Northern Michigan Living: Floating the Big Two Hearted River

Northern Michigan Living: The author told his 4-year-old son, fresh from a powerboat ride, about the plan for a canoe trip with Grandpa. His response: “Canoes are slow.”

The trip has its origins in 10th grade English class. Hemingway’s short, declarative prose and the Upper Peninsula’s landscape captured my 16-year-old mind in ways MTV, during its heyday in the 1980s, could not. The plan is to take my 4-year-old son and father on a canoe trip on the UP’s Two Hearted River. I want to explore father and son relationships, with me being the innards of a generational sandwich.

A 25-mile drive heading northeast of Grand Marais begins our adventure. This small U.P. town is where my father built his retirement home. At one point my father is trying to remember which logging two-track he and a friend used years ago to access the Two Hearted River. After a couple of wrong turns, it hits me how remote we are, as in, “Wow, a flat tire would make this a really long day.” I compartmentalize such thoughts and try to assure my father that it’s all right if we don’t make the trip, there’ll be other days. Deep down I also know that there might not be other days. He had a heart attack nearly two years ago. This trip is an attempt to fold time and make memories. Finally, the third two-track is, as they say, “the charm,” and we make it to our put-in destination.

As my father drives away to drop off his pickup truck at our canoe trip’s end point, my son and I are left to begin his journey into non-motorized water travel. Earlier in the summer my son took a ride on a friend’s powerboat in West Grand Traverse Bay. He was all smiles on his return home. After asking about his boat ride I told him about the plan for a canoe trip with Grandpa. His response: “Canoes are slow.” Ouch. As a kid I spent summers paddling rivers and lakes in central Michigan. Yes, canoes are slow, but they are my definition of boating. To each his own, but I'd better start introducing such things while I’m still 10 feet tall.

After lunch, I begin to give my son a lesson on how to travel by canoe. The sound of the wind moving through the pine trees and complete lack of manmade structures is humbling. I am immediately transported back in time to a trailhead in the mountains of Colorado. Before beginning a solo hike I read a park sign warning visitors “Nature Doesn’t Care. Be Prepared.” The feeling of responsibility for my son is as heavy as the mountains and immense as the forests in the U.P. I return my thoughts to the lesson to lighten my mood. He is animated in a way only children his age can be while pretending to “get low” to avoid an imagined low branch or “hanging on” while we bump into an imagined large boulder. No engine required on this boat.

It takes a few minutes for my father and I to work out a rhythm. I reflect on how we established this rhythm nearly 30 years ago while canoeing together. Back then I was completely in the moment. I still have “Kodak moments” painted onto my psychic canvas: sunlight hitting the river’s surface; finding an unopened can of beer in the river and sharing it with my father; cool swims and the taste of river water; turtles, fish, leeches, herons. I now realize this frame of mind is only somewhat easily achieved by youthful minds discovering the world—or Zen masters. As I enter the fourth decade of my life, I am neither. While on this trip, my mind is all over the map: pregnant wife, kids, parents’ health, mortgage, and our chickens back in Traverse City. Meditation gurus would call my inability to focus on the moment a classic example of “Monkey Mind.” Eventually, nature’s show calms my mind, and I let my daily concerns drift away with the river’s currents. Rounding a bend I notice a change in the flow of the river. The wind picks up. Ripples migrate perpendicularly across the direction of our travel. The influence of Lake Superior is not subtle. Large sand dunes dominate our northern view. We are nearing the end of our trip and decide to come ashore so we can hike to the lake’s edge.

All of my anticipation for this experience, decades in the making, is released while watching my son follow my father over the dunes. Images from my past come rushing back to me with clarity beyond any pixelated attempt at capturing the current moment. I snap a quick photograph anyway and watch my son throw rocks into Lake Superior. My father looks for agates. I try to wrap my mind around the power of parenthood. The “Nature vs. Nurture” debate of how a human becomes socialized into society becomes as clear as the water we just paddled. Nature may “not care” about this debate or a hiker’s welfare in a remote mountain park, but this trip has given me a deeper appreciation of my responsibility to my children and their future.

This article was first featured in August 2012 Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine. Order your copy today!