We’re Back . . . Kind Of

Joe Writes . . .

Yes, we are still alive. No, we did not travel the Grand River in 2019. Yes, we will complete our journey in 2020.

This was not a year for canoeing. I have been busy for at least a year, remodeling one house and preparing another for sale. My wife and I love our new home – located just outside of Dexter, west of Ann Arbor – but we worked like fiends for a long time to make it habitable. Literally. The house was in rough shape. We moved in to our new home early in the summer while the renovation was in full swing and got our condo on the market in August. I’ve included ‘before and after’ pics of the porch at the main entrance of the new house, below. This has become my favorite spot for a sarsaparilla (that’s the correct spelling, I looked it up) before dinner.

My real estate business was slow this year so I took a part-time job at Lowe’s selling appliances. This turned out to be a blessing in that one of the benefits of working at Lowe’s is an employee discount, which I used frequently for renovating the new house and for getting the condo ready to sell. Long story short, I worked three jobs in 2019 – remodeling the house, real estate and Lowe’s – and that didn’t leave much time for canoeing. But I missed it, that’s for sure.

Tom has been busy as well, and while he probably had more time available than I early in the year he is now recovering from surgery on a broken ankle, for crying out loud! He slipped on some ice in that early-November snow storm and now he’s holed up in his apartment, waiting for doctors give him the all-clear to put weight on his ankle again. I’ve urged Tom to work diligently at his rehab so that we can be on the river once the spring surge subsides.

We met up, spouses in tow and Tom in a wheelchair, for Thanksgiving dinner on the Grand River at The English Inn outside of Eaton Rapids, a spot we learned of while paddling that section of the river. It is a beautiful setting and the Thanksgiving menu was wonderful.

On top of all those things, there are people we love with health problems and various other concerns which have consumed our time and thoughts this year. The result, sadly, has been that we did not get out on the river. But we missed it, and we will.

With no news to report from the river until paddling season begins, I plan to use this space to write about other things for the next few months and will urge Tom to do the same. Stay tuned.

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Thanks for visiting our blog. Feel free to leave a comment and we’ll get back to you as necessary. Happy New Year!

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To Dredge or Not to Dredge: What’s Best for the River?

Joe Writes . . . 

diogenesDiogenes, call off your search. An honest man has been found. He’s Spring Lake Township Supervisor John Nash, who opposes a proposal to dredge a channel in the Grand River from Grand Rapids to Spring Lake  because, “. . . it’s not the best thing for the river.”

The purpose of the proposed channel is to allow larger power boats to traverse the river from Grand Rapids to Lake Michigan. I wrote briefly on the proposal in October, and since that time my ambivalence has evolved into opposition. A well-written MLive story containing Mr. Nash’s quote and other information can be found here; writer Brian McVicker is to be commended for a thorough and balanced piece.

The Grand will never return to its pristine original state, but that doesn’t keep me up at night. I love watching the freighters split the piers in Grand Haven, an activity made possible only because, long ago, humans intervened and have maintained that interference for more than a century. Similarly, I don’t like dams on the Grand and am heartened by the recent trend to remove them, but I like the fact that the 6th St dam in Grand Rapids prevents lampreys from getting any further up the river. Weighing the pros and cons of human intervention in nature is not always a simple task.

Our first obligation, however, should be to do no further harm to the Grand while she slowly continues to recover from centuries of neglect and active degradation.

Local politicians and Chamber of Commerce-types often strike at the promise of economic development or increased tourism like a hungry bass hitting a Hula Popper on one of the Grand’s peaceful bayous. Before striking the lure, however, we ought to slow down and examine the costs. In the case of dredging the Grand those costs might include stirring up contaminants that have been buried for decades or destroying little-understood fish and wildlife habitats.

Proponents point to the prospect of economic development and increased tourism, dangling visions of new marinas and riverside restaurants springing up along the banks of the proposed channel. We even have the mayor of one community along the proposed channel – Steve Maas of Grandville – acting as an advisor to the developer of the project, leaving me to wonder how he can both judge the proposal on its merits and act as an advisor to the developer at the same time.

So the Spring Lake Township Supervisor is correct; the focus should be on the river. Not on what’s best for business. Not on what will create jobs or expand the local tax base. The focus should be on the river.

What’s the best way to make the Grand accessible and enjoyable to the citizens of Michigan in an environmentally-responsible, cost-efficient manner? In January I also wrote about great improvements along the Grand in the form of newly-opened Ottawa Sands County Park. Ottawa Sands allows residents to increase their enjoyment and use of the Grand River without increasing the demand on the river’s resources, a far better path forward than dredging a potentially-disastrous channel.

So I’ll sign off now the same way I often do, by urging readers to take the river’s side and  keep in mind that Industry and Big Agriculture have plenty of friends in high places already.

