Freeing the River at its Very Source

Joe Writes . . . 

Calling all Golden Knights, Environmental Do-Gooders and Former Polluters looking to atone for past sins: there’s a spectacular opportunity to do something great for Michigan’s environment at a not-too-spectacular price.

gr store sign july 24The Liberty General Store, south of Jackson in Liberty Township, is for sale. It’s a nice enough store: couple of gas pumps with shelves offering booze, beer and beef jerky. The manager’s been helpful to us and he keeps the place looking good. The asking price is $365K (according to the Realtor and despite the higher price in the listing), which is about the price of an  average home in the subdivision next to my condo complex in Ann Arbor.

But what makes this opportunity special is that the sale includes frontage on the millpond behind the store and, most importantly, ownership and control of the dam that grudgingly releases water from the millpond. That released water, after tumbling down the face of a concrete wall, becomes the Grand River. The millpond and the dam are often referred to as the headwaters of the Grand.

The dam has been there for more than a hundred years, but it no longer serves any purpose. There’s no mill, hence no need for a millpond. The dam once generated electricity, but hasn’t done so for a number of years. Furthermore, the dam is privately owned. What happens when it needs expensive maintenance? What if the owner said, “Nah, I don’t have that kind of money. Let it crumble; it’s not doing me any good”? Who will be held accountable if the dam suddenly and catastrophically fails? I doubt that a closely-held corporation with minimal assets, an entity formed to operate a party store, would be able to make good on the ensuing damage.


Our dream, then, my brother’s and mine, is that some environmental savior would buy the property and begin the process of working with state and local government – and affected property owners – to remove the damn dam. Hey, maybe the State of Michigan should buy the property. Even in these days of budget and tax cuts, the state has a proper and vital interest in owning and controlling the starting point of our longest river . . . especially when that can be accomplished at this price.

There is a movement toward removing dams along the river in an effort to restore the river to something that more closely resembles its natural state. The results of dam removal have included increased recreational opportunities and improved fish habitat. Eaton Rapids, Dimondale and Lyons are among the municipalities which have removed dams that were deteriorating and no longer served any purpose. Grand Rapids continues to evaluate a major dam removal and habitat restoration project.

I’m not a scientist nor an engineer, but certainly scientific and engineering factors need to be taken into consideration when contemplating major changes like this. Private property rights will be at stake and those concerns must be addressed as well, so whoever buys the property should have pockets deep enough to hold on through the decision-making process, which would likely stretch on for several years.

So there you have it. What else could any person or organization do which would have such a significant impact on the health of the Grand River and, indeed, the environmental health of our entire state? This opportunity will not last forever. Someone may buy the party store next week, someone with nary a drop of interest in the Grand River. The property can be had for $365K, give or take a few grand. My brother and I wish we could buy it. We can’t, but we’d throw what we can afford into the kitty.

Who will step up to the plate here? Do it for the river. Do it for the state. Do it for yourself.

Postscript – My brother Tom deserves credit for coming up with this idea, at least between the two of us. I blew him off at first but now I’m as passionate as he has been from the start. We have written about dams previously; see the entry dated December 11, 2016 and entitled “Remove the Dams?”.

 One final thought. If you agree with this post, would you please share it (on Facebook and other social media, by sending a link to friends, etc.)? The more people who read the post, the more likely we are to find some person or organization that could make this happen.

Contact Us:

Joe Neely, joe@lengthofthegrand.com 

Tom Neely, tom@lengthofthegrand.com





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Summer is Over

Rain Raises River, Fills Boat, Soaks Us and our Hats

October 14, 2017 – Dixon Road to Tompkins Road (northern Jackson County, west of Rives Junction)

Tom Writes . . .

Today we paddled a deep-country stretch, about as far into the boondocks as it is possible to go in south central Michigan. A few farm fields on the banks, including an interesting place on the left bank, where somebody has machinery for pumping water out of the river for irrigation. But mostly today, the river was flanked by woods on both banks.

We paddled with two experienced Grand River people. Don Nelson is a true Rivermaster. He recently had cruised this same stretch with chain saws and chains and spud-bars, to clear the paddling path. Jack Ripstra knows the whole river. They both had kayaks. We paddled our canoe, the Billie V. And, I am proud to point out that Joe and I kept up with them very well. They did not leave us in their wakes.

