We are not a rock band, but we could be. Collectively, we are four women who love taking photographs. Sandi Beaudoin, Jeannie Dow, Jo Przygocki, and I have all taken photography classes from Jerry Meier of Meier Camera in Midland, Michigan, so that we can improve as photographers. After six years of asking, Jo finally convinced Jerry to take a class on the road to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Our first stop was Mackinaw City, where we lined up along the shore, set up our tripods, and began shooting pictures. From the challenge of photographing a lit-up Mackinac Bridge while a freighter slid magnificently underneath, to the gentle morning fog and mist percolating above the Upper Tahquamenon Falls, we were focused. I, however, felt like my camera and I were on two different planets. Suddenly, it was exam time, and my brain decided to take a vacation.
Besides my brain being on a separate vacation than my body, I was in pain. I had received two steroid shots the day before, one in my leg and one in my groin, for a nagging injury that is now celebrating its one-year anniversary. I only have myself to blame. Trying to run through an injury is a very bad idea. Since I haven’t been able to run a road race for months now, or even run on the road, my endorphins are at an all-time low. Somehow this lack of a natural high has also affected just about everything else I do. While I stood on the beach with four fabulous photographers attempting to take a shot of the freighter American Integrity going under the bridge as the sky began to darken, I had a case of brain freeze and fumble fingers. Shutter speed? Aperture? Manual? Program? Define those terms! Use in a sentence! By the time I figured out what I should do, the sky was dark, and the freighter was halfway to Gary, Indiana. We packed up our gear and moved on.
Our next stop was the Headlands International Dark Sky Park. After a short four-mile drive, we parked, loaded up our gear, and walked a mile along a spacious path to the shoreline along Lake Michigan. We quickly learned that we should not leave a lantern on, because a voice from the dark will shout “turn your light off.” We also discovered that setting up our tripods while it was still light out would have been very advantageous, because the dark sky park is really, really, dark, and you can use only the tiny red lights on your headlamp. Later, Jeannie said that “learning the relationship between the shutter speed, ISO, and aperture in order to achieve the star trails” from Jerry was crucial in being able to get the shot she wanted. Once again, I learned that I tend to panic when under pressure. The clouds moved in, we packed up our gear, and walked back to the van. It was time to take off our Troll hats (people living south of the Mackinac Bridge) and journey to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and join the Yoopers.
Jo drove us through the night as we made our way towards Paradise, and we began to wonder if “Almost Paradise” was more than just a song. We made our turn and headed to Tahquamenon Falls. We arrived shortly after midnight and settled into the cabin Jo had rented for us near the Upper Falls. With no television or Wi-Fi, we enjoyed the sound of our own laughter and stories.
The next morning, we headed towards Munising for our first attempt at shooting waterfalls. Although all of us had taken photos of waterfalls, Jerry was with us, and we would be able to ask questions and make the necessary adjustments to our camera settings on the spot. Since it was a Saturday, the Munising Falls area was filled with photographers and sightseers. After deciding we had the shots we wanted, we headed to the parking area. Park Ranger Cheryl Debelak provided us with some wonderful suggestions as to where we might want to go next. We explained that I was injured, and so long hikes were out of the question. After brief stops at Miners Falls, Miners Castle Overlook, and Chapel Falls, we worked our way to the Log Slide Overlook, one of my favorite places in Michigan’s UP.
The Pictured Rocks area along Lake Superior is difficult to describe because it is so beautiful, and depending on where you stand, hike, sit, or camp, the terrain can be spectacularly different. At the small overlook above Lake Superior, you can see Au Sable Point and its lighthouse off to your left, and the Grand Sable Banks to your right. At one spot along the trail, the dunes seem to drop off right into Lake Superior. Hiking down to Lake Superior at this point is not for the faint of heart.
As we headed away from the Log Slide, and off towards Grand Marais along H-58, we continued our discussion of what worked and what didn’t work for our photos, referenced songs we liked, and told stories. At some point during our adventure, Jeannie had referred to us as “Jerry and the F-Stops,” and the name fit us like a lens cap. After taking a few shots of the lighthouse in Grand Marais, and, once again, me listening to a complete stranger telling me what I should be doing (How do I attract these people?), we headed to the Lake Superior Brewing Company for dinner and drinks.
Although the place was packed and out of whitefish (WHAT?), we had a great meal and adult beverage of our choice. We also wrote our names on the bathroom door, all with the assistance of our waitress who provided us with a Sharpie. I have never seen a bathroom and its door covered in so many names! If you are ever at the restaurant, look for our names. We are famous now. We went to the gas station across the street where the attendant seemed unaware of the old adage that one should never smoke a cigarette next to someone gassing up a vehicle. Apparently he hasn’t blown anyone up yet. We drove back to our cabin at Taquamenon Falls and relaxed. We had an early photo shoot planned for the morning.
