Water Always Seeks Its Own Level

By Mardi Link

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A true story of love, landscape, and flooded memories in northern Michigan.

“Your boys like fish?” the man asked, holding up a pike bigger than a yardstick for my sons to marvel at. When they said yes he laid it down in the grass, pulled a fillet knife out of the worn sheath he wore on his belt, and cleaned it right then and there. After that, the fish arrived already skinned and boned, ready for the fry pan or the grill.

Three times I told the man, “No,” to his other question, and I meant it. Every time. I really did.

The first time, it was for one simple reason. I had young sons to raise, all on my own, and they needed every bit of me. At night, after I put them to bed, after I breathed in their boy smells and read them old storybooks and closed their bedroom doors, there was nothing left over for a full-grown man. And I mean, nothing. There wasn’t even anything left over for me.

Months passed. The man hung around. He plowed my long, snow-drifted driveway, fixed my chicken coop, and brought us trout and pike he caught in the river near his house. He preferred my company alone to my company with the boys, but after staying for a family dinner of salmon patties one summer night, he asked me again.

By then, I had another reason to say no. I had not been a particularly good wife the first time around, and I admitted that to the man. I believed past acts were often the best predictor of future behavior, mine included. Meaning, there was a high degree of certainty that I would not make a good wife if I were to try it a second time, either. Nope, not even if I tried it with him.

Years passed. The man stayed. I liked it. By the third time he asked, my sons were teenagers, and my past seemed further and further away, almost as if it had happened to someone else. Some other raggedy woman drank all that wine and cussed out the bill collectors. Some other woman stayed out late, played pool in bars, while her husband and sons slept in their beds at home, alone. At least when the game was 8-ball, no slop, there was some small comfort in knowing she won much of the time.

But those were someone else’s victories. Had to be, because the pool table in my basement was covered up and dusty, just a nice flat expanse at waist level now, perfect for lining up clay pots to sprout some window box geraniums.

Maybe I really was a changed woman. Maybe I really was.

“No,” I said, for the third time.

“You don’t even have a good reason anymore,” the man said.

He was right. I didn’t have a good reason anymore, or at least I didn’t have a good reason I could articulate. But that was still my answer. No explanation, no discussion, just, “No.”

All sorts of things can go wrong in a marriage. Things you thought would hold together forever can turn out to be surprisingly, hopelessly fragile. Beliefs you had in your youth, that you were certain were solid and shared, can still shift unexpectedly like they were constructed on nothing more than a steep bank of river sand. Once your footing starts to slip, then slips a little more, the breach finally opens, all wide and obvious.

But the man who was angling to be my husband was a determined sort. And resourceful, too. On one of our evening dates, he took me fishing. Not wading in the river by his house, but trolling for salmon in a boat, on the big water. As soon as we were out deep, the outboard motor on his 18’ StarCraft sputtered and quit. We were in the middle of the Grand Traverse Bay, a mile from shore, and it was getting dark. The sonar pulses his Fishfinder sent down into the deep reported this on a tiny greenish screen: we were in 450 feet of water.

“There go the downriggers,” he said, already reeling yards and yards of line into the safety of the boat.

If I have a good quality, it is that I’m not prone to panic. I’m good in the clutch. Plus, I can swim. And so while the boat drifted, I trailed one hand in the steely water and drank a beer with the other. He picked through his three-story tackle box and assembled a spool of wire, a pair of needle-nose pliers, and some fisheye-sized metal sinkers. Out of his shirt pocket came his cigarette lighter and then off came the cover of the boat motor. He heated up the sinkers with the lighter until he could manipulate the metal with his calloused fingers. There was some battlefield surgery at the back of the boat inside what looked to my eyes like a mechanical heart. When he finished, the man put the pliers and the remaining wire away, closed the tackle box, replaced the cover on the outboard motor and it started up again with one good pull. The fix was so quick I didn’t even have time to finish my beer.

The sun dropped into the wet horizon like an egg. I looked into his determined face and thought, It is feasible that this man would be undaunted by wine, debt, or even a woman’s late night longing to attempt an impossible double bank shot. It is feasible that a man like this didn’t care one whit for pool table geraniums.

