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Tahquamenon River and Falls in the Land of Hiawatha

One of the largest water falls east of the Mississippi River

Upper Tahquamenon, has a thunderous roar and a startling color. Four miles downstream the Lower Falls are less dramatic yet produce beautiful, foamy swirls deposited decoratively into broad pools below a central island.

Nature’s golden hue and a backdrop to history

The river’s water is stained gold-brown from tannic acids leaching from cedar, spruce and hemlock swamps and used in tanning hide. The softening effect of the tannins combined with agitation from the falls produces the sudsy, natural foam. This is where Longfellow’s Hiawatha built his canoe, where Iroquois and Ojibwa fished the river, farmed the coastal prairie, trapped beavers, mink, otter, and bear. Two hundred years ago lumberjacks came to harvest tall timber and to float it downstream to mills on Lake Superior and from there to build a continent.

Tahquamenon, a wilderness apart

It was and still is a wilderness apart. The park area preserves old-growth maple and hemlock forest, and conifer lowland species, hosting songbirds, herons and ducks, woodpeckers, owls, hawks, eagles, and countless avian species.  In addition to white-tailed deer other large mammals are black bear, a free-ranging moose herd, and a controversy of cougar as evidenced on trail cameras and in fecal samples. Human inhabitants around the Tahquamenon River and Falls are relatively few: from the small village of McMillan near the spring fed source, small town Toonerville with its narrow gauge railroad, unincorporated Paradise with fewer than 500 souls to the east, three-times bigger Newberry to the west, and on to Lake Superior hugging the beaches and sand dunes at Whitefish Bay, all host sightseeing tourists, history buffs, hunters, fishers, campers, hikers, cross-country skiers, dogsledders, snowmobilers, and birdwatchers. Blueberries and cranberries grow here although the Centennial Cranberry Farm family operation near Whitefish Bay has recently closed after 140 years. Shipping lanes still ply rugged waters a few miles offshore of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point and a series of sunken wrecks at the Whitefish Point Underwater Preserve.

Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Off this shore on November 10, 1975 the great oreship Edmund Fitzgerald sunk in a Lake Superior gale with the loss of all hands. Canadian songwriter, Gordon Meredith Lightfoot, Jr.’s haunting lyric made this sad event apocryphal and memorable. He got one thing wrong: when the bell at the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral in Detroit rang out it would have been thirty times, not twenty-nine, as by longstanding tradition it rang once for each crewman plus one more time for all those lost at sea. Years later after watching a documentary that proposed a rogue wave had broken the ship, Gordon Lightfoot did alter his lyrics to eliminate a reference to a hatchway failure and the suggestion of human error.  The Fitzgerald is the largest and most famous of the Great Lakes shipwrecks and, thanks to the great success of Lightfoot’s song, it has come to stand for the thousands of others. As Lightfoot wrote, “Lake Superior never gives up its dead,” and only one Fitzgerald crewman has ever been discovered. For more on the story and the history of the ship they called Big Fitz checkout the videos below the Lightbox Gallery of my recent Tahquamenon to Whitefish Point photos.

As you will  see the entire area is compelling and its year’round colors are beautiful, but autumn magnifies the amber hues for an especially showy impression at the same time that late autumn weather makes a dangerous sea route. The trip is memorable! Enjoy the sites! Learn the history!

(Click an image for Lightbox Gallery)
Crewman found

In 1994 a manned submarine expedition discovered the body of a single crewman lying on the lake bottom below the ship’s bow. In the months that followed, families of the lost crew worked with the Shipwreck Museum toward a permanent memorial at Whitefish Point. An expedition was mounted to recover the heart of the ship–its bell–as the centerpiece of the memorial and to replace it with a new bell engraved with the names of the twenty-nine seamen. The Canadian government has designated the site as a memorial gravesite and prohibits visiting. The You Tube videos that follow are fascinating on all fronts. The first tells of the discovery of the crewman and the second from the Discovery Channel bell-recovery expedition is the larger story of the ship and the mystery surrounding its loss told with great respect and honor for the dead.