Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Winter’s been slow in coming to Michigan this year. I’d made some ambitious plans for a winter trek in early February, but the lack of snow thus far had me questioning my winter fitness. So when winter hit all of a sudden with daily snowfall, I decided to get out for a quick 24 hour training trek along the North Country Trail in the Upper Peninsula. I chose a section I had not yet completed, passing through Tahquamenon Falls, reportedly the tallest waterfalls east of the Mississippi.
I never set an alarm clock before my trips. I’m not the best sleeper in the world and can pretty much guarantee that the excitement of a trip will have me awake as early as I need. In this case, I woke at 2 am, covered my mostly-deaf dog with the blanket so he wouldn’t hear me leave, and was out the door in 20 minutes. I made the drive to the UP in about 5 ½ hours, stopping for a couple thousand calories along the way and pre-hydrating. One urgent rest stop later, the sun was starting to rise and I was crossing the Mackinac Bridge.
Sunrise at Whitefish Bay. Note the shelf ice along the shoreline
Snowfall was significantly deeper and temperatures lower across the bridge. Average temperatures had been about 7 F in lower Michigan but plummeted to subzero once across the bridge.
After driving around for a while, I found a plowed out place to park in the Overlook Campground near the Lower Tahquamenon Falls. For those unused to winter camping in snowy places, it’s not uncommon to plan a new route only to get there and find out that the access roads are completely impassable. Layering up, I headed down the NCT in the direction of the falls.
The woods were blanketed with about a foot of newly fallen snow.
Soon I reached the lower falls. I was mesmerized by battle taking place between the turbulent water and the bitter cold; The falls fighting to avoid being frozen. Strange ice formations grew out of this struggle
Mist thrown off by the falls encased the nearby trees in icy armor
The river was frozen over beneath the falls, once the water’s fury had abated
Heading upriver, I paused to admire the ice sheets clinging improbably to embattled rocks
Each breath condensed and froze instantly, giving me a spectral grimace
Above the falls, the river was again locked down beneath winter’s icy grasp. I morbidly considered what it would be like to step out onto that clear pathway. The sudden crack of unstable ice, the plunge into cold depths, and the turbulent pull below the crust. No thanks! Strangely, I did see deer tracks crossing at one point.
The sun rose overhead, giving the impression of warmth if not the fact. I snacked on some dried pears as I walked trying to keep the metabolic fire burning
Making tracks through the snow
I stopped for lunch at about 12:30, throwing on all my layers to delay the warmth leaving my body
Bundled in my down sweater, reminiscent of the old Saturday Night Live skit, “We want to pump, you up!”
Lunch of spicy Olli Salumeria with a rustic farmhouse cheddar. Fat calories are key in cold weather, and as I ate, I imagined that I felt warmer
After lunch, I stripped back down to baselayer, light fleece pullover, and windshirt and continued upriver. I was averaging about 1 mile per hour breaking tracks in the snow. If I couldn’t push my pace a little bit, I was going to have a very hard time next week.
Soon I caught my first glimpse of the upper Tahquamenon Falls. Again there was that sense of stillness in motion, as if the Falls had frozen mid-stride. The canyon walls were hung with icicles, and the underfalls were frozen solid. The river crashed loudly down the falls and then disappeared beneath the ice once again. Where the river sank beneath this surface crust, a plethora of tortured icy structures grew.
Frozen in action
The frozen underfalls
Tunneling beneath the ice
Leaving the falls, I passed this interestingly marked trail. I wasn’t sure where it headed, but it looked like fun.
I finished my day near Loon Lake, about 8 miles from where I started. As I neared a likely spot, I found this downed tree containing all the dry punky wood chunks I could possibly need for cooking dinner and breakfast
I quickly layed out my tarp and buried deadmen at the corners. The snow set up quickly and by the time I had finished burying the last, I was able to start tautly hitching the guylines
I lit my woodstove and got some snow melting as I set out my bedding. The sight of the flames licking at my pot was primally soothing
As soon as I could, I crawled into my bag, ensuring that none of my meal generated warmth would be wasted. As dinner rehydrated, I drank the leftover hot water with a splash of whiskey thrown in for good measure. Dinner was quinoa pasta with sausage in a spicy San Marzano tomato sauce. I reminded myself once again why squirt bottles of olive oil don’t work in the winter, but it tasted great regardless. I don’t know why I waited so long to start preparing my own backpacking meals. It was as easy as throwing leftovers on a tray, and I was eating far more satisfying meals than ever.
After dinner, I pulled on my vapor barrier layers (cheap silnylon rainsuit) and was able to convince myself with a few attempts at picture taking that this ensemble would not be particularly flattering on anyone. If the blackpackers saw this, I was going to be out of the club before I even had a chance to learn the secret handshake. Finally I drifted off to sleep. It was probably only 7:30 or so, but it had been a long day.
I woke to the sound of snow sliding down my ‘mid and crawled out into a world made fresh by new snowfall.
Snow “snake” slithering along a branch
Yesterday’s tracks erased
I headed back the way I came, making better time today. Nearing the falls, snowfall intensified.
A tired finish. I began the drive home, stopping in the town of Paradise for lunch. I walked into the Yukon Lodge, a wooden log building with a sign out front advertising breakfast.
Handmade wooden tables and chairs- so far so good
Trophy mounts on the wall- ok décor for a post hike meal
Friendly waitress- check
Christmas lights strung up in the rafters- um, ok
Food served on paper plates with plastic tableware- uh oh.
As it turned out though, my breakfasts were both awesome.