Outdoors North: Finding that river to fall in love with

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

“There’s a certain girl I’ve been in love with a long, long time. What’s her name? I can’t tell ‘ya,” — Allen Toussaint

There’s a dividing line I know well that cuts across the green space on several of my old topographic maps.

It’s not a political boundary, like those dotted or spaced lines that indicate where one county ends and another commences.

It’s not a contour line that connects equal points of elevation, not one of those red-and-white checkered lines showing a hard surfaced highway, nor the corral-fence type lines that show railroad tracks.

The line I’m talking about is robin’s egg blue.

In its basic presentation, along with several variations to show changing temperaments, moods or characteristics, the line shows a river.

Like all the other lines and symbols on the maps, they are representations of things found in the same spatial relationships on the earth.

I think topographic maps provide are endlessly fascinating. I could look at them for days on end if I had the time.

On a topographic map, the common 7.5-minute quadrangle variety, the scale is shown as a ratio of 1:24,000. That means that for whatever unit of measure you’d like to use — whether one inch, centimeter or foot — to measure on a topographic map is equal to 24,000 of those units on the earth’s surface.

So, one inch measured on a topographic map is equal to 24,000 inches on the earth.

Those particular type of topographic maps have a contour interval of 20 feet, which means the distance between lines showing elevation changes are equal to 20 feet on the earth.

So, if you see lines spaced farther apart you know the terrain there is relatively flat, compared to the tight spaces with numerous lines grouped together identifying mountainous or other high terrain.

But I digress, off the track, back to my college studies and my eternal fascination with maps. I had an uncle who was a geographer. He wrote a fourth-grade textbook called “Cross-Country” and gave it to me when I was a kid.

The inscription reads: “To John, with hopes his interest in geography will continue.”

At this point, I think it is fair to presume that it has.

But back to my map and the blue line of varying thicknesses to indicate the changing waistline of my river — wide in some places, narrow in others.

Topographic map symbols also show various river features, including rapids and waterfalls, perennial, disappearing and intermittent streams, springs, seeps and washes. Manmade river features are also depicted, including masonry dams, aqueducts and canals.

The river I am writing about here isn’t much when it comes to ranking or comparisons, there are certainly mightier, wilder, more scenic or more important. Safe to say, it’s no Mississippi, Columbia or even Platte.

But I think the people who have known this place over the centuries had come to fall in love with her. She has that effect on many. I know she affected me that way.

I think being introduced to her when I was so young in my formative years might be a big part of why I love her so much. I think I was only three years old back then, at least that’s what my parents have told me.

I remember seeing the black water with the foam coagulated and floating at the top, moving slow and reflective like a mirror in front of me and racing swiftly, bubbling and churning only a few feet away over there.

I remember the smell of the water. It was a clean smell. The air was always cooler by the river and the water was ice-cold to the touch. I guess as a kid I didn’t worry as much about drowning as I did about falling into the water and being that cold.

Indigenous people fished here and hunted deer around the river’s banks, and they still do today. So do the countless settlers of mostly Nordic or European countries who settled here, working the land and felling the forests.

For them, the river helped grow some food crops and float trees to mills for processing. The river also brought water for the mines.

I didn’t know anything about that when I was a young kid. I knew about the river as a place my parents would go to fish for brook trout, and they would take me.

I recall the first time I ever saw a brook trout. I was startled to see it come out of the water. Then I saw the exquisite red spots or speckles, outlined in blue, along with yellow spots and the bright white on the ends of the lower fins.

The eyes seemed to be staring right at me. The mouth looked like the fish was frowning or mad. Perhaps it was.

I remember millions of white pine needles scattered over ancient boulders. The boulders formed rock walls that served as barriers and helped hold the river in place.

Except, of course, for in the springtime when the river was so wild and angry about being locked up solid all winter, when she finally broke free, nothing would be able to hold her back.

She’d roar with mighty force, overflowing the rock walls, lifting and moving incredibly large and heavy tree trunks, moving them at least a little farther downstream every highwater season.

There are several waterfalls located along her course. Though none of these would rival Niagara or Victoria, they have no doubt remained special to countless generations over the years for their beauty, power and demanding presence.

Few pleasures in the natural world rival sitting before a waterfall, big or small, listening to the water talk, teach and translate peace to anguished hearts and minds.

Of course, there are those who have gotten too close and got swallowed up in her forever, drowned. To those who travel to her banks, few are those who do not respect her powers to seduce and devour.

The mines and towns have harnessed her power and her waters for various uses, including hydroelectric projects, municipal and industrial uses.

Despite these challenges to her freedom, she rolls and flows with indescribable beauty and flawless grace. I have always dreamt of paddling a canoe or otherwise floating her down from her head to toe.

It would take a couple of days and some whitewater kayaking skills, though I wouldn’t be in a hurry by any means. I’d want to take as much time as I could to drink her all in.

I’d want to pass quietly so as not to disturb the animals who come to her banks for sips of water. I’d also like to fish, take pictures, stop and absorb the surroundings all along the way.

I remember when I would come home from out west on vacation, the first place I wanted to get out to was that old river. I wanted to see if she was still there and if anything had changed about her.

Bridges have come and gone and come again. Drought years and tough winters have worked to push her up and down. She’s has meandered from side to side, cut off an oxbow here and there, but she still keeps moving.

Writers have come to know her shores, Longfellow and Traver to name a couple.

I have also dreamt of one day owning a camp along her banks. I don’t know if that will ever happen. If it does, it shouldn’t be until after I retire because I know I could spend almost all my time just sitting and watching her, listening and learning.

I hesitate to mention her name to you in this writing. To me it seems as though to do so would be something of a betrayal. It also seems to me that to identify her after sharing all this information about the relationship we have together might seem disrespectful.

I have loved her since the first time I saw her. That will never change. I know I am not the first to feel this way and I know I won’t be the last. Her soul and mine are intertwined, bound eternally.

She has provided me respite, peace, integrity, moments of divine contemplation, deliverance from heartbreak, time to slow down, time to think and she has allowed me to discover deep-seated pleasures I have held in my mind, soul and heart my whole lifetime.

Not bad for a little blue line on an old map.

I think most people who live in this part of the world have river or something like one in nature that they have fallen in love with and can’t live without.

What’s your river?

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.


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