The Speech I Meant to Give

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

mom at 92 birthday

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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 Grand_River_(Michigan)_map.svgthe 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.

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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 Billie V flag picdown 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.

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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.

Thank You!

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I always take the river’s side . . . Industry and Big Agriculture have friends in high places already.

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The Good, the Bad and the Uncertain on the Grand

Joe Writes . . . 

Forgive us both for not writing of late. There has been a lot going on in our lives, and with winter approaching I am turning my attention to renovating a house near Dexter. Once finished my wife and I will put our current home on the market and move. There is still a chance Tom and I will get out on the river again this year, but only if weather and circumstance cooperate. We left off in Ada, and will finish our paddle of the Grand next summer.

That being said, I will be talking about our journey down the Grand at the Ignite Ann Arbor 11 event. This will take place on Friday evening, November 2, at the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library. My talk will focus on the theme of getting out of one’s comfort zone as illustrated by our quest. Please introduce yourself if you’re there, I’d love to meet you.

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Let the renovation begin! This was Linda’s dad’s house; needs a lot of work but has great bones.

The Good

Ottawa Sands, a 353-acre preserve of dunes which includes more than a mile of Grand River frontage and a pristine 80-acre lake is now open to the public in Ferrysburg, near Grand Haven. These are the dunes I hiked as a boy. Somewhere back there is a tree with JN + PS carved into its trunk at 12-year-old boy’s carving level, although I suppose it has  moved upward in the ensuing 50 years . I can’t wait to explore . . . for the first time in decades. Maybe Billie Koski and I can hike from North Shore Rd. to the Sag for some bass fishing as in days of old.

Upstream from the new preserve in Kent County a new kayak launch was opened in Grandville recently. Getting Michigan residents out on their rivers is a good thing.

The Bad

PFAS being found throughout the Grand’s watershed . . . in the Rogue and in the waters of Lake Michigan near Grand Haven. What hath we wrought?

The Uncertain

There is a plan afoot to make the Grand River navigable to larger pleasure boats from Grand Rapids to Lake Michigan. This would require dredging a 50-foot wide, 7-foot deep channel for 23 miles.

On the one hand I’m in favor of encouraging recreational use of our rivers in Michigan, and in this case that includes power boats. On the other hand, what will such dredging do to the fish and wildlife? What about pollutants which are currently buried? Will dredging release them once again into the Grand, from whence they can flow into the Big Lake and poison the entire region?

I’m not sure how to think about this yet. I lean towards returning the river, incrementally,  towards its “natural” state whenever possible – get rid of the dams and let ‘er flow the way God intended – but I’ll keep an open mind for now.

As always . . . 

I’ll take the river’s side. Industry and Big Agriculture have plenty of powerful friends in high places.

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Poetry on the Grand River

Not just any old conversation will do . . .

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An Inkling of Home

September 7 and 8, 2018 – Saranac to Ada, Michigan  

Tom Writes . . . 

Two lovely days on the Grand River. Recent rains have given us a strong current, in our direction. The Lords of the Winds have helped us, with winds at our backs, swift passages.

We are deep within West Michigan now. We are in Kent County, and beyond Kent County, we only have one more county to paddle through. That will be Ottawa County. Ottawa County will take us to our goal:  The mouth of the Grand River, Lake Michigan, Grand Haven, our family home.

Before this, we already have paddled through nine different counties. We found joy in all nine (Please read back in our blog), but our real joy will be in our goal, when we get home.

Joe already has posted great photos of mighty eagles from this stretch of our trip. I must tell you about a tiny eagle. It landed on my right elbow. A handsome dragonfly, black with large green eyes and light green decorations on its body and tail. It stayed on my elbow for about five minutes, even while I paddled. Then it flew away, fine and free.

Fly fine and free, all my friends!

dragonfly

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Saranac to Lowell in Pictures

DSC_1229September 7, 2018

Water Temperature 70 F, Air Temperature 68 F

Joe Writes . . . 

For now I will simply post some photos from a great day on the river. I expect Tom will take up the slack and send me a written entry soon. The coolest thing was the two eagles in a tree; they allowed us to float right underneath their perch without spooking. Enjoy!

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A typical view from our canoe, here near to our put-in at Saranac.

