Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Menominee River (Part Two)

Menominee River from River House (photo by VAL)

Dear George,

I wrote a while back about our childhood on the Menominee River.  The river continued as an important part of our lives as we grew into our teenage years and beyond.  Each summer Steve and I retrieved dried out logs from the channel and Pig Island, lugged them home behind our rowboat, and strapped them together to construct primitive rafts to use for swimming.  In my high school years, my friend Bob Anderson replaced our flimsy log raft with one built from oil drums, two by fours, and a full wooden cover, and our group of teenage friends began to frequent the riverbank.  Soon it became the primary summer hangout for my high school group, as it did later for Steven, Peter, and Vicki.  Steve and his chums added a cloth cover to the raft, and they swam and sunned in luxury.

As preteens we were allowed to swim across the river, but only with the accompaniment of an adult and lifejackets in the rowboat.  Later we swam the half mile down to the logging cabin in the middle of the river.  The dam was just a little bit beyond the logging cabin, and the current became swifter in that area.  When boating or swimming there, we always got nervous about being caught up and swept over the dam.  I was amazed when Peter reminisced a few years ago that he and his teenage pals used to go swimming there, propelling themselves over the dam’s top and sliding down the its face headfirst into the splashing white water below.

As a teenager, I would occasionally pile my gear into the rowboat and go camping by myself on a small island in the channel behind Pig Island.  It was the most mosquito-ridden place I’ve ever been, but it was also a secret and private world, psychologically separated from home and family.  I’d daydream that if the Russians invaded the U.S. and occupied Menominee, I would hide out in my tent in the channel and make nighttime commando raids on the town.

A mile to the west, beyond Indian Island, a tributary called Little River branched off to the right and ran through Mason Park, a minimally developed county park which was Steven’s and my favorite tent camping location.  Little River was a beautiful winding waterway, bordered on both sides by evergreen and birch trees.  Sometimes we would park our rowboat at Mason Park and follow a foot trail a quarter mile up to a swimming hole, which had a tire strung up by rope from a tall tree, allowing one to swing out and catapult oneself into the pool.

Summer was a paradise on the river, but winter had its own delights.  The ice would freeze to a thickness of two or more feet, and, once solid, we could walk from our house to Pig Island.  On Katja’s first visit to Menominee, we walked across and came upon the sight through the clear ice of a mud puppy lying on the river’s bottom.  It looked like a prehistoric creature, and Katja thought she had happened upon a new world. Before heavy snows arrived each year, we would keep a patch of

river ice cleared off to use as a skating rink, and we built an inclined snow ramp so that we could get a running start on our lawn, belly flop onto a sled, and slide forty yards out on the river ice.  When enough snow had accumulated and gotten soft from the sun, we built snow forts on the river and had snowball fights.  In the spring, Chinese Bells Day, named by my parents because of the tinkling of the ice as it broke up and began flowing down the river, was such a significant family event that my father carved the date each year on the wooden archway between our living and dining rooms.  One spring a deer tried to cross the river from Pig Island, but fell through the melting ice.  My dad, Mike O’Hara, and one or two others pushed our rowboat out on the ice to rescue it, but the deer vanished below the water’s surface before they could reach it.  It was common to see people’s docks, canoes, trashcans, lawn chairs, buckets, and miscellaneous other objects floating down the river in the midst of the ice floes, and we would try to retrieve these treasures from the shore with long bamboo fishing poles.  Once the ice had fully cleared out we would have a polar bear contest to see who was brave enough to jump into the frigid water.  Peter and Vicki were the youngest and most fearless, but nobody lasted more than a few seconds.

One year before the river froze over several of my high school friends and I took the boat across the river to Pig Island to get evergreen boughs to decorate one of the girls’ family home for the holidays.  Rather than damage a lot of trees by cutting off their limbs, we decided it would be better to chop down a single large tree.  It took an hour of effort, but we did so, then sawed off all the branches and ferried them back across the river in three or four trips.  The house decorations were impressive -- the pride of Sheridan Road.  Two years later an executive from the local chemical company, Bob H., bought Pig Island.  He and my parents were good friends, and a few weeks after his purchase he contacted my father to complain that vandals had chopped down a valuable pine tree on his property.  He asked my dad, who was prosecuting attorney at the time, to take whatever steps were necessary to locate and arrest the trespassers.  Since the site of the crime was directly across the river from our house and since we were the only youth in the area, it probably was not difficult to identify possible suspects.  Instead of turning us over to the authorities, my dad took me for a long walk out on the road and wound up saying he would try to stall on his friend’s request.

When we were high school juniors, Grant Berggren, Earl Malcolm, and I decided to take a major camping trip up the river in our one horsepower boat.  We wanted to go all the way to Iron Mountain if we could do it.  We loaded up with provisions and set off early one morning. When we were a couple of miles beyond Indian Island, the river channel became surprisingly shallow, and our propeller blades hit a rock and snapped the engine’s cotter pin.  We had a couple of spare cotter pins, but within a short distance we had broken all of them.  We got out of the boat and pushed it for a mile or two along the shore, but we eventually gave up and found an open space in the forest to pitch our tent.  When we rowed home the next day, we all started itching along the way.  It turns out we had camped next to a grove of poison ivy. Grant had the worst poison ivy problem, and he wound up being hospitalized for two weeks with an infection that spread into his lungs.  He vowed never to go camping again.

In the 1970’s my parents began renovating an old farm in Birch Creek, eight miles north of the city.  For a while they maintained two residences, but they became sufficiently enamored with their new project that they decided to sell the river house.  They offered it for free to any of their children who would live there, but there were no takers.  A local dentist bought the property.  After several years he decided to rebuild, and he gave the house away to an acquaintance who cut it in half and moved it to the shores of Green Bay. River house is still sitting there now – such an irony, since we had always claimed that the river was a far superior place to be than the bay.  Vicki still owns a parcel of the family property on the river, and we visit it each time that we’re in Menominee.  On our last trip we made a family excursion to the river to cast cremated ashes into the water from the dock.  A sudden gust of wind came up as I tossed Peter’s ashes into the air, and they blew all over my sister-in-law Faith.  Peter would undoubtedly have been amused.  All in all, the river is the site of great adventures and the source of rich memories.  It was a place for play and friendship, as well as experiences of solitude and testing oneself.  It would be an exaggeration to say that the river made us who we are today, but it would be a mistake to not recognize its significant impact on our childhood and adolescence.  My heart still skips a beat when I run across on old postcard of the Menominee River.  In some ways, we’ll always be River Rats.



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