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Down by the Riverside


Tahquamenon River

     On June 30, 2011, I was crouched in the median of the parking lot at Tahquamenon Falls State Park talking on my cell phone to a funeral director. Ed and I had driven to the Upper Peninsula to begin a delayed vacation right after the committal service for a parishioner, and here was a call to plan another funeral. My fifth funeral in four weeks.
     Because we couldn't get cell service at our cabin, I'd spent an hour the night before at Whitefish Bay picnic area along M-123 talking to the family. Now this call from the funeral director. Ed and I were supposed to be taking an afternoon hike on the Great Pines Trail. He listened to the radio in the car while I talked in the median.
     Pocketing my phone, I blew out my breath in exasperation.
     "I cannot keep doing this job without my full vacations," I said to Ed. "I'm tired of the fact that one phone call can rob me of the recovery time I so badly need."
     Ed nodded. He hadn't wanted to shorten our vacation, either. He reached into the back seat for his hiking boots.  

     "Sondra Willobee?" a voice said. "Is that Sondra and Ed?"
     A car zipped into the space beside us. Our good friend, Nancy, jumped out of the passenger seat.
     "I didn't know you were up here, too," she said. "We drove up yesterday."
     Her husband, Jim, got out of the driver's side and shook Ed's hand. "What are the chances of running into you guys?" he said. I wondered if he and Ed, both engineers, would begin to calculate the probabilities. Instead Jim said, "Let's get a beer."
     Sitting in the wood-paneled Tahquamenon Falls Brew Pub, we made plans. For the rest of the day, we hiked with them, went out for whitefish at The Fish House, and watched the sun set over the Tahquamenon River from their campsite.
     The next day, we drove with Jim and Nancy to canoe the Big Two-Hearted River using the outfitter at the historic Rainbow Lodge.*
     The twisting, dark brown river flowed quickly over sand and gravel through high dune banks with blown-down pine trees. Sometimes we had to ferry the wind and the shifting currents, so we didn't get pushed broadside into bushes along the banks. Sometimes we had to portage over log jams or line the boats through narrow passages. It was a great trip.    
     After we returned the paddles and life vests, we drove to the state forest campground where the Two-Hearted River runs parallel to the beach and empties into Lake Superior. We walked across the suspension bridge out to the cobble beach between the river and Superior's shoreline. Colorful fist-sized rocks shone wetly where waves had rolled them over and over.
     The big lake shimmered in the distance, vast in contrast to the narrow river.
     "I still can't get over meeting you in the parking lot," I said to Nancy.
     Oh, I have preached more than one sermon about how God specializes in sending people to each other just when they need it. Sometimes the message is "You need to change your attitude," as when God sent the Gentile Cornelius to the apostle Peter, who couldn't get with the program that God had no favorites (Acts 10). Sometimes the message comes to people in the wilderness, as when God sent Moses to tell the newly-liberated Israelites that they could trust God to take care of them.
     I reached down and picked up an oblong rock from the cobble beach.
     It fit perfectly in my hand.     
Scripture:  "You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself." –Exodus 19:4 (NRSV)

Playlist: "On Eagles' Wings," by Michael Joncas, 1979.

*This was eleven months before the devastating Duck Lake Fire on May 26, 2012 burned 21,000 acres, charring forests along the river and destroying the lodge.

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Party on the Sturgeon River

     On July 3, 2015, Ed and I had just finished a canoe trip on the Sturgeon River near Wolverine, Michigan. Ed hopped on the bike we'd left locked to a tree and rode off to get the car. I waited with our gear.
     Because of its quick current, tight turns, and frequent obstructions, the Sturgeon is one of the Lower Peninsula's most challenging rivers. That's why we like it.
     Other people were down by the river, too, sitting in lawn chairs, cooling their feet in the shallows, or beginning a trip. I saw all kinds of craft: canoes, kayaks, inner tubes, a crocodile float. I assessed each group, speculating how long it would be before they flipped.
     I watched a man and two women unload inflatables from the back of a pick-up. One of the women, lugging a six-pack, tried to sit on her tube while keeping her lit cigarette out of the water. Much laughter. Holding his already-opened beer high, the man helped her get on. The current swept them across the river where they beached on a gravel bar to wait for the other woman in their party.   
     Barefoot, she was towing a big lounge chair that seemed ready to pop. Her flip-flops were tied into the chair, along with a grocery bag containing an orange soda and a can of Pringles. Instead of a bathing suit, she wore a camisole and a long cotton dress that billowed over her ample body.  
     I worried the chair might burst if she hit one of the log jams we'd seen. Or that her dress would snag on a streamside tree.   
     "Get in the chair, just hop on," the man called from across the river.
     When she tried to position the chair, it moved away from her.
     "Just hop in," the other woman shouted.
     I didn't think hopping was something this large woman could do.
     The man got off his tube and wobbled back through the current. "I'll hold it for you," he said. She made a half-hearted lunge backwards, and fell into the water. It took awhile for her to push herself up.

     "Do you want to use my tube and I'll take the chair?" the other woman called. "Come on over and we'll switch."

     "Yeah, just walk across," the man said. He grabbed the chair and hauled it to the other side. They waited, looking at her. Others along the river were watching, too.

     She took a step. "Ow, ow, it hurts my feet," she said.

     "Just come across," the man said.

     "It hurts," she said.
     Suddenly, a different man splashed into the river toward the stranded woman, carrying a pair of water sandals. "Can you use these?" he said.

     "I feel like such a baby," she said. "The stones in this river hurt my feet."

     "That's why I wear sandals—they fasten around the back and stay on and protect your feet." He held them out.

     "Are you sure?" she said.

     "Must be why I've got them," he answered.  

     "My name is Madison," she said. "If you give me your phone number, I'll pay you for the sandals."

     "Nope," he said. "It's an extra pair."

     Then, I was stunned to see him kneel down in the river. Placing her hand on his shoulder for balance, he reached under the water, and one after the other, fastened the sandals on her feet.  
     Step by step, in the sandals she'd been given, the woman named Madison began walking to the other side.

"Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant." –Mark 10:44 (NRSV)

Playlist: "Proud Mary," Creedence Clearwater Revival, Chronicle: The 20 Greatest Hits, 1968.

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