Saturday, December 6, 2008

Snowshoeing in the Upper Peninsula

Giant Pines Trail, Tahquamenon Falls State Park Although not officially winter yet, I'm currently sitting at my dining room table watching my dogs play in what is shaping up to be the first accumulating snow shower of the season in Metro Detroit. Tromping around on some Michigan trails in my slightly obnoxious yellow Redfeather snowshoes soon is an exciting prospect. I got a great deal on them a few years ago and I have to assume it is because few people would voluntarily pay full price for equipment in such a color.

According to last night's weather report, the west side of the state near Lake Michigan and the Upper Peninsula already have a respectable amount of snow. In the cold months the U.P. is a winter paradise so it was fitting that a few years ago my sister Andrea and I traveled to Tahquamenon Falls State Park located near the town of Paradise, MI for a couple of days of snowshoeing. Eight inches of snow had recently fallen atop the already impressive existing white blanket and a phone conversation with a park ranger assured me that the prime winter conditions were not going to change any time soon.

Cold weather attracts many people to Michigan who appreciate the beauty of the northern woods by snowmobiling, skiing, and snowshoeing more than 6000 miles of trails found throughout the state forests. Winter tourism accounts for 1/3 of Michigan's tourism industry and snowmobiling is king in the northern reaches of the state. Generating over $1 billion a year in economic activity, snowmobilers pour into the streets, many of them sporting neon outfits matching the loud hues of their snowmobiles. Unfortunately, this popular sport is also relatively dangerous and before the trip was over Andrea and I would find ourselves in a bar eating lunch next to a booth containing the remaining, uninjured members of a bummed-out snowmobiling party. Their seriously injured comrade was being transported to a hospital in Sault Ste. Marie, 60 miles to the east, leaving them stranded in Paradise while their car was in Newberry, almost 40 miles to the west.

A pink sun rose over the chunky pack ice of Whitefish Bay early in the morning on our first full day in Paradise and after braving the complimentary hotel breakfast, we set out for the Giant Pines Trail. This section of Tahquamenon Falls State Park winds through a stand of huge old growth white pine, many over 150 years old. As we walked across the hotel parking lot to the car, a bald eagle bade us good morning by soaring quietly 10 feet or so above our heads. We decided it was a sign that the day was destined to be a good one.

Despite the recent covering of snow, the temperature was very mild and we had to adjust our many layers upon setting out. Earlier in the season Andrea and I had taken a brisk morning snowshoe in 7ยบ weather and vicious winds at a park near my home, so this was a very unexpected but welcome surprise. The 4-mile Giant Pines loop was in beautiful winter glory and hardly a sound was heard. The heavy snow clung to the trees in such a way that many dead trunks looked as if they held marshmallows on their tips.At some point we branched off the Giant Pines Trail to explore the path that connects the Upper and Lower Falls along the Tahquamenon River. Due to the unstable snow and ice – the weather had bounced back and forth between bitter single digit and below zero temps to almost balmy periods of mid and upper 30's – we weren't able to walk across the river to explore the many tiers of Lower Falls which was a little disappointing. Still, the there-and-back-again side trip was still fun even without the added element of surprise unstable ice could offer. Plus, Andrea got the added bonus of watching me clumsily squeeze into an outhouse like a drunken, yellow snowshoe-wearing Sasquatch. In my defense, the door would only open part way because a mound of frozen snow blocked its path. While I was extremely thrilled to find the outhouse in my moment of need, I was even more joyful that I had the foresight to bring kleenex as the roll inside was completely frozen with many a frozen bug corpse embedded in the first few layers. After finding our way back to the car, we headed to cozy and cabinesque Tahquamenon Falls Brewery for dinner which included pasties and Porcupine Pale Ale. Once back at our hotel, I gazed out the patio door at the lights of the Canadian shore across the 30-mile expanse of Whitefish Bay while Andrea got to have an engaging conversation about what the heck snowshoeing is with a shirtless (of course), crazily colored pants-wearing snowmobiler guy in the vending room. Good stuff!