As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been to Tahquamenon Falls a few times. As a child, as a new mom, as a backpacker. And now as part of our grand UP road trip.
The boy had been here with me eight years ago…
But memories are fleeting when we are very young as everything is a new experience. So this was effectively his first time.
We discovered that he LOVES waterfalls. Tahquamenon Falls are really a series of falls. Several smaller falls make up the Lower Falls, and then there’s the big drop at the Upper Falls.
The trail to the Lower Falls was unfortunately being repaired, so we couldn’t go right up (which disappointed me quite a bit, as I like them more than the more “impressive” Upper Falls). But we spent quite a long time admiring the Upper Falls, which were running high with recent rains.
The brown “root beer” color is caused by tannins leeched from the cedar swamps that surround the area (if you recall, my hiking trip through this area a few years back was very sloppy).
It was extremely sunny most days of the trip, which makes for a nice vacation, but it also makes it hard to take photos of waterfalls because the bright white of rapids and foam and spray can blow out in a photo. This close-up shows the churning water a bit better.
I think the boy would have stayed there all day, but we had a lot more excitement planned for that day.
After a quick perusal of the gift shop, it was off to a place I actually had never been. Little did I know, a little slice of my past was waiting for me there…
The second day of our hike, Alison and I ran across a number of areas with young maples sprinkled between the pines and firs and showing off their fall colors.
The ferns in the open areas were browning and made an interesting color combination with large patches of fuzzy seafoam green lichens.
The woods through which the second half of the Wilderness Loop winds are alternately close and open. The open areas would be hot in sunny weather, but we had clouds and some breeze the whole way.
Here Alison takes a moment to enjoy the color in a rare ray of sunshine. I believe she is preparing mentally for the many more soggy spots we will encounter as we race the thunder on the way to Clark Lake campsite. (Little does she know at this point that her right foot is soon to be ankle-deep in cold, black swamp water.)Here is one of the very best “bridges” Tahquamenon has to offer in the backcountry.
Seriously, this was one of the most sound structures on the trail, and it looked like it had been decomposing for nigh on a decade. There was one real bridge. As we passed over it we realized we were also passing yet another beaver dam, this one far taller than the last.
So, campers, what have we learned from the above diagram? That’s right! The Department of Natural Resources can build a bridge…when it so chooses.
We passed by the wetland created by this second industrious beaver…
…and soon arrived at the Clark Lake campsite where we were again the only people. We took a two-hour nap that afternoon as rain pounded down on the tent. It was glorious.
And we happily made use of this very handmade bench.
We filtered water from Clark Lake. It’s always a little unnerving to drink brown water, even if you know the microbes and nasty little beasties have been filtered from it. Here’s some of the leftover water in a clear glass at home so you can see the tannins leeched from the cedars, which gives the falls their distinctive color.
The week after this hiking trip, my mother came to watch the boy while Zach and I traveled to St. Louis for ACFW. She was nice enough to wash all of my clothes–not just the really nasty ones from the hike, but from all of the hampers and baskets and dividers in the house.
The packs are still in my sunroom, waiting to be returned to storage, where they will wait patiently…for next year.
Remember way back when wetlands were just called swamps? Someone in the 1970s or 1980s apparently endeavored to put a more positive spin on these soggy topographical features. Wetland sounds so much more pleasant than swamp, after all.
Well, if you hike north from the Upper Falls at Tahquamenon along the Giant Pines Trail Loop and the Wilderness Trail Loop, you will find yourself in a landscape that tends strongly toward swamp. Remember the soggy areas Alison and I encountered on the trail between the Lower and Upper Falls? Multiply that by, oh, let’s say 500–or 50, I don’t know. But whatever the correct number, if you plan to hike this section prepare to get your feet wet. Also, unless the DNR or whoever gets out there with a chainsaw soon, prepare to duck under and crawl over many, many trees.
Despite some sludgy trail conditions, there were some nice surprises early on, like this enormous, 185-year-old white pine tree, which was approximately 120 feet tall, 5 feet in diameter, and has a circumference of nearly 16 feet.
My sister looked pretty small next to it.
Not far from this mammoth lifeform we found this fat little caterpillar, which I think will be a Luna Moth when it’s all grown up.
But not too far into our second hike of the first day, the surprises turned simultaneously more unpleasant and more impressive.
Alison and I first noticed a tree across our path that had obviously been cut down by a beaver–its distinctive teeth marks cluing us in. A moment later we realized that we were walking alongside a lake. And that the water level was a foot or so higher than the soggy ground upon which we were treading.
Yes, we were at the edge of a beaver’s carefully constructed dam.
And, as I said, we were alternately amazed and irritated. The amazement is obvious. Beavers are incredible creatures with incredible talents. The beaver here had created his own perfect environment. That first photo in this post was of the beautiful wetland home he had made possible by building this:
He built it not across a rushing river but along the outskirts of the slowly moving water of some sluggish swamp, and we were on the very edge of it. It’s an enchanting position to be in.
The irritation may not be so obvious from these photos. But this next one may give you a hint:
You see that slim tree with the blue painted blaze? That, my friend, is the indicator of the North Country Trail. And, as I’m sure you noticed, it’s been incorporated into this beaver’s swimming pool. In fact, the beaver had obliterated much of the trail. I don’t know if he just made this dam this summer or if it really has been a long time since anyone at Tahquamenon Falls State Park has bothered to groom their backcountry trails (I kind of suspect the latter, frankly). Either way, it was slow, wet going here. It was swamp here.
At one point we realized that the only semi-dry option to move forward was to walk along the top of the dam itself as we tried to get back on the trail. We stepped gingerly, grasping at branches the beaver had as yet left untouched, leaned away from the water, and prayed that he was a good builder who didn’t cut corners.
