Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Upper & Lower Falls of the UP: Everyone Had Mosquitoes on Their Minds

“Yes, you really must visit the Upper and Lower Tahquamenon Falls during your stay in the Upper Peninsula.” Then she added as an afterthought, “Be sure to take insect repellent with you.”Ed received this response when he visited our campground office and shared news of our plans to visit these “must see” Falls in the Tahquamenon Falls State Parks.

As the morning progressed, it seemed that it wasn’t only Darlene in the campground office with mosquitoes on her mind. In the parking lot of the Upper Tahquamenon Falls, we saw a trail guide misting himself in a shower of insect repellent and advising his two companions to do the same. Ed noticed that the expressions on people’s faces returning from the Falls seemed mildly annoyed as they swatted the air at mosquitoes. A skinny woman clutched the neck of her jacket as if a winter wind blew but she really just did this to keep the neckline tight blocking the nasty mosquitoes. One man grinned when he told me, “We left some mosquitoes back a ways for you.” Not a single person returning from the Upper Falls made the expected comments like: “You’re in for a treat, the Upper Falls are beautiful.” Those who muttered a passing comment complained about the mosquitoes.

All throughout our stay in the Upper Peninsula, mosquitoes had been pesky. After our first day in the UP, my sandaled feet, bare legs, and sleeveless arms swelled with welts from mosquito bites. Quickly, I’d grown accustomed to the scent of Off and to the pink color of calamine lotion dried on my skin. I started to wear long sleeve shirts, slacks and socks with my sneakers every day even if the temperatures climbed to the 80s.

For our hike to the Upper Falls, the mosquitoes dared to target my only bare spots of skin. Those bold creatures zoomed for the nose and forehead, the places I missed spraying with Off. I began to fantasize about how lovely the place would be in the winter with no mosquitoes. Why had I come in June?

The roar of the waterfall eventually drowned out the buzz of the mosquitoes as I walked the trail. When, I saw my first glimpse of the Upper Falls through some trees, I forgot about the bugs and just enjoyed the view of the water falling off a 50 foot drop. The Upper Falls are the highest waterfall west of the Mississippi except for Niagara Falls and span 200 feet across the Tahquamenon River. From a distance, it’s a grand vision of nature. Each viewpoint along the paved trail gives a closer and closer look until visitors finally descend steps to a viewing platform daringly close to the Falls. From here, you can feel the vibration of the hundreds of gallons of water rushing over the Falls into the canyon below. You can see the bourbon brown color of the water which comes from the tannic acid of the decaying hemlocks, spruce and cedar along the Tahquamenon River. The pools of foam cluster at the bottom of the plunge. The foam looks like whipped egg whites and are created by the river’s organic debris, low mineral content, and the turbulence of the Falls. Just below the water surface before the ledge of the Falls, shining circles catch the sunshine. They are coins from visitor’s wishes cast with a penny or dime. Had they wished for the mosquitoes to go away?

An hour later, we traveled to the Lower Falls of the Tahquamenon River just a short drive along Highway M123. The mosquitoes knew this route too. And, we saw the same forlorn, mosquito bitten people here as well.

The Lower Falls are a series of five small falls on the river. There are two ways to see the Lower Falls: rent a row boat from a concessionaire in the park and cross the Tahquamenon River to an island trail surrounded by the Lower Falls, or follow the boardwalk trail around the river bend. I walked the boardwalk .3 miles to the first overlook. The Lower Falls may be small in comparison to the Upper Falls, but their current, whirlpools, and series of plunges are posted as dangerous. From the edge of the overlook, I sensed the power. The force of the Falls sent mist into my face and filled the park setting with the soothing sound of rushing water. I felt relaxed and ready for a picnic lunch which I ate in the shelter of my car away from the mosquitoes.

The day at the Upper and Lower Falls was pleasant. I didn’t let the mosquitoes ruin my appreciation for the scenery or curtail my habit of ending a visit to an attraction with some retail therapy. At the gift shop, I noticed a handmade sign: “We have insect repellent.” By the day’s end, the store probably sold more bug spray than the usual souvenir t-shirts or postcards.

June 24, 2009

We Keep Running Out of Road!

We keep running out of road! We’ve traveled in our Prevost motorhome/bus conversions from the tip of Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula to the Texas-Mexican border…cross-country through the US and Canada to the Pacific Rim, Vancouver Island…along the coasts of Washington and Oregon… then inland only to bisect the US again to reach southern California’s beaches and another Mexican border. The rise in seasonal temperatures directly relates to how far north we move. And, when the degrees decrease, we turn southward. We are infinitely mobile on a road trip that began for my husband Ed on Independence Day – July 4, 2007 when he drove out of the yard of our Texas home and gave the keys to its new owners. For me, the journey began two months later in September 2007 when I resigned from a corporate career and tossed my watch into the depths of Lake George in upstate New York.

