float down the river


Yesterday was one of those really beautiful, crystal-clear Up North days and it wasn’t too hot, and wasn’t too cold. It was a big sky, pine-scented day colored green and gold and sparkles-on-the-water kind of day.

My folks are lucky enough to live close to Riverside Canoe Trips, a great trading-post kind of establishment on the Lower Platte river on the edge of the Sleeping Bear. They have a general store full of Up North trinkets – t-shirts, postcards, Petoskey stone jewelry, moccasins and beads – and the property swarms with adolescents working their summer jobs running vans full of canoes, tubes, kayaks and tourists. They are a group of the most amiable, cheerful kids you’ll ever meet, all tanned golden brown with toothpaste-model smiles. Our van kid was earnest and helpful and made sure Miss L was in her booster seat and chatted about his upcoming college career at Michigan State and I could just imagine Miss L as a big grown up girl working there someday over a summer and just loving it.

I had been dreaming of giving Miss L a treat on our vacation and spending a few hours on the river. Kayak and canoe trips were out, as their routes cross Loon Lake, which is deep and cold, and I felt unsafe for an almost-six year old. Tubes seemed like a perfect option – you put in below the weir, and float to the beach at Lake Michigan. The river is warm and not too deep, and cuts through pine woods and wetlands, sandy banks full of Sleeping Bear nature. Turtles and sleek brown fish in the shallows, places to portage and sit in the warm sand under tall pines with dragonflies darting. Easy peasy. I imagined us floating in the sunshine and laughing gaily and pretending we were hobbits or old-time explorers. Bouyed by my excitement, Miss L was thrilled and ebullient as we walked down the winding gravel road to the weir on the Lower Platte. I tied our tubes together and we dropped in and that was about the last happy moment she had for the two-hour trip down the river to Lake Michigan.

“Mommy, we’re not going very fast.”

“Mommy, those people are going faster than we are. They’re going to beat us. Oh, they’re in kayaks? We should get a kayak next time.”

“What is that crinkling noise? Snacks? It sounds like a bag…oh, just your phone in that plastic bag? There aren’t any snacks? Why didn’t we bring snacks?”

“I’m cold / hot” (insert proper temperature here every 5-7 minutes)

“MOMMY why are we stuck on this riverbank twirling in circles?? You’re going to have to get off and push.”

“I don’t mean to argue, and I know it sounds like I am arguing, but this life jacket is really ruining my experience.”

“Can I get off now?”

“I have to go to the bathroom… What do you MEAN I have to go in the RIVER?!?”

“Are we there yet?”

For a grownup, the thought of idly floating down an isolated river on a sunny morning with nothing particular to do is pure paradise, but for a five-year old, it was not entertaining. And tubing sounds easy, but it’s not in certain places. The wind is stiff along Lake Michigan. The Lower Platte is mostly very shallow, knee deep, with a warm brown current over clean sand and river stone, but in spots, it meanders without a swift current, and it is very easy to get pushed onto a bank or into a curve and just not be able to get out. Tubes are not maneuverable, they tend to helplessly spin, and I had a couple of bad moments. At one point, I saw no other alternative except to hop off the tube to push us out. I promptly sunk up to my thighs in muck, and in desperation pulled a thick birch branch out of the bank to lean on. As I was struggling for purchase, flailing in the muck, I bruised my foot on something, and as I hopped in the mud trying not to swear or cry, Miss L’s little face appeared over the edge of the tube. “We’re still not moving, Mommy. Did I say that we should get a kayak? I really thought we shouldn’t go tubing….HEY!! CAN I GET A STICK TOO?”

Those moments do not bring out best-in-class parenting.

That stick became my only friend on that river adventure. There were many moments when I cursed myself for not renting a paddle or for even thinking in any part of my stupid brain that this would be a fun thing to do. The stick was my paddle and a push-pole, and I clutched it and thanked the poor beaver from whose den I had yanked it. Thank you, beaver, I thought as I pushed desperately through another wind gust, thank you for sacrificing your weight-bearing structural element to save myself and my child on this river. (These moments also bring out extreme melodrama.) And for some reason, it only seemed to be us struggling. As I spun and pushed and heaved and prayed, flotillas of laughing drunk people passed on, seemingly without effort. Teenagers lolled on half-inflated tubes and called cheery greetings. They always seemed to be in the current and putting in no effort whatsoever.

There were some nice moments on the river, which I think is the most beautiful place in the world. I thought I had mostly convinced Miss L that it was an overall very nice experience, but by the last bend in the river, when the golden sand dunes of the Lake Michigan beach appeared, I was actually walking in the river pulling the tubes along while Miss L muttered discontentedly in her perch. My parents had been in the beach lot for an hour waiting for us, and they stood on the bank waving as I soggily flailed upriver. My mom cheered and swathed Miss L in a towel and walked her back to the car and I heard Miss L say,

“That was NOT A GOOD TIME. Did you know that all we did was FLOAT DOWN THE RIVER!?”