Over the Dam, Through the Chute and Into Lyons

This and That Tuesday 

July 24, 2018. Webber Dam to Lyons, MI. About 7 miles.

Joe Writes . . . 

We could call the stretch of the Grand River between Portland and Lyons ‘Bald Eagle Byway.’ We had numerous sightings of at least three different eagles today. One a mature male, one a mature female (bigger than the male) and one a immature but nonetheless quite large female. Mature eagles have the classic white feathers on their heads; the immature female had not yet developed a white head and had mottled white on her underbelly and beneath her wings. For such a majestic bird the eagle has a sort of undignified, screeching call. Have you ever heard it?

God protects the foolish, at least sometimes. We went over the spot where the Wagar Dam used to be – there is still a two-level obstruction in the river there – dead center of the river instead of running the chute far ‘river right.’ We didn’t capsize but I wouldn’t do it again. Knowing that we had a couple of spots like that today, we wore lifejackets and traveled light, everything stowed securely in water-proof bags.

Why are there no signs warning paddlers of what’s to come on the river from the Webber Dam to Lyons? The first sign should be at the old Wagar Dam site (KEEP RIGHT!) and the second at the site where the dam was removed coming into Lyons (KEEP LEFT!). It would also be a good idea to paint an arrow on the bridge in Lyons, pointing to the chute for paddlers. The fact that there are no such signs or other instructions is probably indicative of how few through paddlers traverse the Grand.

Great wildlife sightings today. In addition to the bald eagles we saw plenty of our blue heron spirit guides, large flocks of geese, wood ducks too young to fly scurrying to get away from us in the water, swallows swooping down to feast, fish jumping – a rolling carp in a shallow spot scared the bee-jeezus out of me, or it could have been a River Nymph, I suppose – muskrat or mink swimming and diving, turtles dropping off of logs before we could get close. It was spectacular. Only one human being, though. A friendly fisherman as we drew near to the end of our paddle. Hey, Michigan: get out and enjoy your rivers!

Got rained on, which occasioned the joint singing of various songs mentioning rain: ‘Rain Drops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’; ‘I Wish It Would Rain; ‘Rain’ by the Beatles (Tom claimed it was the B-side of ‘Paperback Writer’ which Google confirms)’ . . . “someone left the cake out in the rain” . . . on and on it goes.

I hope Tom writes about what a pain in the keister it was to find a place to launch today. It’s not always easy to enjoy Michigan’s longest river.

Allison the river-wise manager of the tavern in Lyons told us what happens when eagles mate (didn’t Prince have a song about that?). Apparently the male and female circle way up high and, at the top of their ascent, attach. They then begin to plummet downward and can’t let go of each other until the deed is done. One can almost imagine the female screeching, “Hurry up, damnit! What’s taking you so long?” Quite a contrast to the human experience; ‘eh, fellas? I’ll say no more.

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Always take the river’s side. Industry and Big Agriculture have plenty of friends in powerful places. We live in perilous times.

Tom Writes . . . 

July 24, 2018, Webber Dam to Lyons, Michigan

Transition from Northern Central Lower Michigan to West Michigan. (How about all those geographical adjectives? You may need to live in Michigan, even to know what I mean. And, maybe note that the people of Lyons, Michigan pronounce their town as LIONS, the plural of the mighty cat LION, even though our cell phone navigation application says, “Lee-OWN,” after the famous old city in France. That cell phone is trying too hard.)

Today, we already knew where we wanted to finish, and to pull out our canoe: It is a nice sandy beach just downstream from the Lyons Bridge. However, we had to scout on shore for two hours, to find a launching place. There is no ideal launch spot, when one wants to paddle downstream, in this section of El Rio Grande del Norte.

Part of the trouble is the fact that this area is where the excellent canoe charts provided by the Michigan canoe clubs end. So, we had to rely too much on general information from Google Maps, and then drive back along the river, to see the possible places.

First place we looked: the right river bank at Webber Dam. We had had no trouble pulling out and loading up last week at the same dam, just across the river on the left bank. BUT! The put-in place, supposedly a “portage,” was about a quarter mile from the parking lot. We would have had to drag the boat down a steep concrete road and steep steps, across rocks. Or, as an alternative, we would have had to drag it up over a steep forest hill path. No!

Second possible put-in: the site of the former Wagar Dam. We knew the name of the road, but when you turn down that road, the first thing you see is a scary display of No Trespassing! and No Entry! and Private Property! signs. Out in this part of Country Deep-Woods Red NRA Michigan, one takes such signs seriously, but we drove in anyway and found a few houses and cabins, all separated by tall fences, and a couple insulting signs pointed not at interlopers, but at the neighbors themselves. This could have been a good launch place, but No! We did not want to ask any favors of these people. We turned around.

