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Waterfall Magnetism

This is Part 2 of Jay’s experience hiking 1200 miles of the North Country Trail (NCT) through Michigan. Photos by Jay Senkevich 

“There is a hidden message in every waterfall…” Mehmet Murat İldan (Turkish Playwright)

The cultural oddity in Michigan is the hunt for the elusive waterfall. There are guidebooks on the subject – much like hiking the 14ers in Colorado or the 4,000ers in New England. Like peak bagging, some waterfalls are easily accessible from paved roads whereas others are an adventure to arrive at.

There are more than 300 waterfalls in the UP. None are as grand as Yosemite Falls in terms of height, and some are admittedly duds. As I walked the 575 miles on the North Country Trail, through the UP, I remember being quite disappointed with some…is this it? This is water with some rocks. However, size in this case doesn’t necessarily matter because some waterfalls are just fantastic; and they are mutable, changing with the season, rainfall, and the time of the day.

The really cool wacky aspect of Michigan culture, from the perspective of an outsider, is the obsession with water in the state. There are the Great Lakes (Superior, Huron, and Michigan). I have not been to Lake Huron but Lake Michigan and Lake Superior are very different geologically. Lake Superior is, in fact, very unique. Maybe that is why it is called “Superior” because it is the granddaddy of all the Great Lakes – and boy is it cold! I went swimming in it while I was passing through Marquette. I was in the water for about five seconds and I was blue. On that particular summer day, the temperature was in the 80’s. 

Lake Superior’s waters are mutable much like the waterfalls of the UP. Lake Michigan, on the other hand, is kind of warm. Maybe not the best adjective, but if you are desperate, a swim is fine. Lake Michigan’s beaches are also much sandier and less hostile than its northern cousin.

Besides the Great Lakes, it seems like everyone aspires to be “On a Lake,” in Michigan. However, there are exceptions—adventurous kayakers navigating the Manistee River, Little Manistee River, Kalamazoo River, and more. These waterways are home to incredible Cohoes and King Salmon.

As I hiked through southern Michigan, the prevalence of Subarus with kayaks on top caught my eye, prompting the question, “Where are they going?” While some lakes boast picturesque developments, others remain isolated, devoid of houses – all are stunning. Strikingly, amidst this natural beauty, I never sensed a claim of ownership over the waterfalls. Instead, they flowed freely, left to do their own thing in all their majestic power and grace

I was quite a way through my journey when I realized the magnetic pull of the waterfalls. It was Rock River Falls. The NCT had a long road walk, maybe 10 miles. It turned off of a paved highway going north to the town of Rock River (somewhere between Munising and Marquette). The forest road was very rough, and yet all these cars were on it passing me while I was hiking. I thought to myself “A lot of people must live on this road.” After all, there were houses on the road and it was lined with power lines. 

In the summertime in the UP, there are tourists everywhere. Of course, they are nearly all from the Lower Peninsula or Chicago. But there was more traffic than usual. And where was this road going? It seemed nowhere. 

Eventually, I flagged down a car that was passing in the opposite direction. It was a Frenchman and his wife with a cute young daughter of maybe 4 years. Guillaume and his wife promptly fed me. I must have looked desperate. Maybe they just don’t see hikers in the UP unless they are in a state park? Turns out, Guillaume knew my wife’s boss. They both import French wine. How convenient, no? 

Guillaume assured me I should visit this waterfall, which was off the trail. They were out ‘hunting’ a few waterfalls that day themselves. “Very interesting,” I thought, and they were not alone. I ended up not visiting that waterfall because it was off-trail and the mosquitoes were bad…like carry me off to Canada bad. 

Guillaume texted me later asking me if I went.  “Ummm…no.” He made me feel as if I had missed a cultural event like Traverse City cherries, eating a Boston T-bone, eating whitefish, eating a Pasty, or having a delicious Boston Cooler! If I wanted to REALLY experience Michigan, I had to get on the wagon and experience the waterfalls.

The trail later that day was very swampy and very buggy. I ended up getting some ‘swamp’ water to filter at camp. I rarely filter water.  My previous trail name was “No Filter” for that very reason. I started a fire to keep the mosquitoes at bay. After an uneventful night, I continued on in the morning. The trail conditions didn’t improve, and at times was overgrown. I arrived around lunchtime at a beautiful waterfall.  Very hungry, I sat down to make lunch. It was the last waterfall before Marquette headed west.  To my knowledge, it didn’t have a name, at least not on my hiking app.

This waterfall was a small mellifluous stream flowing over a limestone precipitous. I was met by an active dog and a rather eccentric older woman. They were a temporary distraction in a glorious feeling of solitude and peace. Maybe it was because the trail in this area was so horrendous? Or maybe I was just a little fatigued? All I knew was at that moment I realized how incredible this waterfall and the waterfalls of the UP could be. There were no cars, bikes, planes, or other cacophonous noises. It was pure bliss and feeling like I was connected to nature. After that point, I had the second half of the UP to hike. From that moment on, I saw the waterfalls and the experience of the UP differently. And for some quirky reason, I saw my life a little differently, a little more serene and peaceful.

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