It rained like Noah the whole time. And, I was dressed wrong. I wore my regular summer canoe expedition clothes, and I got drenched. Even my hat was utterly soaked. By the

Sou'Wester Hat

Tom in a sou’wester hat, when he worked as a tugboat captain. (It’s not Tom and he never worked on a tugboat, but it really is the kind of hat he writes about in the final paragraph.)

end, the hat kept direct rain out of my face. That was its only benefit. Otherwise, it just channeled rain onto my head.

We saw a couple of wet herons flying in the rain. We saw a deer. We were lucky that the rain water was warm when it hit us.  I plan to get an old-timey traditional New England fisherman-style foul weather hat, and a real foul weather jacket, before I head out on the river again.


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Walk a Mile in Our Shoes

Back to the Source – Foot Paddling

September 29, 2017

Tom Writes . . . 

Downstream from the Liberty Millpond Dam

mill pond dam

Water flowing over the Liberty Millpond Dam.

On July 24, 2016 (last year), we started this adventure at the Liberty Millpond Dam, near Grand Lake, the river’s primary source. On that first day, we paddled upstream, on the Millpond and its associated waters, a sort-of lake with no name. If you scroll all the way down to our first blog posts, last year, you can read about it. (And, you can see a photo and a video of the dam in winter, if you look at our January 7, 2017 posts. You also can read what Joe wrote on April 16, 2017, about paddling Grand Lake with one of his grandsons.)

Right after that dam, the river really is more of a creek. It is not deep enough to float a boat. So, last year, we skipped ahead to deeper water. For our second leg last year, we took our canoe to the Loomis Road Bridge, far enough downstream, deep enough that we could paddle most of the time. August 7, 2016.

BUT! We always knew we had to go back to that early skipped part of the river. We did it

ripples bottom mill pond

Riverbed rocks made for difficult walking, these just below the millpond dam.

today. We had to walk right in the river, mostly, on top of sharp rocks, through clear water and black muck. . No roads or trails along the route. Only a few places where we could walk along the bank, in people’s yards. I worried that the people might not like to see us in their yards, but no problem. We saw one guy cutting his grass. We waved at him, but he ignored us. A woman at another house greeted us cordially, welcomed us, and laughed at us.

Our river is only about eight feet wide in this stretch. We encountered fallen trees that blocked us. In one place, we got over a fallen tree, but then got stuck in vines that grew all over the tree. Honestly, we were trapped. I was able to claw and thrash the vines enough to get out, and Joe was able to crawl after me. This may seem silly, but it was a big deal. It took about 15 minutes. I came out with a bleeding leg and a bleeding forearm.

vines on the grand

These are the vines from which Tom emerged bloodied and bruised. Traveling the Grand in Jackson County is hard work.

Today was a beautiful sunny early Fall Michigan day. I spent most of my day looking down, at the rocks in the river. I had to remind myself to look up sometimes, to try to see birds and butterflies. But, I mostly just looked down. I saw a few minnows and fish plus clam shells, but I believe Joe, who was ahead of me, scared most of the wildlife away, before I had a chance to see them. I did hear some Blue Jays.

Today, we closed a big gap in our source-to-mouth Grand River adventure. In October, we intend to make it half way. We will close our other gaps. And then we will have done the entire river from source to Grand Ledge. Then, maybe, next year, we might make it to the river mouth, our home town, our home pier, our home beach, Lake Michigan, Grand Haven, Michigan.

tom shallow rivfer

A jaunty Tom just minutes into the day’s journey, before doing battle with rocks and vines.

(Editor’s Note: It is often said there are two sources of the Grand River. Under this scenario there is the Main Branch, flowing out of Grand Lake in Liberty Township/Jackson County; there is also the North Branch, flowing out of Center Lake in Leoni Township/Jackson County at Michigan Center. These branches of the river merge at US-127, east of Jackson, and from there the Grand flows as one river to Lake Michigan. Most efforts to paddle the entire river, it seems, start at Michigan Center because it is easier to float a canoe or kayak there. We consider the waters flowing out of Grand Lake to be the true source of the river and have concentrated our explorations in that area.)

CONTACT US: joe@lengthofthegrand.com or tom@lengthofthegrand.com


JOIN US ON THE RIVER: BYOC (Bring Your Own Canoe)


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The Grand and the Betsie: Two Different Rivers

Joe Writes . . . 

I recently stopped at an old friend’s cabin on the Betsie River in northern Michigan, not far from (as my brother might say) the nifty Lake Michigan town of Frankfort. I had not been at my friend’s place since the late 1970’s. We stood at the top of the bluff behind his cabin, looking down 50 or 60 feet into the river’s shallow, clear water. So clear I could see tremendous fish – salmon, I think – swimming just hard enough against the current so that they stayed in place. The fish are visible in the center of this photo; keep in mind that we were way the hell up in the air on the riverbank.

fish in water on betsie

See the fish? Dead center.

