The backwoods waters, bridges that connect us

John Pepin

“Love is but a song we sing, fear’s the way we die.” — Chet Powers

In a dark deep canyon, on a north-facing slope where sunlight rarely shines, a couple of fallen trees had been laid across a big drop in the narrow trail. A tiny creek twisted back and forth below.

After the winter snows fall, the trees vanish under the accumulation of snow and ice, providing the appearance of a magnificent ice bridge. Walking across it, I feel like I’m walking on air or smoke.

It reminds me of those bridges sometimes seen in old scary movies or television shows, those dreamy conveyances depicting a hazy, foggy pathway spanning this world and the next, or winding upward into space or clouds.

As a kid, riding in the woods with my family, I would get a great deal of excitement from crossing a bridge, or I should say, stopping halfway across a bridge. I would look up and down the stream below through both backseat car windows.

Any two-track we turned down was classified and ranked in my mind depending on how many bridges were found along that woods road — the best roads had the most bridges.

Bridges meant water to me and that meant fishing. I also was highly impressed with the power of nature to dramatically raise or lower water levels with only a thundershower or two.

How high was the Middle Branch? I simply had to know.

My dad seemed to have an interest too. He’d provide limited commentary, which merely stated the obvious, but to me indicated a great, deep interest rivaling mine.

“Oh, she’s high,” he’d say.

“She sure is,” I’d be thinking.

Stopping our family car in the middle of a bridge might also provide an opportunity to see fish — way on down the river — snapping mosquitoes and other bugs out of the warm summer air.

When I was in middle school, during spring snow melt, floating toothpicks or popsicle sticks down a hilly street, along the curb, was worth hours of fun. We used to turn our feet sideways to push up snow and slush to form a dam.

Then we’d “pank it down” to make sure water couldn’t undermine the dam, and we built it wide with an upstream turn so water wouldn’t go around.

As had been the case years earlier in our red dirt sandbox, we were pint-sized civil engineers constructing dams, bridges and roads — too young to know then all that stuff involved math and engineering.

Of course, growing up right close to an iron ore mine, in our sandbox we drove toy dump trucks and steam shovels, along with boss Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars.

I can still hear my mom.

“You didn’t take those cars outside did you,” she’d ask. “They’re going to get ruined in that dirt!”

We hoped to re-create what we could watch going on across the street behind the steel fences, the locked gates and the frowning, serious-looking mine cops.

With the help of a snow shovel, our slush dams along the street grew into big construction efforts. Some days, we thought we could have given the mighty Aswan Dam a run for the money.

At night, when the mercury tumbled, I would lay in my bed under the warm covers thinking how the deep cold of night would make the dam freeze hard. That would mean a bigger basin, more water held back, more room for more toothpicks.

Of course, for the grand finale in our slush and snow works we would release the dam and witness the tremendous power of the water.

After all our toothpicks had been laid on the surface of the water behind the dam, one of us would drag our boot heel through the center of the dike, releasing the water.

The race was on.

We would follow the toothpicks down the street to the storm sewer at the corner, hoping for a clean ride, without running aground or getting hung up behind the slack of a stagnant backwater.

Water in these two-tracked backwoods our family traveled in the old car also often meant campgrounds and places to picnic out in the middle of nowhere. Lots of those rugged sites have disappeared from the landscape today.

However, following muddy trails down to waterfalls — to hear and see them roar — continues to be a popular pastime for many folks pursuing great times in the outdoors. Those places often include a wooden walking bridge or two.

My mom had a problem crossing those bridges, especially if there were cracks between the wooden planks in the decking. As kids, we used to tease her, thinking that was ridiculous. I’ve come to realize it’s not that funny.

Like there were favorite picnic places where we’d catch frogs, eat sandwiches, potato shoestrings, and drink Hi-C, I certainly had favorite bridges.

One of the best was an old steel bridge that had a bare wooden deck and an arch on each side that was taller than the roof of our car.

One spring, I was shocked to see the river lapping up against the bottom of the bridge. Another year, the water was low and slipped past slowly. I caught a big brown trout on a full nightcrawler on that bright sunny afternoon.

That bridge was torn down years ago, replaced with a strip of blacktop and two silver guardrails — no character at all, by comparison.

I also loved the small wooden plank bridges on forest roads, marked with the old signs the DNR had put up, with carved lettering, indicating everything from small tributaries and tree plantations to lakes, roads and habitat improvements areas. A good many of those old signs are gone today too.

Out west, a friend and I hiked once out to the “Bridge to Nowhere,” in the San Gabriel Mountains. The bridge was meant to be part of a new roadway but was stranded and abandoned after a big flood on the East Fork of the San Gabriel River in 1938.

It’s a curious site today in the middle of the Sheep Mountain Wilderness, much like London Bridge, which was purchased in the early 1970s and moved to the desert in Arizona.

There’s all kinds of bridges in this world — over gorges, rivers, roads and railway lines — bringing people from here to there and there to here, all over the place.

I crossed a bridge a couple of weekends ago to meet some fellow travelers looking for the high road forward. The exchange during those few moments seemed to make us all think something good was at hand.

Slowly making my way over the snow and ice bridge in that shaded canyon, I wondered if there was a bridge of some kind that could be built to help everyone in this great country of ours reach each other — to bring us closer together.

Lots of things seem broken badly these days, with lots of good people lost, lonely, scared and angry — stranded like toothpicks in a backwater at the side of the road.

I’d really love to get a chance to see that bridge — even if there was no water under it.

But, of course, there would be, that would be the whole point.

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 Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.