Outdoors North: Roaring rivers remind us that spring is here

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

“Meet me on the mountain when the winter lays her head to rest,” — Gary Richrath

As the gray morning wore on, I was heading west across the peninsula with a cold wind putting a snap in the springtime air.

Watching the sides of the road, I was surprised to see many of the small creeks and streams flowing still well within their banks despite a good deal of the snowpack now melting or already gone.

In many a past springtime, these waterways would be unapproachable, consumed and swollen, flooded and roaring.

The miles ahead would explain the phenomenon as the farther into big snow country I went, the higher the water levels in the creeks and rivers would be.

By the time I reached the old pine logging town of Ewen, the big south branch of the Ontonagon was brown and high, rising around the supports of the highway bridge and still plenty hungry.

Farther west, snowmobile trails, parking lots and other features were completely submerged under at least a foot of water. Hooded mergansers and other waterfowl seemed happy to swim atop flooded portions of farmer’s fields, while deer munched sprouting grass or anything green.

In the sky above, turkey vultures and bald eagles circled, ready to take advantage of any opportunity passing traffic would allow to get closer to the carcasses of dead road-killed deer in the ditches.

With their wings stretched open, guarding their finds, these birds gorged themselves on the meat covering white-boned rib cages and that found beneath the flanks and hindquarters of the withered, spent animals.

This was nature taking its course — life in the food chain.

Reaching the Presque Isle River, which also was running over its banks, I decided to hook north, following the river up into the western edge of Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.

On the other side of a swollen creek, about three dozen robins were dipping and dashing around an open piece of brown, cold ground looking for something to eat. Times would get tougher in the hours ahead for these hearty migrants arriving in droves to these northern forests.

Lady Springtime would hit the snooze alarm and roll back over to sleep, allowing a winter still with a chip on its shoulder to dump a bunch more snow over the region.

The snow would bury potential worm-hunting grounds, leaving the robins scrambling for any shriveled remnants of last fall’s ornamental berry crop or scrounging seeds, meal worms or even suet from backyard bird feeders.

I couldn’t see the Presque Isle from the paved county road as I shot north, almost in a straight line, but with the leaves off the trees I could get glances here and there of a deep ravine off to the east, twisting and turning north.

When the river snaked closest to the road, I stopped the car and got out. I changed my boots to better navigate the deep snow in the ditch off the road edge.

I was still high above the swirling watercourse. The river wound in a meandering fashion between riverbanks still half-covered in partially melted patches of snow.

The view looked much like a black-and-white photograph, with the exception of the licorice-colored trunks of red-twigged dogwood, the yellowish buds beginning to spout at the tops of the trees along the water or the forest green tinges splashed onto the canvas by the occasional hemlock or cedar that protruded up or out from between the gray and bare hardwood branches.

The sky was white and the river gray, with a brownish tinge to it. My time outside the car didn’t last that long, just long enough to snap a couple of photos and enjoy the view.

I can’t really remember my family ever taking us to the Porcupine Mountains when I was a kid. I don’t think there was any specific reason, it was just one of those places we never seemed to go.

I’ve discovered it isn’t uncommon for a lot of families to do this. There are notable gaps in their Outdoors North traveling experiences, despite these natural showcase attractions like the Porcupine Mountains, Pictured Rocks, Copper Harbor or Tahquamenon Falls lying relatively close outside our back doors.

I wasn’t far now from the intersection of the South Boundary Road, the main traveler’s route skirting the southern edge of the park in times when there is no snow on the ground.

Just east of that T-intersection, a bridge crosses over the Presque Isle River where I anticipated a good look at the river. I parked my car by the “road closed” signs and walked toward the river bridge, where a mound of snow covered most of the roadway.

Here the river was browner, wilder and choppier the closer it got to its gaping mouth at Lake Superior.

There was nobody around at all.

I felt as though I’d found the place where the winter’s snowmobile season died. There were trail signs pointing riders toward sights and scenes, but there was more blacktop than snow covering what had been a trail just a couple of weeks ago.

The river now wasn’t fooling. There were cream-colored caps to the waves moving across the top of the water as the powerful force rolled on. I snapped a few more pictures and moved away.

I began a descent down an icy stairway leading to the west river trail that follows the river north past a series of waterfalls.

The signs warning visitors of the perils of the river’s temperamental tendencies were completely unnecessary today as the water was talking a powerful and obviously deadly blue streak all by itself.

“Slippery rocks, swirling currents, whirlpools, undertows, no wading or swimming.”

No kidding.

The tremendous roar of the river was unnerving. I walked carefully along the path, which was partly open and partly covered with slick ice. The isolation of the place added another dimension to the apprehension I was feeling.

It was clear to me that if I slipped down into the drink here, I would be gone without the river even taking a single breath. In most cases, I avoided the trail, opting instead for bare ground a few feet off to the side of the trail.

The roaring water was overpowering. It blocked all other sound and was disorienting.

I reached the wooden walkways around Nawadaha Falls, which are said in the spring to deliver a tremendous peak flow of nearly 12,000 gallons a second.

The view was spectacular and breathtaking.

The same was true of Manido and Manabezho falls, located not far up the trail under the growth of tremendous hemlocks. This was a place frequented by deer during the winter months.

Tracks of deer and canines – either dogs, wolves or coyotes – were melted into the ice and contorted beyond any hope of real recognition. I took more pictures and turned my bootheels sideways to make it back up the slippery hillside.

The moss-covered trunks of fallen hemlocks were split and shattered into interesting shapes. The wood was colored in shades of greens and browns.

More nature at work.

I walked the ice and snow-covered park road back up to my car. A tree felled in a winter storm was lying across the road in front of the entrance to the campground – just one of many fallen soldiers that park staff will have to remove before Memorial Day weekend.

A few minutes later, I was rolling south back down the county road feeling the exhilaration of having just met nature’s power and might face-to-face, soaking in the clean cold air to the depth of my soul.

Life is living.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. 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. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.