Five senses for spring and mysteries of flowing water/Dan Schneider

It’s a good old railroad grade between Hancock and Lake Linden. A lot to see along that old road.

There is the Quincy Smelter in Ripley with its fresh corrugated cladding. The old iron in Julio’s yard: crane booms and rigging stretching evocatively into the sky and all the rest.

Out along the stretch from Ripley to Dollar Bay, the grade sometimes yields traces of its past life: a railroad tie protrudes from the gravel, an iron spike sits off to one side.

In the summertime, the forest just the other side of Dollar Bay is thick with ostrich ferns. Just after snowmelt, however, the woods are all barren trunks. There are buds but no leaves at the ends of their branches. Everywhere there is rushing water. The creek runs high and fast.

This time of year the sand patch between the gray concrete incline, painted with “Arcadian Mine Tours,” and the crossing at State Highway 26 is easier to traverse on a mountain bike. The sand is not so dry.

Further out on the grade, it is possible to see Torch Lake, and often, because of the lack of foliage on the trees. It is possible to see waterfalls, and more of them than at any other time of the year because, in the first place, there is more water rushing down from higher elevation. More waterfalls exist at this time of year between Hancock and Lake Linden, and all of them are more visible for the lack of leaves on the trees. Sight and sound of water rushing.

Other senses are excited riding a mountain bike down this old grade just after snowmelt. There is the smell of damp earth. There is the feel of cold emanating from dark and rocky hollows – places where the sun has not reached lingering snow. There is the taste, in spring, of water from a hydration pack which, perhaps, should have been washed more thoroughly before it was put into storage for the winter. Better to taste the spring air.

But I want to return to the movement of water. On the high railroad grade, south of the Hungarian Creek Bridge and in the neighborhood of the Quincy mill and reclamation plant ruins – in the neighborhood of Mason – the grade runs between two tall concrete retaining walls. They hold back the earth of the hillside the grade was cut through. This time of year the old concrete is damp all over, and in places water flows freely through its cracks and fissures. There is a veritable creek flowing along at the base of the wall.

At two places there are pipes set into the concrete, cut flush with the the wall. And this is what fascinated me when I rode through last Saturday afternoon: water poured out of each pipe, flowed as if from a hand pump, one tended constantly but lackadaisically.

Where did these pipes originate? Where did they collect their water? How, after all these years, were they still intact enough (not rusted through!) to be carrying water to the base of the concrete wall? How had so many seasons’ flowing water, with its patience and ingenuity, not found some route more gratifying than this man-made contrivance in its quest for lower elevation?

I backtracked. Rode a side trail up the hill. Looked for some plausible source for the water and found none.

I did find a small pool, water flowing into it on one side, but with no discernible outlet. The pool was still for the most part, shivering only occasionally with the movement of water striders across its surface.

Surrounding the pool was a stand of young birch trees, none having a trunk more than three inches in diameter (and very few trees approached even that width). In the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan – where so many birch trees have been growing since the aftermath of the early logging days, and have passed through their prime of life and have toppled – such a stand of birch trees is, for me, a refreshing thing to see.

Young birch trees. A sensory experience for spring. Surrounded by the mysteries of water. Along the old railroad grade.