The Betsie River is clear laughing water and blue skies, a river without a care in the world. The Betsie is wind power and fly-fishing. Hipsters. Duck hunters in corduroy.  Ever-so-rarely the Betsie is a grizzled fisherman keeping watch o’er his bobber, but mostly the river is Chad and Jeremy singing A Summer Song on a sunshiny, wispy-cloud day.

Our river, the Grand, is working-class. Groaning, struggling, carrying the weight of the world on its back. The Grand is blue collar with Richie Rich occasionally slumming it in a million-dollar-boat near the Big Lake. The Grand is coal-mining, ship-building smoggy Newcastle. The Grand is Eric Burdon fronting the Animals in 1965. We love the Grand but sometimes  We Gotta Get Outta This Place.

The Grand will never be the Betsie, and that’s ok. I’ll never kick her out of bed for eating crackers. Flow on, Your Tired Majesty; flow down to the sea.

P.S. I suspect that most people were prone to jumble up the songs of Chad and Jeremy and Peter and Gordon’ back in the 1960’s. My favorite song among both duos repertoire was ‘I Go To Pieces’ by Peter and Gordon. That song was written by Del Shannon, he of ‘Runaway’ fame. Del Shannon was born Charles Westover in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Grand Rapids is split by and built around the Grand River. Del Shannon grew up in Coopersville – west of Grand Rapids – and lived for a time in Battle Creek, Michigan, where he sold carpet, worked in a warehouse and drove a truck by day while playing music by night.

P.P.S. If you decide to visit Frankfort  you can get one hell of a perch sandwich at Port City Smokehouse. You can get other lake fish there as well – fresh or smoked – and top-notch beef or turkey jerky, too. 

the betsie general pic

The clean blue waters of the Betsie go laughing along.

CONTACT US: Joe@lengthofthegrand.com or Tom@lengthofthegrand.com

JOIN US ON THE RIVER: byoc (bring your own canoe)


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Invasive Mussels on the Grand River

Tom Writes . . .

During our last trip on the river (Monday September 11 – we already wrote about it), I forgot to write about the mussel shells. When we portaged around Moore’s Dam, and put back in, we saw many hundreds of thousands of mussel shells. The whole area on the right bank, call it a beach, maybe, was entirely covered in dead empty mussel shells.


photo credit: US Fish & Wildlife Service

All the area under our feet, under the canoe as we dragged it back to the water was mussel shells. Not just a coating, but a deep layer, probably at least a foot deep. These mussels are an invasive species, originally brought here in the ballast water of ships from Europe, not too terribly long ago.

We have seen other types of shells on our river cruise, including native clam shells, including clam shells as big as a human hand. But, these maybe millions of mussel shells really made an impression on us.

We have read about these invasive mussels, but we never saw them before in real life. They are a big deal. Imagine, maybe, that all the sidewalks in your American neighborhood got covered in some sort of European worms. That is what the invasive mussels have done in this stretch of the Grand River.

Editor’s Note: To learn about the devastation mussels and other invasive species have visited upon the Great Lakes, pick up a copy of The Death And Life Of The Great Lakes by Dan Egan (W. W. Norton & Co., 2017). The following excerpt from page 123 refers particularly to the invasion of quagga mussels:  “The chaos this has brought is like nothing – not even the sea lamprey – the lakes have suffered in their 10,000-year history.”

And now come the Asian Carp . . . what hath we wrought?




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Lansing: the Industrial Side of the Grand

Tom writes . . . 

tom w mich pricess

The paddle wheeler Michigan Princess and Tom at Grand River Park

September 11, 2017, sixteen years after 9-11 – Lansing, Michigan

My brother Joe waxes wonderfully poetic – see his recent entry featuring Langston Hughes and Van Morrison – so it is my job, I suppose, to tell you about our actual paddling progress today.

We paddled through the city of Lansing, Michigan, our state capital, right in the center of the lower part of our state, from Grand River Park to the Lansing Northern Dam.

On the way, we had to stop, and drag our boat around Moore’s Dam. Two dams in the small city of Lansing. Two too many dams. Get rid of them, we say. Please let the Grand River flow.

power station on the grand

The Eckert Power Station at Moore’s Dam, just before a too-long portage.