“I’ll marry you,” I whispered, though he didn’t hear me over the blare of the Evinrude, running as it was by then, wide open. I hung on to the gunnels, hair flying, as we sped past the mouth of the Boardman River, where it emptied into the west arm of the Grand Traverse Bay, bounced over the hard little waves as if they were only speed bumps, and made it to the boat launch just before dark.

“I’ll marry you,” I told him the next afternoon, a Saturday, and the sun was back up and we were safe on land, sitting in a pair of old metal chairs on my front porch. My sons were off doing their teenager things and the only sounds competing with my declaration this time were a family of chickadees and a breeze in the honeysuckle vine.

“Let’s go buy you a ring then,” he said, grinning. “Right now, before you change your mind.”


Our habitat in northwestern Michigan is a mix of vast tracts of state land, sand dune beaches, fishing resorts, big hotels, trailer parks, cherry farms, and small towns, all of it floating on, or surrounded by, fresh water. Rivers, lakes, ponds, and bays, the water here connects us, feeds us, quenches our thirst, entertains us, and until recently, even powered us and lit our way.

My century-old farmhouse sits on four acres south of town, exactly three miles from the Grand Traverse Bay, where the man took me fishing. Another six miles south is a much smaller body of water, the Brown Bridge Pond, that empties into the Boardman River. The man, a cabinetmaker, lived on that river. It flowed within 100 yards of his house and woodshop, and it’s where he caught the trout and the pike for my sons and me.

After the Boardman River flows past the man’s house, but before it empties into the Grand Traverse Bay, it sends out dozens of small tributaries, some underground, and many that run close to my farmhouse. The farmers who built my house in 1895 tapped one of these underground springs for their well; the same spring that my sons and I use for that well today. Until recently, and until what we just call “when the dam busted,” but what the engineers call “The Brown Bridge Pond Incident,” everyone around here got their electricity from the river, too. Or, rather, we got it from the power plant, that got it from the Boardman Dam, that got it from the Brown Bridge Pond and the Boardman River. That’s how things had been for more than a century.

What happened makes me think about the man and me. Because when it comes right down to it, the pioneers who built the hydroelectric dams were really just trying to tell the river, “No.” And I can appreciate that. All water ever really wants to do is seek its own level, and so by design, the pioneer men knew that their “No” was just a temporary command. They’d alternate no with yes, no with yes, on and on, to infinity. That’s how hydroelectric dams work; by holding back, then giving way, then holding back some more, and giving again. It’s that conflict of give and take that creates the electricity. And I can appreciate that, too.

It was the 1860s when those damns were first contemplated. The rugged outpost of Traverse City, Michigan was growing fast on the riches land speculators found in its surrounding forests. According to a historic photograph popular here, there was timber as far as three skinny men standing upon each other’s shoulders could see, and fortunes to be made on it. The white pines were dense, straight, and endless as prairie grass, grown and fed by all that clean water surrounding and winding through the northern tip of the mitten. The lumberjacks, the sawmills, and the boat builders needed electricity, and so a system of five hydroelectric dams was constructed on the Boardman River. The biggest one, a concrete, earth, and sand wall 650 feet long and 43 feet high, was built in 1864 at the spillway between the Brown Bridge Pond and the Boardman River, a spot that is today just two miles from the man’s house and woodshop. All the power of a big watershed created 10,000 years ago by glaciers, was stored and then meted out to the mills’ grinding wheels, the boat builders’ saw blades, and the modern wall lamps in fine Victorian parlors that lit what I imagine were the pioneer’s wives’ contented faces.

When it was finished, the Boardman River Dam included gargantuan turbines and generators of the latest design. The whole colossus was built on a scale befitting the size of the forests and the size of the new opportunities to be found there. The structure was a giant, sparkling marvel, and the men surely believed it would last forever.


