Take some time out to go with the flow

 

An aerial view shows the Carp River meandering through Negaunee Township.

Story and photos by Scot Stewart

The hill slid slowly at first, then suddenly to the river’s edge. It was a clear, fast running stream, filled with dark, mysterious boulders, bouncing the chattering water in all directions.  But it was that chatter, and the very racing itself, that brought a serenity, a peace to the place.

Walking along a faint, narrow trail along Harlow Creek, all seems extremely quiet. The section of the river between Co. Rd. 550 and Harlow Lake is short, about a mile long, and much of it runs between steep rises of white and red pine, maples and white spruce. The river does exactly what it is supposed to do. It is an easy, relaxing flow of water over a bed of mostly fine sand, stained slightly by tannic acid leaching from the decomposing leaves and needles that are everywhere. There are a few sharp bends in the river, and there are many fallen trees draped over the river giving it a jumbled look. There are also a few boulders and smaller pieces of basalt resting in the river, diverting the river around their languid bodies.

There are a few surprises in discovering the sources of Harlow Creek. A small tributary does empty out of Harlow Lake.  Nash Creek winds around the lake from the southwest, then northwest, to meet Harlow Creek to the north.  The rest of Harlow Creek, though, comes all the way from Echo Lake, a Nature Conservancy property miles away to the northwest.

During the fall, there were a number of red maples and yellow aspens hanging expectantly over the water, shooting bright, colorful reflections across the river in the late afternoon sun. Stopping to admire the abstract patterns in the water, it is suddenly apparent there is also a gentle gurgle of the water easing around the boulders. And there is movement.  A chocolate colored mink is working its way up the river, sometimes swimming, sometimes running along the water’s edge, looking for minnows, a bird, a vole, anything, to eat.  Suddenly an entire world of amazing, beautiful and soul-inspiring sights, sounds, smells and sensations, a world apart from town nearby. Continuing up the river there may be a startled trio of wood ducks or a pileated woodpecker working above the river.

It only takes ten minutes to drive from the northern edge of Marquette to the parking lot near Harlow Creek, but nearly immediately it is a world apart being on the river. The slender, dark thread of water running ever so carelessly to the Big Lake is a comforting valley creating  a nearly silent sanctuary. In places the meager trail rises up to the red and white pines above the valley, eventually arriving back at a road alongside Harlow Lake. It is a short walk, and very different from the trail heading east from Co. Rd. 550 to the Harlow mouth. The river there runs through massive red pines and a bottom land with thicker stands of alder. The river there starts on flatter ground with the Songbird Trail, but soon the banks along much of the river are very steep, and continue almost right up to Lake Superior.

A quick look at a map, or a slow drive through Marquette County reveals the amazing network of clear, clean water, part of the nearly 200 U.P. rivers and the uncounted smaller creeks meandering and streaking to the surrounding Great Lakes. Each river defines and is defined by the watershed it drains.

Edges of each river’s range rise up creating the limiting borders for the river’s watershed and the backside of the next watershed. These interfaces are the divides, like the Continental Divide separating the directions of the flow of water. There are three major divides in the U.P., one for each of the bordering Great Lakes, and smaller divides between each of the rivers.  Lake Michigan holds the largest drainage area. The slopes of terrain determine the direction of the rivulets spinning into the small creeks joining their waters into Marquette County’s great rivers within the watersheds of Superior and Michigan. They are great not because of their tremendous sizes, but because of their water quality and the beauty of their lands. A river system resembles a horizontal tree, the headwaters of all its feeder creeks the tree top, the mouth the base of the trunk.

There are lots of great rivers in Marquette County, some with familiar names, some not so much. Some of those rivers have an aura, a special feeling about them, being easily accessible, full of life, color and character, and often quiet with few human visitors.

 

A wintery view of a bend in Harlow Creek, which is located near Marquette.

 

The Peshekee River winds southward in Marquette County through the high country along the Marquette-Baraga county line.  Just over 31 miles long, it is part of the Lake Michigan watershed. Its middle traces the edge of the McCormick Wilderness and zigzags back and forth under the Peshekee Grade. The Peshekee is a cold, really clear river, filled with lots of Precambrian rock and rapids. Throughout all the seasons, it is a stunning river to follow, with snow covered pines and spruces and snow-capped rocks and ravens calling overhead in winter.  In spring, warblers, vireos, sparrows and thrushes rush to fill the nesting territories along the river, but the song of the winter wren may be one of the sweetest. Its fluty trill rings out in the narrows of a number of stretches.  Summer is verdant, and fall offers one of the best views in the U.P. with a bright stream lined with crimson maples and golden birch and aspen.

The Peshekee runs through moose country too. It was along the Peshekee that 59 Canadian moose were released in 1985 and 1987. Where the pavement ends moose tracks can still be found.  Moose can at times be seen diving into the brush and occasionally standing on the road near the river.  It is a good place to go with hopes to see them.

Much of the area around the McCormick Wilderness, formerly the McCormick Tract, and the upper reaches of the river and its tributaries is rugged with high rising knobs of granite, and is covered in white and black spruce, tamarack, red-osier dogwood and balsam fir – boreal forest. The niche is home to boreal birds – gray jays, black-backed woodpeckers, red and white-winged crossbills when they move through the area, and boreal chickadees.  These conditions and species are rarely seen south of Lake Superior and Peshekee has become a destination for boreal birders.  Marquette’s Laughing Whitefish Audubon Society has an annual trip up the Peshekee Grade each November, and some members return in December for a Christmas bird count there.

