Thursday, July 31, 2014

North Country Redux: Tahquamenon Falls

July 20 2014

Yesterday I gave up my cushy, and guaranteed, campsite on family property and made my way northward.

It was a risky move, being a Michigan summer Saturday and all, but I had a double backup plan. If I wasn't able to get a campsite at either of the Tahquamenon Falls State Park units I could give the state forest campground at Andrus Lake a try, (Apparently the other nearby state forest campground at Shelldrake Dam is closed due to budget issues.) and if that didn't work I would simply backtrack to the casino on the Bay Mills Reservation near Brimley.

Yes, the campground there would probably also be full but if it came to that I wouldn't be looking for an actual campsite anyway, especially one I had to pay for. Casino's are open around the clock and like to see their parking lots full. They don't have to know that the occupant(s) of that van out there in lot C row D don't actually gamble; at least not their kind of gambling.

The campground, almost full but I got in.
After the congestion of Traverse City and Petoskey, and negotiating the bottleneck of the Mackinac Bridge, driving M123 across the Upper Peninsula was a welcome break; 50 miles of woods with exactly one convenience store along the way.

Being the first one I came to, I stopped at the Tahquamenon Falls River Mouth unit first and I'll be danged but they had two open sites. I took the small one which was also farthest from the restrooms. (That's a good thing in case you wondered.)

The river was calm and quiet last evening

Being summer in the north, and on the western edge of the Eastern Time Zone, there was plenty of daylight left for a stroll around the area once I got camp set up. Sun set was officially around 9:30 last night but twilight this far north lasts a long time and it's still light enough to do most everything except read for another hour after that.

This was the parking lot when I first got there.
That also means pre-dawn twilight starts showing up around 5 AM., which is about the time I'm up and moving. (Yeah, that's right, I'm one of those dreaded morning people. . .The best part of the night for me is when it's light enough to officially get up.)

But since my intended destination, the Lower Tahquamenon Falls, didn't officially open until 8 and was only 20 or so miles away I had to cool my heels for a bit. Come 8 though I was driving into the Lower Falls site, catching the gate attendant just as she flipped the sign over to 'Open'.
Here it is a few hours later, not full yet but getting crowded

I found myself alone in the massive parking lot which I thought was unusual enough that I quickly grabbed my camera and ran down to the far end to record this amazing fact. When I got back to the parking lot that afternoon I took another photo from about the same spot.

I wasn't alone anymore. . .

You have to wonder (Well, maybe you don't but I do.) where all these people come from out here in the woods. The commercial district of the nearest town, Paradise, consists of a couple independent restaurants and the combination gas station/convenience/grocery store. But that's summer in the North Country for you. When I was a kid the traffic jams on Sunday, of which we were often part of, from all the people trying to get back home after spending the weekend up north would start over 100 miles north of the population centers everyone was trying to get back to.


 As you might have guessed, since I drove 20 miles and I'm still in the park, Tahquamenon Falls State Park is big, like 75 sq. miles big, and there's not much in the way of road access, but there are plenty of trails to hike.

One of the more popular, for obvious reasons, is the 4 mile River Trail which connects the Lower and Upper Falls.

The Lower Falls are similar to the situation at Niagara where the river is split by an island, only here instead of a couple big drops both branches have to negotiate a series of smaller drops before rejoining into a single unit again below the falls.

Of course the scale is different here too with a total drop of only about 40 feet, but that simply makes it human scale and much more approachable.

You can even rent row-boats from a concessionaire there in the park (Located not far from the gift shop concession. . .) to get over to the island and clamor around. If you would rather not, there are plenty of railed boardwalks on the near side of the river for your viewing pleasure.

 Being a slow moving river there are plenty of opportunities to get your feet wet and even do a little fishing near the falls.

But if you keep heading upstream eventually the boardwalks end and the river trail starts.

At first I had the trail to myself, including this private little beach far enough from either falls that I couldn't hear them, nor much of anything else.

But eventually people started going by. That's right, just like I drive, I'm a slow hiker; I'm there to be there, not to get to the other end; so it wasn't long before I was being overtaken by groups of hikers.

Pecker holes. No not that kind! You should be ashamed of yourself!
And I use the term hiker very loosely, mostly sarcastically, here.

If you can call people in shorts, T-shirts and sandals carrying a single half-liter bottle of water in one hand and constantly waving the other around their head because there isn't a drop of bug juice between them, then - well - you're more charitable than I am.

That's my tax dollars that get used to extract these grossly unprepared people from the woods at the slightest difficulty and I don't appreciate it!

But, company excepted, it was a very pleasant hike up the river with the Upper Falls waiting at the far end.

Unlike the Lower Falls, the Upper Falls make a single drop of just under 50 feet and are the third largest falls in terms of volume and drop east of the Mississippi.