A big pear-shaped diamond is an inconceivable choice for a woman who gardens, cooks, cuts wood, cans, and has an old farmhouse that needs constant attention and repair, but I spied it sparkling happily away there in the glassed-in jewelry case, and chose it anyway. The man, who was a fisherman, but also a hockey player, an old car tinkerer, and a cabinet-maker, was much more practical than me and selected a plain gold band for himself. In wedding photographs, my long fingers look pale and freckled next to his bear paws, but still, it was the same clear-eyed light that glinted off both of those rings.

Only mine is still on my finger.

The man’s knuckles are big, and although he’s been married twice before, he has never worn a wedding ring. Not for either one of those other wives would he do it, though he must have loved them at one time or another. At least, early on he must have loved them. I like to imagine that he did.

But in order to get a ring over that knuckle, past those thick callouses and all the way down to the base of his finger, it had to be two sizes too big. That was the only way, but then once on, it would spin and shift. Dangerous when you remember he spent his days working with sharpened blades and sharpened chisels and even sharper block planes. He kept all this to himself though, only smiled at me in the jewelry store and then let me slip the gold ring on his finger during the ceremony. He kept his woodshop, rented out his house, moved in with my sons and me, and kept that ring on.

Until, on a winter hike we made together around Brown Bridge Pond, past the dam, and through the frozen river basin, it slipped off. His hands were cold and so he only noticed that it was missing late that night, when were back home, inside my house, and warm again. I didn’t notice his finger was bare for a whole week, maybe more. He’d been working late every night, and we hadn’t seen that much of each other. At least, not in the day we hadn’t. Not in the light.

“I thought you would say it was a bad omen,” he said, when I asked him why he hadn’t told me about the missing ring. First marriages are full of hope and ideas for the future, and I can only imagine that third marriages must be beyond all reason. But in second marriages, you can’t help but look for signs, good ones and bad ones. You don’t have to be a soothsayer to count a lost wedding ring among the latter. At least, I didn’t.

But as it turned out, he wasn’t really working late, after all. He’d been working regular hours during the day, but afterwards was walking around Brown Bridge Pond and the dam in the snow, in the dark, with a flashlight and a dwindling sense that a good sign was ever going to present itself in those cold woods. Time was not his friend in this endeavor, either. The dam, the pond, and the whole Boardman River habitat around it, was slated for “restoration.” Talk was that soon the usually wild and sparsely populated woods, pond, dam, and river, would be full of engineers, heavy equipment, truck drivers, and water scientists.

“I’ll help you look,” I said, putting on long underwear, snowpants, boots, and my winter jacket.

We didn’t find his ring buried in the snow that winter. We didn’t find it gleaming in the mud that spring, either, and we didn’t find it resting on a green patch of moss in the summer. We did see the engineers and their heavy equipment, plotting and planning. We nodded to the truck drivers and the water scientists, but we never saw the man’s ring. We just didn’t find it, not even with a borrowed metal detector.

“I’ll buy you another one,” I said, shifting the thin band of the big pear diamond on my ring finger back and forth with my thumb.

“I don’t want another one,” the man said. “I want that one.”


Experts said it was going to be the biggest hydroelectric dam removal project in Michigan’s history, and the largest wetlands restoration project ever attempted anywhere in the whole Great Lakes region. The Boardman River Dam system, of pent up water from Brown Bridge Pond that the early lumber barons believed would power Traverse City forever, had lasted for 145 years. In 2005, Traverse City Light & Power decided the dams no longer made economic sense. In 2007, the year I fell in love with the man, they shut them down completely. The people in charge all agreed that the math used to make that decision looked sound. Not the decision about love, but the decision about shutting down the dams.

They were old and tired and a study by the Army Corps of Engineers found it would cost the utility as much as $16 million to repair and restore them, with an expected return of only half that in new revenue. It was going to be a little bit more expensive for us per kilowatt hour, but electricity for residential customers like me, my sons, and the man, could be had from a local electrical co-op, or generated by Traverse Light & Power’s new wood-burning power plant, as well as by their experimental wind turbines. When the utility abandoned the dams, environmentalists saw an opportunity to preserve a vast wetland. They wanted the dams not only decommissioned, but removed altogether so the Boardman River could be restored to its natural, free flowing state. That meant not only getting rid of the dams, but getting rid of Brown Bridge Pond, too. An expensive proposition, but the environmentalists were willing to help pay for it.  

