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.
But 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.
And 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.
Luckily, 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.