GORDY TELFER: Clay Cliff and Niche Pool

Gordon Telfer is a 4th generation (near) native to Big Rapids. He is the husband of a most wonderful wife and father of two fantastic sons. He is a graduate of Big Rapids High School and has worked many jobs in Big Rapids, retiring after thirty years from Ferris State University College of Pharmacy.

There was a place where the cool waters of Mitchell Creek would form a pool and lap gently at a sandy beach below a steep bluff of sand and clay. Back in the day, we called this little Eden “Bare Niche Pool,” and the steep bluff was and is known as “Clay Cliff.”

It was a place where one could languish in the cool waters or lay on the warm sand unhindered by a swimming suit. One might liken the experience as a sort of return of the soul to nature. Of course nobody’s moms would never have approved of this activity, but we just thought it was great fun.

Naturally these forays into the wild were unisex affairs. It would have been unthinkable to have even considered being otherwise. We did wonder if girls ever frequented this area, with or without the same intent. At that time in our lives it was quite a frightening thought, and besides, what would a girl be doing in the woods anyway? (In a recent email on this subject, Nancy Doyle, a friend of mine, related that she and some of her friends did spend time swimming at Niche Pool.)

OLD TIMES: Gordy Telfer recently took a walk to Clay Cliffs Nature Area, an area he used to visit when he was younger. As a child, the waters of Mitchell Creek formed a pool that they called “Bare Niche Pool.” Today, the pool no longer exists, but children used to camp near the area and spent their time swimming at the natural pool. (Courtesy photo)

At the head of the pool, on a little higher ground, there was a grassy knoll. This made for a great spot to set up camp. We would use this area as a base camp as we would explore the surrounding woodlands. There was an existing rock ring for a fire. All you needed as additional gear was a blanket, hot dogs (with or without buns), a can of pork and beans, some marshmallows and maybe a couple of peanut butter sandwiches. Of course you also had your canteen, knife, hatchet, a skillet, a dollop or two of bacon grease from the container on moms stove, some matches and your trusty Red Ryder BB gun.

Why you could stay out there for weeks on end and foraging like a mountain man. There were fish, frogs and a multitude of other creatures you could cook up and eat. Of course most of our camp outs were limited to one and maybe two days, but one could dream of spending an entire summer away from civilization just living off the land.

The Clay Cliff had a special attraction to us. It rose rather steeply from the creek edge for about 20 feet. Then it abruptly shot straight up for 15 or 20 feet. The vertical section was pockmarked with nest holes formed by Cliff Swallows and one could use these holes for hand and foot holds as you worked your way up to and over the top.

Climbing the cliff itself was not a venture for the faint of heart. It could be a pretty good fall if one would lose his footing or if a handhold of the sandy clay pulverized in your hand. And it was not a good idea to look down. Many did and a kind of paralysis would set into your body — you couldn’t go up, and you couldn’t go down. A real nail-biting experience that would be, you just had to grit your teeth and close your eyes as you slowly tried to work your way back down the cliff to safety. Only one thing was worse than backing down, and that would have been to start crying, in front of your pals; that would be the ultimate downer.

CLIFF HANGER: As a child, Gordy Telfer and his friends used to camp at Clay Cliffs Nature Area. There the boys climbed up the steep embankment hoping not to fall. (Courtesy photo)

Of course in climbing up, the hardest part was when you reached the top. You ran out of handholds and your body was forced out away from the cliff. This placed your body in a position of pulling you away from the face of the cliff. The grass at the top tended to not only be a little slippery, but as you took a death grip on a clump of it, it tended to break free and … well it wouldn’t be a pretty sight to see your buddy fall to his demise toward the creek below.

Provided you reached the top, there was a large tree under which you could lay in its cool shade and look out over the landscape below and far beyond. Life was good.

Of course there was an easier way to get to the top. But that would not be as much fun as risking your life. However, we did take advantage of that route to make the trip back down.

Once on the easy way up, Larry Carr, an old buddy of mine, and me were in kind of a race to see who could get to the top first. I was in the process of climbing over Larry when my foot slipped. Down I fell for a foot or two. My fall was stopped by my inner elbow being impaled on the tang of a file sticking out from Larry’s hip pocket. I still bare the scar from that wound. My friendly phlebotomist informed me years later that I was lucky as it had just missed an artery. If nothing else, it did teach me to slow down a little in the future.

I recently took a walk up the creek to revisit Clay Cliff and Niche Pool. It was a bitter sweet encounter. Walking the paths brought back many memories of my youth. At the same time, I was made aware of the changes made over the years. Torrential rains have made their contribution of erosion. That coupled with the droughty conditions we have been experiencing have taken a great toll on the area. The creeks flow has been reduced to a mere trickle; its stony bottom has become a highway of sand. Niche Pool is no more, the pools depth too has been filled with sand. The Clay Cliff remains, but it has eroded considerably. Its smooth clay face is rife with gullies like the weathered face of an old man.

I think it was my grandmother who once rightly said, “You can go back in your mind, but you can’t go back in time.”

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