In 2010, the year the man and I got married, the Great Lakes Fisheries Trust pledged $1 million toward the cost to remove the dams. The Conservation Resource Alliance and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians kicked in another $500,000. The federal government added $100,000 via the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and when complete the project was supposed to make six miles of the Boardman River free flowing again, connecting up more than 300 acres of fragile river basin habitat.

While the man and I were on our honeymoon, spending a week on a rented houseboat, fishing, reading, and hiking a faraway shoreline, the engineers were sharpening their pencils. Of the four dams to be removed, the one at the Brown Bridge Pond was the biggest, the furthest upstream, and therefore should certainly be the first to go. But it was also the trickiest. The old dam might not be able to generate worthwhile electricity anymore, but it could still generate concern: the level of water in the pond was still 20 feet higher than the level of water in the river. The engineers pitted their need to solve a problem, against the water’s need to seek its own level, and believed, with a high degree of certainty, that their human solution was infallible. The water in the pond would just have to be drawn down slowly. That was the answer.

By the time the man and I returned from our honeymoon, the newspapers piled up on our front porch reported the final plan was in place to remove the Brown Bridge Dam. What the engineers called TDS, “the dewatering structure”—essentially a waterproof gate they could control—would be installed at the dam to draw down the water in the pond gradually, 12 inches per day for 20 days. In hydroelectricity, whether making it or ending it, conflict only occurs when one body of water contains more volume than the other. Once the two were equal, the danger would be past and the dam could be safely removed.

The engineers would need some time to get ready, and to build the dewatering system. They would need two years, but when that time was up, in the fall of 2012, their plan was sure to work.


At 10 a.m. on Saturday, October 6, 2012, the man was working in his River Road woodshop. I was at home, outside with my sons, happy for a good day with no wind, because we were raking leaves, closing up the garden shed, and putting away the metal porch chairs.

At 10 a.m. on Saturday, October 6, 2012 the Boardman River Restoration Project engineers were standing on the dam, patting each other on the back, and lifting the dewatering system—that expensive gate they thought they could control—with, I imagine, fist bumps and high fives. Here was their chance to tell the water no, then yes, then no again. Here was their chance to allow all that water to seek its own level, at a pace they decreed and controlled.

But in nature the beliefs you thought were solid, can still shift unexpectedly, like they were constructed on nothing more than a steep bank of river sand.

Within minutes, the dam was breached. The water level in the Brown Bridge Pond dropped a catastrophic three feet, just like that. A sinkhole opened next to the dewatering system and so much water rushed over and around the dam all at once that the men had to shout to be heard over it. At 11 a.m. a state of emergency was issued, nearby bridge crossings were closed, and the pond that was once a half mile across shrunk to a sad wet line a couple feet deep and a dozen feet wide. The life it once held, caddis flies, water bugs, snakes, snails, fish, frogs, and turtles, were stranded in the muck. Thousands of trout and pike first flopped, then gasped for air, and finally died.

At 11:35 a.m. the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning and people living along the river were evacuated, including the man from his woodshop. Docks were washed away, yards and basements flooded, homes ruined. All day the Boardman River flowed up the man’s long dirt driveway, and finally crested after dark, just before it reached his shop. But the clear, free-flowing river the engineers were so sure they could create had turned a sickly dead brown, even miles downstream.

Over the next several hours, frogs dried up, turtles panicked and headed for the dark of the dry forest, and more fish died, their gills clogged with silt. People reported finding mature pike as long as a yardstick, dead or dying on beds of pine needles, hundreds of feet back in the woods. Dump trucks from area construction companies raced to the scene with big loads of concrete slabs, and the dam was finally stabilized sometime late that night. The Brown Bridge Pond and the Boardman River were one, each had sought and found their own level, at their own pace, which turned out to be five feet above any historic high water mark the pioneers had ever recorded. The pond drawdown that the engineers planned to allow over 20 days happened in just 20 minutes.


The next morning the man and I watched the television news. The engineers said they had no idea why their dewatering system didn’t work. There would be studies, they said, nodding to each other and to the camera, and there would be meetings.

