Tahquamenon Phenomenon

Lake Superior Water Magic

Smokey Sandhill Spence here:  We ended our visit in Traverse City with a leisurely stroll on the TART trail past a cool old railroad truss bridge. I finally showed Billy Boardman Lake and we spent some time in the library, overlooking the summer sailboat camp.  My mom was healing up nicely after a knee replacement surgery and the leaves were already starting to change…time to go.

We decided to take a northern route across the country with some beautiful detours. I was thrilled to get to see the Mackinac Bridge again and tell Billy about the ferocious winds that at one time picked up a Yugo and threw it into the Straits. I also hadn’t been through the Tahquamenon Falls area for at least 20 years.  My father and I visited in the winter when I was young, which was a very special time. The snow was deep and most of the tourists gone.  A hot lunch at the Berry Patch restaurant was welcomed then. Whitefish Point was a woe-be-gone place, isolated, lonely and fascinating.  That was one of the last winters I remember seeing ice caves on Lake Superior–now I look at the pictures of the caves in my memory and the internet.

The area was definitely different in the summer. I was feeling 7 billion people on the planet as we struggled to get close to Whitefish Point and the falls.  We opted to hike in to a quiet, scenic back country camp spot about 3 miles from Upper Tahquamenon Falls (“Tahquamenon rhymes with phenomenon”) It was worth our hike out everyday to view the falls, have lunch on Lake Superior and study the bogs along the way. Even with the 7 billion mosquitoes we encountered, it is a lovely place.  Luckily, we bought bug jackets with hoods to combat the bites. We startled Sandhill Cranes with their babies–it had been so long since I had seen them it took me awhile to remember what kind of bird they were. How I could mistake their trumpeting calls I don’t know! We decided to celebrate (celebrate what? everything!) and we took ourselves out to eat at the Tahquamenon Brewery, located inside the park.  Billy got to eat Lake Superior whitefish and the occasion was so awesome, I ate some too.

One lovely sunny day, we took a trip out to where Tahquamenon River meets Lake Superior–the river mouth. It was a great day for  a picnic and after a little searching, Billy and I found a perfect private beach for two. After dunking in the water and sunbathing for awhile in restful bliss, a family came up from behind the tall grasses hiding our spot. The grandma was sorely disappointed to fine us there and I heard the mom say “shit, someone’s there already”. I knew we were about to have our half hour of peace disturbed. As appalled as I felt, I knew that when they descended onto our beach that it was inevitable, although terribly awkward.  I mean, that beach was really small! I had to move my beach chair for them to even get to it!  “I hate to barge in on you like this, but this is the only sandy beach we could find that’s close to our cabin and these kids need to get in the water,” said the grandma.  The three little kids felt slightly shy, obviously feeling the strain of the situation. The grandma tried making small talk, which I barely indulged for about 5 minutes. I then made up something about exploring the river mouth area trails and we left.  We drove down a random dirt road Billy had a hunch about and we did find a breezy, shaded pull off, located up the river, to have our dinner. More and more, however,  I find that I “escape” to wild places and wilderness, only to find that people are crowding it up.  Where are the wild spaces left for the wild creatures?  Sadly, sometimes these experiences trump my enjoyment of the place. It doesn’t take away the beauty or the specialness, and I think it is important for people to visit these places to know they need protecting, I just wish there were less people.  There, I admitted it. I’m not happy about the population growth. All summer long I feel it (more and more every year) and swear that next year I’m not going anywhere until school is back in session. That said, I still love the Great Lakes and I know it is a fantasy to think that they wouldn’t be crowded on a lovely afternoon, but I still wish it so.

Billy here. The clear water of Lake Superior is a phenomenon I had underestimated. This water could be drunk straight from the lake and taste as pure as any snow melt. I am sad that all lakes and rivers cannot be drunk anymore. It reminds me of the saying about the last poisoned river and the last cut tree.

Michigan is named for a Algonquian word, mishi-gami or “great lake”, which was extrapolated into “Michigan” by the French. The more I look into this Turtle Island, the more I feel it living, even in the cities, and I understand that there is not a single piece of earth here that doesn’t still feel this heartbeat that was named and loved by the first people here. All of us immigrants are settlers on stolen land. This is something I have felt and known since I was a kid. I felt the sadness of the trees I grew up with, every old oak had a heaviness and they were my best friends. I did not learn about the lynchings, the evictions and the trails of tears until much later, but I could feel them through the old trees and the rocks.

Non-Indians will never have western eyes so long as they cling to the Man versus Nature dichotomy. Four hundred years of this thinking gets you a civilization of people lost in shopping malls, coast-to-coast take-out windows, a culture that has lost its connection to the natural world. That is the ultimate poverty for all men, and no amount of money can ransom that sadness.

– Raymond Cross, Indian Law Professor

I found myself going through heartbreaks while backpacking. My mind was spinning all the familiar loops and my was heart tight and hot as a coal. I agree with John Francis, that the only person we have the ethical authority to change is oneself. I also want to feel the conviction of one Holocaust survivor’s insight that forgiveness is for us, so that we can go on living and it doesn’t let the perpetrator off the hook. But these old and new things, all the bruises of this lifetime and the last 2000 years, sometimes they clog my blood and I feel held fast.

Then I heard the elephantine whirs of sandhill cranes. I walked through the black spongy bogs with the mosquitoes. Frogs of every size jumped into the water. Thick under-stories of wild blueberries surrounded us. The deep ruby sun burned off in the morning fog while a hermit thrush sang an echoing melody. The tree roots on the trail rose up, worn smooth and shiny by thousands of feet, like unfolding wings of birds and bats. The evenings were so quiet I could hear the lub of my heart and the static scream of my nervous system. And slowly, day by day, I am becoming softer and spongier as the abundant bog.

2 thoughts on “Tahquamenon Phenomenon

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