Third place: We went back to the left bank at Webber Dam, and put in there at a less-than-okay spot. We had to drag the boat about three hundred yards, to get below the dam. And, then we had to park far back, away from the river.

We finally got going though, and we had one of our best paddling days. Please read what Joe writes (above).


Having stumbled across our blog, please recommend it to a friend. You will also find us on Facebook. Contact us by leaving a comment here or by email (joe@lengthofthegrand.com, tom@lengthofthegrand.com). Join us on the river some day, we’d love the company but you must BYOC (bring your own canoe).

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Sore Butts and Herons

Tom Writes . . .

Holy 2018!

June 22 and 23 – Jones Road to Webber Dam. Eagle, Michigan, to the boondocks between Portland and Lyons.

We paddled two days in a row. First time we have been on the river since December 1, last year. Wow! Physically demanding, like the first two days of Spring Training. Our shoulders ached, but that was not the worst. The worst had to do with our rear ends, sitting in those hard canoe seats for the first time in six and a half months. Yikes!

We made it, though, and today, you will be glad to hear, both our exquisite butts are much recovered.

We put the Billie V. into the river at the exact spot where we pulled her out last year. No red berries now, as we saw before, just bushes, green now. The river was high; the current was swift. Great paddling conditions.

High blue sky with white clouds and sunshine. Hallelujah! We saw cardinals twice. Joe said the cardinals were a manifestation of our mother, journeying with us. I thought, No. She probably would come as a rarer pretty bird, maybe a Cedar Waxwing or an Indigo Bunting.

Anyway, the river shallows out as one reaches Portland. An evil tornado destroyed Portland, Michigan, three years ago, but they have rebuilt in a glorious way. Portland is a nifty river town. The Looking Glass River enters, right bank.

Portland has a dam on its north end. Downstream, the river turns into a lake, down to the Webber Dam. Nice lake, but no real current. We canoe-ists get no help from the river. We made it, though.. Herons along the way cheered us forward. Bald Eagle sightings as well. Joe thought he captured a Bald Eagle on the GoPro camera but he did not.

blog pic july 1

The Grand shy of Portland, while we had some help from the current.

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Joe Neely: joe@lengthofthegrand.com

Tom Neely: tom@lengthofthegrand.com




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A Tale of Two Welcomes

Joe Writes . . .

Paddling the Grand, a bit short of Portland, we came upon a lovely oasis and anblog pic sign invitation to pause and rest. While ‘No Trespassing’ signs are common along the river’s bank, a homemade sign here urged us to “PLEASE STOP AND ENJOY.” A bench was provided for just that purpose. A plaque identified the spot as Judy’s Bend, named in honor of Judy Wight – a nurse, judging by her likeness on the plaque – who must have loved the Grand and perhaps this spot in particular. A well-maintained shrine protected the plaque from the elements and there were two statues, I think they represented Jesus and St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers. The plaque stated that Judy Wight now “dances in the ripples and sings in the breeze.”

Nice stuff. Welcoming and peaceful. The world would be a better place if there weremore such opportunities for reflection and refreshment.

At the end of the day’s paddle we hopped in my brother’s car and drove back to where we started to retrieve my truck. We did so, and on our way back to load the Billie V (our canoe) we came across a pick-up truck parked in front of a clean-looking ranch home. The truck’s entire rear window – a big window – was filled with a decal in the shape of the continental United States. In big vinyl letters the window sticker proclaimed, “F_ _ _  OFF, WE’RE FULL,” an obvious reference to our southern border.

The problem is not that the truck’s owner and I disagree on immigration issues. No, the decal is abhorrent  on several more basic fronts. Consider that young children are being casually-exposed to vile language every time the truck is used to pick up a quart of milk from the grocery store. “Daddy, what does ‘f_ _ _  off’ mean?” My parents taught me better than that. The decal’s message is also untrue. Labor shortages are very real for some industries because fewer immigrant workers are coming here to work. Finally, I wonder if the truck’s owner is Native American. If not, then his ancestors were immigrants themselves at some point. Should they have been told to f _ _ _  off, too?

So, a tale of two welcomes, indeed. One uplifting, the other base and depressing. I offer a sincere “thank you” to the conveyor of the former, and a hearty “shame on you” to the latter.

blog pic shrine

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Joe@lengthofthegrand.com (Joe Neely)

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Our Mother Crosses Her Final River

Editor’s Note: in the last entry I wrote that one of the reasons we have not been on the river yet this year is because our mother was ill. She died on June 13. 

Tom Writes . . . 

