Tubin’ down the river

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By Eric Freedman

Tubing on the Thornapple River near Hastings, Michigan. Image: Eric Freedman

There are many ways to enjoy a river. On a boat. In a canoe or kayak. Wading. Fly fishing or ice skating, depending on the season. Dangling your feet from a dock or overhanging limb. With a camera or binoculars.

This time of year, it can be floating in a tube on a shallow, slow-moving river such as mid-Michigan’s Thornapple.

It’s an 88-mile-long tributary of the Grand River, meandering at a restful pace from Eaton County downstream to Ada. We put in a few miles from Hastings, the Barry County seat.

Certainly the Thornapple isn’t a storied river of song. “Now the Missouri is a mighty river, Look away, you rollin’ river,” as we know from the folk song “Oh Shenandoah.” The Thornapple isn’t the mighty Mississippi of Johnny Cash’s “Big River” and the mournful Mississippi that Paul Robeson sang of in “Ol’ Man River:

O’ man river,
Dat ol’ man river,
He mus’ know sumpin’
But don’t say nuthin’
He jes’ keeps rollin’
He keeps on rollin’ along

And it’s not the powerful Columbia River that Woody Guthrie celebrated in “Roll on Columbia”:

Green Douglas firs where the waters cut through
Down her wild mountains and canyons she flew
Canadian Northwest to the oceans so blue
Roll on Columbia, roll on.

The Thornapple, is, just well, it is.

Like other Michigan tubing rivers like the Chippewa, Lower Platte, Cedar, Big Manistee and Rifle, the Thornapple is the kind where turtles bask on logs, barely disturbed by passing tubers. The kind where luminescent green, blue and red dragonflies alight on your hand or hat. The kind where snags of storm-fallen branches gently clutch a tube for a moment before releasing it to continue its journey. The kind where the scattered folks who live along its shores can sit in their backyards and watch or ruminate or chat or doze. The kind where butterflies take off when a tube passes by, where vines of wild grapes hang over the water, where waterfowl fly low and where around each bend a gentle adventure lies.

Had Louis Armstrong spent a summer afternoon tubing on the Thornapple, he could have written his “Lazy River” with it in mind:

Oh, up a lazy river where the old mill run
Meet the lazy river with the noonday sun

Linger in the shade of a kind ol’ tree

Throw away your troubles, dream a dream of me, dream a dream of me.

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