Grand River, Fitzgerald Park to Thompson Field
14 August 2014
This is the second time Ellen and I and our paddling pal Doug undertook what is known among Grand River folks as the “Half Hugh”—25 miles that make up half of the 50-mile Hugh Heward Challenge, an official event that takes place every spring. The last time we tried it was mid-October of 2012, and it was tough then, but the 25 miles is no joke in late summer, either.
The Grand is notoriously wide and slow, but recent rains had bumped up the cfs (the measurement for how fast the river moves) to 663. This was a good deal better than the 433 it was at the last time we did this paddle, so we thought we were in good shape. The truth is, the river was faster in some places; fairly often, one side of the river would be given over to river grass and stillwater, but along a bank a channel would be churning along really fast, even kicking up a little whitewater. We could ride these channels like little rollercoasters past some slow parts, but other slow parts, we just had to paddle through.
We also had some other issues to contend with, like for instance the headwind gusting to 11 mph sometimes. I call this a headwind, but the truth is that the river snakes around so much that sometimes the wind was at our backs. Still, when it gusted, we were always facing it. We also had some wildly fluctuating temperatures—the day was mostly sunny and pleasantly cool, and I started out the paddle wearing a long-sleeve hoodie. Pretty quickly I got hot and took it off, then was sorry 10 minutes later. I was hot and sweaty and cold and shivery on and off and in pretty equal measure, but luckily I had brought most of my paddling wardrobe with me so executed costume changes mid-river all day as circumstances allowed.
The main impediment to my costume changes and the general well-being of our paddling party was the big boulders this part of the Grand River has in spades. They are beautiful boulders, brought to where they are forever ago by glaciers, and turtles and waterfowl make great use of them as river furniture when the water is low enough that they’re exposed. A lot of the rocks were barely submerged by the recent rains, though, so we kept running aground on them. A story legendary among Doug, Ellen, and me is the time, during our last go at this paddle, when Doug managed to wedge himself on one of these rocks that was as big as the roof of a Mini Cooper and, stuck there, to spin like the needle of a compass. We laugh and laugh about this still—it comes up just about every paddle. Well, this time as we were paddling along around about mile 22, I felt my boat get heaved up and heard the sound of rock scraping plastic—I had managed to find the Mini Cooper rock! I had to launch myself off with my paddles. Doug and Ellen scraped their fair share of Grand boulders, but I took the cake this time.
We saw a grand sampling (pun intended) of wildlife this trip, including three or possibly six bald eagles. We know for a fact we saw three separate birds, but the other three sightings may be one of the birds we followed downriver and kept seeing again. We also saw our first osprey of the season, a snake catching some rays in a tree, and some deer, including a mother with two really young fawns. And we stumbled into some sort of cedar waxwing metropolis, then a blue heron suburb—we saw both of these birds in large quantity. While all this wildlife was delightful, we were sorry to see evidence, on parts of the river as the sun set, of the oil spill that happened earlier this summer. Sad!
A lunch spot was tough to come by—we wandered from one bad spot to another, despairing that we would ever find a spot big enough to let three paddlers park, stretch their legs, and eat without the interference of ticks, poison ivy, or goose poo. As our search grew increasingly dire, in an attempt at distraction, I wondered aloud why Yankee Doodle called the feather he stuck in his cap “macaroni.” You know:
Yankee Doodle went to town
Riding on a pony,
Stuck a feather in his cap
And called it macaroni.
Ellen pointed out that it’s not clear if he called the feather or the pony “macaroni,” and I said maybe it was the cap he called “macaroni.” So now on top of a lunch stop problem, we had a pronoun antecedent problem. Doug said, “I can’t explain all three so just pick one option and I’ll explain it.” We ignored him then, but all the same in a few minutes he came up with, “maybe the feather was curled like a macaroni, so that’s what he called the feather.” Clearly, things were devolving. We finally resorted to eating on the pile of rocks you see to the left here, and Yankee Doodle was never brought up again.
We paddled so long that Ellen’s shirt gave her a blister from the repetitive motion of paddling, and so long that we outlasted the GPS battery, which gave up the ghost at mile 24.78 recording a high speed of 6.7 mph and an average of 3.1 mph. By that time, we had been on the move for 6 hours and 49 minutes, and it probably took us another 10 minutes or so to get to our take-out spot. This means we were slower than our other Half Hugh time by about 20 minutes; I blame the wind.
In any event, it was an epic journey, and like all such journeys, it made for a long day. Ellen and I didn’t pull back into our driveway until after 9:30, and dinner was cold cereal we had picked up on the way home that we wolfed down at the kitchen table. This wasn’t the first time I ate half a box of Cheerios in one sitting, but at least this time, it was justified.