Cassie Verschoor Neely McNabb August 27, 1925 – June 13, 2018

On June 13, 2018 in Holland, Michigan, Catherine (Cassie) Nell Verschoor Neely McNabb followed her beloved parents, many dear life-long true friends, and her loving husbands Ralph Neely and Bill McNabb, straight up into Heaven. She was the final survivor from the Birthday Club, a group of loving friends who shared their lives, loves, adventures, and sorrows for over sixty-five years. She was ninety-two years old.

Cassie was born in the Roaring Twenties. She lived through the Great Depression, World War Two, and everything since. She graduated from Grand Rapids Central High School and the University of Michigan.

Cassie said, “You never know what may be around the next corner.” In fact, she published a book with that title. She lived, raised her family and worked in Grand Rapids, Cleveland, Ann Arbor, Seattle, Sun Valley, and Holland. She was a prolific writer, a world-class typist, a B&B entrepreneur, an amazingly talented artisan, limerick expert, animal lover, collector, butterfly enthusiast, and much more. She welcomed all into her home, and always found room for more at her table.

Her children survive her: Thomas (Cynthia) Neely of Grand Rapids, Joseph (Linda) Neely of Ann Arbor, Amy (Brian) Wisner of Grand Haven, and God-Daughter Barbara Stuart (Sally Klokkert) of Meyers Lake. Cassie has six grandchildren: Sam (Laurie) Neely of Little Rock, Clare  (Bob)  Agra of Chicago, Maren (Mac) Dobson of Ann Arbor, Tom Neely of Los Angeles, Hank Wisner of Detroit, and Meryl (Brooke) Wilsner of Grand Rapids. Cassie has five great-grandchildren, two cousins with their families, eight step-children in Seattle, more than a dozen step-grand-children in Ann Arbor and Seattle and a number of step-great-grandchildren.

Cassie’s family plans a celebration service on Saturday, July 7 at 11:.00 am, at  the Klaasen Family Funeral Home, 1500 Robbins Road, Grand Haven. A luncheon will follow at Cassie’s former home on the beach. Cassie would have treasured contributions to the Humane Society, to any church that feeds the poor and does not discriminate against women or to any public library.

Years ago, Cassie wrote: “I wore a red dress to my father’s funeral because that was his favorite color. Recently, in the paper, I read an obituary that requested friends of the deceased wear bright colors to the funeral. Please do that for me.” Please wear bright happy colors if you come to Cassie’s celebration.


We all love a lady named Cassie.

To the end, she was loving and classy.

She put up with the toil.

She was smart; she was loyal…

How we’ll all miss this beautiful lassie!

mom at 92 birthdayCatherine (Cassie) Nell Verschoor Neely McNabb with her children at her 92nd birthday celebration in August, 2017. Back row, l to r: Joe Neely, Amy Wisner, Tom Neely.

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No Motorcycles In The Canoe


Tom Asks…

Joe, my Skipper, my Admiral, can you afford to buy a Harley? If you would just buy us a good motorcycle, we could put said motorcycle in the middle of our canoe, in front of your stern position, behind me

And then, when we reach our paddling destinations, we could cruise back in style, to pick up your truck and my car, back at the starting spots. Much simpler and easier transportation.

We might meet good-looking adventurous women if we had a Harley. And, in Michigan nowadays, we would not even have to wear helmets!

Please buy me a motorcycle.

Deckhand Tom

Joe Responds …

No. No motorcycle. Our parents were smart enough to say “No!” when I went through my motorcycle phase. By the time I could afford to buy and maintain a motorcycle on my own I had other, less dangerous passions.

So, where have we been . . . 

It was a cold Spring with lots of rain. We considered going out early – remember, we were on the river as late as December 1 –  but listened to more experienced paddlers who told us the river wasn’t safe. Then our mother began a rapid decline. Tom and our sister care for Mom almost daily, I get over to the west side of the state as often as I can. I don’t think we’ll get out again until Mom has crossed her final river. That will be soon and is not tragic. She would be 93 if she made it to her August birthday – she won’t – and has had a remarkable life. Go with God, Mom. We love you and are blessed to have been able to tell you that on countless occasions over the past year. The reason we take such good care of you is because you took such good care of us. And, should you regain your connection to this world for a day or two, please tell Tom he can’t have a motorcycle; ok?

I found a campground that looks pretty cool along the Maple River, a tributary of the Grand. I’m thinking it would be fun to rent a cabin – hell, we might even pitch a tent – at the Maple River Campground and then canoe from there down the Maple to where it empties into the Grand near the village of Muir and Lyons. Does anyone have any experience canoeing the Maple in this area? We’d love to hear from you.