Anyway, today, Joe told me about twenty-five times that this was NOT the prettiest river stretch we have seen. Dare I say, “duh?” We stopped at the first big dam for lunch. And, we ate great sopresseta sandwiches on French bread, sitting across the river from a power plant. This power plant had invasive plant growth all over it, and it had a big gap in its wall. Not a pretty river-side vista.

Continuing down river, Lansing has at least two huge parking structures right on its river banks. Huge ugly parking structures are not the best use of potentially lovely littoral real estate. Yikes.

A couple nice riverside developments give us some hope, though. I hope Joe will post a photo of the Lansing Market, which is retail plus residential, with nifty decoration. And, Lansing has a medium-size River Walk, on the right bank (editor’s note: walkers were observed on both sides of the river). Lansing is making an effort.

I just hate complimenting Joe, but he said another interesting thing: Today was the first day, in all our twenty or thirty days on the river, that we saw no herons. If you have read us, you know that we love the herons that guide us down the river, every day except today. We saw none. No herons. We missed them. We hope they will come back, farther downstream.

Joe adds . . . 

Good things Lansing is doing with its riverfront: good access to the river for watercraft of all kinds at Grand River Park; the river walk trail/walking paths on both sides of the river; some nice looking art and residential development not far upstream from Old Town.

new bldgs public art

Jazzy new buildings going up just upstream from Old Town, riverfront sculpture far left.

Where Lansing could do better: Portaging around Moore’s Dam is damn difficult. Take-out is decent on the upstream side but put-in is terrible on the downstream side. Yes, I know the water is low right now but more could be done to encourage through-paddling. And would it kill someone to clean the brush off the power station? Long-term: get the parking lots and the power stations off the river.

parking on the grand

There’s got to be a better use for prime riverfront real estate

Contact Us: Leave a comment in the space provided here or send us email: tom@lengthofthegrand.com; joe@lengthofthegrand.com .

Join Us on the River: BYOK/C (bring your own kayak/canoe)

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On Langston Hughes, Van Morrison and Writing

Joe Writes . . .

River’s gonna take you where it wants you to go:
can’t tell the wind not to howl or the river not to flow.

I have been thinking of writing a piece on the river in art – literature, music, visual arts –  but the topic is simply too huge to tackle right now. One day I will take that on, but today I will touch on the potential of youth and the tenacity of the creative soul once youth is no longer a factor. Oh, and the writing process, too.

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes as a young man

I have a friend who would not allow younger colleagues to use their age as a bar to accomplishment. “George Washington was commanding troops in battle when he was 19,” my friend would say, and so George Washington was, in the French-Indian Wars. When I see my friend again I’ll tell him about Langston Hughes writing the poem ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ at the age of 17; perhaps my friend will want to add the story to his inspiring tales of youthful accomplishment.

In his autobiography Hughes wrote that ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ came to him quickly as he crossed a bridge over the Mississippi while traveling on a train. “No doubt I changed a few words the next day, or crossed out a line or two. But there are seldom many changes in my poems, once they’re down,” Hughes wrote in his autobiography.

Thank God that Hughes did not write his magnificent poem under the guidance of virtually every writing instructor in the world. The process advocated by these instructors is to vomit out a first draft – it doesn’t matter what you vomit, just so long as you puke up something – then cutting, rewriting and editing your work forever and ever until you are absolutely exhausted, entirely discouraged, and the finished piece bears little resemblance to the initial inspiration.

I am not opposed to the idea of rewriting – and doing so over and over and over again – but I wonder how many brilliant written moments have been discarded forever under the false notion that nothing good is written in a first draft. Abe Lincoln didn’t do badly with his one draft of the Gettysburg Address; did he? I guess the trick is in learning to recognize what is true inspiration and what is garbage. (And lest you think I don’t revise and rewrite, WordPress tells me I have made 26 revisions to this post.)

Here’s  Langston Hughes’s first draft – almost, at least – on rivers and so much more.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

While we marvel at 17-year-old Langston Hughes, let’s consider that age is no bar to accomplishment at the other end of the spectrum, either. Van Morrison turned 72 this year, and his recent album includes some beautiful river music.

Contact Us: Joe@lengthofthegrand.com; Tom@lengthofthegrand.com

Join Us: BYOC/K (bring your own canoe/kayak). Our next trip will be from Grand River Park in Lansing to the dam/fishladder downtown, after which we plan to close out the season by backtracking to a few spots we skipped last year in Jackson County.

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