I listened to them talk their gibberish and thought about all those fish, the ones the man caught for me and for my sons, the ones that wouldn’t be there for him to catch anymore, and the ones that died in the woods.   I thought about the wet skin of frogs turned to sharply flaking paper, and the turtles lost and circling the base of tall trees, looking for water. I thought about how the man solved problems; patiently, resourcefully, practically. Although I knew full well he was a cabinetmaker and not an engineer, I silently wished that he had been in charge of removing the dam. Then the fish would still be alive, the turtles would be in their homes, and the river would still be clean and clear.

The man picked up the remote to turn off the television and in that motion I noticed, once again, his bare finger. And wondered where his wedding ring was now. I pictured it in a still life with dead fish, dried up frogs, and panic-stricken turtles. In second marriages, you can’t help but look for signs, good ones and bad ones, and you don’t have to be a soothsayer to count a wedding ring lost in a flooded river among the latter. At least, I didn’t have to be.

“I’m going down there,” he said, his voice low and furious.

“You can’t,” I said, “They just said the road is blocked off. There’s police keeping people out.”

“I don’t care. I’m going down there. Are you coming with me or what?”

The man parked the truck on a side road, told me to wait, he’d be back in just a minute. He was pretty sure he couldn’t do anything to help, but he wanted to find that out for himself. So I stayed there and watched him walk into the woods. His truck was parked a quarter mile from the dam, out of sight of the police barricade, and while I waited a half hour went by. If I have a good quality, it is that I’m not prone to panic. I’m good in the clutch. I spent the time sitting in the passenger seat listening to the radio news, leaning on his driver’s side door, then pacing, but finally I walked into those woods, toward the man and the dam. We met each other halfway, me walking into the trees and him walking out. In his calloused hand he was carrying a cracked and dirty five-gallon bucket.

“Look,” the man said, thrusting it toward me.

I peered in. Turtles. And they were alive. In the bucket were four mature painted turtles, red and green stripes on their dark necks, algae hanging off the pale circular plates that made up their bottom shells, their eyes all blinking in confusion.

“Too late for the fish,” he said, “but not for these guys.”

In second marriages, you can’t help but look for signs, good ones and bad ones. And you don’t have to be a soothsayer to know that loving a man who would defy the police in order to rescue turtles is among the former. At least, I didn’t.

Back in the truck, I held the bucket on my lap and muddy water leaked out of the crack and onto my jeans. The man turned off the radio and drove slowly. He didn’t want to frighten the turtles any more than they already had been frightened by their circumstances, he said, and instead of the news we listened to their claws scrape the inside of the bucket. Two miles down a dirt road he stopped at another pond, a smaller one off by itself and not connected to the flooded river. At least, not connected to it aboveground, because it looked undisturbed, and not flooded at all. It looked clear and calm.

We got out of the truck and walked to the edge of this new pond and crouched down in the cattails. I lowered the mouth of the bucket and the four lives he spared scrambled out. Ripples spread on the bright water, reflecting sparkles of sun, and this pond was so clear that even several feet below the surface my husband and I could see those four disk-like bodies seek a safe level, wobble toward the bottom, their feet working and working like leathery fins. Their bodies turned with each stroke, and light glinted off their pale undersides like rings.

All sorts of things can go wrong in a marriage. And all sorts of things can go wrong when people try to control nature. Metal and machines and rituals that you thought would hold forever can turn out to be surprisingly, hopelessly fragile. Beliefs you were certain were solid, can shift unexpectedly like they were constructed on nothing more than a steep bank of river sand. But water—and men, and women, and fish, and even turtles—are still going to try, with everything they have, to seek their own level.

Some of them will even find it.



Mardi Link is the author of the memoir Bootstrapper: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm (Knopf), winner of GLIBA’s Booksellers’ Choice Award and the Michigan Notable Book Award. Her personal essays have been published in Bellingham Review, Creative Nonfiction, Dunes Review, and Publishers Weekly. She lives in northern Michigan.

Header photo credit: RosieBartolozzi via photopin cc.

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