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Upper Black River, MI

Upon arrival at the cottage, one of the first things I noticed was the water level was higher than usual in Black Lake. The gears started turning to plan a paddling trip. I headed up the Upper Black River to survey the flow and obstacles to expect. After forty minutes of paddling up, I turned around to leisurely paddle back to the lake at about twelve. A plan was hatched to disembark the following morning.

Walking barefoot through the grass, and getting the boat ready, I obliged a quick morning yoga session. I could write an article on the grass alone. First, the blades of grass make you consider what a troll’s hair would look like compared to that of an angel. Then, a thick layer of moss protects your digits from getting dirty in the moist cool soil. All elements join together to bring a symphony of tactile experiences from the grip of the grass to the pillow of the peat. The sod surrounding the lake adds to the gift yoga is for your muscles and joints.

My grandfather and I loaded my ‘yak in the back of our van. As we were headed that way, he and I estimate it to be about 12 miles, when I got back my wife had tracked the journey to be closer to 15.5 miles.

“We’ll see you before sundown, I’m sure.” my grandfather offers his godspeed at a park on the pond just north of the Highway 68 bridge. The pond in the middle of Tower had decided for it to be Halloween for as long as it was thawed with thick, dark water and jagged submerged posts. Eager to get to clearer, more welcoming water that hadn’t been disturbed by a motor, a quick and easy portage around the dam at the north end of the pond brought me to a more secluded section of the river.

The river quickly opens back up past a few tucked-away residential properties. The land opens up quickly too, piney and deciduous trees recede. The river winds its way through this open sky marshland for maybe a mile with houses comfortably spaced. The wide break in trees gave way to the clear blue sky showing a happy mix of altocumulus and cirrus clouds on this lovely 74-degree day.

After the second dam at Klieber Road, there were a few small ripples that dreamt of someday becoming formidable rapids.I swing my kayak around to paddle backward to give myself a reverse entry approaching a couple of non-threatening rocks. After I whip around to navigate my line through a bend, I carelessly brush my paddle against an overhanging branch. “Nature hi-five, ten points!” I exclaim as I’m going for style points through the ferns, birch, and red pine trees. I’ve deemed my vacation character to be ‘Michigan Milton’ as my higher river self. Both spiritually, and latitudinally.

I kept my style points even after getting clumsily wrapped up in a low-hanging branch. Part of the fun of kayaking is experimenting with how the boat maneuvers around, or in some cases, through obstacles. Sometimes you can thread the needle, but in the Northwoods, sometimes the needle threads you!

River guide ‘Michigan Milton’ was offering words of encouragement and guidance through a bend as I passed by two folks in the University of Michigan colors about my age assembling PVC pipes into a ladder-looking contraption. I gave them a “Howdy!” as I slipped past. Curious about what purpose was being fulfilled, but more entranced with the majesty of the river, I stroked by.

Growing up, visiting the Northern Lower Peninsula, I would fish with my dad. I never really cared for it but went along because he has such a good time with it. As a protein in a dish, fine. As an activity, I prefer a more active and tactile interaction with my environment. A kayak is more than a vehicle but is a medium to experience your environment. Kayaks allow for an organic introduction of humanity to nature. It's a real blessing to connect to the water with your paddle and boat, gently guiding me back to our shelter beside the lake. Allowing the kayak to be my paintbrush across this river, my vessel for expression. The vehicle of the excursion makes a natural mascot.

Kayaking connects you to the land. Makes you confront nature as you are confronting it with your humanity. By using the river as transportation and recreation we acknowledge our benefit from it and wonder what we might be able to contribute back to it to reciprocate. To help maintain a symbiotic relationship with our habitat.

A vehicle that provides a balance between individual sport and communal effort, another feature of the river that mirrors this symbolism are the branches that have been sawed and articulated to give way to a paddler. Happening upon interactions between man and nature reminds the solo paddler of the community of conservationists that help keep this hobby accessible.

There’s something arresting about the nature of unspoken communication between paddlers through river obstruction cleanup efforts. Beyond the confines of dammed water, the Upper Black was flowing, but abundant with felled trees, beaver dams, and other such obstacles. Paddling up to a more formidable beaver dam feels akin to Mad Max first being taken to The Citadel, a foreign-looking fortress intended to protect the occupants. Not only from the elements but by a hint of pointy sticks and limbs towards interlopers, from other beings as well.

Fortunately, solidarity is found on the river by way of broken-up sections that can be carefully maneuvered through. Leaving the water trail more easily passable for voyagers behind. If I were a museum curator taking in an artist’s work, I’d presume the intention of the work to leave as much existing structure of the beaver dam unmolested but to manipulate it just enough to unimpede a humble paddler. To make a smooth pass through some of the limbs, a boater must be meticulous with their speed and stroke. For the trees that have since fallen perhaps an invitation for this river captain to exhibit some obstruction cleanup, makes for engaging obstacles.

In my approach to the felled trees, I opted for a non-portage approach. I’d angle the ‘yak so I could stand, grab a branch for an additional point of contact, find stability on the limb or tree, and pass the boat through, over, and in between before plopping back in my soggy seat. The other validation for this approach is that I could not stop thinking about the scene from Stand By Me where Gordie finds a leech in his under-breeches.

Felled trees sawed just enough to be passed by carefully being the only, but still potent, semaphore for trail comradery. I found myself approaching felled trees with a feeling of selfishness and inconsideration. Though, I did enjoy the obstacles as an engaging break from the leisure of the river’s flow.

I found myself thankful for the dearth of snake presence on the river. In Texas, poisonous water moccasins are a threat to keep in mind. I might have caught an otter in the corner of my eye, but I was having such a good time paddling that I didn’t get a confirmed glance.

Taking the opportunity of a break from a straight, calm stretch, I notice the water-purging towel I threw in the boat had been monogrammed when my family got to the cottage. This now fraying towel that has been designated for dirty boat duty offered a sense of the length of time spent up here.

The tall maples, white cedars, and rounded river stones reminded me of how far away I am from my familiar live oak trees, yuccas, prickly pear cacti, and jagged limestone. Also far away from sprawling transportation infrastructure and the interactions those cause. A world away from the inspiring tenderness shown by the young TSA agent towards the man of advanced age who was caught seemingly unaware of the three ounces of fluid rule that I witnessed on our flight up. Emotionally invested, at first, the older man didn’t want to part with his fluids quite yet. The agent calmly relates to him the process of renting a locker and going back through security. The old man paused something pensive, and released an, “Okay.”

The first “okay” was a tad confused, and not quite accepting of its current reality. The second “okay”, angry. The following “okay”s were perfect examples of the remaining stages of grief. To be able to witness this exchange rivaled some of the more riveting theatrical experiences I’ve seen. There was raw chemistry complete with visceral compassion and patience exchanged.

After about five and a half hours of paddling, I made it back to the cottage in time for a supper of fresh perch and vegetables from the neighbor's garden. There's got to be a name for the feeling of accomplishment and being glad your journey is over contrasted with already wishing you were back out there again.


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