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A comfy spot to watch the river flow; perhaps we’ll come back here in the next life.

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We were glad of the company of our spirit guide this day.

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I always take the river’s side; Industry and Big Agriculture have plenty of friends already. Thank you for visiting our blog, please share it with a friend. You may contact us by leaving a comment here or via email: joe@lenthofthegrand.com (Joe Neely) or tom@lengthofthegrand.com (Tom Neely). 

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The Old Men and the River

August 16, 2018 – Ionia to Saranac, Michigan, 10 Miles

3.5 hours including lunch break

Tom Writes . . . 

CANOE and GRACEFUL never go together at our age.

My brother Joe and I are cute as can be, and strong. No ravages of age yet, no disabilities, still studly. Canoeing is easy for us. Our shoulders are strong; our hearts and lungs can take it.

 

Still studly, indeed. Notice how Tom takes after a young Walt Whitman here. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

However, getting into and out of our canoe is a challenge, sometimes. Think about it: Canoe seats are less than a foot high, so sitting on them is a low squat situation. And, canoes move around on the water. No stable platform ever, getting in or getting out.

Hours in a canoe: One’s legs are stretched out ahead, motionless. It is not like driving a car for the same number of hours. In a car, one uses the legs, the feet, for pedals, but in a canoe, no pedals, no leg or foot activity.

So, a couple days ago, at the end of our paddle, getting out of the canoe, I ended up on my knees in the water, because I could not exit gracefully. Joe almost laughed. (Editor’s Note: I did not.) And then, I walked funny, on nearly-paralyzed legs for a good half hour.

Brother Joe has this line, when stuff such as this happens. He says, “That’s why we’re doing this canoe trip in our sixties, rather than in our seventies.” Joe and I both are in our sixties now, and the first time he said it, it seemed clever, even somewhat wise. But, now Joe has said it nine or eleven times, and I am sick of it, especially when he uses it to highlight my embarrassing canoe exit.

August 17, 2018 was a lovely day on the lovely river, in West Michigan. And, we old guys had a great time. We paddled and sang and laughed. Maybe take a look at this web site about the Voyageurs.
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Ionia to Saranac

. . . or, All Hail the Mighty Fisherman

August 24, 2018

Water Temp a steady 70 F, Air Temp 69 – 76 F

Joe Writes . . . 

I finally caught a fish on the Grand. Most trips I’ll make a few perfunctory casts but our trip is all about paddling forward, while fishing requires that one not be in a hurry to get from one spot to another. My brother never cared much about fishing – even when we were kids – so there’s that, too. I start casting and he starts drumming his fingers on the fish pic joeBillie V’s gunwales and humming impatiently.

On this trip I had resumed my rightful place, as the strongest paddler, in the stern seat. I saw the resulting after-splash of a leaping fish, starboard and ahead of Tom’s subservient seat in the bow. My fishing pole – in its pink, floatable carrying case – lay at my feet.

“Thar she blows! Hold ‘er steady,” says I, quickly and quietly unsheathing my Zebco harpoon. One perfect cast and – wham! – the Leviathan hit my spinner like a rogue gator introducing itself to a curious Shih Tzu.

Pictures don’t lie.

Other thoughts: the river at our put-in spot for this leg of our journey – the Ionia Fairgrounds – is rather dismal. City Mothers and Fathers would do well to haul away the dead trees that line the riverbank, providing first-time visitors with an uncaring greeting  to their otherwise-attractive city. And we like Ionia; indeed we do.

We didn’t see a heron, our spirit guide, until we were four miles into our 10-mile paddle. That is most unusual and I was beginning to worry, thinking perhaps this stretch of river was cursed. Herons are usually sighted early and often, leading us down the river.

I love that Saranac has a sign geared towards paddlers on its bridge spanning the Grand. Makes a guy want to stop and spend some money . . . other river towns might take heed.

Joe (l) and Tom (r): two handsome River Rogues on the Road to Saranac

saranac bridge pic

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I always take the river’s side; Industry and Big Agriculture have plenty of friends already. Thank you for visiting our blog, please share it with a friend. You may contact us by leaving a comment here or via email: joe@lenthofthegrand.com (Joe Neely) or tom@lengthofthegrand.com (Tom Neely). 

We would love to have you join us on the river, but it’s BYOC.

 

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