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Shhhh … Listen

By Cindy Murphy

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I woke up this morning to the sound of plows scraping the streets, our neighbors’ snow-blowers clearing the three inches of snow that fell overnight, and it’s hard for me to believe it’s been over a month already since our fall family vacation. In mid-October, we left the semi-controlled chaos that is the routine of our daily lives, and took off up north for a week of quiet rest and relaxation. Only about two and a half hours from our home, a rental house in Baldwin, Michigan, seemed like the perfect family place for an outdoorsy get-away without risking camping in the unpredictable Michigan October weather.

Rainbow Lake through the trees

Baldwin is a small town surrounded by the wilderness of the Huron-Manistee National Forest; the area boasts 156 lakes, 46 trout streams, and the Pere Marquette River – one of the best, if not arguably, the best salmon and trout rivers in Michigan. It’s said that if you can’t catch fish on the Pere Marquette, you can’t catch fish. Period. I wasn’t nearly as interested in the fishing as my husband was; in fact, I had no plans to fish. Instead, I looked forward to kayaking, biking, and my favorite of all the “silent-sports”: roller-skiing. Roller-skis are cross-country skis with wheels, and there are hundreds of miles of snowmobile trails, dirt roads, and two-tracks in the Baldwin area to explore.

Dirt tracks to explore.

Shelby and Shannon each brought a friend on the trip, and the six of us, with all our supplies packed in a small U-Haul trailing behind the van, set out from South Haven to Baldwin. It’s a route that is on Michigan’s Color Tour, and this was the time of autumn when the trees are in peak color. The drive was breathtaking. The closer we got to Baldwin, the maples, black gum, sassafras and sumac, screaming orange, yellow, and red, became fewer, changed to the more subtle brown, brick red, and green of the oak/pine forest. Stands of orangey-yellow sassafras splashed the landscape, standing out like glowing beacons of light in the subdued tones.

Eugene and Martha Riggs greeted us at Loons’ Ridge Retreat, their rental house which would be our home for the week – a beautiful house that had all the amenities of home, and then some. Martha showed us “girls” around the house, already decorated for autumn, and its well-appointed furnishings ... the great room, laundry room, kitchen, the three bedrooms ... and three bathrooms! The master bath with a Jacuzzi tub! With five females, there would be no waiting to get in the bathroom this week, (excepting the Jacuzzi, of course). Eugene gave Keith a tour of the grounds outside. There was a firepit and more than enough wood to burn each night and into the wee hours of the morning. They walked down the stairs leading to the beach where a pontoon boat and four kayaks were docked; even life jackets in a size to fit everyone were provided. The Riggs had thought of everything to make their guests comfortable, and their stay enjoyable.

Pier and pontoon boat

After the Riggs departed, and the girls were busy settling into their rooms, Keith and I walked down to the beach. Loons’ Ridge Retreat sits on Rainbow Lake, which is connected by a narrow pass to another lake. Two other lakes lay on the outskirts. The shores of all of them are dotted with cottages, and vacation homes like the one were staying in – most of them vacant this time of year, used only on the weekends, or already closed up for winter. It seemed as if we had the entire area to ourselves.

“Shhhh…listen,” said my husband. “What do you hear?” There was no sound of traffic, dogs barking, or neighbors working in their yards. The sound of football games that we normally hear this time of year, or the marching band practicing on the football field two blocks from our house was absent. The gentle lapping of the water against the dock was an entirely different sound from the roar of Lake Michigan at her most unforgiving – the sound that can be heard from our front porch, even over the wind that makes her so angry. No speed boats, or jet-ski motors on these no-wake lakes. For this week, there’d be no phones ringing, knocks on the door, or other interruptions during this time our family spent together.

There were plenty of sounds to fill the week, but most of them different than what we normally hear each day. The chugga-chug-chug of the pontoon boat, with Keith at the helm, was a sharp contrast to the quiet sploosh of the kayak paddles rhythmically dipping into the clear water. The dry whoosh of fallen oak leaves left in a whirlwind trailing behind me on my roller-skis.

My brother, Mike, able to get away from work, drove up from the Detroit area to spend a day fishing with Keith. In the natural course of things that follow, there were fish tales ... but no fish to verify them.

I had an hour of quiet indulgence, soaking in the Jacuzzi tub, reading by candlelight – an hour Keith suggested, knowing my showers at home always seem to be interrupted by some crisis that arises that needs my immediate attention as soon as my head is covered in shampoo. “Mom! There’s a spider on the wall!” “Cindy! Where are the keys to the car?!” He gave the girls instructions not to bother me until I was out of the tub.

Acorns fell, hitting the deck with a loud plunk; chipmunks scurried through the leaves in search of the nuts slathered in peanut-butter and covered in crushed Goldfish crackers that Shannon and her friend, Meghan, left for them. The crackle of fires, and raccoons emerging from the woodpile each night to see what all the commotion was about in their backyard. An animal circled the woods around us one night, coming quite close, making an eerie half mewling, half canine whine. A coyote? A full moon hung in the sky, and perhaps he yearned to join his brothers in their mournful chorus echoing across the lake.

