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Through the Looking Glass River: a kayak trip across history

Ted M. Reuschel ponders history and nature


Michigan’s Looking Glass River twists and turns 70 miles from its source in Livingston County until it dumps into the Grand River in Portland. It was once a major trail for Native Americans, but today few explorers traverse its length. Forester and outdoorsman Ted M. Reuschel was 74 years old when he finally took the river on. He recollects his trip in his new book, “Michigan’s Looking Glass River: A Modern-Day Journey Down a Historical River.”

Reuschel and his spouse Bonnie had spent years hiking and canoeing across Michigan when nagging injuries led to their decision to trade their canoe and backpacks for the lighter kayak. He soon found the kayak gave them access to what he calls tiny streams, marshes and remote areas which are inaccessible to conventional watercraft, but he longed for an “adventure.”

“I like the flexibility and weight of a kayak, only 46 pounds, and you could go where you wanted to go,” Reuschel said.

Living only 4 miles from Looking Glass River, it seemed like a natural destination and a natural topic to write a book about. Reuschel had previously written, “Ancient Forests: Trees and Timber in Bible Lands and Times,” a book much more relevant to his 38-year career as a forester for the state of Michigan.

Further researching Looking Glass River, he discovered very little had been written on it, likely due to its lack of use by canoeists and now kayakers. The couple only saw a handful of kayakers until they reached the mouth of the river.

In his book, he posits that the river’s narrowness, shallowness, few formal access points and the likelihood of it being clogged by fallen trees makes it less desirable to paddlers.

Those same reasons are what attracted Reuschel to his river trip, which he did in 9 segments — some as short as 4 miles.

“Overall, what surprised me the most was it is quite small, not deep, not wide and all of a sudden you’ve got boulders, half as big as cars and the size of bathtubs, dotting the river,” Reuschel said.

They also came across their first of many tree jams and explored the largest marsh on the river teeming with shorebirds. Unfortunately, they also came across duckweed, the first evidence of agricultural pollution.

In addition to making observations on the natural world, Reuschel also shows his skills on dry land as he explores local archives for historic information about who explored and settled the shoreline of the river.

At the first takeout point of Babcock Landing he learns that Duane and Lucy Babcock settled their property in 1848, where they farmed and did carpentry work building many log cabins in the area. Babcock family descendants were survivors of the Bath School Bombing in 1927.

Finding out who lived along the river and figuring out the former use of the decaying structures that dot the riverbank fascinates Reuschel, who simply says “I like history.”

On the couple’s second trip from Babcock to Old 27, they pass through the area once used as a seasonal hunting and fishing camp by Native Americans including Chief Okemos. Reuschel discovers in his research that five known Native American villages bordered the river. One village called Indian Green was located only a mile from the modern day village of DeWitt. Also near the river are a number of burial sites of Native Americans.

While researching the area at DeWitt, he discovers where the interurban crossed the river on its way to its northern terminus of St. Johns. It’s here too that Reuschel notes that the river picks up speed and the highest banks yet rise and three contiguous parks dot the riverbank.

He also reflects on another river book by Doc Fletcher called “Rivers Less Paddled” where the author cited Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem “Looking Glass River” where perfect reflections of overhanging trees and even faces could be seen in certain rivers. He also looked deeper and found Looking Glass River’s original name “Wabwaysin,” given to it by Native Americans, which, when translated into English is “see yourself.”

On the nine segments paddled by Reuschel accompanied by his spouse and sometimes his son, Tedd and his spouse, Jessica, the author shows his acute powers of observation. He is especially when it comes to describing the natural world. Some of this would be expected from a forester who spent a number of years assigned to the Keweenaw Peninsula.

The writer is careful to point out that kayaking, even on the normally placid Looking Glass River, can be dangerous. He recommends not kayaking when the river is over its normal banks even though that’s when the river runs fast and the thrills amp up.

He’s proven there is some romance in exploring both our natural history and built history just miles from Lansing. Reuschel is not giving up kayaking, but he claims he won’t be writing another book soon.

“It’s too much work,” he said. Rueschel’s book, “Michigan’s Looking Glass River: A Modern-Day Journey Down a Historical River” is available for $15 at Schuler Books & Music at the Meridian Mall.

City Pulse Book Club to meet at LCC in June

The City Pulse Book Club will meet on Wednesday, June 6, to discuss “Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit” — 50 years to the day after RFK died after being shot by an assassin the day before.

The meeting has been moved to Lansing Community College in the Grand River Room, which is on the first floor of the Gannon Building, next door to the parking ramp on Grand Avenue and across from Adado Riverfront Park. The get-together starts at 7 p.m.

“I look forward to leading this meeting because I was fortunate enough to meet Kennedy and, sadly, to attend his funeral and burial,” said City Pulse editor and publisher Berl Schwartz. “He was my hero.”

The book, by Chris Matthews, is available at Schuler Books & Music, in Meridian Mall.

The club, which was organized by City Pulse book editor Bill Castanier, is reading a different book each month either about 1968 or published in 1968.


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