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.

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