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Column: Driving down a road of memories

MARQUETTE– Driving over the alternating rocky and muddy bumps and bogs in this old railroad grade, my Jeep rocks from side to side.

My body moves sympathetically to the jerks and jolts, back and forth.

I’ve been riding, and later driving, this road most of my life, but I never tire of the trek. Each time I return opens-up unlimited possibilities for adventure in these backwoods wilds of the Upper Peninsula.

The bends and bobs in the river’s course are known to me like my best old friends – just being in their presence brings comfort and contentment.

This part of the grade coming up often floods in the springtime after melting snow and rain push the river’s height up over her banks. As she bends, she tips, spilling over onto the road, washing the orange, chalk and gray-white gravels clean.

The road sometimes stays submerged in a foot or more of water for days on end.

The river’s not much good for fishing then, but this is when she does her digging and dropping – digging out the river bends with her cutting edge, moving the sand and earth from the riverbank downstream before dropping it on the slow, opposite side.

Twisting, turning – deep and shallow – she rolls along.

Back when I was a kid, this blacktopped section of the road at her crossing was never here. There was no steel guardrail either, or this raised embankment covered in boulders that brings the road up high over the surface of the water.

In those times, there was a modest wooden plank bridge here. Instead of being raised, the roadbed used to dip down where it met the river, leaving the grade vulnerable to water rising regularly over the bridge and road.

My dad’s old car used to bottom-out here, smacking down hard on some of the bigger rocks in the road that had been exposed by floodwaters.

The straightness of this road is distracting as I ride along. I try to envision the trains pulling ore and wood rail cars through these woods, this beautiful countryside along the tracks. That must have been a grand ride.

I would have liked to have been the engineer, riding high in the cab watching bears and deer scatter off the steel rails when they heard and felt the big locomotive thundering closer, shaking the ground.

Having that raised viewpoint would have given me a different look, a more enhanced vision of this landscape, with its marshlands, mixed forests and ponds, lakes, rivers and creeks.

There’s a big clearing here off to the left that makes me think there might have been some sort of human development there at one time. These days, it’s a place where deer stop to eat some of the sweet, short shoots of grass, and where I stop when I see a deer.

I can just make out the blueness of a lake off on the right, if I look between the thick growth of tree trunks. My map shows that it’s shaped like a knobby gherkin.

Up ahead, the road splits off toward another bridge over the river, along another gravel road, but this one isn’t a railroad grade, it’s got plenty of twists and turns, climbs and scrambles.

I stick to the grade, heading farther north. I once saw what looked at a distance like a black plastic garbage bag sitting on the shoulder of the road. When I eventually got close enough, the “garbage bag” got up and walked across the grade in front of me, ambling off into the woods – a black bear lazing on a quiet May morning.

I’m stopping now at a culvert crossing of a small creek that has also been known to flood during big summer storms or spring thaws. The upstream side of the road is mostly a marshy pond, home to shiners, chubs and – in the springtime’s ice-cold waters – a few small brook trout.

Snapping turtles lay their eggs in the gravel of the road here. These big turtles can often be seen in the faster-flowing downstream waters of the creek or off in the muck and grass of the pond.

These massive and ancient-looking turtles often work to avoid contact with humans. However, they seem intrigued and curious when they hear my voice softly talking to them as they head for a murky water getaway.

Not far from here, a stand of young aspen reaches for the sky with outstretched branches. Along the river, old, worn-out “no trespassing” signs, faded and barely legible, are tacked to old worn-out trees.

For decades, some of these trees have stood with these signs nailed to them. In some cases, the tree trunks have grown over the top edges of the signs.

As I continue to ride, I pass thick blackberry and raspberry brambles, which are in summer bloom – a reminder to me of the glorious, fruit harvest that will emerge in the weeks ahead.

For now, summery days are here with passing thunderheads, bold mosquitoes, buzzing deer flies and the beautifully colored monarchs, fritillary and morning cloaks.

Black-eyed Susan and milkweed are working to replace the ox-eye daisies and honeysuckle as blooming attractions alongside this rocky road.

Another road cuts off to the left side of the grade, heading toward another culvert crossing for a bubbly brook. But I don’t take the turn. Instead, I avoid the scene of a winter’s clear cut in favor of more sights along the grade.

Here’s a place where the hillside has been dug out over the years, no doubt to help fill in the washouts along the grade. There are granite boulders here, some as big as my head, others as small as my thumbnail – the full-size assortment.

A big swamp sits off the opposite side of the road. It looks like a perfect place to spot an old bull moose standing in the shallow water amid the cattails and water grasses – but I’ve never seen one here.

I’ve been looking since I was a kid, sitting in the backseat of the car. In those days, seeing a moose in the U.P. was largely considered a thing of the past.

It’s not far from here that the straightness of the grade fades as the road pushes uphill, its bed composition changing to crushed, deep-red rocks. At the top of the hill, the road approaches a wide clearing where the breadth of the landscape opens-up my heart and soul.

I’d love to see this place at night. There must be a billion stars out here.

There’s something about this old railroad grade that remains intangible, something that keeps drawing me back again and again.

I think part of the attraction is the memories of being out here in my childhood that have still got ahold of my ankle. I also enjoy the uncertainty of what I might see on any given trip.

But I think the core of my desire to return is the feeling of freedom I get quietly communing with nature, listening to her voice speaking to me from the skies and the trees and the rocks.

She wraps her arms around me and at once I feel at home. One day, I will stay forever. But today, I keep driving, rolling closer and closer to the blacktop, the houses and the jagged and broken-hearted shadows of the mining towns.

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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.

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