On the Tyoga Trail

by Leslie Allen

0904bt1The Tyoga Historical Pathway is a 1.4-mile loop, a tangled trail cutting through the gnarled woods that cover the rocky land between Lake Superior and M-28 in western Alger County.
The trail circles and winds through the lumber-camp town of Tyoga, which existed from about 1905 to 1908, and the town’s tale is told through twenty-two signposts that help to keep one on the trail as it narrows, submerges, rises up, widens, crosses creeks and climbs rocks laced with the roots of towering hemlock and cedar. Remnants of the town exist, but the idle hiker might rightly wonder where, exactly.
A sign tells us: “You have been walking down the main road from Tyoga into country a former resident described as an ‘awful wilderness.’ Proceeding down the pathway one enters the cleared Tyoga townsite which Mother Nature is gradually reclaiming to brush and trees.”
Each time I am here, hiking along the Laughing Whitefish River in waist-high brush or scrambling over moss-covered boulders, I think the reclamation is complete, and there is something appealing about that.
Enter John Parlin. A recent Onota Township newsletter reports how he and others are working on clearing the Tyoga Trail of blowdowns and brush, identifying birds, tagging trees, creating brochures; getting a new sign made to put up on M-28, identifying old foundations, and writing a book, a history of the Tyoga Lumber Company. Throughout 2008, I have noticed the work along the trail and appreciate it, but since I also enjoy the elusive nature of Tyoga—a signpost is the only clue that “The Tyoga Lumber Company Store, pictured here, stood a short distance straight out from this marker…”—I worry about these people intent on clearing up trails and history and wonder: will Tyoga change?
For Parlin, a part-time resident of Sand River, which lies just west of the trail, it started with change. Parlin likes to fish, and he wanted to fish the Laughing Whitefish River, at that time clogged with beaver dams. Parlin approached the Department of Natural Resources about removing the dams, and he was given permission to take out two that were causing flooding problems along the Tyoga Trail. One thing led to another, and Parlin, a history buff, adopted Tyoga in 2003 with the DNR’s blessing—Parlin signed an agreement to help maintain the trail by clearing brush, removing blowdowns and making capital improvements.
It was about this time I also discovered and fell in love with Tyoga—its seclusion, its wildness, and its faint whiff of a long-forgotten story. There is a sign that reads in part: “Somehow, if you listen closely, you can still hear the broom swinging, Mrs. Nestor Koski screaming as she chased a black bear out of her kitchen…”
I had passed a small and crooked marker for the historical pathway a number of times before giving in to curiosity and turning off M-28 to follow North Point Road—a dirt road—deep into the woods (about two miles).
As a newcomer to the area, I was just beginning to learn this is what you have to do—you have to forget the fear that this rutted road may lead you nowhere and that’s where you’ll get stuck, and instead, just keep going until you’re somewhere, trusting you always can get back if need be. In this case, the somewhere was Tyoga
0904bt2At the trailhead is a large sign with a map and some history of a long-ago town that reads:
“When the Tyoga Lumber Company was incorporated on March 7, 1905, three million board feet of logs had been cut in the woods and Tyoga, sawmill and townsite, was well under construction.”
You mean people actually lived in this wilderness?
Parlin’s interest in Tyoga’s history brought him together with other local history buffs Bea Anderson and Chuck Foreman, and as well Mike Zuidema, a now-retired DNR forester who researched Tyoga and brought the pathway to completion in 1987. These four have spent the last couple of years pulling together a book about Tyoga, to be published, they hope, in 2010.
“We decided that we wanted to preserve this memory, and we’re writing a book, which is pretty extensive,” Parlin said. “It’s really a ton of fun.”
The Tyoga terrain is varied and the trail becomes difficult at times as it leaps up a rocky outcropping or traverses a bog. Blue confidence markers on the trees help to keep one on track, as do the numerous plank and log walks and interpretive signs. One of my favorites begins: “Bed Bugs! Two hours before daylight, six days a week, the lumberjacks were awakened by the woods boss as he stuck his mug in the bunkhouse doorway and yelled, ‘Daylight in the swamp!’ Compared to these bed bug-ridden sleeping camps, the comforts at the boarding house were well worth the extra expense.”
Zuidema wrote the signs that relate the history he unearthed after a chance meeting at the now-defunct Laughing Whitefish River State Campground. Zuidema was in charge of the rustic campground and had been thinking of putting in a hiking trail to enhance it. One day while at the site, he met and struck up a conversation with a local man. He told of his plans to explore the other side of the river, and the man responded, Zuidema said, with “Oh, by Tyoga.” This was the first Zuidema had heard of Tyoga. He proceeded to do some research, and over the next several years the trail and Tyoga took shape.
Onota Township helped secure funding to establish the trail, and today the township is considering reentering the picture. According to township supervisor John Shauver, the township’s planning commission is looking at a number of options to fulfill the need for a local park and recreation area, and taking on fiscal responsibility for Tyoga is one possibility.
