Over the course of the winter I had collected coordinates for waterfalls along the Slate River and half of the Huron River (along with most of the Keweenaw). The East Branch mocked me, though. There were two waterfalls that lay up in the unplowed reaches beyond Big Erick's, East Branch and Big Falls, and there was also rumors of more in the deep gorge between the two. I was growing impatient with waiting for spring. With the temperatures hovering right above freezing Faith and I drove down to Skanee prepared for a long winter hike to reach this area.
As we crossed the bridge over Huron River we saw something that caught our attention. The river had broken free of winter's grip! Big Erick's Falls was flowing, brown cascades making loud noises over the hard rock. I quickly pulled us over to the side of the road and we tumbled down to the falls. Spring was finally upon us.
The view upriver was still gloomy with snow clinging to trees and ice stretching to cover the two branches of the Huron. Downstream was a different story. We headed down the river, pausing at the major drops to take photos and admire the angry flow. This wasn't quite spring melt, at least I didn't think so, yet there was far more water flowing than I had seen during summer visits.
After we got our fill of this area we slowly headed back to the vehicle. It was a long trudge through the half-melted snow. It did not bode well for our longer hike ahead. I set my jaw and pushed on.
Driving the rest of the way took little time. Soon we were standing on the end of the plowed road, deep snow on Erick's/Ford's/Northwestern Road stretching away to the south. At least there were a lot of snowmobile tracks on the thing. Logan ran up on it, sniffing and checking up on things, and we followed him.
Walking on the road proved to be easy enough. There were enough tracks for us to walk side by side on the hard pack and have long conversations. Every once in a while one of us would break through to slow things up, an infrequent and humorous event. When we reached the tiny little creek that would take us over to East Branch it was difficult to convince ourselves to leave the road. Over there was deep snow through a thick forest that would be much harder to walk through.
I led us off the road and broke trail along the creek. There were some easy sections under heavy boughs where the tree branches above captured much of the snowfall, though they were few and far above. It took us a long time to reach the river. When the dark river showed up we stopped and rested, looking up and down the wide flow. During the summer it had been dried up enough for me to walk along sections of the rocky riverbed and simply hop over the narrow snaking thing, an option that didn't seem doable today.
Heading upstream through the deep snow quickly brought us to the falls. Even with the deep snow it was only ten minutes of trudging. East Branch Falls was not much look at, but it never really is. The drop is a foot at most, a gentle slide channeled between rounded boulders, and today those boulders were piled high with snow and ice.
I debated our options. The plan was to continue upstream along the gorge to Big Falls, over a mile to the south. And the snow was deep and sloshy. After confirming with Faith we decided to make a go for it. She's game for most of my stupidly ambitious plans anyways. We crossed the river here, as the eastern bank just kinda ends at the falls, and headed past the minor named waterfall.
Our payoff for this decision was quick. A few hundred yards along the river and we were greeted with a set of icy waterfalls several times the size of the lower drop. Ice clung to their sides and masked some of their features and did little to hide the roar coming from around the bend ahead. I furtively scouted to the left and right, hoping to find a way to continue ahead to the loud road. There was no way. The only way to continue upstream was up on the now-deep gorge.
The gorge had risen up around us with surprising speed. Our initial walk over from the road was mostly flat, but as we headed upstream the land just climbed faster than the river. We were now in a gorge at least a hundred feet deep, loose slate-like rock poking out from the snowy walls. The top of this gorge was surrounded by huge pines, reminding me of the scenic Slate River Gorge, which was only some five or ten miles to the west. Makes sense that the rocks and formation would be similar.
Climbing up the gorge was tough, with the snow over wet ground slowing us to a painful crawl. When we finally made it up the slope, panting and wet from the damp snow, an odd site presented itself. The river flowed below us, both behind and in front. We were on a steep bend of the river atop a high knife ridge. And the ridge was thin and scary to walk along.
There was no good way down to the roaring noise located at the tip of the knife ridge. I sadly marked the spot and we headed along the top of the gorge wall. It was easy going up here, with the thick pines capturing much of the white fluff. Every once in a while we would dart down to the river, checking in on loud waterfall noises or curious of a distant feature, and we would find nothing significant. After that steep bend there just wasn't much to find.
Compared to the four named waterfalls (and countless unnamed ones) of Slate River Gorge there just wasn't much here. The drop happened over rapids and minor slides, a few feet at the time, and was stretched over a longer part of the river. I wasn't sure how much we'd find here, having found little mention of it online. After two hours of hiking up and down the walls and finding few spots worth marking on the GPS the gorge walls began to lower.
We had gained over 150' of elevation from East Branch Falls and had only seen a few minor drops. Now we were in an oddly flat and calm section. The river made huge bends with a wide and sandy valley, distant walls rising up around us, with scrubby brush growing up on the bends. Things looked a bit familiar here. That land to the west, those trees on the far bank, were up around the roads I had first drove down to visit Big Falls. We were getting close.
I did point out one interesting thing about this section of river. There was a wall of ice packed on both sides of the water, looking as if it had been shoved up onto the banks. We had missed a recent and massive melt. The over full river must have pushed chunks of ice and snow to form a false bank around itself. Probably for the best - I'm not sure how we would have made it up this river if there had been five times as much water flowing down it.
Eventually the sound of a large waterfall began to flow from around a bend. Excited we pushed our tired legs faster, trudging through the soft snow, until Big Falls showed up in front of us. There was plenty of snow and ice on this drop as well, piled on the rocks around it, and the roaring waters made an interesting white-on-white scene surrounded by dark waters and a steep western bank.
I convinced Faith that it was worth climbing the falls. Maybe, just maybe, there were more drops above. There wasn't. All we found above Big Falls was stepping rapids and a thick red pine forest. Scratched and clawed we retreated and sat below the roaring falls.
We had an ugly truth to face. Somehow we had to make it back to our car. We were both tired, jeans wet from the thighs down, and the thought of retracing our steps through the gorge seemed absurb. I proposed an alternate path. If we followed the river downstream along the calm and sandy section and then cut east when we reached the rocky gorge we should just bump into Erick's Road. Then we could follow the hard-packed snowmobile trail back to our parking spot. As long as I didn't lead us south after leaving the river we shouldn't get lost. We agreed to the plan and headed down the icy river.
There was a bit of annoying climbing to do before we could leave the river, up another snowy hill that slowed us down, but soon we were strolling through a hardwood forest. There were a few logging tracks up here that led northwest. They weren't the easiest to follow, with no snowmobile tracks to pack down the snow. At least it made for a mindless walk. Soon Faith spotted Erick's Road below and we were on the final, easy stretch.
Once we reached the car I convinced Faith that we should go on one last adventure while we were this far out of Houghton. I had recently started climbing the mountains out by the Little Huron River. We drove down the plowed road past Bald Mountain and parked out by the little river, planning to cross it and climb up Tick Mountain on the other side.
We never even made it past the Little Huron. The river was flowing heartily between snowy and muddy banks. I was barely able to make it across - when Faith tried to leap over she slipped and tumbled right in. The water wasn't deep, a few feet at most, just deep enough to soak through her clothes and force us to make a quick retreat to the warmth of the car. Hiking the gorge and swimming in an icy river was enough excitement for the day. I drove us back to Houghton, back to heated buildings and fresh clothes, and we eagerly discussed future adventures in the melting woods.