Here you can see how shallow a typical root system is in this sandy soil

At the Upper Falls I hiked out to the parking area along a short nature trail to check out the shuttle that apparently runs between the two falls. I saw a sign for it down at the Lower Falls but it doesn't start running until 1 or 2 in the afternoon so I though I might look into taking it back to the van. Until, that is, I found out they wanted $19 for a four mile ride. That's about the point where I decided to walk back instead! Which was no great hardship since hiking in the other direction is like hiking a whole different trail.

Look carefully at the right center and the people there give scale to this downed tree!

Hiking took up a good chunk of the day but with so much left-over daylight I decided to take advantage by driving up to the tip of Whitefish Point where the Whitefish Point Light House Station has been marking the western entrance to Whitefish Bay since 1849. The current quarters and light tower, pictured to the left, were built during Abraham Lincoln's presidential term in 1861. For much of it's operating life the site was also home to a Lifeboat Rescue Station.

Under the auspices of The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society the site, which includes a half dozen or so buildings, is now operated as a museum.

Appropriately, while I was there a 1000' self-unloading lake freighter was passing far off in the distance. (This photo was taken at 50X zoom) When I was a kid there were a whole lot more vessels on the lakes than today, though most of them topped out in the 600' range at that time, but even today a quick check at this site shows about 36 vessels in Lake Superior alone at the moment, and there's 4 more lakes out there.

Many of those older 600 footers are still out there since, sailing exclusively in fresh water, lake freighters have a lifespan of 40 - 50 years with many going longer than that. In fact the 551' steam powered St. Mary's Challenger just ended her career last year after being launched as the William P Snyder in 1906, but she's not entirely gone even now as her hull has been converted to a barge which will continue to transport powdered cement to various Michigan ports.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

North Country Redux: Twofer and a lighthouse

July 19 2014

As I passed by on my abortive venture into Traverse City yesterday, I scouted out a couple other places listed in my old hiking guide, one of which would serve double-duty. So today it was one if by sea and two if by land, or something like that. . .

I started the morning by huffing and puffing and putting my blow-up kayak into Lake Dubonnet.

If you go past the turnoff to the Cedar Hedge Lake access point, and follow Gonder Rd north all the way to the end, then follow the dirt track in front of you further on in to the woods, you will find a State Forest campground and a boat launch; oh, and Lake Dubonnet.

The lake is the result of a small dam built back in the early 1900’s that turned two small lakes into one
larger lake. The ground in much of the area is sand with a thin overlay of organic material and root systems tend to be shallow. During the initial flooding of the area there are reports that a foot-ball field sized chunk of land, complete with 40 foot trees, floated loose and got blown around the lake by the winds for a while before breaking up.

The remains of flooded woods ringing the lake make it a great fishing spot but terrible for high speed water sports such as jet-skis and the like, which makes it perfect
for some leisurely paddling.  

After exploring the shoreline and stopping off on my own private island for a bit, I returned to the launch, let the air out of my kayak and took to my feet.

Leaving the van right where it was at the boat-launch, which also just happens to be the summer trail-head parking, (Remember I said the last little bit into here is on a dirt track? Well apparently nobody plows that during the winter so you have to park at the end of Gonder Rd. and hoof it in from there during snow season.) I set off on the
Lost Lake Pathway.

There were a few small boats fishing the lake while I was out there but absolutely nobody else out on the trails. My kind of day!

Near the dam site are the remains of project where the plan was to build a corrections camp in the early 1950's. The locals, of which I can't imagine there were too many of back then, objected to this sort of facility in the area and apparently this was back in
the days when government 'by the people-for the people' was actually responsive to 'the people' and the project was abandoned. (Sometimes 'the good ol' days' really were!) Today, if you look carefully, you can still see a few rectangular depressions in the ground that I imagine were destined to be the locations of buildings (And don't show up well at all in photographs, at least my photographs.) and a couple of low concrete walls meant for some small structure; maybe a storeroom of some sort?

This old trail is clearly still maintained today and easy to follow but the blazes helped keep things sorted out between the Pathway and a larger network of horse trails in the area. You could hike the horse trails as well, which are actually more like two-track roads, but with camps anywhere from 16 to 30 miles apart along this system that requires the sort of commitment that I seem to have left way down deep in the back corner of a closet at home!

According to my 1982 book this is a blueberry bog. You can see by the water in the path there to the bottom right that it's a whole lot more bog than ground out there! The book said the blueberry plants will eventually grow into non-productive shrubs and the bogs are periodically burned off to give fresh plants a running start. Since this photo was taken over 30 years since it was described in my book, and these look a whole lot more like plants than shrubs, I would guess there have been a few burns done in the intervening years.