We did make it past the wetland eventually, but with very wet shoes and socks and more than a few near-misses. As evening approached and the gray skies above rumbled a warning of the storms we knew were supposed to come that night, we tried to make up time as we rushed toward the Wilderness Campsite. We got the tent up before dark, ate a late supper, and used the surprisingly unsmelly and amusingly exhibitionist toilet.
It made me think of this iconic moment from Scrubs:
We bedded down for some much needed sleep as the forest darkened swiftly around us and flashes of lightning occasionally lit up the tent. As we fell asleep that night, or else as we woke the next morning, it’s hard to recall, we heard the strangest bird call, like a cartoon siren that ended with a honk. Or like a loon on steroids. It sounded like it had to come from a very large bird. After listening to some calls, I think it is quite possible it was a sandhill crane. Go to about the 1:50 mark on this video and you’ll hear just about what I think we heard:
In the morning I remembered to get a photo of our campsite before we packed back up to face yet more trail challenges and more rain on the way to our next campsite.
We were surrounded by utter silence, complete solitude, and zillions of wild blueberries (the presence of which during our entire hike had me ultra aware of the possibility of encountering black bears fattening up for winter).
Alison and I headed off down the trail between the Lower and Upper Falls after a dire warning regarding “muckiness” from a few “helpful” folks. (People at the Lower Falls were super talkative and quite bemused by seeing two people with packs on their backs–“Hey girls, lookin’ for your campsite?”)
The trail started off dry and strewn with roots but very lovely. It quickly became both wet and root-strewn, but the roots were quite helpful as places to step to avoid the suction of the wet earth. We had such a snowy winter and a rainy spring and summer, that it makes me think that if you went in a drier year you wouldn’t have to deal with quite as much muck.
Soon it got pretty sloppy indeed, with an occasional branch tossed on the trail to use as a “bridge.”
Alison and I did a LOT of balancing during this entire trip, which is a little tricky with a pack throwing off your center of gravity.
It was decided that we both could have benefited from a good walking stick, as saplings and tree branches were not always handy to aid our trek across these boggy spots. (Little did we know, we had much MUCH soggier challenges ahead of us.)
Along the way we saw several intrepid trees with roots stretching over rocks to reach the soil below.
We found an enchanting miniature “falls” that I wish I had in my backyard.
To our left, the “rushing Taquamenaw” rolled on over resistant rocks, creating many spots of pleasant-sounding rapids.
But other areas were wide and deep and calm.
In spots you could really see just how like a cup of tea the water really is.
We did take the time to notice the little things: many different types of mosses, gray-green lichens, TONS of mushrooms of every shape and color…
…a long-dead tree that had broken down to the point that it resembled the layers of rocks you can see in this area of the Upper Peninsula…
…and exciting hints of color that pointed us to the coming autumn season.
We did run into the occasional tree down on the trail (again, a warning sign of things to come) but managed to navigate them fairly easily on this portion of the trail.
And despite the fact that while planning this trip I was under the mistaken impression that the distance between the Lower and Upper Falls was actually two miles rather than four miles (I can haz math?) we did reach the Upper Falls after a time.
Photos of the beautiful Upper Falls will be in the next post, but here’s a little taste of what greeted us when we emerged from the trail in the late afternoon.
Alison and I began our hike this year at the Lower Falls at Tahquamenon Falls State Park near Paradise, Michigan. The last time I was at the falls was 2009 when I brought my then one-year-old son for a quick day trip when we were in the Soo.
The last time Alison was there was back in the mid 1980s when our family “did the UP.” All she remembered about that trip was how embarrassed our parents were when she pointed at a group of Amish people and loudly asked, “Why are they dressed like that?”
This time around, nearly thirty years later (THIRTY YEARS!) she did not point at anyone or judge their attire.
Anyway, what was I saying? Oh, yes. We began our hike at the Lower Falls.
People always say to visit the Lower Falls first, as they are less impressive than the nearly 50-foot drop of the Upper Falls. But for my money, the Lower Falls are the prettier of the two.
We also ended our trip at the Lower Falls two days later, and even in those two days the trees showed more color. I imagine that within the next week or two it will be absolutely breathtaking up there.
The Lower Falls are actually made up of four or five (or perhaps more) small drops in three separate areas that all empty out into a pleasant looking pool before moving on down the line to Lake Superior.
The water of the Tahquamenon River is stained brown from the tannins leeched by the nearby cedar swamps (more–oh, so much more–on swamps in a later post). Even water filtered from nearby Clark Lake (again, more in a later post) is a bit on the brown side.
After we had our fill of the Lower Falls on Friday, we headed for the Upper Falls via the trail. And that is where our adventure really begins…
We’ve hiked Pictured Rocks and Grand Sable Dunes. This year my sister Alison and I are headed up to Tahquamenon Falls, the land of Longfellow’s Hiawatha.
“Lay aside your cloak, O Birch-tree!
Lay aside your white-skin wrapper,
For the Summer-time is coming,
And the sun is warm in heaven,
And you need no white-skin wrapper!”
Thus aloud cried Hiawatha
In the solitary forest,
By the rushing Taquamenaw,
When the birds were singing gayly,
In the Moon of Leaves were singing,
And the sun, from sleep awaking,
Started up and said, “Behold me!
Gheezis, the great Sun, behold me!”
And the tree with all its branches
Rustled in the breeze of morning,
Saying, with a sigh of patience,
“Take my cloak, O Hiawatha!”
I was beyond thrilled to see many maple trees already turning red and orange on my drive to Grand Rapids this morning, and I am hoping for at least a touch of color way up near the fabled shores of Gitche Gumee (that’s Lake Superior, in case you were unaware).
I can’t wait to get there and I can’t wait to share pictures with all of you.