Sound of river is music most sublime

John Pepin

“Sit down on this bank of sand and watch the river flow.” — Bob Dylan

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If you stop your car on this old steel-railed bridge and look out the driver’s side window downstream, you don’t see much. The leafy branches from the trees overhanging the river block out most of the view.

A look out the passenger side window doesn’t give you much more to see, except maybe a little better glimpse of the water pooled and swirling beneath the trees.

But if you roll down the windows and turn off the noise of the engine, the rushing sounds of this magical river, cascading over boulders and logs, invites you to follow her.

Down under those hanging green branches, where she glides and dips, rattles shallow through the riffles and then flows smooth, deep and slow, she beckons.

With a million tales to tell of days and months and years gone by, times of flooding and drought, of giant trees and sand banks fallen, of fires and frosts, she listens as well as speaks.

She knew the Anishinaabe and watched generations of children grow up, grow old and pass away along her gravelly banks. She’s seen the seasons of wildflowers come and go thousands of times, and still she remains.

Over the span of countless years, she’s befriended all the forest birds, plants and animals and she offers them drinks. She’s seen the times before America, before Caesar and Cleopatra.

She’s mirrored the faces of countless fishermen who peeked through the alders to see her, to cast a line toward the shiny and colored trout darting back in forth within her cold, deep waters.

No doubt she’s caught the falling tears of more than a few anguished souls, and while doing so, she’s whispered soothing words of comfort and truth, covering the sounds of sobbing with her healing voice, releasing the thorny tangles of minds and hearts.

Those who may trudge slowly to her banks with heavy burdens often leave with lighter steps, up over the muddy path they walk, alone and brave, through the woods to a bright and sunny opening in the trees.

The first time I recall meeting her was when I was in my teens.

It’s one of those recollections for me that is brought to my mind instantly when I hear any of the songs I had taped onto a blank 8-track tape and played in my old Pontiac that warm summer day.

Driving up the dirt road to her banks. I parked by the bridge. I had heard about her, plenty of times, but never had the good fortune to visit her face-to-face before.

Hearing her voice, like a siren’s sweet song, it wasn’t long before I was following the winding path downstream that ran along her sides. The colors of the finely-sorted stones and pebbles she had exposed along her curves were beautiful, glistening in the sun.

Above her were high dark rocks where I could climb to get the best look at her. Though rough and wild in places, she was refined and exquisite.

Across a log over a shallow rivulet, past a twist or two in the path and over a few of the bigger boulders a flat place appeared under the trees. Here, her hair draped back liked a bridal veil over the rocks and fell in white cascades over the rocks.

With years and years, she had smoothed the sharp rocks round. They now carried her waters farther downstream toward the even colder depths of the big blue lake that sits on the other side of the trees, just a few miles away.

Here in this place, a few of us would later gather to camp for a weekend or two. Those were days of campfires, swimming, fishing, laughing, talking and overindulgence.

In my more recent returns to the waterfall, I discovered no remaining trace of those days for me – save my flickering and fading memory.

Other visitors to the river’s shore have left initials or hearts carved in the trees, testaments to loves lost or enduring. At least one soul left a cross. Others have left beer cans, cigarette butts and worm containers.

No matter how loudly the river protests, it seems these folks never hear her.

Her winding watercourse is no less spectacular upstream from the bridge, where the graveled sand bars and pools are more common.

In the summer, the trees here are filled with vireos, tanagers, robins and grosbeaks, all trying to get their notes into the songs of the forest. In the fall, brightly-colored leaves tumble softly to the water below, where the welcoming stream carries them floating among the rocks.

Winter often silences this beautiful lady to those of us situated above her blankets of ice and snow. Beneath those covers, like an attentive mother, she never sleeps.

On my only trip here to fish with my dad, he went downstream from the bridge and I went upstream. He was always the first to want to go home. I am famous for “just one more cast.”

With the cooling purple shadows of evening starting to fall, dad had tried to yell for me to come back down to the car. But the rushing sound of the river had drowned him out.

I can envision him yelling, with the birds, squirrels, and maybe even the bugs, stopping still to look at him. Meanwhile, I would have remained unaware of any of this.

I finally did hear my dad, but not until he took a big rock and slammed it down several times on the metal railing of the bridge.

Though seemingly a crude method, this is something the birds, at least the woodpeckers that drum on metal roof flashing and siding on houses, could understand.

I hope to return soon to the riverbanks of this beautiful, untamed creature to introduce some of my dearest loved ones to this wise and wonderful matriarch. I want them to see the way she moves, powerful and graceful all at once.

She is most certainly alive.

I want them to breathe the clean fresh air along her banks.

Most of all, I want them to stop to listen to her. I want them to walk softly and silently alone, at least for a little, or sit quietly, waiting.

I want to know if she will speak to them too, and if she does, what they will hear?

My guess is her messages to all who linger long enough to listen are as different and as individual as all of us.

I would also guess that if they experience her voice and knowing presence as I have, they will likely prefer to keep the best things she says sheltered close to their hearts.

Though I’ve only returned to her occasionally over the years, she has always granted me the kind favor of remembering me. For that, I will always be indebted.

If I close my eyes, I can hear her singing to me now.

I can also hear a car racing over the bridge, kicking up dust from the road high into the trees. As the sound fades, I hear another vehicle approaching, slowing down and stopping on the old wooden-planked bridge.

From inside the rolled-up windows, I hear the muffled sound of a radio.

Suddenly, the engine quits.

The driver rolls down the window to glance up and down the river.

A minute or two later, there is only the sound of the water rushing.

Then, the sound of rusty hinges creaking as a car door shuts.

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. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.

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