Our last morning in the UP proved to be cloudy and misty. We headed to the falls. We were the first vehicle in the parking lot, and as we walked along the path, we began to hear the sweet sounding roar of the falls. I set up my tripod from above the falls while the rest of the group headed down about 100 stairs to shoot closer to the falls. I was jealous. I cursed my leg, my stupidity, and my stubbornness, and then I attempted to photograph the falls.
While alone, the more pictures I tried to shoot, the more frustrated I became. I got out my notes, and I tried to get my brain to work. When the group came up from the falls, I complained that I absolutely could not get a good shot. Jerry immediately looked at my camera settings and explained what I needed to do. I breathed a sigh of relief, and we headed to another part of the falls.
While the group, once again, climbed down to another vantage point below the falls, I focused my camera from an overlook facing the top of the falls. This time I got the shot I wanted. Although I have yet to get one of those dreamy waterfall pictures that Jeannie, Jo, and Sandi are so good at taking, I know that I will get one eventually. As Sandi said during one of our discussions on the trip, learning to “take my time and do the math,” is essential to taking a good shot. Clearly this is something that I need to work on.
We stopped briefly at Whitefish Point and shot a few photos before beginning our drive home. Our conversations in the car were also instructive as we reflected on what we learned. We also pondered non-photographic knowledge such as the amazing number of songs that have the words “sunshine” or “rain” in them, the five things men and women should never say to each other, and we discussed our plans for the immediate future after our weekend.
There is something to be said for taking the show on the road, and the benefit of having the teacher along to guide you on your way. Being with friends I happened to meet along my journey into photography was the best part of all. This made me think of the creative writing classes I used to teach at Saginaw Valley State University, and the connection between nature and writing. I tried to take my classes outside at least once a semester, and I wish I had done this more. The similarities to taking photographs are quite apparent. For me, the creative process works best, despite repeated failures in taking photographs or receiving rejections on poems or essays I have submitted for publication, when I am living and breathing my subject matter. When Jerry taught our classes in Midland, we did not spend all of our time in the classroom and talk about pictures. Instead, we were out in the field shooting pictures of a full moon rising, car lights, sunsets, people, and buildings with unique architecture. What is it about the interaction between nature and humans that subconsciously forces us to get our creative juices flowing?
I imagine most of us have pored over photographs remembering the people in the photos, reminiscing about the landscape, and telling stories about the time someone did something memorable enough to warrant bringing out the camera to shoot a picture. What if you are in the photograph? How does that alter your perception of the moment? Do your memories instantly trigger at the moment of recognition? What if you were not in the photo, but, instead, were the photographer? How will your memory store the moment? After three days of shooting photographs with this group of photographers, not only do I have photographic evidence of my trip, but I also have a new appreciation for the art of photography. Sandi said it best: “The more you learn, the more you realize what you don’t know.” My learning curve has been as steep as a Sleeping Bear Dunes Climb.
Ten years from now, I can only imagine what my memories will be of this particular moment, or the stories I will tell about my weekend with Jerry and the F-Stops. In the song “Photograph,” by Ringo Starr, he suggests that “all I’ve got is this photograph.” Sometimes that can be a beautiful thing. Freeze Frame.
People sang songs around campfires as fireworks lit up the sky. The three of us formed a partial pinwheel around our softly glowing fire pit on our beach at Higgins Lake, Michigan, as we watched red, white, and blue bursts of light scatter across the sky. Neighbors up and down the shoreline clapped and cheered while boaters cautiously parked their vessels close enough to see the action, but stayed far enough away to avoid the shrapnel. The celebrations on the 4th of July were breathtaking on this clear summer night. My husband, son, and I enjoyed the celebration before heading inside as the sky filled up with stars.
The night of the 5th proved to be another festive night of celebration although somewhat more subdued, but the night of the 6th caused my ears to start “ringing like a fire alarm” as our neighbors about three hundred feet south of us fired off boomers—loud and pointless fireworks—and sang karaoke songs through an amplifier possibly on steroids. If I never hear “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo” again, it will be too soon. I longed for the previous week’s mini vacation in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where, as we forged deeper into the woods, waterfalls released their dissonant sounds, robins and chickadees trilled in the woods, and fellow hikers quietly greeted us as the sounds fused together as if a body breathing. What a difference a change of scenery makes. Sometime after midnight on the night of the 6th, I closed our windows in disgust and considered this new fusion of sound: noise pollution. I tried to imagine the sound of the waterfall I had fallen in love with the week before.
