The shore of the Manistique was a welcome sight.
A steep descent over a narrow, one-lane drive, deeply furrowed and piled high with loose sand, that would happily swallow an axle of a less-than-confident-driver’s vehicle, committed us to spending some time here—at least until we could locate another way out. But, we were pleased to have found it, the public access point for the river running through the southeastern quadrant of the refuge (Seney NWR) buried at what seemed to be the end of the earth in the an empty, rustic campground on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
We dropped Red Canoe from the roof, loaded her with our bags for the day and pushed off onto the amber water.
Our plan was to travel upstream, paddling against the strong current as far as we were able, rewarding ourselves with the gentle float home reserved for the end of the day. The sky was blue and air warming quickly under brilliant September sun.
The Manistique River is rimmed by dense woods and runs through areas described as rich conifer swamp, patterned fen and dry mesic northern forest—damp and dark beyond their edges, fragrant with white or jack pine and white cedar. Beneath a thin layer of organic soil, is sand—pushed into large, rippled bars that rose beneath us in the slow-moving river margins or fell away, carved into deep pools by a fast-running channel, but leaving the water with a clarity we never experience at home, in southwestern Ohio’s murky rivers and lakes lined with silt and clay.
There’s a quiet here—an almost audible heartbeat. A fullness, a richness caught within, set apart from roads and cars, homes and voices, wrapped in the insulative sheath of the wet woods.
From behind us, came the rattling call of a pair of cranes, who soon appeared above us in the small slit of now clouded sky where the dense trees parted and allowed the river room, and then flew on toward the interior of the refuge, until we were alone on the water in Red Canoe, with only the proprietary scolding of the red squirrels.
We rested for lunch on a sandy bank, where I crawled up and disappeared underneath the lacy branches of a stand of hemlock, and sat on a soft needle carpet peeking out to the water below. In the stillness of the woods behind me, its rich history crept quietly in the shadows, with names like Nokomis and Hiawatha, then disappeared, as I turned to look, behind a tree.
A distance down the shore, I discovered a track—large and with long claws, that sent me stumbling back to Red Canoe—back onto the wide, flowing amber water, where by now, our cell phone had became nothing more than an expensive timepiece, zipped into a waterproof pocket.
Halfway through the afternoon, dark clouds brought a chill beneath them and a wave of light rain that chased us into the shelter of a large white cedar, which reached out over the river, spreading like a giant umbrella. From there we waited, with each pause, more certain it would soon be finished.
Until we emerged, braving the last spitting droplets to float easily back toward the campsite.
Under the magic of a fine mist floating just above the river, it appeared as it could have been, ages ago.
The mark of our presence, but one footprint.
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