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Johnny Appleseed’s forgotten wonderland

Johnny Appleseed’s forgotten wonderland

John Pepin

“Waving back to folks on shore, I should have thought of this before,” — Diane Hilderbrand and the Monkees

The path down through the snow-covered branches of spruces and balsam firs was wildly overgrown since the last time I was here.

I could hear the water rushing, tempting and calling me closer like the song of the Siren. It was a lilting sound its notes both soft and loud when broken apart in my brain.

I stepped closer, toward those rock platformed walls of the gorge.

The sun was shining through those trees casting shadows across the trail, which was cloaked in a white winter coat adorned at the hemline with the imprinted tracks of small animals like mice and voles.

Breaking through the trees on the other side of that overgrown stand of evergreens were the rapids, rolling, crashing, breaking and busting loose. Here, the water was only inches deep, running over the limestone ledges.

But the sound was thunderous — like the voice of God.

I inched closer to the brink, wanting to see it, to feel it. My apprehension at walking on the slick snow-covered ledge was quickly overcome by the spectacular sight awaiting me just offshore.

Next, I moved downstream, following the sound of the water. I couldn’t recall ever having been here in the wintertime before and it had been years since I was here last at all. This place was once a picnic ground just a few steps off the highway.

Now, the beauty of this place lies largely forgotten, though still very much alive, tucked into the trees off a crescent-shaped two-track gravel road.

When I had come down here last, the water was flowing low. It was summertime and I watched the trout swirling for flies and mosquitoes that were dipping just over the water.

But today was much different.

This was like a beautiful springtime occasion. The sunlight made the snow diamonds glisten. The wind was blowing, but it was a soft and temperate breeze that I welcomed like April.

Ducking under the hanging cedar limbs, I moved closer to the waiting waterfall.

With snow covering the rocks along the river’s edge, the rushing torrent crushed and rolled waves of the current, flowing downstream.

The water was stained amber from tannins leached from the tree roots. Soft piles of foam floated and spun in circles set into motion by the power of the river’s strength and urge to roll on, to seek its level.

I get that.

Here in this divine place, I was alone, save the goddess of nature and all her mighty kingdom surrounding me. Alone but never lonely, alive and open.

I thought about a man I met not long ago. He said he was getting old now and he didn’t have many years left. He wanted me to know about how a lake he once knew had ceased to exist before his very eyes.

He said this great body of water was once home to lake sturgeon that swam up the river to spawn, but today he said the water had been diverted and the lake he loved was merely a shadow of its former self — losing all its identity, its name being reduced to that of a drainage rolled out of a chemical soup and its by-products.

I saw him as sort of a Johnny Appleseed or John the Baptist, wandering the countryside with a gospel to preach, a story to tell of what he’d seen — a black-robed prophet bearing truth, wisdom and warning.

For some reason, hearing his story brought me peace. I felt as though I was fulfilling his hopes and wishes by just listening to his grievous tale. His heart was broken, and his breaths numbered low.

It was clear that before he departed this world, he wanted at least some of us remaining here to know what had happened to the lake of his youth.

He was still in mourning, years after the fact.

As the cool air from the rushing waters bathed me in its blue, cool glow, I thought about this heavenly place where I had come to wander. Blown in off the highway on a whim, like a rolling dead leaf, I tumbled down the road to this embankment along the stream.

I looked around at the beauty secluded here among the forest now ruled by the wintertime grouse, the white-colored version of the snowshoe hares and the occasional gray wispy ghosts that surely abide under the shadows of these trees.

This place was also defunct. Not like the old man’s lake, doomed to progress and pollution, but more to a profound obsolescence. Apparently no longer needed by the passersby, these storied woods are reclaiming and preserving the holy waters here.

The trees are growing long arms to hold and heal this place, seeking to ease the sobs of the forgotten, the longing and the forlorn.

With the holiday crush upon me, I want the forest to embrace me in its bosom and keep me here quiet and safe until the roar of the freight train to Christmas Town has passed on by.

I’d love to wake up in the snow on a fresh New Year’s morning underneath these trees, listening to the river’s Siren song. I could even envision rolling over and off the ledge into the sparkling drink.

Perhaps the river would then take me down, transporting me to all its forgotten whistle stops along the way. Maybe I’d roll up on a bank somewhere downstream, where the sun forgot to shine.

I have a sense that the greatest truths that nature holds are found in these forgotten places where the waters still tumble unnoticed, the trees still stretch toward the sky, and the meek creatures of the forest live their lives out in silent harmony and desperation.

I’m now lying in bed in the darkness with all these thoughts running through my mind, with the great clock tick-tock-a-ticking. I hope the old man found some peace in talking to me. I hope in some way I helped him.

I want to return the favor. He gave me things to contemplate, notions as true as a punch to the gut, yet dealt with a sad resolution of loss and yearning.

I do not feel it was accidental that his words found me in this place of beauty, of wonder and of quiet solitude. Here among the trees, beneath the wild roar of the waterfall, I carry a deep sense of gratitude.

He provided for me the opportunity to wonder, to stop to think, to dream, to float and to drift, and to find my way back. My home is here in the world of the hawk and the wolf, the stag and the doe, under the twinkling glow of the milky starlight.

To find deeper resolve for that fact is a blessing.

I mark my mental list to return to this place more often in the future. I promise further to recall the old man and his story each time I arrive to sit here beneath the sheltering arms of these shadowing evergreens.

I’ll think of his lake, the magnificent sturgeon and the gracious kindness he afforded me in being one of his disciples — a Johnny Appleseed myself.

I’ll give you three, I’ve been down nine, I’m goin’ down just one more time.

A few minutes later, I push my way past another dark green curtain of tree limbs into the open. I shake the snow off my collar and the cool wind covers my face.

A moment or two more and I’m on the highway again — still wandering.

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.