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Water Flowing Underground

by Andy Knott


I live in the Betsie River Watershed -- the headwaters, to be more exact. This was one of the first things I figured out when I moved here two years ago. I majored in geography in college, and have always had an instinct - perhaps a need - for constantly discerning where I am.


The homes in my neighborhood near Interlochen have shared access to Cedar Hedge Lake. Cedar Hedge flows into Green Lake, which flows into the Betsie River, which flows into Lake Michigan at Frankfort.


When I discovered this connection, I had dreams of making that journey by kayak -- wheeling it from my garage, then paddling south and west all the way to that Great Lake. Unfortunately, I learned that the stream connecting Cedar Hedge with Green Lake is impassable -- clogged with downed trees. I've revised my plans to start at Green Lake someday.


I work within the Grand Traverse Bay Watershed. I'm one of the fortunate who can look out my office window and see the bay a few feet away. I work in the Natural Resources Department of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians in Peshawbestown. When my eyes strain from staring at computers and spreadsheets, I look outside, breathe in the blue water, and remember why I'm here.


Water is central and essential to this region. The region is defined by water.


My family and I moved here from Indiana. My wife and I both grew up in Southern Indiana -- a place unlike Northern Michigan, in that it was untouched by recent glaciers. It's hilly there, but again unlike Northern Michigan, the ridge tops are narrow, and the valleys are steep, v-shaped, ravines.


Water appears in most of those ravines only after a heavy rain, and disappears quickly as it flows down toward streams and rivers. I grew up near Rock Creek; aptly named since the bottom of the creek was exposed most of the time. Parts of Southern Indiana are "karst" -- a geologic term referring to limestone caves, sinkholes and springs. The prevalence of groundwater flow in karst is obvious.


Groundwater flow in northern Michigan is also obvious, but not in a limestone-and-sinkhole kind of way. Here the sandy soils absorb rain and snowmelt quickly. Every spring behind our house, two wetlands fill with snowmelt. Three weeks later, no sooner than the spring peepers have begun peeping, the water has drained away--no doubt moving toward Cedar Hedge Lake and making that journey to the Great Lake that I will never be able to fully replicate.


The groundwater flow is also obvious in the year-round streams and rivers of the region. I've canoed the Boardman in February. Seeing the river flowing at full force in the dead of winter -- long after any surface water sources have frozen solid -- is plain evidence of vast reservoirs of water underground.


A river the width of the Boardman in southern Indiana would be dry, or just inches shallow, most of the year. Yet the groundwater here releases itself with such patience and purpose that canoeing is a year-round opportunity.


I'll say it again: Water is central and essential to this region. It makes you think about what you put down your drain or on your lawn. Or the runoff from your street. Or from potentially many more streets as the region grows.


Water flows downstream. But it also flows into the future. Our future. Our children's future. And so on. What are we contributing, good or bad, to that future?


It makes you think.

Andy Knott is the environmental stewardship director for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.

This page last updated on 2/5/2008.

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