We got a late start today, leaving Houghton well after sunrise and not getting to the Marquette area until after ten in the morning. I drove as far as I dared down Island Lake Road before parking near an intersection. The wide track was muddy and wet and was still heavily potholed from the winter. Katie, Logan, and I left the car and stretched before heading north towards Black River Falls.
Today we weren't really interested in exploring new places or wandering deep into the wilds. Today was more about re-visiting old waterfalls to catch them in flooding spring mode. Plus, last time we came to Black River Falls it had been very dark and gloomy and the pictures I took were horrible. I was looking forward to seeing how the large chute looked during the day.
Walking the short mile to the falls was not easy over the sticky mud. Our boots grew heavy and slick as we headed north. Logan didn't seem to mind. He bounded around us light-footed, prancing on and off the road with an abundance of energy. Katie and I trudged along, and when we finally reached the dry parking lot near the falls we took turns scraping the thick mud from our feet.
The walk from here was easy. There was a bit of snow as we neared the river, mostly hard slush by now, and no mud. We crossed the first bridge and meandered a bit to look down on the gushing waterfall. It was a froth of whitewater that thundered up at us in a roar of mist. I decided to continue on to the downstream island and Katie was content to stay up above. We could both see how much snow was left on the little rocky island from this spot.
Even Logan was hesitant on walking down the steep last set of stairs to the waiting snowy island below. It was still covered in snow and ice and was slick enough that I had to grasp tight on the railing to make my way down. when I did reach the island I sunk knee-deep into wet slush before hitting the rock below. Shifting my weight forward I crawled across the damp snow, spreading my weight across my knees and elbows, and made it to a patch of exposed rocks on the tip of the island before standing up again. The direct view over at the roaring chute made up for the awkward passage.
I slowly made my way back to the walkway and returned to an anxious puppy and patient girlfriend. We all chuckled over my wet ankles and knees before heading back down the muddy road. Before opening the car door Katie and I waded into a shallow mud puddle to try to wash off some of the mud, a side venture Logan was all too eager to follow suit with. We then spread some towels through the car and loaded up. We had one more stop to make before lunch.
Ely Falls is a small drop south of Ishpeming that I had completely missed last year. I had been more focused on researching the lands north of US-41, especially along the Yellow and Dead River, and only recently had started looking to the iron country to the south. We drove up 581 and cut east to where I hoped the waterfall would be. All we saw was thick forest and wide swaths of snow off the side of the road. Katie quickly decided that she'd wait in the car with Logan for this stop.
Figuring that the best way to find the waterfall would be to find the river first, I headed up the road until I came upon an open view east to the poor rock piles of the nearby mine. Well, relatively open view. It was a grassy swampland clogged with dead brush and dead trees. Jumping from one tuft of grash to the next, partly to avoid the wet snow and partly to avoid soggy areas in between the grass, I made my way east and south, keeping within a few dozen yards of the tree line. I didn't want to waste time route-finding through the thick forest, but I also didn't want to get to close to the swampy creek, so I tried to make a rough route in between the two.
After a few hundred yards the swamp ended in the forest enclosed Ely Creek. I was stuck right on the bank of the smelly creek now, whether I liked it or not. It smelled of rotten eggs and sulfur from draining the land around the mine. I would learn later that Ely Creek drains a system of lakes just south of Ishpeming that sit right at the edge of the mine's rock tailings, which helps explain the rank smell of the water. For today I just kept my boots out of the creek and quickly made my way downstream.
It didn't take long to find the little drop, even though it was only a few feet tall at best. They tumble over some rounded rocks before emptying into a wide, deep pool surrounded by huge rock outcroppings. It was pretty, the deep pool and small drops, and if things smelled better I'd consider it a nice camping spot. Instead I took a few quick photos and cut straight up the western outcropping, making a direct cut back to the car. There were no trails and the red pines were thick and by the time I returned to Katie I was scratched and snagged from a dozen places.
With two waterfalls down and the afternoon just starting we decided it was time for some food. We headed up to Marquette and grabbed some Jimmy Johns, which was by now our default waterfall lunch whenever we were this far east. Houghton didn't have a Jimmy Johns in 2009. We ate the subs in the car, dutifully handing Logan some of the choicest pieces of meat and cheese, and headed up along 550. The rest of today would be spent hunting down drops along the Dead River.
My plan was to tackle the river methodically: start at Tourist Park, right near the mouth of the river, and then head upstream for each spot. There would be one new waterfall to find (Forestville Dam) - otherwise, everything would be repeat visits to capture the river during spring flood and collect some good coordinates. Of course, I had some suspicions of more waterfalls far upstream, either near or beyond the Silver Lake Basin, but those roads through the Peshekee were still clogged with deep snow. The furthest we could make it today was below McClure Dam.
The short waterfall near Tourist Park Basin was churning along, water spreading over the smooth rocks and frothing over a few lips. It was hard to tell at this spot how much extra water was flowing down the Dead River today with how wide the drop is. We played around a little here, keeping Logan on a leash with so much traffic, enjoying the site of the busted dam. It would be rebuilt in a few years, or so the rumor was, and I wanted to soak this up while it was here.
