Fully aware that the Upper Peninsula was completely gripped by deer hunting I planned a carefully trip out to Skanee. Both Faith and I were itching for a trip with the approaching winter, and with recent rains and sleets the rivers in Baraga were running full. Picking spots that I hoped would be safe we donned our brightest clothes and drove south on icy roads through cold, intermittent drizzle.
Our main destination was Slate River Gorge over by Huron Bay. On the way I pulled off by Silver Falls, one of my favorite little stops, and we ventured over the slick icy rocks to check out the lower chutes. They were all flowing better than I had ever seen them, seething and foaming with power before tumbling into swirling pools. Between the fury of the river and glistening rocks we had to creep slowly over the rocks, often using a hand to steady ourselves, elongated the usually quick stop.
I wanted to check out the upper falls too, since my last visit to them was cut short by a thunderstorm. There was a vehicle parked here, a huge 4-wheel truck decked out with accessories that simply screamed 'hunter'. Making sure our bright colors were on full display we followed the riverside path carefully. We reached the falls safely without seeing any hunter or blinds but the rocks were too slick to attempt a crossing. I had to settle for sideways photos of the sliding drop, perching myself in a few inches of waters to get the best angles.
Back in the car and headed east Faith and I chatted a bit about our next hike. There were two ways up Slate River. My usual route was to simply walk up the river, using dry banks when possible, spending a good amount of time wading in ankle- to calf-deep water. This was not appealing in today's almost-freezing temperatures and sleeting drizzle. The other option was to follow the path high up on the bank, close to a hundred feet above the river at points, and climb up and down at the different drops. This route would have us completely exposed for nearby hunters. She was game for the river walk regardless of the cold temperatures.
There was a car parked near Slate River. Even though it wasn't a huge truck I could tell they were hunters. A bit discouraged we headed past it, following the river upstream. We were making good headways, even with the rain-slickened bedrock and full river, until we ran into the first ford. None of us were enthusiastic about following through on wading. I scooped up Logan, carrying my wimp of a dog across, and Faith splashed through noisely behind me. It was the first of many crossings in the icy waters.
Slate River Falls is always an impressive sight, whatever the flow or time of year. We gazed across the wide pool, surrounded by souring rock walls and pines, admiring the jagged drop across the way and ignoring our wet jeans. When we moved on I had to carry Logan again, this time to head up a climb that was too steep for him. The best way over this waterfall is climbing a tough wall of rock and earth next to the falls, close enough for the water to splash up on you, and heft yourself over the crest. Hugging Logan with one arm and climbing with the other I made it just high enough for him to see the river above and he rudely pushed forward, using my shoulder and face for a foothold. Faith and I chuckled a bit and followed him up.
The next stretch of river was a tough one, as the banks narrow and steepen with solid slate and the muliple unnamed drops crop up from the bedrock. We crossed close to a dozen times, sometimes to just get around an impassable outcropping before sloshing back across. Logan got the hang of things and started following us through the water, cautious over the rough riverbed. By the third crossing the water had seeped into our boots, the fifth started to bring on pinpricks and needles, and by the time we reached Ecstasy Falls we were walking with numb clubs for feet.
When Steele and I had visited this spot a few months ago we chose to simply climb up the stepping drops. Each one is between 2 and 4 feet tall, with a deep smooth pool in between, and the cool knee-deep wades had been pleasant on that hot summer day. There was no way we were doing that today. I hauled myself up to the riverbank first, reaching down to lift Faith up the earth bank, while Logan meandered around and found some impossible way to join us. We were not about to climb up the knee-deep pools.
Above Ecstasy Falls the banks began to ease up. The pine and cedar forests start to extend all the way down to the river and a mixture of human and animal paths crisscross for easy walking. We pushed on along these paths, tiring yet not willing to risk a break with our cold feet, and soon found Slide Falls. Two more crossings upstream and we passed Kukuck's Falls. Now we just had to retrace our route and we'd be done torturing our feet for today.
We had avoided the high path on the riverbank, concerned about safety, but now the cold was a greater risk. I did not want us to head back down the slick rocks, not when we were hobbling on dry ground like we were wearing foot casts. Again we fluffed our bright colors through the warm clothes and hoped that any hunters in the area would be cautious ones. I led our group up the path, along the crest of the gorge, keeping a close eye for blinds and hunters.
We didn't see or hear anything on the way back downstream to get worried about. The waterfalls were audible far below us and, thanks to the occasional glimpse through the bare trees, I was able to make out most of them. I guess this route high up on the banks isn't bad, though it pales in comparison to being right next to the river and falls.
On the drive back to Houghton I kept the heat cranked. Katie made some delicious taco soup for us when we got back, further dethawing us from the cold hike. It was nice to get out with Faith again, especially for such a pretty spot like Slate River Falls, even if it had been a cold and dangerous adventure.