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The Falls

It goes to show that change is good, every cloud has a silver lining, etc. I may have had to alter my travel plans, but they wound up leading me instead to the tallest waterfall in the eastern United States!

Fall Creek Falls, at 256 feet, the tallest waterfall in the eastern United States.

Fall Creek Falls, at 256 feet, the tallest waterfall in the eastern United States.

Fall Creek Falls is striking not only because of its proportions, but also as a result of its beauty. I’m glad that I got to see it in the fall of the year, with low water levels. I find that it brings out the facets of falling water best, when there isn’t too much rushing over at once. I loved seeing the different shapes of the rocks, the cracks and troughs that the water had formed and flowed through.

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Very of surrounding bluffs from the Fall Creek Falls overlook.  The trail back to the visitor's center offers a "challenging" variant, that will allow you to walk out to the edge of the bluff near the middle of this photo!

Very of surrounding bluffs from the Fall Creek Falls overlook. The trail back to the visitor’s center offers a “challenging” variant, that will allow you to walk out to the edge of the bluff near the middle of this photo!

The falls, along with several others, are located within Fall Creek Falls State Park, which offers a ride range of recreational amenities and lodging options.  If you just want to see the water and move on, you can park in a parking lot which is approximately 300 paved feet from the falls overlook. I recommend the somewhat rough 1-mile walk from the interpretive center, though. A waterfall as impressive as this one can be appreciated even better if you work for it a little bit! Though, I admit the hike would be easier if I hadn’t done 12 boulder-strewn miles the day before!

Holly bedecked with berries helps to make the Tennessee woods a beautiful place in autumn!

Holly bedecked with berries helps to make the Tennessee woods a beautiful place in autumn!

Rock doves seemed to enjoy flying around and perching behind the cascading water - fun to sit and watch at the mid-way point in the hike!

Rock doves seemed to enjoy flying around and perching behind the cascading water – fun to sit and watch at the mid-way point in the hike!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you are even more adventurous, or a glutton for punishment like myself, you can take the half-mile hike/staircase down to the bottom of the falls. It was lovely, and a great workout! Perfect preparation for the trip home – fourteen hours of sitting in a car, eating gas station food. I earned every bite!

View from the bottom of the trail down to Fall Creek Falls; I chose to rest rather than clamber closer on the rocks.

View from the bottom of the trail down to Fall Creek Falls; I chose to rest rather than clamber closer on the rocks.

The park contains several more waterfalls, including this one, which fell as a mist and was only visible as it hit the pool below

The park contains several more waterfalls, including this one, which fell as a mist and was only visible as it hit the pool below

 

Savage

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Though my goal had been to get to the Smoky Mountains, I never made it… but had great fun exploring the Cumberland Plateau instead.  Covering much of central Tennessee, this plateau is nearly 1,000 feet above the height of the Cumberland River (to the southeast), and contains an incredible diversity of plant and animal species.  It has been carved over millenia by many creeks, and the geology of the area is apparent at every turn.

I decided to take a short backpacking trip (one night… though now I’m convinced to go back for more), and decided on the Collins Gulf sector of the Savage Gulf State Natural Area, which covers nearly 16,000 acres on the western edge of the Plateau.  On a longer trip, I could have traversed the area, which is cut through by several rivers and creeks, giving it the aerial appearance of “a giant crowfoot.”  If you are handy at reading a topographic map, you’ll find this one quite impressive.

Despite the topography, I figured that a twelve-mile hike in one day was do-able, if potentially exhausting. The volunteer at the ranger station had told us that in the drought and late fall conditions, there was “no water” on the trail, so we packed in all we would need.  It turned out that there was enough water to filter in several places, so I will do my research better next time.

View from the top of the plateau, with shortleaf pine in the foreground, and hardwoods blanketing the hillsides

View from the top of the plateau, with shortleaf pine in the foreground, and hardwoods blanketing the hillsides

Twelve miles should have been do-able... if several sections of the trail hadn't looked like this!

Twelve miles should have been do-able… if several sections of the trail hadn’t looked like this! On several signs and in the park brochures, we were repeatedly admonished, “No hiking after dark.” Foolishly, I didn’t think much of it until we started encountering sections these rickety boulders!

Blazes marked the trail to keep us on track, here winding between trees and rocks in the upland

Blazes marked the trail to keep us on track, here winding between trees and rocks in the upland

The trail traverses the edge of this cliff, which would have included "the spectacular triple waterfall of Rocky Mountain Creek" in a wetter year.

The trail traverses the edge of this cliff, which would have included “the spectacular triple waterfall of Rocky Mountain Creek” in a wetter year.

