Column: Stop, look both ways and listen
“If you want to taste the water, gotta come to the river,” – Gary Louris
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MARQUETTE — In the far eastern reaches of the county, where the lines of demarcation commence, there lies what some might consider to be a river of little importance flowing sluggishly into Lake Superior.
Despite the picturesque, watercolor seascape the river supplies here as it makes a final twist between the bone-colored shoulders of a quiet beach, the passing view from the state highway bridge is largely unremarkable, as rivers go.
For decades, I had made multiple crossings at this familiar place, in every season, never getting any real acquaintanceship, or deeper sense, of what this place was all about.
Instead, I whizzed past on the highway using the spot to mark my progress on a trip headed always to someplace else.
I even used to live within a couple of miles of the river and still didn’t make much time to explore the streambanks. I think I fished here once or twice about 25 years ago and caught one small perch.
I recall little about the river beyond coming across a mushroom hunter there one day on a hike, the ebbs and flows of its level I’d noticed from the car window, and the black rocks upstream that stuck out from the river bottom in the summer’s low flow being covered in long, withered strands of green and yellow grass.
I thought about my relative disconnection with this stream recently as I found myself guided along its banks on a sunny morning hike by a kind and studied escort who had found her daily respite here.
She was a storied traveler, an educated type with a recognizable concern for nature and its creatures. She expressed family and friendship ties to the area. Her humbleness belied her virtuosity.
She has plodded a simple trail here for a good long time. Through these mostly piney woods she walks, over an old sand dune complex, following the river upstream.
Then up off the water to the top of a railroad trestle bridge before using backroads, cut-throughs and sections of other defined routes to find her way past the lake and a water-filled gravel pit back toward a place where the river pools behind a low dam.
She was like a deep, slow-moving river herself, graciously and quietly revealing countless details she’d picked up along her travels. She was a student of the wilderness, gaining her knowledge from observation, patience and taking time to stop to listen – and, of course, books.
She showed me a place, along a fisherman’s trail, where on April 6 a woodcock took up temporary residence in a shallow gully in the woods. She showed me where brown creepers like to disappear behind the rough-faced wood siding of a cabin and where an eastern phoebe had its nest tucked precariously under the edge of a roof.
There’s a place along the river where she once came across a beaver waterproofing itself with oil from its aft glands. She knows which route a pair of common mergansers takes each morning.
She brought sunflower seeds with her to feed a least chipmunk that frequents the west end of the railroad trestle bridge. A winter wren was singing there too, right out in the big wide open.
She also carries a five-dollar-bill in her pocket on her walks, hoping a local resident she sees will have some home-grown lettuce for sale. Like a mail lady, she knows the names of the residents and the barking dogs along the way.
Through her hospitality, I was able to see this once believed to be nondescript river in surprising and wondrous new ways. I felt I was granted a great privilege to be truly introduced to this waterway for the first time, a generation after the fact.
This was a stream of surprising depth and character as it meanders over a 9-mile route, at times, its bottom covered in beautiful cobbles and gravels suitable for trout and salmon redds.
It also ran quiet and soft, while in other places it slurped and gurgled or trickled playfully as it fell and bubbled over a pebbled decline.
On this day, the trees along the river’s banks were filled with arriving spring warblers -myrtles in the old parlance, Canada, Tennessee, black-and-whites too. She also pointed out the song of a blue-headed vireo and she asked whether I had heard the northern parula. I had.
We stopped under a tangle of cedars and listened for more. I noticed a small animal running out and back, two or three times, from under a cedar trunk. We think it was a vole or other such creature, still researching its positive identification.
We shared a love of outdoor adventure, the unknown around the next bend, the hope for a chance wildlife encounter or an introduction to something strange or new.
She asked me if I could identify a nighttime sound that she had recorded on her voice recorder. I guessed a gray fox. She said it was a red fox whose kits she’d seen around the neighborhood.
I showed her the shells of hatched turtle eggs, rolled up like dried latex paint – whitish-yellow – laying in the sand, up on a bench above a slow-moving section of the river’s run. Old turtle tracks were there too, headed for the water from what remained of a nest in the dirt.
At the lake, which stretched wide but shallow, we saw a bald eagle on a nest in a white pine towering over the far shoreline. She pointed out the head of a female sandhill crane, just visible as it poked up from a nest where she sat on presumably two eggs.
We talked about time for traveling, places we’d been and places we hadn’t. Each of us enjoyed the others company on the walk, hearing, seeing, listening and thinking with new insights based on the other’s perspective.
Above the dam, the water in the basin covered tree stumps and was bounded by grasses planted to aid visiting waterfowl. She talked of a beautiful wintertime overlook seeing coyotes crossing the river.
She lamented the cutting of trees in a place nearby where she used to ski. We agreed on the notion that there is so much knowledge yet to be gained from the natural world, so many questions still unanswered.
We noted that bird song was good food for the soul.
For a portion of our walk, we ambled along the National North Country Scenic Trail, the longest such route in the nation, twisting like a snake from Vermont to North Dakota.
Heading back, the temperature started to spike a bit, making me wish I’d left my padded shirt in the car. Walking up a rise to higher and noticeably drier ground, we encountered a small congregation of houses, gates, fences and red and jack-pine forested backyards.
“It’s all about the water,” she told me, referring to the water’s presence enhancing the diversity and abundance of wildlife along the river’s banks. “There’s so much stuff in here.”
Getting back to where I’d parked my car, we checked to see if we’d meet the pair of mergansers coming down the river on their morning float. We didn’t see them. I pointed out a chipmunk drinking water from a flower-pot dish.
Noticing we’d stretched a two-hour hike to three-hours, I deferred an invitation to lunch on the porch to another time. We also talked about future hikes and a chance to enjoy the river walk again sometime.
This had been a wonderful experience.
I kicked myself for not having spent more time exploring this beautiful and underestimated water body when I had the chance to do so all those years ago.
But I find there are many things that are like that – so close to home, maybe even just outside the back door or off the front porch but missed in the flurry of activity to hustle and rush to get someplace else.
I feel as though I am reminding myself constantly to try to slow down. Take deep breaths and relax – experience all there is around me and inside me, using wisely the time that remains.
It’s like crossing the railroad tracks: stop, look both ways and listen.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.