Paddling through history

Paddling through history

Editor’s note: Each Thursday, we feature a throwback piece from Topology’s predecessor, catapult magazine. In this essay, Matthew Deames explores the benefits of kayaking the rivers in the community where he used to live.

Where can you visit the burial site of a Native-American princess, travel along the same route as the French explorer Médard Chouart Des Groseilliers and Jesuit Missionary Père Jacques Marquette, pass under a 282-foot covered bridge constructed back in 1887, journey along part of the Old Sauk Trail, and still make it home in time for dinner? The answer to that question, as I was to discover, was right in my own back yard.

I was first inspired by Dr. James L. Souers, a local kayaker who has traveled the 210-mile length of the St. Joseph River from its headwaters at Lake Baw Beese to its mouth at Lake Michigan, and also Tim Peterson, who was instrumental in establishing Michigan’s first Heritage Water Trail, which runs through the county where I live.

The St. Joseph River winds its way through southwestern Michigan and northwestern Indiana, reaching its mid-point in my community of Three Rivers, Michigan, where it intersects with the Rocky (Rock) River and the Portage River.

Having lived in this community for the past 15 years, it was only recently that I took up the hobby of kayaking, after friends encouraged me to give it a try. What I discovered was a step back in time to when rivers were the highways and lifelines for both native peoples and early European settlers.

To travel the rivers is to experience a whole new perspective on where you live. Much of what you will see is hidden from the modern-day adventurer, who tends to choose only the well-traveled pathways of asphalt and blacktop.

Wildlife abounds as you gently make your way down these quiet waterways. In my travels, I have sighted a variety of birds, reptiles and mammals, both in the water and along the shoreline. Waterfowl such as the mute swan, sand hill crane, and great blue heron make their home among the tall grass and reeds, along with the more common mallards, wood ducks and Canada geese. As I have paddled my way along the river, I have been able to identify a variety of different species of turtles and snakes sunning themselves on logs or rocks near the shore. And the rare sighting of a muskrat, beaver, or otter reminds me of what it must have been like 250 years ago when a thriving fur trade brought French and English settlers to these riverbanks.

However, along with these pristine sections of the river, there are also constant reminders of the ways our own human encroachment upon this environment has forever transformed these waterways. Stone foundations where once sat a gristmill or sawmill now dot the shoreline. Concrete pilings rise up out of the water like tombstones, that once functioned as part of a bridge for the old Pumpkin Vine Railroad, and which now only serve to tell the tale of an era long gone. And channels and dams along the way create constant challenges for paddlers, who must often find creative ways to portage these obstacles.

And yet, there is no denying that once I find myself on the river, I enter into a different world; a place where the pace seems to become much slower and the current of the water moves my inner spirit. It’s a place of quiet rest and respite. And, as it turns out, it’s no further than my own backyard.