We drove up Wright Street and parked a few hundred yards from some waterfalls. I was in a rush to check out the Forestville Dam and didn't feel like visiting Wright Street Falls. All three of us walked down an access road under buzzing powerlines to a long wooden penstock and turned left. A half mile later and I found a spot to wiggle under the penstock, a narrow gap over ice too skinny for Logan to follow under, and I slid underneath. The roar of a waterfall greeted me immediately.
The dam holding back Forestville Basin was huge and imposing, a giant structure of cement reaching from one rocky bank to another. On the southern bank an overflow bank shot water out in a full flow and let it run down some rocky formations to form an artificial waterfall. There was a rocky island a short distance downstream that I hopped over on to get a better view. It wasn't enough. I needed to get closer to this thing.
I crossed the wide island and found my way across to the northern bank. The Dead River wasn't deep here, most likely having much of its flow diverted by the penstock I had slid under. The north bank was hard to follow with steep rocky sides and a few pieces of dead vegetation growing up from crumbling gravel. I made it a dozen yards or so before stopping and taking another picture. There were better views to be had, probably from higher and further along the bank, I just couldn't get there from this side.
Flushed with success I returned to Katie, soaking my shirt and collecting some penstock tar as I slid back under. Logan was more than willing to cover my face with worried kisses when I got back. We headed back to the car, commenting on the large bulges of ice along the penstock that marked obvious leaks and discussing our next stop. We could try to circle around to the other side of the river to capture a better view of Forestville, or head downstream to Wright Street Falls, or even head up to Dead River Falls. Daylight was running thin, though.
Out of all the options I decided to push on to McClure Basin. I really wanted to collect GPS coordinates of those waterfalls this spring. We drove up along 510 and Neejee Road, noticing the increase in snow depth in the deeper woods with a bit of apprehension. Katie opted to stay back on this hike, not wanting to slog through the stuff, so Logan and I headed out alone down the earthern berm that marked McClure Dam's buried penstock.
The buried penstock made an easy path east, as the top of it had melted down to brown earth already. Slushy snow lay on either side of us and the longer we could avoid walking through that the better. When we got to the wide bend, where the berm starts heading northeast, we dropped off with hesitation and cut down to the trestle. The easy path wasn't worth the longer route of continuing on to the train tracks and then coming south.
We got a few distant views of Lake Superior through the barren trees, a thin line of dark blue some ten miles off to the east. I was surprised to see this, having forgotten just how much higher this land was out here. The hills around Trestle Falls are close to 1200', and those around the basin behind us are closer to 1400', which would easily grant a view of the lake from this distance.
Descending down the hill to the tracks we then found a bunch of angry warning signs at the trestle. Crossing a trestle some hundred feet above an angry river with the chance of meeting a train along the way didn't really sound like my idea of fun today. I called Logan away and we headed down the gorge, slipping and sliding over the iron ore pellets on our way to Trestle Falls.
The river was definitely more full today than it had last fall, with misting walls of frothing whitewater crashing down and around the boulders. I was mostly distracted by the dangerous sheets of snow covering the banks. If there was a lot of snow upriver I'd have a tough guessing game to play as we headed up to the upper drops. I tried to put that thought out of mind and focused on the large falls and towering trestle above.
I slowly led Logan back up over the falls. We didn't backtrack up to the railroad tracks, though, keeping to the river instead. The waters were stinky and a murky green, probably from churn and flushing out the upriver basins. Both McClure and Dead River Basins were pretty big, and all this snowmelt had to be loosening up the bottom waters a fair amount.
Just as I feared, following the northern bank wasn't easier. There was less snow than on the southern bank, thanks to the angle of the sun, yet there was enough to force me up into the safer forest a few times to grasp onto tangled branches and trunks for purchase. We passed by rapids and little drops, slowly making our way, until we finally reached the main upper waterfall.
There was no way across the river and no good views from the southern bank. I was forced to zoom in close to capture what I could and let the rising mist show what lay behind the curve of rock. One of these days I'll have to come here in the summer and wade across to get a better view. For today I had to continue upstream.
Our way began to ease now, some trails built into the banks that would led us all the way back to the McClure Basin. I was sure that Katie was growing bored back in the car waiting for us and so I tried to push Logan and I along faster. It isn't that far to the basin, and when we reached it the sun was nearing the horizon. I took a few quick photos of the overflowing dam before heading up to see her.
Logan had realized by now how close we were to the SUV and had bounded towards it, all excited to see Katie again and to be on our way home. I made it up behind, huffing and puffing from the climb over wet snow, and tumbled in to the driver's seat. It was then that I saw the two deer on the basin. Dang, glad that Logan didn't see them. Fishing him out of a half-thawed lake would not have been a good way to end the trip. We headed out under the setting sun, returning to Houghton, content with our full day in Marquette.