The author, on a trail switchback along rock wall terraces, built by early settlers to provide areas flat enough for grazing livestock!

The author, on a trail switchback along rock wall terraces, built by early settlers to provide areas flat enough for grazing livestock!

The loop trail we took crossed the "Gulf" (a local term for ravine or hollow) twice, on suspension bridges.

The loop trail we took crossed the “Gulf” (a local term for ravine or hollow) twice, on suspension bridges.

We took a rest where the trail encountered Fall Creek, the waterfall a trickle of its springtime glory, layers of geology exposed to our autumn view

We took a rest where the trail encountered Fall Creek, the waterfall a trickle of its springtime glory, layers of geology exposed to our autumn view

Though the sun still shone, it got harder and harder to see our way in the evening, under the shadows of cliffs and trees.  We crossed our last boulder field after the sun had set, but just before all of the light was gone.  The last mile or so, though, we hiked in the dark, returning to camp to make a well-deserved supper by our headlamps!

Though the sun still shone, it got harder and harder to see our way in the evening, under the shadows of cliffs and trees. We crossed our last boulder field after the sun had set, but just before all of the light was gone. The last mile or so, though, we hiked in the dark, returning to camp to make a well-deserved supper by our headlamps!

Still Winter

It has been warm for the past few days, but today snow fell again, to remind us that winter hasn’t let go just yet.  I’m getting antsy for spring to begin, but in the meantime I’ll continue to showcase the joys of the winter wonderland we live in, here in the frozen North.

A couple of weeks ago, I took a morning to go cross-country skiing on a trail system I’d never visited before, in Niagara, WI.  Afterwards, I headed across the river to Michigan to hike the trail in to Piers Gorge, and check out some more frozen waterfalls.  I thought I’d share some of the experiences of that day.

IMG_0056The trails in Riverside Park feature 17 winding km of groomed classic skiing.  Despite living only 20 miles away, I hadn’t even known that this trail netweek existed, until I went onto SkinnySki to look for some new adventures.  I highly recommend that site for information about trails near home or in unfamiliar locations, at least in the upper Midwest.  The trails lead through some pretty scenery, from IMG_0053recent aspen clear-cuts and red pine plantations, to fields, spruce swamps, marshes, and riverfront.  There are some hills, but most of the terrain is flat (in the Menominee River floodplain), or rolling at best.  Despite being just outside of town, it feels like skiing in more remote parts of the Northwoods (which I’ll get to in later posts).  My only criticism is that it could use some maps.  There are a lot of loops, most of which eventually connect up at some point, but it would have been nicer to have been able to plan the journey better.

A view of the frozen Menominee River from a spur of the Riverside Trails in Niagara, WI

A view of the frozen Menominee River from a spur of the Riverside Trails in Niagara, WI

 

IMG_0074Though tired from skiing, I wanted to see how some of the more turbulent portions of the river were looking in frozen condition.  I crossed over into Norway, MI, and hiked up the snowy trail to Piers Gorge.  It is beautiful in any season, and this was no exception.  It’s hard to capture the intricacies of the ice buildup without more sunlight to provide contract… which should be an excuse for you to come and visit it yourself sometime!IMG_0078

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Bond…

IMG_0272While I’m on the subject of frozen waterfalls, I saw a beautiful one the other day!  On a whim, I drove up to Bond Falls, a spectacular multi-level falls on the Ontonogan River near Paulding, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  It is located within the boundaries of the Ottawa National Forest, but the park facilities are managed by the Upper Peninsula Power Company, which operates the dam just upstream, and designated by the Michigan DNR as a State Scenic Site.  None of that matters much to the casual visitor though – we are more impressed by the scope of the falls – a 50′ cumulative drop and over twice that wide at the bottom!

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Though it’s been quite cold at night, it has been warming up enough during the days to keep most of the ice off the face of the falls.  There was still a lot of accumulation from the spray, and in more slowly-moving sections, which was impressive in itself.

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It had gotten cloudy on the drive over, but a few rays of sun came out for about two minutes, and I got some great shots of the spray hitting the walls of ice at the bottom.

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In fact, one of the best parts about this falls was how slowly it moved.  As a result, there were many small currents and eddies to see, and the rock was mostly visible under the clear water, without clouds of foam and bubbles to obscure it.