The area, in fact much of Michigan, used to be criss-crossed by railroads, both small and large, that were used to get the once abundant old-growth forest out of - well, the forest - and to the mills. Here the trail is clearly following one of these old roadbeds.

 And here is the namesake of the trail, Lost Lake. See it out there in the distance? The north country is dotted with thousands of these 'kettle lakes' which were formed when the retreating glaciers left behind a few ice cubes. Not the kind you put in your adult beverage, but rather really big ice cubes like the kind that can sink ships if they're carelessly left floating around somewhere.

Eventually even the largest ice cube will melt if you don't keep it cold enough and that leaves behind a hole in the ground which becomes these lakes. Being formed outside the normal drainage patterns, many of these lakes have no inlet or outlet and rely strictly on rainfall, which, over time will gradually wash in vegetation and other natural debris that has no way of washing back out. Lost Lake is one of these, sitting out there in the woods all by it's lonesome, slowly shrinking away as it gets filled in.

After some 3 miles of paddling and 6 miles of hiking I treated myself to a little aimless windshield touring to finish out the evening. Along the way I stumbled onto the Point Betsie Lighthouse, (Be warned, it’s at the dead-end of a sandy little road with no room to turn anything larger than a van around.) which began operation in 1858. Apparently the Great Lakes area has recently begun adopting the volunteer guest keeper program that many of the East and West Coast lighthouses have been using for quite some time now. Unfortunately by the time I got there visiting hours were over for the day so I wasn’t able to get a close-up shot of the lens for blogger and lighthouse fanatic enthusiast Suzanne. But I suspect that’s OK since apparently the original 4th order lens was replaced with an acrylic one at some point.

 Sand castles?? 

These are a pair of the several private residences located near the lighthouse. That's right, nestled down into the sand dunes with driveways half drifted over. What were they thinking???!! Maybe a nice view but this is a place where I can't even keep my beach towel from sinking and crumbling into the sand below me after only a few hours. Now I may not be the skinniest person out there (Oh for the days when I could wear a speedo to the beach and only be a joke and not an embarrassment. . .) but I'm still one heck of a lot lighter and definitely more flexible, than a two-story house!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

North Country Redux: Scrambled eggs and mud

July 18 2014

I woke up this morning in my own private 5 acre campsite surrounded by state forest near Benzonia, just a few miles from Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes National Park in the upper left corner of Michigan’s lower peninsula. And when I say private that’s because this patch of heavily wooded land, primarily Maple which are doing their best to fill in the drive and cleared patch where they have a fire ring and occasionally pitch a tent, is owned by one of my siblings.

I don’t usually do fires but all the fixin’s were just sitting there so last night I fished out one of my petroleum-jelly soaked cotton balls, my emergency tinder, and the fire-stick striker. I figured that if I was going to do it anyway I might as well perform one of my periodic start-a-fire-in-an-emergency refreshers. These greasy cotton balls light very quickly with a match, but in order to get one going with the sparks of a striker it needs to be teased out into a loose, fluffy mess with some fine strands ready to catch the sparks. Teasing a cotton ball that’s been well dredged in petroleum-jelly is like herding cats but only messier! It took a while but I eventually got it done. With my teased cotton ball (I’ll probably get detention for bullying!) on the end of a twig I gave the striker a few tentative scrapes that produced nothing but a shower of tiny sparks that are pretty much useless, at least as far as actually getting a fire started, though they are pretty!  Reminded that this only works if you scrape hard in order to peel off a good sized chunk of the magnesium that will then spark and fizz for a half second or so, with renewed determination I bore down like a real man on the next strike and had success!

It’s mid-July and 50 degrees outside, 58 inside this morning! I slept with my little skull-cap on to keep my head warm since the 1/8 inch long hair up there isn’t up to doing much insulating. I know from experience the first thing I need to do on days like this is to get the window cover off the windshield. I don’t know why the other windows don’t do it but when it’s cold out and warmer in, and I’ve spent all night snoring out that last glass of water I had the previous evening, the inside of the windshield gets coated with a nice thick layer of condensation that is more or less opaque, which is not recommended for driving! These are times I think the windshields of old that hinged down so you could wipe down the inside without performing extreme contortions would be nice.

With the covers put away and the bracing air bracing me, I decided I deserved hash browns, bacon and pan scrambled eggs for breakfast.

Not done yet, but once they were I was too busy eating to mess with the camera!
Cut a couple slices off an onion, do the same with a potato and dice them up together. Grab a couple mushroom caps and slice them up as well. Drop a little butter in the cast iron frying pan and light the fire. As the butter melts it will show which is the low side of the pan and that’s where you dump the onion and potato just as the butter starts to smell like butter and definitely before it starts to smell like burned butter. While those are frying up with a touch of salt, pepper and chipotle seasoning (30 years in Texas will do that to you.) lay a couple strips of pre-cooked bacon in the high side of the pan to warm up. (You will have pre-cooked bacon with you if you have a wife that prepares more food than can be possibly be crammed in your fridge before sending you off! It’s in there, just dig around a little.)

