Monday, July 16, 2012

130 Miles of Peanut Butter


Like so many adventures, this one was prefaced by a lesser escapade. It was a lovely warm May afternoon, and Alison and I were on a casual float down the Au Sable River. We were having such a blast that, together, simultaneously, we formulated a scheme to canoe the Au Sable River from Grayling to Lake Huron.

While roaring down the road in the pickup belonging to Kevin, the Jack Pine savage from whom we had borrowed the canoe, we described our plan, to which Kevin shook his head and boomed, “Oh, no, no, you don’t want to do that. Too many dams! You want to float the Manistee!” He slapped his knee and laughed his jovial guffaw that is impossible to impersonate or even describe, apart from the fact that it is fatally infectious. We wheezed and chortled and tried not to choke on the musty aroma of Kevin’s kleptomaniac Golden Retriever that saturates the truck’s interior.

So it was that nearly two months later in the middle of the night Alison and I found ourselves wresting an old barge of a canoe off the roof of my Taurus, which was dwarfed by the craft that would bear us one hundred and thirty miles from the Manistee’s headwaters to Mesick.


Provisions for trip had to satisfy two criteria: cost and packability. Student budgets cannot accommodate frills; we sought cheap, high-calorie food that wouldn’t spoil (we had neither cooler nor stove). At the beginning of the trip, I made an inventory of our supplies:

  • Peanut butter
  • Nutella
  • Cashews
  • Raisins
  • Apples
  • Granola
  • Hershey’s dark chocolate kisses
  • Tortillas
  • Michigan cherries (3 pounds)

On the second night, however, we were so tired that we crashed before properly securing our food. At four-thirty in the morning we awoke to the terrible sounds of rummaging and ripping plastic. Fortunately, the tortillas were the only item that the coons pilfered (though they did try to roll the peanut butter jar off into the woods), so we jokingly dined on seven-course meals the rest of the trip:

“What’s the first course?”
“Raisins—wait, no, we need to break up all the nuts. Cashews.”

We would munch on handfuls on cashews, then chew on raisins, then dip our fingers into the peanut butter and nutella, crunch through an apple, lap grains of granola from our cupped hands, and finally finish up with a dessert of dark chocolate. For every meal we would switch up the order of the courses to fool our palates and avoid dietary boredom.


Alison recently became the proud new parent of a pump-system water filter. Her central duty of the trip (oh yeah, other than steering the canoe…) was to pump our water. Within minutes, cool water traveled from the river down the esophagus. Near the end of the float, when the river became murky from accumulating silt and junk, pumping the water was a greater workout than paddling the canoe. Neither of us was stricken with giardia, so the contraption did its job.


A river, particularly one like the Manistee with abundant deep pools, is a good place to be on ninety-degree day. We paddled all day, striving to cover dozens of miles every day, but that did not prevent us from making frequent swimming stops—and by “frequent”, I mean four or five dips per afternoon. The most memorable hole was shaded by an overhanging Basswood that we could clamber up and leap from to bombard the water fifteen feet below.


It was late afternoon, our minds fixated on dinner and a restful campsite, when suddenly Alison cried, “There goes a Green Snake across the river!” Sure enough, ahead the snake wriggled across the river like a swimming cattail leaf. We dug in our paddles to intercept it. The snake was aimed for a large cedar overhanging the river; we “landed” (or rather, crashed) into the cedar just before the snake reached it. The serpent hesitated, debating whether to turn around or make a bolt for the cedar. In this moment of indecision, I bailed, expecting the river to be easily waded. Instead, I sank into neck-deep water. Half-swimming, half-running, I made a lunge for the reptile. My right hand brushed against it; I locked my fingers, bellowed “GOT IT!”, and fell backwards into the water. It was my first Green Snake. We caressed it for several minutes before releasing it into the cedar, which it climbed with remarkable agility for a creature lacking limbs. 


Ambitious mileage is not conducive to dragonfly hunting, but during our few brief stops we managed to find several species of river odes. 

I think this is a Cobra Clubtail (Gomphus vastus).

The Dragonhunter (Hagenius brevistylus), the biggest, baddest, and burliest of all the clubtails. This monster patrols the river, abdomen kinked, and exudes the cockiness of a totalitarian dictator, striking fear into the thoraxes of the lesser dragonflies.

On the opposite side of the spectrum lies the delicate and comely Violet Dancer (Argia fumipennis).

Clubtails and their kin can be infuriatingly difficult to observe and capture as they perpetually patrol an inch above the river's surface. I took many a futile swing. Finally, this Boreal Snaketail (Ophiogomphus colubrinus) was foolish enough to alight on my wrist. I trapped him by hand, but even when I released him, he was reluctant to leave.


We somehow underestimated the mileage to our take-out spot on the final day of the float, and as the evening progressed, so did our anxiety as bend after bend failed to reveal our end point. The shadows grew long, fused, and the sun slipped away; as the light faded we dug harder and harder with our paddles, reaching forward and leaning back with every stroke. The canoe streaked forward with impressive velocity. It was getting dark; Alison urgently wanted to get back, but I didn't want to capsize in the dark and drown. As the colors faded into grays and blacks, we paused to discuss stopping for the night--but just then, a parked car appeared behind some bushes, and then we realized that the outhouse looked familiar, and finally behind another bush we spotted Alison's car. Relieved, we ran the canoe aground on the boat ramp, tottered out, and hugged each other with shaking arms. We had made it--barely! 

1 comment:

Zachary DeBruine said...

Not that often people just get to indulge in adventure like that! What an absolute blast. (your birdlist is also AMAZING)