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One day after the last leaf landed,
One before the first flake fell, a
Straight through, on his
Way to his
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.”
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.
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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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.
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.
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.
* * *
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: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
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, eight 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: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
(What better time to contemplate gratitude than the week of Thanksgiving? This was written by our sister, Amy Wisner. It was originally posted on www.caringbridge.org, where Amy keeps everyone informed on her husband Brian’s progress as he battles cancer. This piece reminds us that we don’t need to make heroic efforts in order to be a blessing to someone who is in need; as Amy so eloquently explains, sometimes it’s the little things that matter. God Bless us all.)
Amy Writes . . .
We have an incredible group of friends and a marvelously supportive family. This is not a surprise to me. I am well aware that we never would have made it through this without your help, your meals, your chauffer services, your work in gardens and with snow fences, your love & companionship. I thank you all and am filled with gratitude for each and every one of you.
But today, I want to talk about the other people, the other times, the things I never expected.
There is our 80 year old neighbor (frankly, he has the reputation of being more than a bit grouchy) who arrives weekly on our doorstep with a Wendy’s Frosty in his hand. He heard Brian needed to gain weight & who doesn’t like a Frosty? His sons have come over to clean our gutters, wrap up our hoses, and offer to help with the snow fences (other friends beat them to that task.) They say their dad sent them over, but really, they are just good guys who saw a need. One of them stops by whenever he is visiting his dad, just to say howdy.
There is Mary Ellen, my dear friend’s sister. We have only met her a couple of times. She sent us a check and told us to do something nice for ourselves. We got side by side pedicures. You know the only way I would ever get Wizzie to do something like that was if it was on someone else’s dime.
There is Carol, the same friend’s employer, she is a caterer. She has arrived with complete meals staged as if we had hired her – beautiful to look at and wonderful to eat!
There are the Lunch Ladies, with whom I work, they offer hugs and prayers and good advice. When everything Brian ate tasted like metal, it was a couple of Lunch Ladies who told us to use plastic silverware. They were the ones who pushed mashed potatoes (a life-giving elixir, if ever there was one.) It amazes me how many of them have had cancer of some form or another & they are proof that life goes on. They have let me UNLOAD on them & then they made me laugh like a fool! As the poster in the kitchen says: “Super heroes don’t wear capes, they wear aprons.”
There are the people I barely know, in town and at work, who have sent cards & e-mails. They are the ones who burst into tears when I tell them it looks we have an “all clear”.
There are store clerks who come around the counter to hug me when, in answer to their well wishes, I explain why we were having an especially wonderful Thanksgiving this year.
There is my old co-worker (meaning we used to work together, not meaning she is old) who brought over the most incredible Mexican Feast to celebrate “No More Chemo!” She even included tequila spiked bubbly water for me.
There is Brian’s high school & college buddy – Robo. He wished he lived nearby so he & his wife could make us dinner. Instead, they sent us a huge box of delicious treats from Colorado (it included a green chile sauce that was fabulous on the enchiladas in the Mexican Feast.)
There are my brother’s children, step-children, grandchildren & step-grandchildren who have sent cards, edible arrangements & a Zingerman’s gift card for when we were in Ann Arbor. We never expected any of it & it made us feel surrounded by love.
There are my children’s friends, not only have they supported and helped my children through this, they have visited us and sent cards and offered help. I still call them “kids” but actually they have grown up into damn fine adults.
And there are all the people we know just a little, or knew in the past but with whom we had lost touch:
- Ruth, a college friend of mine, & Laurie, who introduced me to Brian. It has been decades since I have seen either one of them, but they send love & well wishes frequently via this website & Facebook. Old friends are the best friends.
- Dan & Daryl who arrived at our house as soon as they got back from a trip, to help fix a window & take out the air-conditioner. They could have told me to call a handy man, instead they brought their tools.
- Barb, my god-sister. We had hardly seen each other for 40 years (and we didn’t see that much of each other before that.) She has stepped up in a HUGE way. She sat with my mother in the hospital and visited her in “The Home”. Mom loved those visits & it gave my brother & me a break. She visits us, always bringing some wonderful treat. She calls and checks in. She is available anytime we need a hand. Most importantly, she makes me remember my past and laugh! I am so grateful to have that connection re-energized.
- Mary G – a friend from Worship Center days – Mary lost her beloved husband just a year ago. She has held me in her heart, gently urged me in the right direction, and provided care I didn’t even realize I needed (at a time when I should be caring for her.)
I know there are dozens more, I will remember them as soon as I post this. I am moved to tears by the kindness of strangers. The world is a good place. Happy Thanksgiving to you all.
# # #
November 3, 2018
Joe Writes . . .
