Glenn Wolff and I got lost on the Crystal River. That isn’t easy to do. The Crystal, in Leelanau County, is one of Michigan’s prettiest rivers but it flows only six miles from Big Glen Lake to Lake Michigan. It’s a short distance as the crow flies, but a crow flies straight and the Crystal is anything but. It meanders in long, exaggerated sweeps that on a map look like a seismograph during a major tremor.
We walked through the shallows and fished the small pools at the bends and beneath overhanging cedars.
It was mid-September of a drought year when Glenn and I waded a section of the Crystal to fish for bass and pike. The river was running so low that much of it was only ankle deep. We walked through the shallows and fished the small pools at the bends and beneath overhanging cedars. A few early Chinook had built redds in the gravel riffles. Male salmon were creating all kinds of havoc, splashing and swirling as they chased rivals, while the big females turned on their sides and beat the gravel clean with powerful thrusts of their tails.
The day was too hot for hurrying, so Glenn and I took our time. We’d brought sandwiches, but only one small bottle of water. We planned to wade to the first bridge, then walk the road back to the car.
At one point we spotted a northern pike next to the bank. It hovered motionless; its shadow drawn sharply on the bottom beneath it. I swung a streamer past it, but the fish didn’t react. I pumped the fly to make it look alive, but I let it get too close to the fish and it lodged in a pectoral fin.
The pike turned and shot downstream. It was bigger than I expected, maybe eight pounds. It ran beneath a tangle of submerged roots and rubbed the fly off.
Glenn was watching from upstream. “What happened?”
“You don’t want to know.”
The sun was getting low by then, and we were tired and thirsty. We didn’t know how far it was to the bridge, but I had a trick up my sleeve.
In many places the Crystal’s meanders are so extreme that they nearly touch. You can step over a neck of land and bypass a quarter-mile of river. I knew this because I’d been fishing and canoeing the Crystal all my life and considered myself an expert. I led the way up the bank and into the woods. When we found the river, we set off downstream, smug in the knowledge that we had shortened our walk considerably.
“Didn’t we already pass that tree?” Glenn asked, pointing at a cedar leaning into the river. Part of it had been chopped off by a chainsaw. Apparently, we were going in circles. Maybe we had intercepted a reverse bend or something. Maybe a meander within a meander. We never quite figured it out.
After a while we passed the bank where I’d snagged the pike and then the place where we left the river looking for a shortcut. It was nearly dark when we got back to the car.
Getting lost on a river I’ve known all my life was a little embarrassing, but that’s okay. I’ve done much worse. Besides, I’m convinced that getting lost now and then is good for us. It humbles us, makes the familiar seem new again, and reminds us that we’re travelers in a world full of surprises. ≈
Writer Jerry Dennis and artist Glenn Wolff do much of their traveling near their homes in the Traverse City area. See more of their work at bigmaplepress.com.