The river itself often runs along rocky cliffs and through thick alder, making it difficult to follow on foot, but with the road often close, or crossing the river, there are plenty of spots to see the fast running upper end. The river widens and slows near its mouth at Lake Michigamme, offering an entirely different feel, with kingfishers, swallows, mergansers and other water-loving birds frequently seen there.

The Yellow Dog River also has connections to the McCormick Wilderness. It rises out of Bulldog Lake in the Wilderness and rushes 31.6 miles to Lake Superior. The river winds through a landscape where few have settled, but many have toiled. The Yellow Dog Plains lies to the north and have been logged over heavily several times and are now also the site of the Eagle Mine, where underground nickel, copper, silver and platinum mining is occurring. The Plains has been home to the rare-to-Michigan spruce grouse, studied by Dr. William Robinson of Northern Michigan University and others since the 1970s. His book, Fool Hen, brought great attention to the Yellow Dog area, a wild place filled with hermit thrushes, blueberries, pine martens, fishers, and lately even a few endangered Kirtland’s warblers finding the replacement jack pines a perfect place to nest.

The river has had the extremely good fortune to be adopted by the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve organization.  According to their website they currently protect and monitor 1,340 acres surrounding the river, so it is possible to explore not only the river, but beautiful maple, yellow birch and spruce forest nearby. There are two great, well-visited falls on the Yellow Dog. Yellow Dog or Hills Falls is seven miles west of Co. Rd. 550 on Co. Rd. 510 just south west of Big Bay. The falls is just east of the bridge on 510.  Pinnacle Falls are farther west on the Triple A Road six miles west of Co. Rd. 510 and then another mile south on a two-track and .7 miles from that road to the falls.  Directions are provided at a webpage for Great Lakes Waterfalls and Beyond.  www.gowaterfalling.com/waterfalls/pinnacle.shtml.

 

The Yellow Dog River in autumn.

 

Because of its accessibility, Yellow Dog Falls is sometimes busy, especially during the fall color season.  But just beyond the falls, and on other stretches of the river, like the area at Eyeball Falls just downstream from the main falls, it is quiet and stunningly beautiful. It is possible to sit, listen, photograph and not see a soul for hours.  Other stretches are similarly quiet spots to reflect and contemplate, or just forget about more complicated matters for a while.

The Little Garlic is another river running north of Marquette in a quiet, relatively remote, undeveloped forest including the Elliott Donnelley Wilderness area. The river is a little over ten and a half miles long and has a wide range of geology along its banks. The upper reaches are granitic, including Little Garlic Falls, one of the most charming in the U.P. The water rushes through a narrow, dark, rocky chute. There are several large rocks in the middle of the river there. More visible during the late hot days of summer, they seem half invisible during high water times like this past fall.

When the water is low in September, observers can press against the uncommon, finely leafed woodsia fern strewn wall and watch brook trout make valiant leaps to get up the falls. They don’t seem to make it, but they keep trying.

There are plenty of other eye-catching attractions along the river. The water rolls over other, smaller rocks on the river bottom, breaking the surface into small fractals, irregular polygons, acting as small mirrors to reflect the tree branches and leaves above. During the peak fall colors, the reflections are mesmerizing. The current is always pushing the water on and on. The wind rustles through the branches, shaking the leaves, waving them and the water surface sideways, back and forth and in plainly random patterns.  In narrow places, air is always forced to move faster, pushed from larger spaces to narrower one, just like the water. It rattles the brain just thinking about it. With a little bit of contemplation, it is possible to train a camera on the surface manually and stop the momentary shape of the surface and literally grab a snapshot of a millisecond of time on the river.

There is still more. There are plenty of long beach and cinnamon ferns growing along the Little Garlic. As the river draws close to Co. Rd. 550, it runs through a wider gap of layered sandstone. There are more maples, more birch,  lots of ferns, and lots of great, really great mushrooms in the fall along the river. Many are edible – black trumpets and chanterelles and others the colors of the rainbow – scarlet waxy caps and blue-green cups. There are globes of orange and pink slime molds on the fallen logs.  On the east side of Co. Rd. 550 the land opens up and sandhill cranes and deer are frequently seen feeding in the meadow.  The Buckroe Road offers more of the river near the mouth, but that will have to wait for another day.

Rivers offer solitude amid a part of the natural world right at our doorstep. Rivers are a part of things often missed.  Kingfishers, mink, royal ferns and giant boletes are concentrated along river edges, but the moving water is hypnotic. The movements and sounds grab our attention and sweep away spare and random thoughts. Rivers push us to see what’s next, upstream. It is never the same on a river, the water level has dropped or risen, a new animal is crossing upstream, a new tree has been pulled down or washed into an eddy. It is natural to push on. But rivers also show us how critical it is to slow down, to stop and see all those changes, consider what is important about each rock, root and stretch of sandy bottom. Finding a place to sit, even in winter, can create incredible insights.  Even better, the Michigan DNR rents a cabin right on Harlow Creek east of Co, Rd. 550 where an entire weekend can be spend sitting on the river finding a little peace.

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