There was laughter around the campfire – ridiculous songs, and the unabashed silliness of teenagers that comes from being completely comfortable in their surroundings.

And the loons; throughout the week, there was always the haunting call of the loons. Loons are thought to be species that goes back more than 50 million years. Relatives of penguins and albatrosses, they can swim underwater for long distances. Kayaking with them was a thrill; just as I'd get close enough to take a decent picture, they'd dive underwater, and surface quite a distance way. With reeds anchoring my kayak, I was ready to get that perfect shot, and then they were gone again, interrupted by the Shelby and Sarah’s laughter as they rounded the bend to join me. Kayaking with teenagers is an adventure quite different than my quiet solo trips.

Kayaking looking for loons

This was the first time any of us kayaked, and we did a lot of it at Loons’ Ridge – even my petite little pixie, Shannon, tiny for her seven years, was able to maneuver the light crafts around the calm waters. Her look of determination until she got the hang of using the long paddles was finally broken by an ear-to-ear grin. “Look, Mom! I’m doing it!!!”

There were also sounds no parent ever wants to hear – the anxious voice of my husband on the phone giving the girls’ descriptions to the police officer on the other end. Shelby and Sarah had gone on a bike ride, and when they didn’t return after two hours, I began to get worried. Splitting up in both my brother’s truck, and our van, we covered miles and miles of the twisting gravel roads that ran throughout the area. Every fear a parent of a lost child can have screamed through my head. After searching for hours without any sign of them, and with the impending dark showing signs of settling in, we called the police. Five minutes after the call was made, and five hours after they set out, the girls returned. They didn’t come by bike; not on foot, or even riding in a police car. They arrived by paddle boat.

Wet, cold, and scared - one without shoes, the other with a twisted ankle, and both covered in swamp mud up passed their knees, a rush of words escaped their near-blue from the cold lips: There was a shredded bicycle inner-tube, a fall, and a bike of Sarah’s that could no longer be ridden. They walked the bikes, got turned around, and headed away from the house instead of back toward it, finally ending up on the shores of a lake. It wasn’t Rainbow Lake, which they could see, but one of the two outer lakes. They left their bikes, followed the shoreline, and met the “Hobo Santa,” a “creepy guy” who seemed more interested in learning where they left their bikes, than in helping them find their way home. “It’s a great day for exploring,” he said, heading off in the direction of the abandoned bicycles. Then there was the swamp that ate Shelby’s shoes, sucking them both off her feet, and leaving her to complete the rest of their journey barefoot. Once the swamp was crossed, they reached Rainbow Lake, and “borrowed” the paddle boat from a house with nobody home.

Stripped of the wet clothes, and in their bathing suits, I dumped them in the Jacuzzi to thaw. Warm, and safe again, it wasn’t ten minutes later when I heard laughter as they recounted what would probably be a childhood memory retold many times, perhaps even to their children. It was a story titled “The Lost Girls: A Harrowing Tale of Adventure.” It was a chapter in their lives detailed in a letter written by them, and left on the paddle boat after its return the following morning; a thank-you note to the boat’s owners. It was a story with a happy ending. The girls were safe – even the bikes were retrieved; the Hobo Santa didn’t take them after-all.

Our last morning, I woke a little past five, and quietly went out on the deck. Always an early riser, I enjoy quiet mornings alone before anyone else awakens. A hot mug of coffee warmed my hands in the inky-black quiet of the forest that still clung to night. Across the lake, Christmas lights strung on a stair railing shone hazy through a mist creeping along the water’s surface. The chills that crept up the back of my neck were not from the cold October air. I tucked my hair behind my ears, and held my breath to hear it better. Nothing. Not a breeze, a twig snapping, or a leaf falling – not even the call of the loons. Absolute silence. Have you ever heard absolute silence? I can’t remember ever hearing not a single sound, and it was unsettling. It was deafening. I quickly let myself back inside to the warmth of the house.

Rainbow Lake at rest

Many of the entries in the Loons’ Ridge Guest Journal, mention the phrase, “a time for quiet reflection.” If there was one time during the week to quietly reflect, this was mine. In the dark house not yet awake, the clock’s pendulum marked the passage of minutes with each swing, and the quiet hum of the refrigerator seemed louder than it was. Those two sounds, resounding after the silence of the outside, caused me to reflect on that semi-controlled chaos of home. Phones that seem to constantly ring, knocks at the door, and chatting outside with neighbors; kids’ feet that bound down the stairs, and out the door to seek adventure on the familiar streets of our small town. Little voices that constantly interrupt whatever I’m doing to ask for help doing such simple things like letting a spider out the door. Our animals – the two cats that can amazingly sound like a stampeding herd of buffalo, and the sounds of our family’s latest addition, a black lab puppy.

The Riggs provided everything possible to make this vacation house comfortable, but there is something they could not provide. Something that is unique, maybe even chaotic. It’s the welcome sound of home.