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Grapevine Swings

I suspect thatchildren today are too entangled in electronic diversions to be acquainted withTarzan, but many members of earlier generations were entranced by his mystique.The aspect of Tarzan movies that I liked best was his ability to traverse thejungle thrillingly and speedily by swinging on vines from treetop to treetop.


When I first spiedthe thick, fibrous grapevines hosted by the tall trees in Saugatuck's woodedhills, I though that my dream had come true, that I too would be able to swing heartstoppingly through the forest, but I soon found outotherwise. Different than Tarzan's loose lianas, these were wild grapevines,solidly rooted in the ground, and although their tentacles were tightly meshedwith the upper branches of the trees they had grown up with, they could notmove.


Atmy insistence, my father cut one off for me, but as we had not understood thatthe vine had to be located in a certain kind of place, on a hillside, the ridethat resulted was aimless and far from exciting.


EventuallyI came across one which was properly (and noisily) in use. My cousins and I,walking along the dirt road that leads to Ox-Bow, heard and saw some kidspartway up the slope across from the semicircular rest seat that commemoratedthe original winding route of the Kalamazoo.They were swinging high up and far out, and, although we were too shy tointerrupt them then, we returned the following day to find the vine whichsomeone had cut for their enjoyment in what we saw was an ideal place. The vinehad grown near the bottom of the hill among some well-spaced large trees. Ithad been cut several feet above its roots so that it would not drag on theground when carried to a perch high enough to assure a wide arc of swing. Weenjoyed that grapevine several times that summer, but never encountered theones for whom it had been prepared.


Fromthen on, a favorite project each summer was to search for a well-locatedgrapevine and ready it for takeoff. Sometimes scratchy bushes and saplings thatstood in the flight path had to be eliminated. It took serious exploration tofind one that could be made into a desirable swing, and some summers we weremore successful than others. None was, unfortunately, any good the next year,as the dead vine lost its grip on the parent tree and a arisk taker might boldly launch, only to be gently let down as the canopiedtangle gave bit by bit.


This amusementwas so much a part of our regular summer pattern in Saugatuck, that my daughterthought it would be a universally known source of fun. As a back-to-schoolassignment one September she and her 4th grade classmates were asked to mimesome activity that they had especially enjoyed over the summer. Not only thestudents, but the teacher as well, were mystified by Lisa's pantomimed search,testing for strength, sawing, and gripping with both hands held high whilemoving back and up (she stepped onto a chair.) Those Californians knew nothingof the possibilities in Michiganwoods.


Onemore recollection: the last time I was in Saugatuck, some seasons back, I cameacross a beautifully prepared vine, carefully caught up on the branches of asapling. I was walking the Fishtown Trail, theremnant of an old wagon road. This path forks off from the Old Water Tower Roadand leads to the lagoon, or what was in busy river days the docks. Cutout of a steep hillside, the trail itself is flat and easy to walk with a deepravine on one side, and the temptation that I faced here was serious. I wasalready entering my so-called "golden years" and probably should nothave been contemplating flight. How old was the vine? Would it take my weight?Could I hold on for the wide arc this vine would provide? Did I dare? You bet!


Icouldn't resist and stayed for quite a while enjoying several glorious flights.I looked a few days later but was never able to find it again, but I havealways remembered my last, great grapevine experience, an unexpected gift froman unknown benefactor.


Tarzan's jungle hadnothing on Saugatuck forests!


-- by Helen Gage DeSoto


[In later, environmentally conscious, daysthe grapevine was replaced by a thick rope that hung from a bent tree over thesand path down the south side of Baldhead. The rope was in place into the1980's. Some said it was a rope salvaged from "The Swinging Tree," atall tree that leaned out over the Kalamazoo River from the west bank about ahalf mile downriver from Willow Park permitting swingers to drop into the riverbelow at the height of their wide arc. Dick and Deb Hoffman who ran the Island Queen excursion boat tended the rope and itappears on one of Debbie's tourist maps. The tree to which the riverside ropewas attached toppled in high water about 1976.]