Swimming at River House, circa 1958 (VAL photo)
I wrote recently about some of the animals that inhabited our Menominee river property. The river, of course, contained a whole different population. As much as we relished swimming in the summertime, conditions weren’t idyllic. The bottom was mushy, there were sticks and jagged stones, and slimy seaweed clung to us as we waded from waist-high to chest-high depths. There was even an element of felt danger because of the many living beings that inhabited the river. Here are some of the wild things that lived there:
Our crayfish looked like tiny lobsters, and they lived in holes that they dug in the river floor. We’d watch out for them as we stepped off the bank to enter the water. Other times we would try to capture them by trapping them under a cup or small pail before they darted into their domiciles. Crayfish would shed their claws, and we would scoop these up and collect them.
Clamshells were still more desirable as collectible. You could peek inside when the clam still lived there, then return it to the water. Vacated clamshells were handy for various arts and crafts projects, e.g., when painted as Xmas tree ornaments.
Bloodsuckers had a mythical status in our household. The shallow water was home to hundreds of these little monsters who attached themselves in the spaces between our toes and feasted on our blood. You didn’t feel them while in the water, and we learned to inspect our feet and legs as soon as we got out. If they’d been on you for a while, they would have burrowed into your skin, so you’d have to pull them off, leaving a little indentation of oozing blood. We’d throw the bloodsuckers into the deep grass in the birch tree grove, figuring that that would be the end of them.
The water’s surface was inhabited by various insects, the most entertaining being the waterbugs. These little black beasties could scoot around practically at the speed of sound, zigging and zagging this way and that. Though they lived in big colonies, they were so quick it was nearly impossible to catch them. We didn’t mind sharing the water with the waterbugs since they seemed harmless enough.
We had both land turtles and water turtles at river house. The turtles that lived in the river were larger and scarier. You would see them at dusk swimming along with only their snouts above water. Or sometimes they would be sunning themselves, perched atop a deadhead. Rightly or wrongly we imagined some of them to be snapping turtles, and we would frighten one another by making up scary fantasies as we entered the water. One year Steven shot a huge turtle in the neck with his bow and arrow from the rowboat, then had to drag it ashore to put it out of its misery. We all, including Steve, found the experience terrible.
Steve was the family fisherman, though he only became fully serious about it when he and Margie moved to Seattle. We’d do a little fishing on the Menominee, catching an occasional perch or crappie. We’d always see schools of minnows near the shore, and sometimes we’d gather them up in a big pail. Since those early days the Menominee River has been cleaned up and has become a popular destination for serious fishermen. According to Internet accounts, it’s an excellent location for smallmouth bass, as well as northern pike, walleyes, and brown trout. Below the dam you can catch lake sturgeon, whitefish, steelheads, and salmon.
A totally mysterious and remarkable event occurred every August on the river’s bank. We’d come out one day and the tall grass along the shore would be covered with the exterior shells of cicadas who had shed their skins and flown off to enjoy a new life phase. The shells were perfect, hollow replicas of the original bugs, and we would carefully pick them off the weeds and put them in a box to keep for eternity.
I know we have mudpuppies in the river because I saw one once. Katja came to visit for the first time over Xmas vacation in 1957. The river was frozen solid, and we walked across to Pig Island. About halfway across we looked down through the crystal clear ice, and we could see a mud puppy lying motionless on the river floor. It looked like a prehistoric being. Katja thought it was just one more amazing thing about Menominee.
There were bugs everywhere you went at river house, but the grandest of all were the dragonflies. You would see them most frequently soaring along a foot or two above the water in the river. We knew that they wouldn’t bite, and we’d let them land and rest on our heads or forearms when we were out in the rowboat.
The river was home to many bird species – ducks, geese, even seagulls. The most majestic of all, though, were the herons. We would see them most frequently when we rowed across the river and entered the channel between Pig Island and its adjacent neighbor. This was a quiet, isolated spot filled with water lilies and ancient tree stumps. The herons nested there, and we would virtually always see one when we entered this secret space.
So what do I think about this some sixty years later? I don’t think we children fully appreciated the remarkable place in which we lived. It was not only beautiful, but it was a constant source of education and entertainment. We were lucky kids to have lived there.
-Vicki L (11-18): Hi David, I had lots of feelings followed by some epiphanies after reading your account of the creatures of the riverbank and of the river. This was partly because the pictures and remembrances brought to life so many rich, vibrant memories. Thank you for that. Sometimes I dub your blog "The Function of Language and Narrative In The Development of Affect Regulation". I won't bore you with the details.....just to say how lovely and important your reminiscences have been for me. Love, Vicki
-Donna D (11-16): david, i''ll bet that river water and its creatures are why you're so healthy today! donna