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Always Move Forward: Kayaking and Camping Michigan’s Au Sable River

“Always move forward” (всегда вперед or vsegda vpered) is a Russian saying encouraging one to always better one’s situation. They’re words that inspire you to seek a promotion or a better job, they’re words of encouragement to get out of a tough situation where one can only move forward to resolve it.

When I took a few days’ vacation from work for a multi-day kayaking trip down the Au Sable River in Michigan, I knew it would have its challenges. But thinking about surrounding myself with sun and wildlife, I knew it would be worth it. But that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t anticipating something to go wrong in the back of my mind, nor was I relieved of the times that my stomach was twisting in knots of fright on the journey.

I was reminded of the Russian saying many times on the trip and I barely realized that I had been living it for the first two days, until I saw someone else’s plight at dusk on my second night. A family of four – mother, father and two young children – were hurriedly pushing their inner-tubes along the river to speed up the trip back to their campsite.

Looking onto the river from my campsite on the second day of the trip. The horsefly-swarmed family passed right through this spot when I saw them, although the people in this photograph are not that family.

The gnats and horseflies were out and badly assaulting the family. The father had had enough and pushed a toddler in a tube 20 feet ahead of the mother and older daughter, who looked to be about four years old. The daughter was crying and shouting, “Mom, I hate this! This is horrible. I want it to stop!” The calm but exhausted mother consoled her and agreed that it’s terrible, but they must keep going to get out of this.

I couldn’t help but crack a smile as I watched this from my campsite 15 feet above water, 20 feet away from the shoreline, well out of the way of the horsefly frenzy. Not because the family was being assaulted, but that the daughter was learning the lesson that when the situation is terrible, she cannot just give up, she must move forward.

Instantly, I was reminded of the first time I ever went skiing. I was four years old myself. Before my mom allowed me on the lift, she made me side-step up the mountain in my skis to the top. She said I needed to be able to do that in case of an emergency. But I thought otherwise – I thought it was torture! I bet some people probably got a laugh, or felt a pang of sympathy, for a crying four year old scaling a mountain yelling about how much she hated it with her mother pushing her along. Years later, I would be frustrated with my dad by not letting me behind the wheel of an automatic transmission vehicle before I learned to drive a stick shift. I eventually came to value their parenting ethics.

So when I was nearing the end of the day on my first stretch of river, in between Cooke Dam and Foote Dam, the river opened up as wide a lake. Powerboats and pontoon boats raced around each bend in the river that opened up into more “lakes.” People were drinking, blasting music and having a great time in the sun and cooling off in the wind. I was petrified.

Victory shot. I made it across the river of “lakes” and am celebrating with a photograph at the portage site.

I was warned to stay near the edge of the water at that stretch of river so I wouldn’t get run over by a powerboat, but even at the river’s edge, I couldn’t escape the image of a powerboat’s nose at full throttle heading straight for me, its tip lifted out of the water so that I couldn’t see the drivers and they couldn’t see me. And even though the boats turned each time, they left cascading waves to contend with.

I longed to get out of the water to safety, to shout at each boater passing by that there was a helpless kayaker in the water. I only hoped they spotted my orange headband and paddle flapping about, otherwise my borrowed kayak, all my gear and I were doomed. I wished this would just end, but that was not an option. So where to go? Just forward. I paddled furiously to combat the zig-zagging effect of the waves on my kayak and to get out of there fast.

At least an hour and a half passed and I paddled past numerous bends before I made it to Foote Dam unharmed, but not without one last wave from a powerboat circling in front of the dam. The largest one yet, heading straight for me. I cursed angrily at the powerboat speeding away, then looked back ahead and gasped at the size of the wave heading for me. I was sure that this would be the one to knock me over and send all my untied belongings to the bottom of the river. Yet, everything made it, unsunken, but far from dry and I was so pleased that I that I didn’t turn around and give up.

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