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Thank you for visiting our site. If you enjoyed our blog, please share it with a friend or on social media. Links to this blog are always posted at Length of the Grand on Facebook; please follow us there as well. You may leave comments here or contact us as follows: joe@lengthofthegrand.com (Joe Neely); and/or, tom@lengthofthegrand.com (Tom Neely). We look forward to resuming our paddling – likely in June, Joe and his wife are moving in May – and finishing our quest to paddle the entire length of the Grand by mid-summer.






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A Blue Heron Poem

One day after the last leaf landed,
One before the first flake fell, a
Slate blue
Great Blue
Heron flew
Straight through, on his
Way to his
Mate who
Already waded a tropical river, where
Trees leave their leaves on, and
Birds never shiver.
                                    – Tom Neely, 1994
Editor’s note: Brother Tom sent me this wonderful poem and acted as if I must have seen it before. To the best of my knowledge I had not. He said he wrote it after watching a heron flying southwards over Kent County’s Lincoln Lake. We honor and are inspired by herons, who lead us down the river on our quest to paddle the length of the Grand. As the end of winter approaches I, too, long for that place where “trees leave their leaves on, and birds never shiver.”
tom ionia saranac

The poet pauses in his journey.

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Our Perfect-Sized Adventure

March 3, 2019

Joe Writes . . . 

Our adventure is just about the perfect size for me. I decided this after attending the Quiet Water Symposium in East Lansing yesterday.

At the symposium I met a nice couple who paddled from the headwaters of their local river in Ohio, across Indiana into the Ohio River, and from there down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. I talked with another man who was the fourth person to hike the entire length of the North Country Scenic Trail, 4600 miles from BFE North Dakota to BFE Vermont. I listened to a presentation from a guy who was about my age but a lot braver. He guides river trips and survives run-ins with grizzly bears in the far northern wilderness . . . that’s far northern as in above the Arctic Circle, not as in Traverse City Cherry Festival. These are magnificent adventures worthy of the books they all wrote and the rapt attention of the audiences they addressed at the QWS.

paddling edna thru and back

Our friend Dave was also at the QWS. He attended a talk on ‘pushing the boundaries of solo camping’ and for some reason thought I, too, might be interested in that topic. Did I mention that Dave, like the river guide, is also braver than I am? The speaker was talking about wilderness water purification systems when I entered the room, and that’s a boundary I don’t care to push. I’m not drinking Grand River water unless it has been treated 10-ways-to-Sunday by someone I can sue for millions of dollars if I get sick.

So here we are, my brother and I, a couple of old codgers if ever there were such a thing. We are paddling the length of Michigan’s longest river and taking our time about it. We hope to finish this summer but if something comes up, well, whatcha’ gonna do? There’s always next year.

Paddle the mighty Mississippi? Hike and hike and hike the North Country Trail? Stare down grizzlies and stretch the boundaries of wilderness camping? No thanks. I’m 64 years old and have a bum knee which would probably improve if I lost the weight I’ve regained recently. I wake up two or three times a night to use the bathroom and take Aleve most days to keep my arthritis in check.

Set aside the physical difficulties and the fact remains that these trips would take me away from home for extended periods. I would miss my wife, my grandkids, farmers market produce and free-range eggs. And naps. I love an occasional nap.

My brother and I don’t camp, eat dehydrated food, have near-misses with dangerous wildlife or get devoured by mosquitos and blackflies. We don’t walk until our blistered toes are bleeding, but one of us almost always gets a blister on the first day of paddling season – right between the thumb and index finger – and we carry a first aid kit because we might cut ourselves while opening a can of peaches at lunch.

We claim the blue heron as our spirit guide, marvel at bald eagles near Portland, keep track of the different-colored dragon flies we encounter and sing our favorite songs aloud. Most importantly, we paddle the river of our youth with the wisdom of our age.

We just putz along, but with maturity comes the realization that putzing along can be a wise and entirely satisfying course of action.

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 Thank you for visiting our blog. If you enjoy your visit, please tell a friend. Our blog entries are always linked to our Facebook page at Length Of The Grand please share our blog there as well. You may contact us by leaving a message here or by email: joe@lengthofthegrand.com or tom@lengthofthegrand.com .

Always take the river’s side: Industry and Big Agriculture have plenty of friends in high places.

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Our Mother Stole Relish Packets

Tom Writes . . . 

More About Our Beloved Mother, Who Died

 She used to steal stuff. She went through a phase, maybe twenty or fifteen years ago, when she used to grab packets of condiments from every restaurant. Packets of salt, pepper, relish, mayonnaise, ketchup, sugar, butter, crackers, coffee creamer, Arby’s sauce… whatever she could get. She carried them around in her purse. She thought she was very clever to keep this stash.

