaf-covered woods.

Throughout the course of the afternoon, I found the stuff memories, reflections and resolutions are made of – the magic dust that makes me want to relive that day and so many others, not only in the coming year, but throughout my days remaining on this big wild river of no return.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the DNR on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.