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Week Six of Seven Weeks
SEP 20 TAHQUAMENON FALLS (sounds like tah-KWA-men-on)
Last night we were packed and even had the van backed up to a perfect alignment with V-Jer’s (our T@B 400 Camper) hitch. This morning all we had to do was raise V-Jer’s (T@B 400) landing gear and lower V-Jer’s hitch onto Saturn’s (our Ford Van) hitch ball. We mated V-Jer and Saturn by 8 am, a speedy record. With no Walmarts to slow us down, we reached the Tahquamenon Falls State Park (sounds like Tuh-KWA-min-non) within two hours, only to find out there weren't any sites available for the four days we needed.
There were, however, three available campsites in the State Park Rivermouth Unit,15 miles away. If we hustled to the Rivermouth Unit, we might be able to make a claim. And hustle, we did. The Rivermouth Unit is right on the Tahquamenon River, where it flows into Lake Superior, thus Rivermouth. The sizeable Tahquamenon River cuts a wide swath through the wilderness, then turns lazy on the last 16 miles to Lake Superior.
Rivermouth Campground has two sections, a Rivermouth-modern area with electricity and a Rivermouth-rustic area, a semi-primitive section without electricity. After a few nights of frost, Tom and Babs opted for electricity to utilize an electric heater they had for their trailer. We all chose the modern side.
Later that day, we discovered the primitive sites spread along the river bank were quite beautiful, while the modern loops were confined and crowded. Dratz! As soon as our credit card transactions confirmed payment, a giant high pressure stalled over Ontario, giving us four days of unseasonably warm weather. Wanda and I thanked Tom and Babs for choosing the expensive electric sites and assuring warm weather for all of us. They are true-blue camping buddies.
The Tahquamenon Falls are two distinct falls four miles apart, Lower Tahquamenon Falls and Higher Tahquamenon Falls. Today we visit Lower Tahquamenon Falls. Usually, Michigan gives superb viewing access to its waterfalls - until today.
A large island splits the Lower Tahquamenon Falls into two channels cascading on both sides of the island, with the more dramatic falls on the left side. Unfortunately, the viewing-platform to see both falls is distant, requiring a long telescopic lens.
The right side of the falls is less dramatic but has a boardwalk that brings you up close. To access a close-up view of the more majestic left side, you have to rent a rowboat for $10 per person to deposit you on the island where a trail brings you next to the roaring falls on the left side. We settled for staying on the right side.
The park has several hiking loops, so we choose the 1.5-mile trail that returned us to the parking lot. Unexpectedly, the rugged trail turned out to be hilly, giving us an excuse to claim we burned 3 miles worth of energy on this 1.5-mile trail.
We met another small group of hikers on the trail that reported the Packers were up on the Lions by 21 points. Later, on the drive back to camp, we listened to a Lions post-game-call-in radio show. The Packers had just trounced the Lions, 42 - 21, and the callers were livid. Being from Wisconsin, I just smiled.
SEP 21 HIGHWAY FROM HELL to CRISP POINT LIGHTHOUSE
Many highways have mythical status. Route 66 had a hip early 1960s TV show about two guys aimlessly cruising up and down Highway 66 in a Corvette convertible. And the iconic song, "Get Your Kicks On Route 66", has always been a favorite of mine. Bob Dylan immortalized Highway 61, a significant road that originates near Duluth, winds down through Delta Blues country, and ends up in New Orleans. The crossroads of Highways 61 and 49 is where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to become one of the most innovative blues players.
But if someone tries to romanticize a Michigan Highway with a number in the 400s, well, you can tell them to go-to-hell. Until now, all the Michigan Highway 400s I have driven, and there are several, are highways-to-hell. I can tolerate a gravel highway if adequately graded. But Highways 412, 410, and 414 haven't seen a grader since the original French beaver trappers hacked them out.
Our odyssey began with a desire to visit the much-heralded Crisp Point Lighthouse. Leaving Tahquamenon Falls, we took the picturesque Highway 123 to Highway 500, where the scenic blacktop highway gave way to a tolerable gravel road. Slowly the gravel road deteriorated as we neared Lake Superior until it mysteriously metamorphosed into Michigan Highway 412 - an 8-mile rutted goat path to the Lighthouse. Jump Jivin' was the tune rattling around in my skull as we jumped and jived our way at five mph.