When the potatoes are just about cooked through add the mushrooms and give it another minute or two then pile the hash on top of the bacon in the high side of the pan.

Turn off the heat and add a touch more butter to the low side before breaking a couple eggs directly into the pan. Quickly season then scramble them up with the spatula. Just before they’re done add some shredded cheese on top. Let it sit a minute or two for the residual heat to finish them off then eat right out of the pan as you plan your day. (OK, don't judge my dietary choices! Life is for enjoying and once in a while that means a little tasty fat!)

As for planning the day, In my case, I have a 1982 publication put out by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources titled Michigan Hiking Opportunities. 1982 was a long time ago and this morning I set out to see if some of the trails are still there.

I picked the Platte Springs Pathway to start my historical adventure with.

A couple of young summer rangers there in the adjacent forest service campground told me the trail isn’t maintained anymore and is pretty much impassable but I was there and game so off I went.

First step was almost a swim. You see the trail is actually over there on the other side of the river!

On went the water-shoes, up went the pant-legs and off went me. (I know, bad grammar, but it sounds cool so that makes it alright (Hey! My blog, my rules!))

The water wasn’t near as cold as I expected. Not that I was ready to go for a swim in it like I would have as a kid (Young and dumb.), but I never did lose feeling in my feet like I expected from a swift moving northern river, and that’s a good thing because - well - being able to feel your feet makes walking easier!

The crossing wasn’t bad until I got near the far bank. There the channel quickly deepened to somewhere north of my knees and the bottom turned mucky; black muck, thick black muck nearly knee deep! It took a while to scrape enough of that off so I could switch back to my hiking boots.

One of the more visible trail markers!
The trail itself is along the steep southern bank of the Platte River. Like much of Michigan this area was once logged and the trail crosses a couple old logging roads from around 1932. They were used to drag logs out of the woods, down the 100-150 foot high bank and across the river on a makeshift bridge that only lasted a season at a time. (Winter, when the predominantly boggy land is frozen hard, is logging season.) There’s one stretch along the river that was too steep for even the hardiest loggers and the old-growth forest still exists there. Reminds me of some places along Turnagain Arm in Alaska.

These two trees grew from the same cut stump
After hiking it I wouldn’t say the trail was impassable but there were a few places where it got a little tough. It would help if the state of Michigan hadn’t chosen the state color of blue for its trail blazes. Blue, especially weathered blue, under the green canopy doesn’t exactly stand out! And one or two of the blazes were tucked into the leaf-litter at the base of a tree instead of up at eye level where you would expect them.

In some places I was reduced to navigating by the butts of old chain-sawed logs. When this place was last logged in the 1930’s chain-saws were just coming into use, but if real loggers had used them the logs wouldn’t have been left lying there, so I figured any machine-cut logs laying around out there now were probably the result of some past trail maintenance.

Even if my logic was faulty it seemed to work and after traversing a few miles of Michigan woods, some of it very steep, some of it very wet, and all of it with nary another person in sight, (OK, I actually didn’t see anybody at all but how often do you get to use the word nary in a sentence??)  I eventually made it back around to the river crossing. Getting back across the river was easier than coming since I went through the muck first and pretty much washed it all off by the time I got to the other side.

One of the less visible trail markers. See it there bottom center? I almost didn't.
Pretty, but edible? Don't know and didn't try

When blazes fail signs of old trail maintenance fills in the gaps

Feet dry and back in my boots I set off for Traverse City. This town at the bottom end of twin bays off of Lake Michigan was a frequent destination for our family when I was a kid and I had in mind parking, wandering along the shoreline and reminiscing.

Well that didn’t happen!

Far too many people and cars and all the parking was metered, and occupied. This place has grown! It even has a Lowes!

On the beach at Frankfort looking south down the coastline
So I bailed out and wandered 40 miles west to the touristy but even so not bad looking town of Frankfort at the junction of the north shore of Betsie Lake and Lake Michigan. Turn one way and you’re looking at water all the way to the horizon and beyond, turn the other and you’re looking across Betsie Lake at the even smaller community of Elberta where the world’s first sea-going (Their words not mine.) rail car ferry started operating in 1892, connecting to ports some 60 to 100 miles away over in Wisconsin. It didn’t stop until 1983. Now the rail yards have been turned into a

park with only the sculptural remains of the roundhouse turntable left to hint at the past.

Nearby are the ruins of an iron foundry that ceased operation way back in 1883. What’s left is fenced and off limits but I was still able to get a few interesting photos.