We had a weekend in a cabin on the Au Sable, and I couldn’t have been more excited to be there. The first morning I rigged my flyrod and waded into the riffle in front of the cabin and had the river to myself for a while.
Then many happy people in bathing suits were floating past in inner-tubes, all of them sunburned with beer cans in hand, asking in cheerful tones if I had caught anything. People in lawn chairs were waving at me from the yards of their cottages and they, too, asked if I had caught anything. But the water was low and very clear, and there was not a trout to be seen.
So I went exploring.
And as often happens, I ended up exploring a small stream in a cedar swamp. This one was narrow enough to step over and quite fast, a prancing colt of a creek, tiny and spirited, dappled with sunlight and shadows. It swerved around the trunks of the cedars and hopped into elbow-deep plunge pools bubbling with froth. The air above it was cool and carried the scent of cedar and moss, with a hint of decay.
Once I met a gentleman from Brooklyn who was visiting Northern Michigan for the first time. He had flown from LaGuardia to Detroit, rented a car, and driven north on I-75. Over dinner he listened to my friends and me brag about this place — it’s a weakness of ours and is why we make such dull companions — and finally he said, “What’s the big deal? It’s nothing but a bunch of trees.”
I laughed. He was right, of course, but his view was too narrow. You could just as truthfully claim that Brooklyn is nothing but a bunch of buildings.
Everyone knows that to learn a place, you have to get out of your car and start walking. I would argue that you need to walk the creeks and rivers. They’re the secret alleys that lead behind billboards and storefronts to the back of a place, the side that is unadorned and without facade. Travelers on interstates have no idea it even exists.
My grandfather, who was a farmer, would have snorted and said, “Claptrap! The only way to know the land is to work it.”
But a creek can get you there, too.
When my son Aaron was very young, he halted beside a creek we were fishing for brook trout and said in a whisper, “Listen. I hear music.” We followed the sound to a branch of the creek barely a foot wide. Not far upstream was a tiny waterfall pouring a rope of crystalline water into a gurgling pool.
That was the source. That was the music he heard.
We’ve been listening for it ever since. ≈
BLUE “Reflections” columnist and author Jerry Dennis lives near Traverse City and has collaborated with fellow regional artist Glenn Wolff on many books including “The Bird in the Waterfall,” now available in a new edition (jerrydennis.net; glennwolff.com).
Illustration by Glenn Wolff