Crossing the Rouge

Birmingham, Mich.—We are hiking a woodchip path along the green banks of the Rouge River, up Birmingham way, in a secret little haven south of Booth Park.

Jonah, my nine-year-old son, is perplexed. Totally perplexed, but in a good way. In a way where he tunes out the world and is completely present in this situation, thinking, strategizing and devouring every inch of landscape with his eyes, like an architect surveying a plot of land before setting pen to paper.

He wants to cross over the Rouge River and be on the other side.

Often quick to walk away from a challenge, Jonah, in nature, finds the possible rewards too great to give up.

A fallen tree, a good three feet above the river, leads to the other side, but it’s too narrow to tightrope walk across.

He ventures downstream, then upstream, and then down again. He ponders, jaw firmly set, assessing the gently flowing waterway before him.

Finally, finding the best spot to cross, one where fallen branches and rocks create a dappled path, he begins his attempt. He can’t quite straddle the two rocks that connect part of the path. But still, just a small soaker later, he reaches the other side.

Allured by nature, Jonah wanders off, hat askew, growing arms and legs swaying along with the trees. Proudly, he’s made it across.

We started down this trail – a two-minute walk from downtown Birmingham’s highfalutin boutiques and chatter-filled cafés – about 45 minutes earlier.

I think to myself that this outing is just what my nature-deficient kid needs if we’ve spent three-quarters of an hour walking less than a quarter of a mile.

Jonah and I spend the morning and afternoon exploring slices of the Rouge River that run through parts of Southfield, Beverly Hills and Birmingham.

We use Oakland County’s Rouge Green Corridor guide to figure out where to park and how to access the Rouge from its often hidden locations.

We learn that the path we’re on keeps running along the Rouge and connects Booth Park to Linden Park. But we never make it far enough south to hit Linden Park.

We’ll save that for another day when we need a reprieve from suburbia.

Valley Woods Nature Preserve is another stop. It’s a crazy, joyous surprise that we find nestled under the intersection of Civic Center Drive and Telegraph Road.

Meandering north along this peaceful stretch of the Rouge River, we quickly become immersed in nature – a jarring juxtaposition from the blacktop, office towers and strip malls I usually associate with Southfield.

Amidst a host of Michigan hardwoods, purple forget-me-knots, dragonflies and bird prattle, we drift along the river’s edge, Jonah walking quickly, and then slowly, in sync with his own thoughts and in his own world.

Being out here is meditative.

He prefers to walk ahead and walk alone mostly, occasionally stopping, distracted by boy things, like dead bugs, mysterious holes in the ground, piles of brush to tunnel through, narrow channels of water to leap over.

Sightings of a slithering snake and a white-tailed bunny are bonuses.

As we walk north, the hum of the freeway gains volume, and we eventually end up at the bottom of a grassy meadow that leads up to an I-696 overpass. It’s more than a little strange, really, this clash of nature and the modern, multi-lane freeway.

We quickly retreat back to the path, returning along the same route, and Jonah holds my hand the whole way back, maybe seeking comfort from the discordance that his nine-year-old brain can’t quite process.

Still, I think, how lucky we are to have the Rouge River and its tributaries run through our county and give all who live here, especially children, a place of sanctuary and a place for discovery.

Many people, myself included, believe that a child’s curiosity is best nurtured outside in nature. It’s good for their cognitive development to play outside in an unstructured setting.

Jonah is my best example: he makes his own decisions and solves complex problems when he’s outside as a free spirit. So, we’ll be back to the Rouge soon and see what else the river has to offer.

Author’s note: Before Jonah’s return crossing of the Rouge River, where this story started, he found a large log in the woods, dragged it to the river, and rolled it out to the spot he couldn’t quite clear on his trip over. Problem solved – in nature!


Get out on the Rouge River and enjoy its many delights. Or take part in the Rouge’s ongoing cleanup efforts; volunteer or donate to Friends of the Rouge.

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