Recently, I was tracing the origins of the West Branch Ontonagon River on U.S. Geological Survey maps. These were the 7.5-minute topographical maps, the large-scale maps on which one inch represents 24,000 inches on the actual land. This meant I had to look at about six different maps to follow the West Branch Ontonagon from Lake Gogebic to the Victoria Dam reservoir, and several more to follow the rest of the river's journey to the Village of Ontonagon, where the river meets Lake Superior.
Now, anyone who has spent any time with U.S. Geological Survey maps knows they are things of beauty and complexity, but today my subject is not the maps so much as in the river system they portray, the branching tributaries trancing the topographic lines. More precisely, I am interested in the names of these various watercourses.
The West Branch of the Ontonagon River originates from Lake Gogebic's Bergland Bay in northern Gogebic County.
Numerous creeks with names like Knute, Merriweather, Montgomery, Trout, feed directly into Lake Gogebic. So, too, does a complex of creeks - Marshall, Banner, Sparkling, Gypo - that wind through swampland, southeast of Marenisco, flowing together into the Slate River before they flow into the lake.
Flowing northward and eastward from Lake Gogebic, the West Branch grows gradually in size as it enters the Trap Hills. Russell Creek, then Cascade Creek, then Mill Creek flow into it. Mill Creek, itself, is a confluence of Bebo, Match and Langston creeks. Then Woodpecker, Whiskey Hollow, Gleason, and numerous unnamed creeks flow into the West Branch before it joins with the South Branch. And afterwards, creeks with names like Schaat and Johnson flow into the unified river as it flows toward the hydroelectric impoundment, Victoria Reservoir. Erickson and Cushman creeks flow directly into the reservoir.
A lot of this is pretty rugged territory. In the Trap Hills, especially, the topographic lines on the map look like the grain of twisted, knotted, burled wood. This is a country of hard hiking, which causes me to wonder about the name of Whiskey Hollow Creek. Maybe whiskey was what whomever named that creek wanted a glass of after hiking so far back into the bush. In actuality, I would bet the creek runs through a cedar grove, and the "whiskey" name came from the color the tannins imparted to its water.
It is easy to speculate how some of the creeks got their names. Cascade Creek has a falls a ways upstream from where it meets the West Branch Ontonagon. Sparkling Creek must have been named on a sunny day. Whoever named Woodpecker Creek must have seen a woodpecker nearby (one of this region's many virtues is its preponderance of woodpeckers). Langston, Johnson, and Russell must have been named after people, perhaps friends or relatives of whoever first marked them on maps, if not the mapmakers, themselves. Other creek names, such as Match or Bebo, are inscrutable (unless Bebo, too, was the last name of a mapmaker).
The practice of naming creeks is itself an interesting phenomenon. They would flow together just as surely if they were anonymous. Certainly, the names help with navigating the land. But this could be done just as well with a system of numbers. I think that naming creeks and rivers helps us define our sense of place, and helps us relate to nature. I think the fact that we name them, too, speaks something of the charisma that they possess.