Briefly Political . . . 

I often conclude a post by writing, “Always take the river’s side; Industry and Big Agriculture have plenty of friends already.” If you think I am being overly-dramatic, consider this: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt attended a University of Kentucky basketball game in December, sitting in courtside seats provided by a coal industry magnate who was seeking to have Obama-era regulations on the coal industry reversed. That is not draining the swamp, that is importing the swamp. Of course the source I cite is the New York Times, so it’s likely to be fake news. Oy (as my brother would say)!

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Contact Us: 

Joe Neely, joe@lengthofthegrand.com

Tom Neely, tom@lengthofthegrand.com

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On Chasing Girls and Movie Stars

A Slice of Life Along the Grand in the Off-Season

(Hurray, Hurray: Paddling Begins Again Soon)

Joe Writes . . . 

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

May God grant you

 a first love to chase ’round the playground,

a lifelong friend for inspiration,

and a true love to share the journey.

(I have had, or still have, all three.)

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One of our granddaughters is being chased by two boys at recess. She is seven years-old, in the first grade, and not complaining. She enjoys and encourages the chase. Not yet sure which boy she will marry, she chases them if they try to take a break.  Love is wonderfully uncomplicated in its early manifestations.

My granddaughter’s courtship rituals evoke my own memories of chasing a girl named Tina – Bird Legs, my father called her – around the playground in Cleveland when I was her age. Bombarded as we are by signs of an impending apocalypse, it is reassuring that some me things don’t change.

During the summer I moved to Michigan – 1967,  before I started seventh grade –  I was briefly infatuated with a girl in my new neighborhood named Sara and called her on the phone one afternoon to ask if we could “go together.”

“No thanks,” Sara said. Surprisingly, I wasn’t crushed even though she answered without the slightest hesitation. As I recall we made plans to meet up with the neighborhood gang later in the day and life went on just as it had. School started in September and I became intrigued by a girl named Theresa. Theresa liked me back and our romance, which consisted of talking together in the hallway between classes, lasted a couple of weeks.

I quickly lost track of Theresa but Sara and I remained in contact, to varying degrees, throughout our lives. Sara and her husband now live in the Pacific Northwest but she’s still got family in Michigan and I occasionally get together with Sara and whoever else is around when she comes back to visit.

Sara is an accomplished actress who has landed substantial roles in several independent films. I admire her because at our age it’s a hell of a lot easier to watch tv and eat ice cream. Sara came to her passion for acting later in life and in doing so provides an example as to how one can view the sunset without being mired in a web of disappointment and abandoned dreams.

Sara’s most recent film has been screened in the Northwest  but is not likely to be shown in Michigan any time soon. I told Sara how much I wanted to see the movie and a few days later a DVD arrived in the mail; she lent me her only copy. My wife, Linda, and I made plans to watch the movie on a Saturday night, which brings this story back full-circle to our granddaughter.

On that Saturday night we were torn when our granddaughter asked if she could sleep at our house. We told her that of course she was welcome but that she would have to entertain herself as we would be watching a movie. She wisely decided that wouldn’t be much fun and chose to stay home. Before we said goodbye I made arrangements to pick her up for Sunday School the next morning.

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“What was the movie about?” my granddaughter asked me as we drove to church.

“Well, it was kind of a grown-up story so I don’t think you would have liked it, but a friend of mine was in the movie and that made it fun,” I said.

“What’s your friend’s name?”

“Sara,” I said.

“Did you used to be in love with her?” Natalie asked. Where did that come from, I wondered. I chuckled.

“Yes, I guess I was. For a little while and a long time ago. But I suppose, in a way, I was in love with her,” I said.

“Did you chase her?”

I prepared an explanation of evolving courtship rituals but then figured, what the hell? Why confuse the issue?

“I sure did, Honey; I chased her all over the playground,” I said.

“Yup, that’s what you do,” she said, knowingly.

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 Do you know the poem Jenny kiss’d Me? My mother recited it to us when we were young. It could be changed to Natalie chase’d Me.

Jenny kiss’d me when we met,

Jumping from the chair she sat in;

Time, you thief, who love to get

Sweets into your list, put that in!

Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,

Say that health and wealth have missed me,

Say I’m growing old, but add

Jenny kiss’d me.

– Leigh Hunt, first published in 1838

leigh hunt

(James Henry) Leigh Hunt, 1784-1859. Portrait by Benjamin Robert Haydon.


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If you enjoy our blog please follow us here on WordPress, like us on Facebook and recommend us to your friends. Contact us by leaving a comment here or as follows:

Joe@lengthofthegrand.com (Joe Neely)

Tom@lengthofthegrand.com (Tom Neely)

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