We came to a fork in the boardwalk.
To the right was the trail back to the visitor center. To the left was the swamp. We turned left, following the wooden path through a thick canopy of trees.
We had no idea what we’d find.
It was the end of our visit to Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, a 132-acre green space just outside downtown Grand Rapids known internationally for its horticulture and outdoor art.
We had spent two hours strolling through woodlands, wetlands, and gardens designed by renowned landscape artists.
In the carnivorous greenhouse we had resisted sticking our fingers into the mouths of Venus flytraps. In the shade forest we had rested on a bench next to an algae-coated pond that gave the opening a greenish glow.
The air smelled like pine and cut grass. Everything was perfect.
Until we turned a corner and discovered a six-foot tall spider guarding a sac of eggs in a clearing.
Scattered throughout Meijer Gardens are more than 200 sculptures, ranging from works by 19th century masters, to modern creations by emerging designers.
The wide variety of sculptures landed Meijer Gardens on a list of one of the top 100 most-visited art museums worldwide, alongside the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and the Museum of Modern Art.
The juxtapositions of steel and paint against the natural backdrops were pleasantly startling.
The silver tentacles of a sculpture called Neuron stretched across an open meadow. Two body-less heads surrounded by axes rested on a wooden table in a field.
We ventured onto mowed grass still covered in dew to get a closer look at the sculptures. It was a Thursday afternoon and we mostly had the trails to ourselves.
Then we met the man with the red backpack.
After following the boardwalk into the swamp, we nearly ran into a man standing alone on the path. Through a clearing in the trees he watched four swans about 40 feet away circle something in the lake.
“She’s protecting something,” the man said, not looking away from the water.
In the middle of the swans was a small brown duck. It flapped and squawked and lunged at the towering swans. They hissed, backed away, then ventured closer.
I marveled how the duck, barely a fifth of the swans’ size, was able to hold its own against the bigger birds.
“She’s a mother,” said the man with the red backpack.
That’s when we saw it. In the wake of the flapping duck a small billed head popped out of the water. The submerged duckling appeared to be stuck on something below the surface.
The three of us watched as it struggled to move more than a few inches in any direction. The swans edged closer. The duck’s head slipped below the water again and a knot caught in my throat. We had to try and help that duckling.
Greg and I left the man and his backpack and returned to the visitor center. Maybe – just maybe – we could get someone to help the duckling before it drowned or was attacked by the swans. Inside the main hall we found two gardeners tending a shrub near the water fountain.
“There’s a duck stuck on something in the river and it looks like it’s about to get attacked by swans!” I told one of the bewildered-looking gardeners.
She was sympathetic to the animal’s plight and said she would call an outdoor horticulturist, but it was unclear if anyone could help. When I told her someone would need access to a boat, she just sighed and said she’d do what she could.
Dejected, we walked back outside. We had tried to help, but the duckling probably wasn’t going to make it.
We needed a beer.
Then we saw the man with the red backpack emerge from the boardwalk, his eyes bright. He walked quickly in our direction.
“Hey!” he said. “The duckling got free!”
He explained that it kept swimming back and forth, getting a little farther each time. Eventually it freed itself from whatever it was trapped on and hightailed it away from the swans. The mother lunged at the large birds one more time before following her newly-freed offspring, the man said.
He had hoped he could find us to share what happened. “I knew you guys were concerned,” he said.
We thanked him, everyone smiling. He waved goodbye, adjusted his backpack and walked back toward the wetlands.
For a minute, everything was okay with the world. We went to the gardens’ cafe to find that beer.