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In one section, it was clear that some concrete structures had been added , both to shore up the banks of the river, and within the bed of the river/falls itself.  We speculated that it might be intended to slow the water down for safety, or to enhance the appearance of the waterfall (unlikely to be done IMG_0301nowadays but a common enough practice earlier in our history).  We figured that it must be somehow related to the dam near the top of the cascades, but couldn’t quite figure out how.  It piqued my curiosity, and I did a little research.  It turns out that, when the dam that created the Bond Falls Flowage was built, all the water from the natural river was engineered to go through the power dam, and the falls actually dried up in some seasons, so they had to divert water back in order to make it keep flowing.  Since it flowed more slowly than before, with lower water volume, they put in the structures along the banks to keep all the water IMG_0386heading to the main falls, and the structures in the river for the sake of appearance.

 

 

 

 

On a warmer day, I could have sat on the banks and just watched for hours as the water poured over the IMG_0291rocks, pooling here, flowing there, turning around and seeming to flow back up hill before rushing over another ledge.  Of course, on a warmer day there would have been crowds of people there to change the experience.   This is by no means a “wild” falls – not only has it been slightly domesticated by the structures explained above, but the viewers are “tamed” as well, constrained the a wooden boardwalk at the bottom (offering excellent views while keeping everyone safe) and handrails on the trail up along the river (useful on the steep sections and to remind the foolhardy not to step closer to the rushing water).  However, given its history it might not exist at all, had someone not recognized its value and kept it flowing strong for the rest of us!

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Five Months Later… A Different World

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A couple of weeks ago, I went back to Pictured Rocks to see the spectacles blanketed in snow and ice. Munising, MI had gotten quite a bit of snow, compared

Miner's Falls Road, Munising, MI

Miner’s Falls Road, Munising, MI

to points just a little farther inland, but even so it was nowhere near the potential for that area in late winter. “Lake effect” snow falls on the band of land along the Great Lakes, a result of slightly elevated temperature and moisture content, as well as air currents. Munising’s average annual snowfall is around 152″.  I don’t know exactly what the snow depth was on March 3rd, when I was there, but I would estimate around 2′ or slightly more. Today, Munising comes in at 34″ on the ground; the deepest snow depth ever recorded for Marquette, just down the road, on March 15th, was 63″and today they’re at about 20″- so we’d have a long way to go this year. Still, I was less interested in exploring the snow than the ice – frozen water at its finest covering the largest lake in the world and its surrounding waterfalls.
I only had a couple hours between when I arrived and when the sun was scheduled to set. I stopped in at the Interagency Visitor’s Center, and the woman at the desk said that the best waterfall to see would be Miner’s Falls, but that the road was only plowed part of the way in. The rest, she said, was used as a snowmobile trail, and it would be a two mile hike down it to the falls. At least that was how I understood it… reality turned out to be a little different, with the full hike to the falls over 3 miles. The snowmobile “trail, ” too was more heavily-used than I’d expected. It was really a road, long and straight, and as I hiked along the edge, snow machines came whizzing by at over 60 mph, stirring up a mist of snow and leaving an acrid exhaust in their wake. I was happy to finally turn off onto the side road to the falls after 40 minutes of trudging anxiously alongside them.

Snowdrifts in the woods on the hike to Miner's Falls -almost as striking as the waterfall itself!

Snowdrifts in the woods on the hike to Miner’s Falls -almost as striking as the waterfall itself!

I got to Miners Falls as the sun was setting, so I didn’t have much time to explore, just to stand in the observation area and shoot a few photos. The formations of ice and snow on the falls, the frozen river, and the trail’s ridge were beautiful and amazing!

Miner's Falls and Miner's River, viewed from above

Miner’s Falls and Miner’s River, viewed from above

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When I got back out to the snowmobile road, it was getting dark, and the traffic had slowed considerably – in fact only one group of four sleds passed me on my walk back to the car. By the time I arrived, full dark had set in, and the stars had come out in the peaceful cold stillness of the Upper Peninsula. Miner’s Falls is beautiful in winter, but I’m not sure it is worth the hike all the way in. However, snowmobile seems like an excellent way to explore the National Lakeshore in winter- you can access many sites in a day. Hiking out on the rugged lake ice (with plenty of windproof clothing!) would be a unique way to see the beautiful rock formations. There are far fewer people than in summer, and the austere light and colors of winter make for great photographs. I may just have to try renting a sled next year and seeing what I can find!

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Lake Superior’s Shelter Bay, dotted in fishing shacks, with the beginning of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore to the northeast.

