Pure Michigan, Pure Water: Tahquamenon Falls

Pure Michigan.

That’s the slogan.

I’m not sure if the chief goal is to boost tourism or sagging state morale, but you can’t listen to the classic rock station for more than a half hour without hearing Home Improvement legend and Santa Claus assassin Tim Allen regale locals on the many hidden wonders of old bucolic Michigan. Gaze at that precious sunset over the lake, he implores us, and walk the faux cobblestone streets of our ethnic tourist traps with the wide-eyed wonder of a child. Sappy horns and swelling strings back up his measured, dulcet tones, and if you listen closely, you may just hear him sobbing over the closing melody.

Your trip begins at Michigan.org.

river1But there’s one wonder I’ve never heard him praise, a phenomenon both shocking and stunning: Michigan’s dark, bloody rivers. Yes, owing to the natural tannin in our cedars and spruces, there are several rivers in the state that quite literally run red or brown. Some simply call ’em blackwater rivers, but I prefer my more poetic, anthropomorphic terms. Examples include the Cass River in Michigan’s thumb region, flowing past ancient Indian petroglyphs, and the mighty Tahquamenon River, feeding into that great 48 feet fall, Hiawatha’s and Longfellow’s mythical “Taquamenaw“.

These are the rivers where nature lets its blood, where the sanguine underworld of the woods is revealed to all as undisputed fact. To bathe in such waters is to bathe in the essence of life itself. It’s communion, a return the womb, a chance to remember. You’re one, you’re everything.


I recently camped at Tahquamenon Falls State Park, by the lower falls. It was magical, strange, and all too human experience, the relentless majesty of the Tahquamenon Falls juxtaposed against the armies of RVs and campers, the carefully orchestrated boardwalk trails, and the on-site brewery with watered down beer. There were signs everywhere, explaining what you could and couldn’t do, and what was once done with impunity.

Like, for one, mining and logging.

A good chunk of Detroit – no, America – can be traced back to northern Michigan. Men from far and wide arrived to cut down the forests and mine the earth, here in this land of short, muggy summers and snowdrift winters, where a single mile can stretch on forever given the right conditions. It was hardscrabble, rugged lifestyle, immortalized in story and song.

During the second half of the 1800s and on into the early 1900s, the Tahquemenon River was itself a major logging highway. The chop, chop, chop of the lumberjack was the soundtrack of the summer long before Kid Rock was a glint in his dad’s glossy eyes, the epic logjams down the river the stuff of legend. Thousands of dollars a second were lost as the region’s valuable virgin timber tumbled violently down the 48 feet fall, but back then the money was so easy few batted an eye. At one point, loggers even blasted away a segment of the upper falls, forever altering the course of the river and the great fall itself, just to expedite the flow of timber.

up8And so this ancient forest of the Indians was denuded, its luxurious garments carted off and pawned for a quick buck. Only the falls flow eternal, with endless amber fractals, red notes, and rainbows, a symphony of repeating patterns, the quiet power of the river unleashed with a sudden, justified fury. Always changing but never different, it exists in a time of its own, and at around 200 feet across and carrying tens of thousands of gallons a second, it’s a thunderous force of nature.

fractals1Luckily, the heyday of industrial logging in the area has long since passed, nearby villages like Emerson having been returned to the marshes, the sawmills to dust. Here, the night sky is still a starry wonderland – the Milky Way, by some small miracle, actually milky – and the woods teem with life. Moose, deer, bears, coyotes, and even martens abound, though the closest I got to any of the aforementioned animals was in the form of moose droppings and deer prints, along with a few spent shells. But I believe it’s all more or less true.

Somewhere, floating along in the exhaust of an RV, is Tim Allen’s mythical Michigan, the land Ted Nugent promised us. Yes, hark, for blessing our ears is that familiar refrain.

Pure Michigan.


5 thoughts on “Pure Michigan, Pure Water: Tahquamenon Falls

  1. I heard originally they were going to go with “Bawitaba” but at the last minute decided “Pure Michigan” had a more refreshing tone to it,

    All joking aside, I really think Michigan realistically could have the same appeal of a Colorado. In the mind’s of US citizen’s it’s really just a Detroit away from it. I would argue that Michigan has more culture it can tout around in it’s commercials that, yes, we here in Illinois love to see.

    Now if only Ted Nugent would get on the Tourism Committee he could brand the shit out of the state. Wang dang sweet pure michigan tang. Great pics btw.

  2. Thank you for the compliment. Michigan definitely has some beauty to it. I think you’re right on the money about Michigan being a “Detroit” away from Colorado. Denver’s mountain backdrop and superior standard of living I’m sure lift the state up in people’s perceptions. Whereas Denver is a destination, Detroit is viewed more as a wacky, off the path place to visit, of great interest but palpably damaged.

    I think, in Michigan, we really have to work on rehabilitating the image around our major cities on the eastern half of the state. Certainly, we’ve made some great progress in regards to Detroit, but I still think Detroit and especially cities like Flint and Saginaw really undersell the value of their cities. For example, in Flint, they’re so (understandably) down on their city they can’t see any of the positives, like the amazing Flint Institute of Arts, rich automotive history (original brick plants that started GM, early Victorian homes of future GM execs, and etc.), and fascinating blue collar culture. Tell someone from Flint your sightseeing and they’ll call you crazy!

    Crime is an obvious deterrent in such cities for tourism, but I think among the cultured in America there is a fascination with seeing the “real” Rust Belt that we can capitalize on. It would augment the draw of our natural wonders, I think, which isolated don’t quite measure up to the drama of the western US, but perhaps beat most of the Midwest.

  3. I forget what I read, maybe “Detroit City Is The Place To Be,” but it suggested some type of Acropolis type of tourist attraction using the real rust of decayed buildings. And/or even returning some of these structures to a park-like setting. I wouldn’t say it’s a bad idea. People don’t go to the Parthenon because it’s a functioning Holiday Inn, coworking space, bank or some such.

    It’s not something a city wants to think of, let alone plan for, but anywhere and everywhere has ruins or places that were left behind. Like what you’re saying, that juxtaposition between building and the environment that has always been there is part of the fascination. I think you’re on to something.

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