“Tyoga’s been used by a number of township residents in the spring and fall for fishing in the Laughing Whitefish, with a number of good fish coming out of there,” Shauver said.
Before the campground closed in the early 2000s, residents would camp for a number of days while fishing, and restoring the campsites would be a priority if the township were to get involved.
Another sign reads: “Brook trout fishing on the Laughing Fish River was excellent and three-and-a-half pounders were relatively common. Charlie and Arthur Risku, whose father hewed railroad ties in the woods with a broad axe, were just young boys when they lived at Tyoga. The brothers used to go down by the dam with a wheelbarrow when the water was let out after the log drives from upstream logging camps and pick up trout which were left high and dry.”
Parlin recognizes the natural aspect of Tyoga is just as important as the historical and lauds the area’s biodiversity. He and Zuidema have identified more than twenty species of trees along the trail, and many are now either labeled with their common and scientific names or tagged with a number that will correspond to a forthcoming brochure. Parlin’s wife, Tory, is identifying Tyoga’s flora, and Scott Hickman has listed seventy-one bird species spotted in the area. Parlin wants more people to use the trail, especially children, and sees great potential for the trail to be used as an educational tool.
“You need to teach kids to be confident in the woods,” Parlin said. “And I don’t mean a GPS. I mean a compass and common sense…Bea has spent her life in the woods. I could drop Bea out of an airplane anywhere here and a couple of hours later you would see her out on M-28 because she’s followed a stream…You need to know not to panic in the woods.”
Catherine Kimar, who began working with Parlin as part of her studies in Outdoor Recreation and Leadership Management at Northern Michigan University, grew up near the trail and remembers walking it as a kid.
“I remember all the interpretive signs and running ahead of my parents and finding all the little markers along the way,” Kimar said.
I hiked Tyoga with Kimar last October, and she mentioned a book by Richard Louv, Last Child in the Wilderness: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Louv writes about the effects on children of a decrease in the amount of time spent outdoors, citing a trend over the past generation or two for children to be indoors more often, either watching television or playing video games. In addition, there is a trend for the time spent out of doors to be more structured, usually participating in organized sports. The causes for these trends are many, and Louv is careful not to belittle them, but nonetheless the effect, he asserts, is profound.
“Our society is teaching young people to avoid direct experience in nature,” he writes, “…but as the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, physiologically and psychologically, and this reduces the richness of human experience.”
Kimar bucks the nature-deficit trend, admitting she does not suffer from the disorder. She told me how she and her sister usually would skip watching Sesame Street in the mornings to go outside and play in a tree house, to make up games, to run through the woods.
“It gives you an appreciation of nature, which is something a lot of people miss out on,” she said. “…People really do think that we can impose our own order, control nature, but it’s kind of like trying to squash a tic.”
Nature runs rampant in Tyoga, but walk the trail with Parlin and Eric Drake, an archeologist with the U.S. Forest Service, and a town emerges. More accurately, get off the trail, for Tyoga lies underneath the duff, where there are remnants of foundations, and imbedded in the roots of felled trees, where you can find chips of brick and mortar. There’s your Tyoga.
Drake said his job is to identify pieces of the past, then document, preserve, protect and interpret them. Looking across a somewhat open area alongside one part of the trail, I see small trees, hillocks, brush, grass, moss, boulders; Drake sees the possibilities of 100 years ago. It’s his training, but it’s also his experience.
“I think of my grandfather,” he said. “He was very practical, a farmer, and where would he put the shed? Where it’s flat.” And off he goes, walking the knobby expanse, finding corner stones, flat areas, measuring off what once was.
Tyoga is tricky in the spring, buggy and rich in summer, beautiful in the fall, snowed in throughout the long winter months. By April, I am eager to get out on the trail, to walk it, to read the signs, to breathe its air, to pause on the bridges that span the river and watch the water rush by on its way to Superior. Sometimes I go too early, wanting to avoid the first hatch of black flies, and I end up walking through heavy, knee-deep, wet snow. Late last April, I was ultimately stymied by a large swampy area that sucked up the trail and left me feeling uncertain. I had been startled by a deer, my boots were soaked through, and I was cold. It was an inhospitable day at Tyoga, and I turned back reluctantly. I had barely made it a third of the way around, just barely past a sign that ends: “…the future of Tyoga looked bright.”
—Leslie Allen

Editor’s Note: To help with trail maintenance or other projects related to preserving the Tyoga Historical Pathway, please contact John Parlin at 343-6514.

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