After a few quick photos, we were back jumpin' and jivin' on Michigan Highway 412 and got stumped at the so-called junction of Highway 412 and Highway 500. Between Tom and myself, we had umpteen different maps, each showing a wide variety of promising highways aiming toward Grand Marais along Lake Superior. Each map showed various routes with different twists, turns, and loops, but each squiggle was a Highway 400 variation. The maps were useless. It was time for male intuition.
At the 412 - 500 junction, Tom and my intuitions split. After taking two out of three bouts of arm wrestling, my intuition won out. I led us down an even more ominous goat path with a beat-up Highway 412 sign hinting that 412 continued west down its ruts. At least, I reasoned, we will see some beautiful coastline as we rattle our way west.
Wrong again! We got mile after mile of what looked like a nuclear holocaust showing a vast forest fire that burned up many square miles of timber, followed by logger scavengers that clear-cut the remains. Intersections in this wasteland with unmarked ATV and snowmobile trails left us scratching our heads. These crude trails were often in better shape than the Highway.
Again, Highway 412 magically turned into Highway 414, which poofed into Highway 410. There was a Highway 423 floating around somewhere, but I wouldn't swear by it. Along the way, we crossed the Two Hearted River, made famous by Ernest Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River," a two-part short story written in 1925.
With 40 miles and four bone-jarring hours invested in Michigan's Highway 400s, we reached Michigan H58 - another familiar and smooth tree-canopied road that wowed us through Pictured Rocks. We had just 20 miles to destination Grand Marais.
We stopped at the Muskellunge Lake State Park campgrounds along the way. The first couple of campground loops were tightly spaced and out in the open. As we got farther into the park, the sites became far more secluded and forested. Overall, the campground was massive, and yet it was still full on this Monday drive.
Right around 15 miles from Grand Marais, we fell off the edge of the earth. Our wonderful Highway H58 presented us with a yellow diamond-shaped "Pavement Ends" sign where we dove down into another abyss of ruts, potholes, and washboards. Babs dove for either Valium or chocolate. Finding neither, she had to white knuckle it, totally sober, to Grand Marais. Tom kept muttering, "I need alcohol." My ADHD could barely contain itself, doing another stretch at 5 mph. Wanda smiled, stating it was just a moderate-turbulent day in the cockpit from her flight instructor days. As adults, we emerged from the abyss in Grand Marais with only a mild case of PTSD and a smiling former flight instructor.
We headed back to camp on a far different loop of paved highways. Although it was an extra 30 miles out of our way, we chose speed at 65 mph to get us back to camp. What a weird day.
SEP 22 WHITEFISH POINT AND EDMUND FITZGERALD MUSEUM
The unseasonably warm weather was in full bloom today. After yesterday’s tangle with rutty roads, we vowed to stay on the blacktop, at least for today. Since the camp is near the base of Whitefish Bay, it was only fitting to drive up to Whitefish Point to check out the lighthouse, and the Point nearest to where the Edmund Fitzgerald went down.
The official Whitefish Harbor only had four fishing boats tied up, but it had one old relic covered with rust patina, laid up near shore begging to be photographed. Everyone visiting obliged, including us.
The lighthouse grounds capitalized on the Edmund Fitzgerald tragedy with an inviting gift shop selling Edmund Fitzgerald apparel and an Edmund Fitzgerald museum charging $13/person. In all fairness, the $13 also included a tour of the inside of the lighthouse. We reluctantly passed on the tour, but the museum still tugged at me.
Whitefish Point is known for having the most shipwrecks of any location on the lake - over 300 wrecks litter the Whitefish Point's bottom, comprising over half of the 550 total sinkings in Lake Superior.
Ironically, the first commercial boat to sink in this area was named “Invincible” in 1816. The shipping lanes and the northwestern gales seem to converge here. I suspect the museum would have further info on the tragedies and their storylines.
The beach at Whitefish Point had unusual black and red sand speckles that powdered over the lighter golden sand. A tourist, watching me set up a photo of the sand, said the colored sand was magnetic.
I don't know about that, but if the colors were from magnetic iron, wouldn't the grains arrange themselves in a pattern, like iron filings, in a magnetic field - only conjecture, of course. I never got a chance to do an internet search on the magnetic properties due to a lack of internet access out in these here parts. Anyway, with tremendous willpower, we resisted collecting more Lake Superior rocks - but barely..
(Note: "The dark grains are a combination of magnetite and ilmenite, which are heavy minerals and iron ores, she said. They are from large rocks up north, which were pulverized and carried south to the local beaches by the glaciers.")
