Outdoors North: A bridge to the past
“A lot of water under the bridge, a lot of other stuff too,” – Bob Dylan
After pushing on through a jack pine stand, I came around a corner on the sandy dirt road. It was nearly nightfall. The purple and black clouds above were textured and sliced in a series of parallel shapes.
There before me in the road was something I hadn’t seen in a very long time.
It was a modest, wooden plank bridge over a tiny creek that snaked through the wetlands. The creek bottom was covered with long green grass that looked like dozens of snakes moving in tandem, waving with the gentle and slow flow of the current.
In my years of growing up, these types of bridges were all over the place. They are becoming rarer these days as they are replaced with modern spans or arched box culverts that aid in fish passage.
Like most of the bridges I have seen like this one, its parapets – fashioned from old railroad ties or some similar-type wood – were rotted and smashed.
Several of the horizontal planks had been damaged or were broken off near the ends. My thought was this bridge might have been here since the 1940s or 1950s.
The structure was narrow, and it creaked when I rode over it. I turned around and parked next to a stand of choke cherry trees along the side of the road.
I got out and walked toward the bridge.
I saw where the crossways planks in the bridge temporarily broke up the extension of green grass growing up through the gravel and rocks, in the center of this two-track forest road.
To me, a young kid trapped in the back seat of a station wagon with my siblings, rolling through the woods, these small wooden bridges were sublime.
I had most all the ones I knew about mapped across the landscape of my mind.
If I noticed the car turning onto just about any dirt road we’d travel, my mind immediately ran through the bridge locations in my head to think about what lay ahead down the road.
I would be very excited as we approached one of these old bridges. I would beg my parents for us to be able to stop to get out. That rarely happened.
Instead, I was offered a momentary pause on the bridge so I could see the stream on both sides before the car would jerk forward again.
A lot of the creeks and rivers at the bridges were like the old 45-rpm rock-n-roll records I listened to back then – there was a fast side and a slow side. Even though I couldn’t get out, I appreciated at least the opportunity to stop to look.
When we would be berry picking in the woods, this was a fantastic opportunity to sneak off if there was a bridge nearby. My brother and I would spend a lot of time throwing and skipping rocks.
Sometimes, we were lucky enough to have our fishing poles with us. We’d bring nightcrawlers or dig red worms and drop our lines into the brook.
I remember seeing a huge fish – probably a carp of some kind – swim under one of these backwoods’ bridges. The creek was a tributary that fed one of the regions larger inland lakes.
Another of these bridges I used to love to visit flooded frequently, as the creek would rise after heavy summer thunderstorms, or during the spring snowmelt and run-off.
The bridge sat low above the waterline, so it didn’t take much to bring the river up over the decking. I remember riding, and later driving, through the water on more than one occasion.
That bridge has long been replaced with a new concrete box structure, topped with blacktop to help prevent dirt, rocks and runoff from going into the water.
There are silvery steel guard rails on the bridge now. In its original form this and all the other old forestland bridges like these never had rails. The length of the structures was short, usually not much more than a car length.
I remember one day, sitting on the edge of one of these bridges, without my fishing pole. I dangled my feet over the side.
The sun was very hot. It was a late July or early August day. I watched fish dart along the bottom of the shallow stream flowing at my feet, cold and crystal clear. It really seems like it was just yesterday, but I know it was really decades ago.
It’s so strange to me how the effects of time’s passage are felt and experienced.
Sometimes we’d wade for leopard frogs or we’d see garter snakes that would race up and down the creeks over the top of the water.
Way back there, in those early days, most all these little creeks and streams would have had wooden DNR signs identifying the bodies of water. Those signs, too, have all but disappeared today.
On this evening, I had been out for a quick outing before dark. I couldn’t believe how much earlier the shadows of night had dropped out of the sky. Time and seasons continuously on the move.
Autumn colors already popping out here and there, the temperatures overnight dropping, tumbling us all toward the autumnal equinox. Then come the sweater and soup months – inviting to be sure.
Not far after I had left from the house, I stopped as a big snapping turtle was trying to cross the busy county road. This monster had big curled claws. Lake leaches clung to one of his back legs.
The lake was particularly still, like a mirror, with the green cattails and other rushes along the shoreline standing tall and pretty. The skies were bright blue but powdered with numerous cumulus clouds.
One bald eagle followed another out from between some tall trees at the edge of the lake as I drove. There is something inherently majestic or regal about these birds that other birds of prey, for some reason, don’t seem to possess.
Over the course of my drive north through the woods, I saw a handful of deer, including a doe and a fawn, and another deer that headed across the road in front of my Jeep, headed to the river for an evening drink.
There were fresh moose tracks along the side of the road, as well as those from a deer that had walked leisurely down the middle of the dirt road for what had to have been at least a couple of miles.
At this place beyond the jack pines, around the corner on the dirt road, I was pleasantly surprised to find this quaint little bridge.
It was stirring for me to be here. I was overcome quickly with warm, gushy feelings of nostalgia remembering all my times at those old bridges like this one. Most are now gone for good.
In fact, this one here is on the list to be replaced in the next few weeks.
In a lot of cases, these old bridges were erected on two-track roads that have since been turned into off-road vehicle, or snowmobile, trails.
High wooden rails are now usually put on the sides of the spans to help protect riders, while diminishing some of the simple character of these bridges for soured romantics like me.
The sun was well below the horizon now. The air temperature had dropped fast. I got back into my vehicle and shut the door. I rolled down the windows and headed back down around the corner of the dirt road.
The cold air rushed into the front seat, chilly indeed. I kept the windows down, enjoying the feeling of that air in my lungs and across my face and arms – very invigorating.
I’m leaving this place with a few photos of this old bridge to keep for a winter’s day. I’m inspired to pore over maps looking for some more of these wooden spans to photograph – last glimpses of a bygone time.
Birds in the headlight shine on the road, flip up and fly at the last minute, gone into the darkness.
Editor’s note: 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.