Wild River Flowing

Ann from Oak Park, Ill., shares the following story with us. In her summary, she writes: “My story is a reflection on growing up on a spectacular waterway of the Great Lakes, and how it shaped my view of the world. If you’re young in such a beautiful place, you’ll never forget it.”

The summer I turned thirteen, my father let me take out his boat alone. Designed for fishing, the old wooden tub came with bait cans, trolling rigs, and Clorox bottle bailers, but I didn’t care. As Water Rat says dreamily in the classic Wind in the Willows, “…there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing…”

With freedom on the water came the sense that the world had no boundaries. In the boat, my friends and I explored the deep, swift St. Clair River that forms a border with Canada. connects Lake Huron to Lake St. Clair, and runs through our hometown, Marine City, Michigan. We learned every stretch of our waterway—channel, wrecks, and shallows.

Though on the cusp of womanhood, we didn’t behave like young ladies, and we nicknamed ourselves “river rats.” When the stars came out, we’d turn off the running lights and jump naked into the water. During the day, we worked on our perfect tans, greased up with iodine and baby oil, and anchored in the channel–to the horror of the freighter captains who would blast their horns at us.  Once Greek sailors bound for the Seaway tossed oranges into our boat as we danced in our bikinis. 

Eventually that fast-moving river wove a kind of craziness through my heart, like the rough rope in a bowline knot. I longed for faraway countries and imagined following in the wake of those freighters through the Great Lakes, up the St. Laurence Seaway, and out to the Atlantic.

My watery world remained very much the same until I turned eighteen. Boys who catcalled at us from their own boats left for the university or shipped out to Vietnam. I too left for college. For the first weeks away, I would wake in my dorm room at night, landlocked, homesick for the sound of freighter’s foghorns and the patterns of water and light playing on the sides of the boat. Ultimately I would travel far—to the Middle East–and in the desert or in a dusty market would thirst for a cool dip in the river. Apparently I wasn’t the only river rat who felt that way. During a hometown Memorial Day ceremony, the mayor told about a neighbor boy, who while dreaming in the jungles of Vietnam, heard the Canadian night train on the other side of the river. “Home,” he thought, “The St. Clair River. Marine City.”

Messing around in boats, I learned that the Lakes are a gateway to an entire transient world. Over the years, my father has bought and sold many boats.  But a while ago I received the bitter news that he was getting rid of the last one. “Arthritis and the low water level got the best of me,” he said. 

Tears filled my chest but didn’t reach my eyes. Yet I acknowledged the change. That river keeps moving; sometimes you just have to float with the current.

Thanks, Ann, for sharing that. You, too, can enter the Great Lakes story and photo contest for a chance to win prizes.

You can also participate in the effort to restore the Great Lakes—which are seriously threatened by sewage contamination and invasive species. Get involved today to help protect our lakes, our drinking water, our public health, our economy, and our way of life.

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