The Upper Tahquamenon Falls (T-Falls) consists of one wide water-ledge. This park provides extensive boardwalks, stairs and overlooks viewing the falls in every angle imaginable - - no rowboat required for up-close viewing.
The commercialism is at the brewpub near the parking lot. They serve craft beers and gourmet sandwiches (translation: expensive) that sound appetizing. Unfortunately, they were too busy to serve us. Fortunately, that saved us $30.
The brewpub and the trail leading to the falls were uncomfortably crowded for these COVID times. Admittedly, we pushed the COVID risk-factor a bit too far at this stop.
This section of the giant Tahquamenon Falls Park hiking trail loop was attractive and thankfully uncrowded, ranging from short trail options to trails a dozen miles long. One 3.8 mile-loop caught my eye, but I also wanted to return to camp and put the kayaks in the river.
Sadly, we ended up doing neither. It was nearing 4 pm by the time we rolled into camp. We certainly could have kayaked the Tahquamenon River for an hour or so before the sun's heat diminished, but I wanted to explore downriver at length tomorrow. We ended our day hiking the River Trail at camp instead.
The fall colors were coming on strong. The sun drenched the trail in reds, oranges, and golds lighting up deciduous trees interspersed with giant white pines, hemlocks, and twisted cedars. The further up the river trail, the more wild and spectacular it became. Today totally wiped out yesterday's weirdness.
SEP 23 TAHQUAMENON RIVER
Today was the second of two glorious back-to-back warm and sunny days. It was river-running time. But, the morning broke relatively crisp. Nothing like a brisk morning walk around on Rivermouth Campground's picturesque Tahquamenon River trail to get the blood flowing. The Rivermouth trail is a 5-mile long one-way-out-and-back-trail along the river bank. We invested 2 hours in walking up 2 miles, giving us a four-mile round trip.
I can’t exactly explain why I am so tuned into fungi this fall. Perhaps it’s just because they are so prevalent this year. Or maybe, being retired from the normal rat-race, has allowed me to be more observant.
At 1 pm, the kayaks slid into the water and we cruised up-river five miles. Most of the river was undeveloped and wild. Only one short section had a handful of modest cabins. We have been astonished at the total lack of the monster mansions that hog Wisconsin's prime waterfront locations. The short summers and long, harsh winters must keep the ultra-wealthy riff-raff out.
The air is dead calm, which means Lake Superior will have a glass surface. Our goal is to head to the Tahquamenon River's mouth and enter the lake's massive expanse in our tiny kayaks. It is unnerving to be on such an expanse of water in a kayak even when dead calm. The Native Americans plying these waters in their birch bark crafts must have had nerves of steel.
While Wanda and I were kayaking the Tahquamenon River, Babs and Tom drove the paved scenic byway along Lake Superior towards Sault Ste. Marie. On their return, they stopped to inspect Soldier Lake National Campgroundfor us.
This morning, the plan for tomorrow is to break camp and soldier on to Soldier Lake Park, while Babs and Tom would start their westward trek back to Wisconsin. For some reason, I had drawn a star next to Soldier Lake Campground on my map, indicating something special. I can't, for the life of me, remember what that was except, perhaps, I had read an excellent review of the place.
Well, Babs and Tom returned from their scenic byway road trip so aglow about Soldier Lake Park that we were to follow them tomorrow morning for more camping days together. We welcomed their company.
SEP 24 SOLDIER PARK
Even though the weather turned dark and cloudy with occasional sprinkles, Soldier Lake National Campground deserves a 5-star rating. Not only were the campsites wrapped around Soldier Lake spectacularly laid out and nearly empty, but the fall colors were blindingly vivid.
With the moody and misty day persisting, it turned into a shopping day in Sault Ste. Marie, with a visit to the black hole (Walmart). I wanted chili fixings. My secret chili ingredients are Spicy Hot V-8 juice instead of straight tomato juice and cubed steak instead of hamburger. There are other secrets, but those are the only ones I am giving away at this time.
Babs and Tom brought over some Patagonia chili to blend with my chili. I never knew Patagonia marketed food, but apparently, they do.
Babs and Tom enjoyed their last evening on the road. Tomorrow they begin their return home. In these COVID times, they are the only people we have had the pleasure of socializing with since we started the self-quarantine. Tom, like Wanda, is hyper-vigilant regarding the coronavirus. Like Babs, I take it seriously, but our spouses keep us in line when our judgment lapses.
