Outdoors North: A peace offering
“I’ll just sit here so contentedly and watch the river flow,” – Bob Dylan
The primitive and ancient landscape of this wild peninsula is home to mighty waterways, rivers that with the help of their treelike branch tributaries, drain watersheds to feed the depths and cold of the Great Lakes.
Largely, the names of these rivers are derived from the American Indians who first inhabited these north woods before settlers ever arrived. Among these tremendous rivers are the Escanaba, Menominee, Tahquamenon and the Sturgeon.
Rivers have character and emotion, like people. Contained within them are stretches that are calm and placid, smooth and peaceful, as well as places where the waters are tempestuous, raging and angry – even dangerous.
It is during springtime, when the rivers are swollen from snow and ice melt, as well as showers and thunderstorms, that the rivers are most like to exhibit these latter unsettling tendencies.
From the spring logging drives during Michigan’s pine logging era to modern anglers, water fallers, canoeists, kayakers and white-water rafters, these rivers have claimed numerous lives over the years, especially at this time of year.
It’s also the best time of the year to see the power of these swollen waters exhibited most dramatically. To experience the deafening roar of the waters alone is something special.
With perhaps the exception of those dreamy and airy low-water photographs taken, with long shutter speeds in quiet forest glens, during the summertime, waterfalls are likely to be at their best – and certainly most spectacular – during spring runoff and snowmelt.
So, given all of this, it is with a good amount of caution and respect that I approach the brink of a waterfall during the springtime. But I do approach.
The slippery quality of river-bank pine needles during the summertime is no match for the slipping and falling capabilities of springtime’s ice, snow, mud and wetted down rock surfaces.
The place I found myself at on this sunny spring day possessed all those hazards. So, slipping and dropping into the water and being swept away was certainly something that could happen if one wasn’t careful.
This place had other dangers too, including a significant amount of distance between the gravel and rock pathway along the ridge and thundering roar of the river’s white foamy waters.
The far side of the river was flanked by steep and dark canyon walls made of stone and covered with cedar trees and hardwoods, whose branches reached for the clear and azure skies.
The shoreline was littered with magnificent boulders, many of which had calved off from bigger rock outcroppings higher up the walls of the gorge.
On the near shore, where I had stopped to sit, there were rocks broken and standing in sheets. This was a result of a combination of the internal structures of the rocks and the water that had dripped in between sections of the boulders expanding as it was freezing, shattering the surrounding rock.
Some of the sheeted sections of rock were standing upright, sort of like tombstones, while others were lying flat on the ground, providing effective places to sit to watch the river flow.
The trail here started out in a cedar grove, crossing a couple of wooden foot bridges before ascending the climb to the rock cliff overlooks and the more dramatic performance stages of the river.
As much as the river was wild, the river was wide. Reflecting the sky above, the water was an inviting shade of blue in some places, while the turbid sections displayed the brownish amber malt and fizz characteristic of the tannic “root beer” waters known from these northern forests.
The spray of the water floated over the river, exhibiting a rainbow sheen, while the air smelled as fresh as clean laundry, charged with negative ions.
My camera made its familiar snapping noise as I clicked off numerous photos of the river. At a high spot on the trail, there was a beautifully fashioned wooden bench.
Below, were the white waters, hooking and crashing.
The bench had a small metal plaque offering a tribute to a “son, friend and river guide” who had died in 2013 at the age of 24.
An inscription read: “Raft on in the River of the Living Water, you Crazy Diamond!”
Given the placement of the bench and the inscription, I thought the young man had met his demise rafting the white waters of the river below this spectacular vista.
Later, at home, I would look up the name of the man mentioned in the tribute.
I was surprised to discover that Frank Sade had died accidentally, but not during springtime as I might have supposed. Rather, he lost his life early one November morning at a place a little more than 100 miles away.
He was camping at the top of a waterfall with a friend when he went to get firewood, slipped and fell about 70 feet to the rocks below. According to a tribute article I read online, Frank Sade was a legendary white-water rafting guide described as wild, adventurous and lovable.
As a guide, he was said to have mastered the white waters of this mighty river, as well as traveled to run other white waters and camp, slinging his hammock right along the face of a cliff.
On this beautiful day, there were numerous people out along the trail, posing for pictures and walking their leashed dogs. The ones I saw didn’t venture very close to the edge of the water. Their photos were taken from a good distance away.
Farther downstream, I stopped to listen to anything else I could hear over the sound of the water. I heard a few chickadees and an insistent red-breasted nuthatch, along with the soft whooshing sound of wind through the pine trees.
There obviously was a time here when the winds must have been incredible, as massive trees had toppled over, even within the relative safe confines of this well-populated pine forest.
Here, the water of the river looped into a backwater, kind of like an oxbow, where it looked like it might be a good place to see migrating wood ducks. There weren’t any here though.
In the surrounding area however, red-tailed and rough-legged hawks, along with several turkey vultures were all making their way north, riding on the thermals of this fine afternoon.
I walked back over the little bridges that covered two small runoff creeks on my way back from the river’s impressive rapids. The land here seems ancient and volcanic.
If I close my eyes to listen to the water for a while and then open them again, I can almost see long-ago Native Americans floating the river downstream to fish.
So much of the countryside in this region causes my heart to rise and float as my mind wanders down countless pathways once traveled barefoot, through cool forests and over rock promontories where I feel as though I could soar with the hawks.
In these days of late, my want is great to fade away into the trees to live among the shadows of summer evenings and the whispers of ghosts stealing away down darkened pathways under the stars.
To live in silence, among the forest and meadow creatures who know my name but cannot speak it, seems to offer a whole kind of peace unknowable otherwise.
Let the roar of the rapids and the waterfalls silence the droning voice inside my head. Let the flowers bloom and the springtime and its birds come over the land.
I will walk along, hearing the calls of those behind me but not turning to look back.
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.