July 29, 2004—I recently had the great pleasure of speaking to some of Michigan’s finest teachers at the Michigan Summer Reading Conference in Gaylord, MI. After
finishing my duties one afternoon I jumped into my car and drove 25 miles south to Grayling, MI, where I had arranged to rent a single kayak for a paddle on the Au Sable River. I arrived at Penrod’s Canoe Trips just minutes after the last available boat departure. Jim, the proprietor (and pictured here) agreed to stay open a bit later so that I could set off at once on an eight mile paddle. I remain grateful for this extension to their long day—thank you! (Penrod’s: 989-348-2910)
I set off in late afternoon light. There was a stiff, clothesline snapping wind bending the tree tops lining the river but down on the river’s bed the water’s surface was barely ruffled. The sky arched clear and all that moving air and slanting warm sun made the day’s end feel electric. It was Thursday and the river was empty of fellow travelers. I could not have felt more lucky, more alive, or any more happy!
Later I read that the Au Sable River is considered one of Michigan’s most beloved streams. Like several of the rivers I have been privileged
to paddle, this one is protected by the Wild and Scenic River Act. It is also the river that served as the birthplace of Trout Unlimited, one of the great fishing and conservation organizations of our country.
This river is exquisite. I knew I was in a holy place as I paddled through the narrow banks, and I also knew how lucky I was to be so silently alone in such beauty. Tiny cabins dotted the early bends in the river, and a long rope swing hung from one tree branch overhanging a sharp turn. The stream was remarkably clear, the sandy bottom rarely covered with more than three or four feet of moving water, and a steady current helped pull me east.
Along the way I passed a huge collection of downed trees, the silver pile banking a camp site on a wide turn. A blue heron leap-frogged me down the river, and in the quiet I found myself whispering to the bird about the beauties I was seeing while it fished beside me. The river momentarily straightened and I found myself in awe of a giant pine leaning out over the river ahead. This tree was one of the progeny of the Old Trees, a lone standing remnant of the great pines that had covered the fields and banks of this river. In the 1800’s the vast virgin pine forests were clear cut. Their huge cut trunks once clogged this river, scrapping away its sandy bottom as the giant logs were floated down to ships waiting on Lake Huron. Like the trees, the river suffered. Great efforts have been made to restore this river’s splendor.
This huge tree before me held the bank with muscular roots that snaked above the earth before plunging underground. Despite its size it leaned out over the river with a sense of graceful majesty and patience that I found contagious. I could see the river from the tree’s view as it watched all the season’s pass on this bit of water, year after year, ice, snow, spring melt, summer flow. This tree reminded me all over again of the quiet breathing all the trees are doing for us. Every leafy moment they are exchanging our carbon dioxide for their oxygen. Steadfast, the tree quieted me even more deeply. Quietly I paddled again. The heron followed and left this message right beside my boat before sailing off down the river.