I do not know why she did it. Just in case? In case of nuclear attack, she would have Heinz ketchup and non-dairy creamer?

I never saw her use any of this stuff. She and I made sandwiches over the years, but she never pulled out mayonnaise or pepper from her purse for our sandwiches.

When she died last year there were no condiments, no packets of any kind of food left in her purse. It was a green leather purse. I went through it myself, after she died. I wonder whether she might have eaten all those packets, licked them all up, grinning, late at night, when nobody was around, during her final years. Lord knows. Or, maybe she donated them to charity.

I am sure the Lord forgives this sort of thing. Not guilty by reason of absurdity.



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New Year’s Day on the Grand

Joe Writes . . . 

Tom and I began the year on the Grand River: not paddling, but hiking. Along with our spouses, we spent New Year’s Eve at our sister’s home in Ferrysburg on Grand Haven’s North Shore. The next morning we hiked in Ottawa Sands Park, a beautiful park recently opened to the public on land we used to explore and build forts on as kids.


L to R: the Neely kids (Tom, Joe, Amy) and their spouses (Brian, Linda, Cynthia). Joe and Linda’s dogs, Casey and Daisy, were camera-shy this day.

The park is wonderful. It features an 80-acre lake which is – so far, at least – free of invasive species. There are 5,585 of frontage on the Grand River – more than a mile – now available to the public as a result of this park opening, with opportunities to connect with other park trails and dune preserves in the future.

Enjoy my photos, and schedule your own trip to the park soon.


And finally, it was an unexpected pleasure to run into lifelong friend Bud Ainsworth and have him join us on our hike. Bud lives nearby.


L to R: Tom, Joe, Bud . . . Casey a bit more cooperative in this pic.

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Take the river’s side: Industry and Big Agriculture have plenty of friends in high places already. If you enjoy our blog please tell a friend and share it on social media. Contact us by leaving a message here or by email: joe@lengthofthegrand.com or tom@lengthofthegrand.com. We look forward to resuming our quest to paddle the entire river in the Spring. Our journey so far has taken us from the river’s source to Ada, just shy of Grand Rapids.

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An Angelic Christmas, Circa 1932

Our mother died in June of this year, a few months short of her 93rd birthday. I loved her deeply – we all did, her entire family – but I haven’t grieved her much. Not yet. She was in so much pain and so confused that it was better she continue her journey in some other realm. In recent weeks, when I slow down and let the quiet surround me for a few moments, I am reminded of conversations with her during Christmases past. Mom loved Christmas.  I wish I could call her today, but I would want it to be at least five years before she died. I want to talk with her back before the ghosts of those she had loved flitted into and out of every conversation. They were not ghosts at all for her; they were very real. This is an excerpt from her writings, describing a Christmas memory from her childhood. Cassie grew up just a few blocks from the Grand River, on Lafayette in the Creston neighborhood of Grand Rapids.

Catherine Verschoor Neely McNabb Writes . . . 

I do not know how old I was that year I saw and heard the Christmas angels – seven, christmas-wreath7eight or even nine. It was early on Christmas morning, before anyone was stirring. I became conscious of the presence of angels moving up and down a staircase above the foot of my bed. There was singing, a bubbly crystal-clear sound, and a swaying rhythm. It gave me a sense of profound comfort, and a feeling that all was perfect in my world just then.

Later when we were having breakfast around the tree and opening our presents I sort of explored the subject to see if anyone else in the house saw or heard the angels. Nobody picked up on my hints or gave me a lead-in on the subject of angels so I kept it always to myself. I really did not want to expose my wonder-vision to anybody else by actually talking about it, especially if no one else had the experience. To this day I can recall the feeling I had. Every Christmas morning I still hug it to my heart and savor it privately. I do not think it was the dream of an over-excited child. I think there really were angels in my bedroom that Christmas morning.

One other time in my life I have had this feeling of the nearness of a heavenly presence. That time I felt it was God who was near me when our second son, Joey, was baptized at Central Reformed Church in Grand Rapids. Ralph and I were standing in the pew, Joey in my arms wrapped in an embroidered yellowed wool blanket that had been around my father when he was baptized in the same church. Tommy, our first-born, was standing on the pew before us. All at once I felt a lift to my heart, a suffusion of joy, and I knew God was there with us.

That was 40 years ago. That feeling or vision has never reoccurred, but it is vivid and still real. Perhaps an opening into another world.



Happy Holidays from the intrepid Grand River explorers, Joe and Tom Neely; our journey will resume soon. 

Contact us by leaving a comment here or by email: joe@lengthofthegrand.com or tom@lengthofthegrand.com.

We always take the river’s side: Industry and Big Agriculture have plenty of friends already.

Beautiful song by Van Morrison here, beautiful winter river scenes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iAYuG1BlBmE&start_radio=1&list=RDMMiAYuG1BlBmE


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