A Dream Come True—An Essay on Preserving the Crystal River

From our 2005 Fall Newsletter

December 2005–It was close to Christmas when we arrived at the Glen Arbor Town Hall, lugging a punch bowl, press packets and maps of the Crystal River. Clerk Bonnie Quick led us up narrow stairs and unlocked a thick pine door. When she flipped on the lights, a warm glow emanated from the polished maple floor that doubles as a community basketball court.

We had come to this place to celebrate the saving of the Crystal River. A deal that will ultimately transfer 104 acres and 6,300 feet of river frontage from The Homestead to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park had culminated just the day before. Closing papers had been signed between The Homestead and the Leelanau Conservancy. In a huge leap of faith, our organization took out $4.85 million in loans to buy 59 of The Homestead’s 104 acres to hold until federal funds become available to transfer the land to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park. The remaining acreage had already been purchased or would be purchased soon by the National Park.

For weeks, we had postponed celebration plans. Negotiations we had hoped would wrap up in June dragged into the fall, and then late fall. A transaction of this magnitude and this complicated called for piles of documents that seemed to shuffle endlessly between attorneys and bankers.

But then, suddenly, it was done. Founding Executive Director Brian Price, who had lost many a night’s sleep over the last year as the deal and its components were laid on the table and pulled off any number of times, came back to the office late one evening, tired, but triumphant.

The closing was the final chapter in a long history–a history that had begun, ironically, in the Town Hall itself, nearly two decades ago. Here on November 5, 1986, Glen Arbor residents had argued past midnight in this very gymnasium about a proposal to build a golf course along the fragile Crystal River.

The nucleus of what would become the 700-member Friends of the Crystal River was born. And, an 18-year odyssey began that would attract the attention of the national media, pull in politicians from Lansing to Washington DC, pit scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency against the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and ultimately require an act of Congress and the Leelanau Conservancy to solve.

As we set out plates of cookies and a Crystal River slide show flashed on the wall, the room began to fill with guests. All who came had had some hand in saving the river. A reporter from TV 7-4 set up a camera and began to interview people. There were shouts of recognition, hugs and high fives. A number of members from Friends of Crystal River came, including current president Barbara Weber, who burst through the door at the last minute after picking up grandchildren at the airport. She unfurled an 18-year-old aqua flag with the message, “Save the Crystal!” and waved it to a cheering crowd.

Brian asked everyone to gather around and to say who we were and what our connection to the river was. My own history with the Crystal began in 1992, when, in my former life as a writer for Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine, I chronicled the story in a 6,000-word piece. Earlier in the day I re-read the article I’d written—one that had cost me a few of my own sleepless nights. I had forgotten much of what is an incredible story of people working long and hard to save a river they cared deeply about.

Like most everyone there, my family makes an annual float down the Crystal. Bad weather kept us off the river this year until September, when on a brilliant sunny day we had it much to ourselves. Cardinal flowers bloomed at the river’s edge as we ducked under tangled canopies of cedar and hemlock. I relished the knowledge I had then as a staff member of the Conservancy—that we were very close to forever protecting the river from development.

So many others who had come to the Town Hall also had the Crystal meandering through their own family history. As we went around the room, people spoke of their times on the river, of single-minded devotion, of “a day we’ve long been waiting for,” of healing and a community “better off for what it has gone through.” Nick Nerbonne, who was representing The Homestead, is an avid fisherman who talked of a win-win solution for the river, The Homestead and the community.

Notably missing from the crowd was the first president of the Friends, Scott Jones. But his son, Bob, was there, and I had spoken with Scott earlier that morning at his home near Chicago to inform him that the deal had closed. Scott was delighted and wished fervently that he could attend our gathering. “It has turned out the way that it should,” he said simply.

The TV7-4 newsman who had told me he was on a tight schedule had packed his camera, but lingered. The stories of the river and the people and their connection to it went on and on. Finally, Park Superintendent Dusty Shultz, opened a big cardboard box and began presenting miniature wooden canoe paddles to those who had done so much to protect the river, from the Friends to our Conservancy Board to representatives from the Park Service and Senator Levin’s, Dave Camp and Debbie Stabenow’s office.

After punch and cookies, everyone loaded into cars and drove over to the Crystal. We parked at a spot off Dunns Farm Road where Dusty and Park Service crew had installed a temporary sign and small platform. Those who had been given paddles edged down the bank and hopped onto the platform. On the count of three, they dipped their paddles in the slow moving waters of the Crystal, and then raised them to the cheers of the crowd lining the road. Even the TV newsman, who I guessed had decided this was the best story of the day, had stuck around to film the dipping.

Susan Price popped a bottle of L. Mawby Conservancy champagne. We raised our Dixie cups and toasted to the river, to Park officials and politicians, to Scott Jones and the Friends, to the Conservancy and everyone else who had had helped to make this dream come true. I thought about how, in this world where bad news is often the story of the day, what good things can happen when people come together for a cause.

The crowd slowly, and, it seemed, reluctantly, began to disperse. I took a last look at the river. Snow lay like pillows on the rushes turned brown by the season. Meanwhile, the setting sun lit up the cedars and birches, standing like sentinels, keeping watch over the river cared for by so many.—Carolyn Faught, December 2005.

One response to “A Dream Come True—An Essay on Preserving the Crystal River”

  1. Kasha Sanner says:

    Thank you for this article !

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