I missed my extended family a lot this summer. Socializing with Babs and Tom made me miss family and other friends, like Jeff and Teri. I sacrificed playing with Jeff as a duo band, but I couldn't bring myself to play inside, outside, or near bars while the world is under a pandemic.
COVID, and how poorly America is handling it, is robbing us of precious and limited time. That said, Wanda and I remain active and still explore rural America's wilderness at minimum risk. I am satisfied.
SEP 25 WILL CURLY LEWIS HIGHWAY
September 25, 2020. I am a wealth of trivia today, thanks to all the roadside plaques along our route. There is one fact I never did find out - who was Will Curley Lewis of the Will Curley Lewis Memorial Scenic Byway? It is a gorgeous coastal byway named in his honor, with no mention of him anywhere along the route.
We did learn that Hemlock bark was harvested in the area and shipped out to leather tanneries. How did any of those poor Hemlocks survive both logging and leather tanning?
We also learned that the first commercial boats on Lake Superior, starting around 1650, were big 40-foot birch-bark canoe freighters that could carry 4 tons of cargo. I suspect that the early French trappers and the Native Americans teamed up on that venture.
The first steam-powered vessel was a wooden boat, built-in 1888, and sank off Whitefish Point in 1919. I'm surprised that there isn't a Whitefish Point Triangle legend conjured up to add a fantastical element to all the lost ships.
The first 1000 footer hit the Great Lakes shipping lanes in 1972. First, beaver pelts dominated lake Superior shipping cargo, then lumber and copper, and now iron ore and coal. I didn't see anything mentioning grain. I thought a lot of midwestern grain was sent to Duluth to be shipped. Perhaps I thought wrong.
At the Point Iroquois Lighthouse, we learned of the great Ojibwa victory over the powerful Iroquois in 1662. The Iroquois successfully expanded their empire westward by driving out tribe after tribe until they came up against the Ojibwa (also called the Chippewa). With the Ojibwa, the Iroquois met their "Waterloo" at Point Iroquois. The Ojibwa call Point Iroquois, Nau-du-we-e-gun-ing, or Place of the Iroquois Bones.
The North Country Trail (NCT), squeezed between Curley's Byway and the coast, offered us many little scenic waysides to stop and hike partway. Soon, we'll practically be NCT through-hikers.
,A few miles inland is Monocle Lake Campground, on Monocle Lake, a beautiful all-sports lake, and nearly empty. Do I see a pattern? Gorgeous inland Soldier Lake Campground and the spacious Monocle Lake Campground are open for more campers. Pictured Rocks and Bayview Campground, right on Lake Superior, are full.
In Sault Ste. Marie, we defied the black hole's (Walmart) draw and stayed in the car to take advantage of Walmart's ultrafast WiFi for monthly billing purposes. I have never paid credit card fees nor interest. It would have killed me if I had missed the payment date. Thanks, tech gurus, for making online payment so easy while on the road.
Our walk around Sault Ste. Marie started at the Soo Locks. The cool-looking observation deck was closed, and no ships were transitioning through the locks, but we still picked up a ton of factoids.
The first crude lock was installed in 1798 and destroyed during the War of 1812. It wasn't until 1855 before another lock was built. The locks have to raise or lower ships 21 feet as Lake Huron is far below Lake Superior.
Iron ore, comprising 58% of the cargo going through the Soo Locks, is in the form of taconite, or round pellets. Taconite pellets are processed to contain about 65% iron. 90% of all the taconite iron ore used to manufacture steel in America goes through the Soo locks. As the third-largest producer of steel, behind China and Japan, America processes a lot of steel.
Out of the three locks at Sault Ste Marie, only the middle lock, the Poe Lock (I swear that's its name), can handle the 1000 foot freighters. With Michigan kicking in a few million dollars, the Federal government is starting to expand one of the smaller locks to handle the big ships. This expanded lock will be a seven-year construction project.
Businesses in Sault Ste. Marie have taken clever advantage of the locks and the name of their city. One store was called Soo Real (surreal). A brewpub made a beer called Soo Wheat (sweet). It seemed to me that more than one place was named Lock View Something-or-other.
The city had a lot of local pubs and restaurants but few majestic 1880s buildings. We saw a surprising number of funky motels right in the middle of downtown. Usually found on the outskirts of towns, they appeared totally out of place, except their quaintness gave the area an odd charm.
Overall, I liked the vibrancy of the place.