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Outdoors North: The allure of the dark, flowing water

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Journal columnist

“But right now, I’ll just sit here so contentedly and watch the river flow,” – Bob Dylan

I suppose I have been enchanted by the movement, sound and power of water since my earliest days.

Those first recollections of seeing water came in the form of the dark, tannin-laden waters of creeks where my parents fished for brook trout, and they’d take me along. According to my baby book, my first-time fishing was when I was four years old.

In my being, I feel as though it was earlier than that when I first had encountered those “root-beer” waters — deep and black. It seems I have always known them, because I can’t remember a time when I didn’t.

I remember seeing my first brook trout and the smell of the fish that got into my blood.

The place that fish was caught by one of my parents wasn’t all that far downstream from a waterfall I know whose waters rage wildly in the springtime, slow to almost silence in the summer, then die in the fall with the turning and tumbling of the autumn leaves and, finally, they soak through the overlying snow to stain it brown in wintertime.

It was here where, as a young Cub Scout, I slipped on some white pine needles and sloshed off the riverbank into the water above the falls. I got pulled out right away, but I was frightened of the water — unable to swim — scared I’d roll down into that dark and thunderous cavern, over the falls.

I remember when I was young and impressionable, hearing over the radio for several days of a woman who fell into a raging river at another waterfall in the region. Her body was recovered from beneath a tree trunk – gruesome to me.

Such stories were usually accompanied by stern warnings from my mom to stay away from the water. That was almost an impossibility for me. I was always getting pinched for skipping off to the lake or playing with the hose.

I was too young to understand that when I turned on the spigot, no matter how slowly or sneakily, the sound of the water running would be able to be heard inside the house.

The first time I visited the mighty Upper Tahquamenon Falls, I was on a trip with my sister and my aunt to go downstate to stay at my aunt’s house for a while. When we reached the brink of the falls, at the observation deck, rescue crews were dragging the river for another lost soul.

At one point, which wasn’t until much later than I would have liked, I did learn how to swim. This was no thanks to my dad who insisted the way to teach me would be to toss me off the dock into deep water.

I think this just made me more hesitant and afraid again of the power of the water. By the time I arrived in high school, I was surrounded by classmates who had learned to swim, but I hadn’t.

But even this would not dampen the urge for me to be next to the water, to fish, to look for frogs and turtles and clam shells and snails. I think the sound of the water was responsible for that.

The bubbly chatter of shallow creeks, the slow swirling gurgles of wider, deeper waters, the gentle lapping of water against a shoreline, it all was so satisfying. It made me want to close my eyes to rest and relax, much the same way rain does.

Then there is the exquisite visual appearance of waters slow, fast and medium – flat or pushed up into impressive and powerful waves that can move boulders as big as my Jeep. It’s all very fascinating to see, hear and feel.

The smell and touch of the water, from sweet to sour and cold to warm respectively, adds more life to a body of water. Just watching the water, in most any form, can be highly enchanting.

Even at its fiercest, with mighty waves crashing over piers and rocks, destroying retaining walls and other measures meant to keep the waters back, the incredible power mysteriously draws, rather than pushes away, many people.

This might even be more the case when a camera is involved. A good many people have lost their lives trying to get just a few steps closer to the fury of the water for one more picture or one more glimpse, perhaps to feel the spray of the pounding white surf.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen more than one lifeless body pulled from the lake.

For almost a decade, I lived along Lake Superior. I saw the lake change its moods and complexion every single day. It never seemed to be the same presentation twice, except for in winter.

The big lake is an enticing mistress, almost impossible to resist. To look away is the first step toward breaking her spell. That’s easy to say, harder to do.

Beyond the waterfall episode, there have been other times when I have taken an unexpected slip and a dip into the water while out fishing. The trout stream waters are usually so cold, even in the summertime, the dip is usually followed by a gasp for air as the chilly water rolls up over the top of my hip waders or knee boots.

I once slid in nearly up to me shoulders, almost filling my chest waders. My fishing pole dropped from my hand and sunk to the bottom of the fast-moving stream. I reached it with my foot and lifted it to me. The shock of that cold, deep water was surprising how quickly it gripped me tight and held on.

These days, living near a beautiful inland lake, I experience the water or the life surrounding it, every day. If I don’t make it down to its shore, I can hear the loons calling to one another deep into the wee hours of the morning.

There are also sounds of geese and ducks restless on the waters. I see and photograph the beavers, muskrats and other animals that rely on the water for their livelihoods.

None of what I’ve said so far addresses the resplendent peace of experiencing a water source aided by the conveyance of a boat, kayak or canoe. The silence as you float is heavenly, able to approach so many places unreachable from shore.

I feel that the world of my exploration has barely been scratched. I know this lifetime will not afford me all that I desire to do and see.

We had a family friend, who fished all the time, die from a heart attack while out fishing on a lake. Another friend of mine was buried not far offshore in the Pacific Ocean. I can still see the flowers floating atop the greenish-gray waters.

I sometimes wonder whether it was an accident of birth or a purposeful thing that I was born in a place almost surrounded by water, or was it the fact that I was born in such a place that instilled my love and attraction to all such things.

I love to see my reflection cast upon the looking glass of a still backwoods pond or the Kitch-iti-kipi spring, like the blue sky and its rolling white clouds. I’ve camped next to rapids and waterfalls, finding the magnificent sound among the finest of sleeping companions.

I still retain a healthy respect for the water. Even during the wintertime, the sounds of cracking ice are a reminder there’s great power lying just beneath the surface.

I reminded now of a tiny trickle of water that flowed from a natural spring where we used to get our drinking water. I also know how deeply the waters flow through me that I first encountered fishing with my parents so many years ago.

Those dark waters with floating foam lay beneath a waterfall, where the outflow had formed a big pool, leaving a small island in the middle. The look of those waters and the lands surrounding them are never far from my thoughts.

I plan to take those images with me, held tightly, as I depart one day for the world beyond.

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.

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