Last night there was a great event – Ignite Ann Arbor 11 – at the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library. My speech didn’t go as planned but I am grateful. I am grateful that my brother drove all the way from Grand Rapids and that a great childhood friend came from Chelsea. I am grateful that six friends from Westminster Presbyterian Church surprised me by attending. I am grateful to my wife who came straight from work and therefore didn’t really get dinner last night. I am grateful to my stepdaughter Aimee and son-in-law Sean and, finally, to grandchildren Peter and Anna who sat through talks that held absolutely no interest for them just so they could hear Boppa’s talk. Here is the text of the speech I wanted to give.
My mother was almost 93 when she died in June. She was a poster child for late-in-life
risk-taking and growth. Time and time again she flourished by breaking out of her comfort zone and accepting the risk of whatever might be around the next corner. By way of example, After my father died money was tight so she decided to turn her home on Lake Michigan into a bed and breakfast. I thought the B & B was a terrible idea but she didn’t listen to me. She made money, new friends and was able to keep her house. A decade or so later she married her high school sweetheart and moved to the Pacific NW, leaving her comfort zone 2500 miles behind.
My brother Tom and I are nearing the end of a quest to paddle the length of the Grand River. The Grand is Michigan’s longest river. It starts south of Jackson and runs through Lansing and Grand Rapids before emptying into Lake Michigan at Grand Haven 262 miles later. I’m no outdoorsman and this trip has taken me out of my comfort zone . Before we started I had never spent more than 20 minutes in a canoe in my life, and that was 50 years ago at summer camp.
The idea for this trip had been rambling around in my head for a long time but I finally pulled the trigger when I overheard my wife making plans for a trip to Italy with her daughters. My nose was out of joint because I wasn’t included but when I said as much my wife reminded me that I had been sober for 4 years and this trip was going to involve time spent in vineyards, as a trip to Italy should for anyone without a drinking problem. In some sort of effort to save face I announced, “Fine, but I’m going to canoe the length of the Grand River!” She thought that was a fair trade and here we are.
Now . . . I spent every summer of my youth at our family home on Lake Michigan in Grand Haven, just a mile north of where the Grand empties into the Big Lake. The river called to me every day and it would have been a rare day that I didn’t walk down the beach to the pier to marvel at the giant lake freighters steaming into the river, or to see how the perch were biting.
Other memories of the Grand haunt me pleasantly as well. Memories of hiking through the dunes to a rope swing that dropped us into a deep spot in the river, memories of showing off for local girls on the banks of the river while the waters of the Grand Haven Musical Fountain swayed and shimmered in the background.
So I knew the Grand but only its last mile or two and I held onto my dream of exploring its entire length. Even then, it almost didn’t happen. Life gets in the way. As Harry Chapin explained, there are always bills to pay and planes to catch.
The decision made, however, there was never any question that my brother would join me. He alone understood that this quest was our equivalent of Huck and Jim’s journey down the Mississippi, of Mr. Stanley tracking down Dr. Livingstone. This was planting our flag at the North Pole. So . . . we bought a used canoe and named her the Billie V in honor of our grandmother. We started our quest at the river’s source and in 3 paddling seasons have made it to Ada, just shy of Grand Rapids. We would have finished this year were it not for high water in the early Spring and our mother’s death but, God willing, we’ll reach the Big Lake early next summer.
So how is my life better as a result of breaking out of my comfort zone and exploring the Grand?
- To start, my brother and I haven’t always liked each other as much as we do now. The river has been a place to heal, to let bygones be bygones. We have grieved our mother’s drawn out and painful death and shared our thoughts on subjects that would likely never have been broached without this time together.
- We’ve created an outlet for our writing and creativity at lengthofthegrand.com.
- I’m always happy on the river, and discovering a new source of happiness is a wonderful gift at any age.
- We’ve re-discovered the gift of solitude. Paddle 10 minutes downstream from Lansing’s bustling Old Town and you’ll find yourself all alone and surrounded by green.
- The Great Blue Heron has become our spirit guide and we’ve seen stretches of the river where Bald eagles are more plentiful than blue jays.
- In this time of dismal political debate we elevate our spirits by reciting poetry and singing aloud the great songs of our youth. I still can’t convince Tom that McArthur Park is a great song – with its sweet green icing flowing down – but I’ll never stop trying.
So now I’ll ask you: what is your Grand River? What real or metaphorical mountain have you dreamed of climbing, what sea sail across? More importantly: What’s stopping you?
Wait: I think I hear my mother calling!! She says that you – all of you – need to get out of your comfort zone and start paddling. You never know what might be around the next bend.
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Thank you for visiting our blog; if you like it, please share it with a friend. You can contact us by leaving a comment here or by email: Joe@lengthofthegrand.com (Joe Neely) or Tom@lengthofthegrand.com (Tom Neely). You will also find us on Facebook.
I always take the river’s side . . . Industry and Big Agriculture have friends in high places already.