Further Adventures

It’s been a while since you heard from me, eh?  It’s not because I haven’t done anything interesting, it’s because I haven’t had time to sit around on the

An old-growth sugar maple in the Archibald Lake unit of the Nicolet National Forest

computer and tell you about it!  It’s time to start getting caught up, though, because the stories are piling up!  What better place to start than this past weekend, which included a lot more “adventures” than I expected…

 

 

 

It seemed like a simple weekend excursion – meet a friend, find a campsite, enjoy nature.  Of course, I always have to complicate things.  See, last time I was down on the Lakewood-Laona District of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, I meandered my way home, with an intermediate destination of a cool secluded lake surrounded by a bog full of great plants.  Along the way, I happened upon a campsite, investigated, and found that it was lovely and rarely used.  So naturally, I suggested that we go there.  Unfortunately, all I could remember was that it was on the North Branch of the Oconto River, on public land near private land, somewhere between Mountain and Townsend, east of the highway (it doesn’t narrow down that 40-square-mile area very much).  Even less fortunately (for him), my friend got there before I did, and he dutifully started looking for it.  By the time I got there, he’d traveled half of the country roads in that vicinity and had been compelled to break into that evening’s beverage-based entertainment in mid-afternoon.  Which is to say that he was mildly frustrated.  We checked out a few more spots, but with no luck, and ultimately we found a decent place to pitch our tent off of a rarely-used forest road, behind a berm so that no bear-tracking trucks would come roaring out of the woods and run us down in the early morninghours.  Adventure #1 down.

 

Despite a little drizzle, the night was relaxing and enjoyable, we heard the sounds of nature around us and not trucks and ATV’s.  After a lazy morning involving some reading, bike riding on forest trails, and dog-walking, we went to really start the day.  At which point I discovered that I had locked my keys in my car.  This would be Adventure #2.  We tried for a while to break in to it, but apparently all of the curves in the metal and tight weatherproofing that has kept my car dry (and theft-free) for twelve years was not corruptible with sticks and screwdrivers.  Finally, opting not to damage my car further, I decided that we should drive into town (in the friend’s car) and call a lockout service.  So we did, and even got an ice cream cone (and fried green beans!) while waiting for the mechanic to show up.  The kid who got roped into working lock-outs on Sunday morning met us at the gas station in Lakewood, and followed us back to the car, probably wondering where exactly we were taking him, as we got over a mile down this heavily-rutted road.  However, he got me into my car in five minutes, and we finished packing up and went to spend what was left of our day in pursuit of nature in the Northwoods.

We went west of Lakewood a few miles, to the Cathedral Pines, a stand of never-logged pines that were “saved from the axe” by a lumber baron’s wife who, according to legend (and the informative sign at the site), plead with him to save the area where she took her children to learn their bible verses.  The trees are amazingly tall there, though their bases aren’t as wide as some others in the area.  We hiked around a bit through some old growth forest in the area, and checked out a nearby heron rookery.  The Great Blue Herons were all gone for the year, their young having fledged, but we found traces of their presence in the woods.  We ambled around for a couple hours, enjoying the woods and exploring.  Adventure #3 was enjoyable, if shorter than originally intended!  The time came for us to part ways, though, and my friend headed home, while I went off to find another campsite for the night (hooray for a Monday off!).

A Great Blue Heron nest in a tall pine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Great Blue Heron, hanging in a tree. Was this bird killed in a dispute and thrown to the ground?

 

 

An eggshell on the ground under the heron rookery.

 

 

Old trees. My (65-lb) dog poses to the left of a hemlock, for scale, with the larger white pine on the right.

Burls in maples – will the one just getting established in the foreground ever rival the monster above it in back?

When forests are managed for old growth, larger trees are allowed to fall over, rather than simply being harvested. The resulting “tip-up mounds” are sometimes a good way to recognize a forest that has had this less-intensive management.

 

A beech tree spreads out in front of a white pine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My mind was still on that elusive site on the N. Branch Oconto, but I didn’t want to drive back south to explore that area more.  There was one more possibility to the north east, a long shot, but there were established campsites on the map in that area, so I knew that even if my search didn’t pan out, I’d be able to find a spot to lay my head.  Well, turns out that Adventure #4 took all of 10 minutes!  Before I even found the turn-off, I recognized some signs on private land in the area and let out a yelp of success!  I followed a couple of dirt roads in to a small turnaround on the south side of the river, carried my gear in, and pitched the tent.  I sat near the fire on a cool fall-like night, listening to the riffling and clumph-ing of the water over the rocks and around fallen trees, and woke up in the morning to do a bit of (completely unproductive) fishing.

I don’t know that the site is currently being maintained by the Forest Service (there’s another, newer site just down the road), and the fishing isn’t great,  but I’d recommend it to anyone who wants a secluded night in the Northwoods.  But you think I’m going to tell you where it is???  You’ll have to have that Adventure for yourself!