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Outdoors North

Remembering youthful walk in the forest

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Journal columnist

“All that is left of me now is waiting to drown, over the waterfall.” — Robert Earl Keen

I can’t really recall with any certainty the first time I ever visited this place in the forest where the ground is covered in fallen white pine needles, chickadees sing, and the river has cut its way back and down through monstrous boulders.

I know it was sometime long ago, when I was just a very young kid.

I remember standing here at the edge of a wide pool filled with cold black water that was covered in places along the shoreline with rafts of soft and white puffy foam.

Elsewhere in the pool, the foam floated in long S-shaped snakes that moved sluggishly with the current, across the water’s surface.

A shallow, noisy rapids fed this pool. Around its rim, the roots of pines and spruces held the earth together. Brown grasses slumped over the edges of the banks.

My recollection of the river in this state must mean I first came here in springtime. I remember my folks fishing. My dad caught a trout after plopping his worm through the foam into deep water not far from shore.

I’ve often tried the same tactic since.

If they were fishing, it had to be after the last Saturday in April when the trout season opens. However, not so early in the springtime that the rapids and the waterfall were still silenced by winter’s snow and ice cover, but late enough to have passed the raging high water time when the river pounds through this place at a furious and frightful pace.

It also couldn’t have been summer because then the forest is lush and green around the water’s edge. Beautiful bluish-green damsel flies are common here then.

Even in summertime, the water flowing through this canyon area is loud enough to block out chattering red squirrels and most all other sounds.

Occasionally, you can hear muffled human voices if folks are loud enough back upstream, above the falls, where there remain old campfire stoves from back in the 1960s and 1970s, when this was a popular place to picnic.

Like a lot of such notions, that idea has since floated downstream. The stoves are but relics, reminders of that former time, not anything current, deliberate or intentional.

I sometimes think human beings are like salmon. We can get attached or imprinted on a place when we are very young. Then, years later, return by some instinctual messaging unknown to us.

This place here in the forest is such a destination for me.

I can sense this attraction within me, but at the same time, there is a significant part of this that I can’t explain. Why do I have the urge to return to this place again and again?

Sometimes I want to see what has changed, or what has stayed the same.

I feel the water, the trees and even the rocks rolling through my bloodstream, helping to sustain me as I walk through this dizzying and tragic world around me.

The waterfall here is not particularly high, nor wide, but it is at once significant with its tea-colored water racing through a slice cut through the ancient rock. Undoubtedly, it took thousands of years for the water to do its work here.

The river continues to cut backward into the stream bottom. Some of the rocks along the sides have been smoothed dramatically, others are covered in lichens while there are also some jagged specimens.

These latter rock faces must have broken open clean during the mighty spring runoffs. Water seeping in between cracks in the rocks, then freezing and expanding has created a good portion of the lines in this landscape’s face.

For a few years, a tremendous tree trunk was stuck vertically from the head to the toe of the waterfall. I picture the tree riding high water to the falls during a spring flow.

Then, whatever branches hadn’t been broken off during the initial fall of the big tree, or during the downstream journey, stuck hard into the rocky river bottom at the falls, snagging the big trunk in place.

Here, it would have been held and waterlogged over months and months.

Another spring day would eventually produce a watery gush big enough to free this giant to roll at least a little farther downstream.

There used to be a wooden bridge that would take visitors from an area of high ground down over a side gorge and eventually to the rocks with the grills atop the waterfall.

The drop wasn’t far, but far enough to spook my mom. She said she had trouble walking over bridges like that, with cracks between the wooden plank decking you can see through. That first happened after she had been pregnant with her first child – me.

Another wooden bridge, about as wide but shorter, could take you down to a rocky island situated just downstream of the waterfall’s plunge pool. The island was populated with only a few trees and low bushes.

For some reason, this is one of the places the damselflies loved to be.

A few years ago, I brought the girls here with their mom.

While mom stayed put on the island, the girls and I held hands to form a human chain. We walked out over uncovered rock boulders and fallen tree trunks to get closer to the falls.

She was afraid we’d slip, but we didn’t. I had proven once before that it was possible. My boot slipped off the edge of a slippery rock and my legs went down into the chilly water and fast current.

I pulled myself out easily, but it was enough of a plunge to later concern this mother of two young twins who sought to brave the rocks with me on a chilly autumn evening.

If you didn’t walk the bridges back, you could scale the side of this rock outcropping, where water has also cut into the stone, but not as deeply nor as wide as at the waterfall.

This is where the side gorge waters flow in springtime, or where the river probably used to flow before it found an easier pathway through the falls gorge.

Lichen-covered and pocked with water wear, these rocks also bear the scars of thousands of years.

Back up on the high ground, you can hear the waterfalls from at least a half a mile away, depending on the quiet of the day.

Into a valley cut by the meandering waterway, you can see the river make a big turn before finding the head of the falls. The trees are tall and wide here. They were alive for decades before I was ever born.

This place seems lonesome now. The people still come to look at the water, especially in the spring, when the flows are high. But overall, this place is slowly being reclaimed by nature.

Even the sandy road in here has seen far better days – like a lot of us.

The temperature has dropped again tonight. Those cold, black clouds will soon be rolling in over this place, brought on chilly north winds.

I know this place like I know my own brother.

The lonesomeness doesn’t bother me any. It’s just different now than it used to be. The rusting fireplace grills seem hungry for somebody to come by with some hot dogs, matches and an appetite.

The big pines here haven’t had anybody much to whisper to in a long time.

I suppose whatever draws me to this place will continue to do so.

It might be a few months, maybe even a couple of years, but I know I’ll find myself walking again down the pine-needled trail, heading toward the falls, the rock island and that big wide pool of black water.

Like I miss my brother, I miss the sights and sounds of this place when I’m away for too long.

The ghosts of this forest know the sound of my footsteps. The birds and animals know me by my silence, reverence and acceptance. In return, they approach without much fear.

I sit bemused by the exquisite mystery and beauty of all of this.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.

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