August 7, 2016: Starting Down the Grand


Joe and I met at a very nice place, Vandercook Lake, south of Jackson, Michigan. And then we drove to a place that is not really even a place, just a little bridge on a road called Loomis Road, to put our boat into the river. There was a spot to park the truck, and a way to drag the boat down to the water. We left a note on the truck’s dashboard: “Paddling. Back soon. Sat. Aug. 6.” Locked the truck and set off.

The river (“river”) is about twenty feet (six meters) wide at this point. And about eight inches deep, maybe a foot deep. (That is about 30 centimeters.) The river bottom is sandy, partly. The river banks are sticky black mucky mud. One can (I did) step on the black muck and have one’s (my) foot sink deeper into the muck than the river is deep.

The river banks have trees, maple, oak, a few pines, on both sides, filtering the sunshine and the breeze. A Great Blue Heron flew ahead of us downriver. We saw a Kingfisher, Redwing Blackbirds, swallows catching bugs, maybe an Eagle, and Hawks. One of the soaring hawks had prey in its talons, some not-very-small mammal. Bigger than a chipmunk or a mouse, smaller than a raccoon or skunk, not a squirrel, because no long tail. We heard high-pitched screeching from above. Thought it might be the not-yet-dead mammal. But realized it was the hawk. Hawks have rather disappointing voices. Squeaky, not commanding.

We saw lovely yellow and black Tiger Swallowtail butterflies. They seem to like to land on the river bank mud in groups of three.

We encountered many herds or flocks of waterbugs, bugs that walked on the water. I started calling them Dolphin Bugs, because they ran ahead of our bow when we paddled through them, sort of like dolphins do, when they play at the bows of boats at sea.

This stretch of the Grand River is the Kingdom of Dragonflies. Honestly, at least a dozen different types and sizes of Dragonflies. One lovely type with emerald green body and black wings caught my fancy. Turtles as well. No big Snappers. Just small turtles that plopped into the water when we approached.

The river banks have trees. Some of the trees have fallen down across the river. Some of the fallen trees are high enough off the river that we could hunker down and paddle under them. But, three times, we had to get out of the canoe, clamber over the fallen trees, and pull the canoe itself over.

Other times, maybe about eight times, we had to get out of the canoe, and pull it through shallow water stretches. When we both sit in the canoe, it only needs about six inches of water depth, but there were times when the water was shallower.

Lovely sunny day, wild country around us, met a few kayak paddlers, heading upstream, saw very few houses along the way. The breeze was in our faces when we got to Vandercook Lake. Had to paddle into the breeze for the last quarter mile. No big deal.

We had black mud all over us and in the boat at the end. No big deal. We washed out the boat and took a dip. Next leg goes north from Vandercook.


On August 6 we made our second journey in Jackson County, putting in at the point where Loomis Rd crosses the Grand in Liberty Township and paddling to Vandercook Lake in Summit Township.  We covered about 6 miles in 4.5 hours.

It was a spectacular summer day but seasonal shallow water – exacerbated this year, I suspect, by drought conditions – and trees which had fallen into and across the the river resulted in less-than-ideal canoeing conditions.  The Grand is narrow here, seeming all the more so to such as us who grew up watching Great Lakes freighters and big cabin cruisers ply the river’s mouth in Grand Haven.  Here the river is 15 – 20 feet wide for much of our trip; a good high school long jumper could sail over the river in many spots if he or she had solid footing for the take-off.

On three occasions we had to get out of the canoe and lift/pull it over trees that had fallen across the width of the river, completely blocking our progress.  There were three or four other spots where less-determined voyagers would have done so again but we sat on the floor of the Billie V. and pulled her through the tangle of branches until we emerged on the other side.  On at least a dozen occasions we bottomed out in the shallow water and one or both of us got out and pulled – sort of like a mule on the banks of the Erie Canal, if I remember my elementary school history lessons correctly – until we found water deep enough to paddle in again.  The water was refreshing – 70 degrees, perhaps a bit warmer – and had we encountered a deep swimming hole it would have made for perfect swimming.

Tom and I discussed, among other things, which rock and roll songs we thought achieved true greatness, which deserved to be at the very top of the pantheon.  Tom says “Layla” is number one; a worthy choice.  I advocated for “Like A Rolling Stone.”  We both agreed that the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” deserved the no. 10 rating I recall from some influential top-100 list a few years back and also agreed that “Satisfaction”, while an important song, has no business being ranked at no. 1 as it so often is.

For the umpteenth time I tried to convince him that “MacArthur’s Park” – written by Jimmy Webb, as recorded by Richard Harris – is, in fact, a great song and not the Worst. Song. Ever. as so many maintain.  Tom wouldn’t buy into greatness but he understands my passion for the song.  I don’t know why I loved that song as much as I did when it was released in 1968; I must have been a very dramatic 13-year-old.

I asked Tom if he could think of any metaphysical aspect (concerned with abstract thought or subjects, as existence, causality, or truth. concerned with first principles and ultimate grounds, as being, time, or substance) of our time on the river this day, anything approaching the profound.  He pointed out that while we were just minutes from civilization we were also quite alone, and that we hadn’t had to work all that hard to escape the hurly burly.  The benefits of and reasons for wanting to escape the hurly burly (a Middle English term we still recognize and use) vary from person to person.  For me, on this day, it meant that I could choose to sing “MacArthur’s Park” aloud without needing to explain myself or apologize.  That freedom can be applied to just about anything – not just singing out loud – and there’s certainly value in that.

Later in the weekend one of my sons – Arkansas son, as opposed to California son -called.  He asked why we had decided to undertake this task of canoeing the length of the Grand River.  Because we can?  Because it’s there?  Because we grew up with the Grand?  Because it’s an adventure at a stage of our lives when adventure is not so common?  Because it’s an escape from the hurly burly?  Because it’s an affordable trip and we can’t afford a European vacation right now?  All of these and more, I suspect; I’ll have to work on this.

(We are grateful to the Grand River Environmental Action Team for the work they do on the river and for the trips they suggest; the route we took this day is trip no. 5 of the 11 trips laid out by here:

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