We’ve traveled more in the past two years than most people travel in a lifetime of two-week vacations! We’ve logged over 25,000 miles on the Prevost and several thousand on the car we tow for running about on day trips.

The people we encounter, the experiences that come our way, and the places we visited truly have opened a new world to us. How else would we have met people like the commercial fisherman in Louisiana who let us spend a morning with him checking his nets for catfish? Would we have ever been guests at a Cajun birthday party or ride the circus elephant greeting the crowd for the evening performance? When would we ever have walked the Pacific coastal beaches of Oregon or peeked through a US-Mexico border fence? Had it not been the journey that we embarked upon, none of this would have happened to us. Imagine what we would have missed!

Several weeks ago, we reached the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Lake Superior makes a natural barrier causing us to again look at the map and say, “Where next?” Although we have once again run out of road, the adventure continues.

July 5, 2009

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Soo Locks on Father's Day

Port Iroquois Lighthouse

Rivermouth State Campground

It Doesn't Get Better Than This!

Dining in Houston’s fine restaurants like Willie G’s or McCormick & Schmick’s always left me satisfied. Grabbing ribs at Dreamland in Tuscaloosa, Alabama had me licking my lips and fingers. And, a sandwich at Permanies in Pittsburgh stacked with corn beef, fries and coleslaw made me stretch my mouth to take each bite. Still nothing that a restaurant prepares can compare to the yummy taste of a hamburger or pork chop soaked in Old Pit and cooked over a bed of Kingsford charcoal on a Hibachi grill in a state park. Rinsing the barbecued food down with an icy cold Budweiser with a squeeze of fresh lime quenches a summer thirst. And, a gooey marshmallow makes a sweet dessert. It doesn’t get better than this at a campground on a summer evening in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

June 22, 2009

Rivermouth Campground State Park

Paradise, Michigan

Upper Peninsula Food: Whitefish & Pasties

Maine has its lobster. Louisiana claims Cajun cooking. And, Texas can go with barbeque or Tex-Mex foods. What’s Michigan got? I soon learned about Michigan cuisine on this venture to the Upper Peninsula on the Lake Superior shore. It amounts to whitefish and pasties.

In Sault Ste. Marie on the Michigan side of this Canadian/US city, we sampled whitefish at the “all you can eat” Friday dinner special offered by the VFW Post 3676. For $9 each, Ed and I filled our bellies with Lake Superior whitefish. Every Friday, VFW volunteers cook up over 500 pounds of whitefish. It’s served one way – fried. Don’t be confused like I was when our server Susan asked if I wanted “baked or fried.” She’s not referring to the options for the fish like at an Eat n’ Park back in Pittsburgh. She wants to know if you want your potato baked or served as French fries. Potatoes – baked or fried – fill the plate along with sides - small cups of sweet baked beans and cole slaw are included with the meal. Susan directed us to the beverage bar for our water or coffee. Another server watched over the homemade desserts to b e sure you only took one. I can understand why she policed the deserts. Each homemade choice – brownies, cherry cake, rich Devil’s food cake, and rice pudding with peaches and raisins tucked under a special sauce – tempted you to take more than one. As we returned to our table with drinks and desert, the whitefish came hot and fresh cooked from the VFW kitchen. Susan kept a watchful eye to be sure we had another serving of fish before the last morsel left our plate. Eventually, after two refills, we had to tell her to stop filling our plates. We could eat no more of this local delicacy.

Pasties – pronounced past ees – dates back to the Cornish immigrants who worked in the 19th century copper and iron mines. When men left for a day’s work, they stuffed these sandwiches in their pockets for a lunch later in the day. First, I inquired about a pasty at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum snack bar, the cook showed me one in wrapped cellophane. She offered to microwave it for 3 minutes and serve it to me, I passed. Two days later a road sign in Paradise, Michigan caught my eye. The toy windmills attached to the sign spun in the wind and the words invited me to buy the homemade breads, muffins and pasties. In a private home, in a basement kitchen, I bought an authentic pasty for $5. The pasty steamed from recently having come from the oven. “This is an authentic pasty. My mother-in-law taught me to bake this recipe before she died.” I believed her and handed over a rumpled bill. “Be sure to heat the gravy and eat the pasty smothered in it. It’s best that way.” She knew I’d never eaten a pasty. The pasty is a pie-like pastry crust folded over and filled with onions, rutabagas, potatoes, ground beef, and sausage. Was it good? Yes. Would I long for another? No, one was enough to be able to claim I tried this cultural specialty.

June 19, 2009