A River Renewed

One bright morning late last summer, a crew of summer workers hired by the Upper Black River Watershed Restoration Committee arrived on my premises equipped with waders, two chain-saws, a "come-along" and a fierce determination to make a major dent in what had long been a the major landmark on our stretch of the main branch of the Black River -- a gigantic log jam whose origins probably dated back to the last major log drive on the Black a good century ago. While some may question how this was accomplished on so shallow a stream, there are enough reminders in the form of huge pine log sections half sunk in the mud here and there to prove that it was indeed attempted. We forget two things. Back then, without its accumulated burden of sand -- largely caused by the logging operations and subsequent years of land abuse -- the stream was deeper, narrower, and with the help of some temporary dams, provided a ready "chute" for removal of just about every sizeable pine log that could be cut on that broad glacial outwash plain. Only decade or two later would the loggers return, this time with their railroads, to strip the nearby hills of their hardwood and fill the river with even more sand.

From that point on, the river was changed forever. Bereft of the deep forest canopy, and the constant source of cold water it provided, the river was no longer a home for the native grayling, the temperatures rose and "native" brook trout took their place. But oh what trout they were! The stories I've heard from old-timers who came out here by horse and wagon or Model-T, returning home with creels bulging with trout all a foot or more in length. What monsters that big log jam must have harbored back then!

But even I can remember when, almost forty years ago, I began to fish these waters and recall those warm summer nights when I stood in that big pool just above the jam, immersed almost to my wader-tops, and took, one after another, on a wooly-worm fly, fat brookies ten-inchers or more until my wicker creel could barely hold another and I reluctantly, though shivering from the evenings chill, made my way back to the cabin. I somehow sensed, even way back then, that this would be "my" stretch of stream for the rest of my life. It seemed perfect. A trout fisherman's paradise -- if only it could last.

Years later, when I built my own cabin on the property, I situated it high on a bluff directly to the east overlooking that pool. On summer evenings I could sit on my front porch and watch for the first dimples, visible even at two hundred-yards distance in the reflection of the setting sun, that marked the beginning of a hatch or the first signs of a feeding frenzy. Then I would jump into my waders and head for that old log-jam to spend a contented evening in its smooth water that reached well over a hundred yards back to my climb-out spot.

There were added benefits to that pool as well. In the winter it formed a firm ice surface that could be safely crossed on snowshoes and was used as a winter highway by deer, coyotes, bobcats, and even one year, by elk! In the spring it drew the first ducks to the area and all summer long it was a haven for herons and kingfishers. No wonder I had mixed feelings about seeing that calm water go.

But go it must. For to tell the truth, in recent years it had become a lousy place to fish. Perhaps that log jam still harbored some big trout, but they all went elsewhere to feed. Increasingly all one could catch on a fly in that still water were chubs and a few undersized trout. It was more a home of muskrats, an old "bank beaver" or two, turtles, frogs, and sand -- more and more sand. The sand began to clog the bottom far upstream beyond, to widen it and to cause it increasingly to overflow and cut new channels into the surrounding flood plain. Something had to be done and that crew was there to do it.

It only took one long morning's work. A twenty-foot wide gap was cut right through the narrowest part of the jam which at that point must have been about eight feet high and about fifteen feet thick. Immediately the water dropped about a foot and a half and almost as immediately the sand began to move, first at the foot of the pool, but by the end of the trout season, the bottom gravel began to appear in front of my cabin 200 yards upstream. And this spring? I couldn't believe the change. Hardly any sand, except at the inside of sharp turns, for almost a half-mile.

No doubt there is still a lot of sand yet upstream. One cannot undo a century's accumulation in one season or two, while way upstream there is several miles of sand clogging what was once prime trout water. A few strategically placed sand-traps will do the trick when the inadequate culverts euphemistically called "Tin Shanty Bridge" are finally replaced and all that sand begins to move.

But how I miss my placid pool, even if it was only good to look at. Now I understand why people with homes or cabins on Michigan's many dam impoundments feel so threatened or why a "natural rivers" act is considered subversive by some. People do not want to lose the views they have cherished for so long a time.

Yet what is really a long time? A lifetime? A century? A millennium? Does anything ever really stay the same for long? Twenty millennia ago all this country was covered by ice, literally groaning under a massive glacier that was thousands of feet thick. Where was the Black River then? Where was the even the Great Lakes? And where will all this be twenty-millennia from now? The truth is, as said the ancient Greek philosopher, that time (and all reality within time) is like a river -- and that you can't step into the same river twice. Nothing in this world can ever remain the same or fixed. Meanwhile, all we can do is attempt to manage that change for the benefit of all, the fish, the birds, the wildlife, and not just for people who want to watch reflected sunsets or worse, make a few fast bucks.

R.W. Kropf 5/7/97


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