My family has always been intrigued by Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and I have always been drawn to water’s ever-changing symmetry. When Matt was young and became involved with travel hockey, we headed to Houghton, Michigan, for hockey camps for several summers. Although the trek from Midland to Houghton took about eight hours during good driving conditions, we enjoyed our time spent together and our chance to explore new and unfamiliar places. We hiked through the Porcupine Mountains, enjoyed the beauty of the Keweenaw Peninsula, and climbed into and around as many lighthouses as we could get to. When Matt graduated from high school in 2000, we headed to Isle Royale for the ultimate three-day adventure. The four-hour boat ride from Copper Harbor to Isle Royale across Lake Superior during a storm from hell with a bunch of puking Boy Scouts was enough to make me want to never leave home again. However, I figured if we were going to die, at least we would all die together and perhaps Gordon Lightfoot would write a song about us. Unlike the Edmund Fitzgerald, we survived and Lake Superior on the boat ride back was so smooth that we sat on a bench and played cards. We were never sure what became of all of the Boy Scouts, since they did not return on the day we did.
For our newest adventure to the UP, Matt was in charge of the trip. Rain and fog did not dampen our spirits, but Matt altered his plans a bit. Jim and I had no idea where we were going, and I thought of Chuck Berry’s song about “riding along in my automobile” with “no particular place to go.” After crossing the Mackinac Bridge, we headed north on 123 towards Paradise along Whitefish Bay before heading west towards Tahquamenon Falls where we had lunch at the Tahquamenon Falls Brewery. Animal skins, stuffed or flattened against the walls, reminded us of what might be waiting in the woods when we started exploring.
The fusion of sound with the visual scene of the waterfalls is difficult to explain. Photographs do not do justice to the immense beauty of this area. The water, almost braid-like with its strands of gold, copper, brown, and white, drops into the chasm some fifty feet below the precipice and creates a soothing and yet ominous sound. If you close your eyes and listen, you can hear the fusion of sounds, as if the waterfall’s crescendos were playing counterpoint with the seemingly still waters below. We finally had to give up our viewing spot to allow others to witness what we were seeing.
Our next stop was Grand Marais where the crisp blues from Lake Superior were outlined by miles of shoreline filled with rocks and sand. Several kayaks worked their way around the Grand Marais Harbor Range Light at the end of a pier. As we walked towards the shore, thunder rumbled behind us, and we noticed the purplish-blue clouds of a summer thunderstorm trailing behind us. We hopped back into the car and headed for Sable Falls where we found another beautiful waterfall and at least a gazillion hungry mosquitoes. As we ran for the car, we started singing various versions of the “Mosquito Bite Blues.” We briefly stopped at the Grand Sable Dunes, but the fog started curling around us like a ghost.
Later, we checked into Holiday Inn Express-Lakeview in Munising and went up to our third-floor room. Although the fog created a Stephen King-like atmosphere, we were still able to see Murray Bay, Grand Island, and Lake Superior. The next morning we awoke to overcast skies and—you guessed it—more fog.
We then headed towards Miners Castle where nature has provided reminders of its semi-permanent status. Miners Castle used to consist of two turrets, but in 2006, one of the turrets collapsed. The website for National Park Services provides this information: “The Miners Castle Member consists of crumbly cross-bedded sandstone that is poorly cemented by secondary quartz, according to U.S. Geological Survey Research Ecologist Walter Loope.” We had seen both turrets in previous visits to this area, so the realization that part of Miners Castle’s lifeblood had broken apart and now survived only in our memories was not lost on us. The fragility of the earth is never more apparent than when one must rely on memory as a way to provide one’s referent.
Although the fog prevented us from taking shots of the distant scenery, we were able to take photos to remind us of our time there before we headed to Laughing Whitefish Falls. When we arrived at our newest destination, we sprayed mosquito repellent everywhere except our eyeballs and headed down the trail to the falls. As we approached the falls, the rush of the water became hypnotic. I felt as if I could slip over the edge of the waterfall at any minute and tumble to the rocks below. I imagined myself avoiding each boulder or fallen tree as I slid along the layers of rock until my body became motionless against the flatness of the earth. At the bottom of the waterfall, my breathing and the water would fuse into that moment where life and death collide.
After enjoying our moment of reverie at the top of the falls, we followed the curving pathway of steps down to the bottom of the falls where we stood on a small viewing platform. I felt as small as one of the hundreds of mosquitoes surrounding my repellent-covered clothing and body. As we walked back up the series of stairs and began our hike through the woods back to our car, I felt the enormity of the woods and wished I knew all of the secrets it held.
Before we returned to the Lower Peninsula, we stopped at the Fayette Historic Park and Seul Choix Lighthouse. Again, history and beauty combined to create a space for discovery and wonder. On Highway 2, we passed countless numbers of semis hauling logs, and one logger had a sign on the front of his semi that read “Fetchin’ Sticks.” As if to remind me of a trip my father would have loved, particularly because of his love of the large freighters on the Great Lakes, we spotted a lone freighter working its way across Lake Michigan as we neared St. Ignace. We pulled into a scenic area and snapped photos of the Wagenborg as it made its way under the bridge. Although magnificent in its size and glory, the Wagenborg, an unlikely fusion of steel and water, glided through the waves of Lake Michigan. Days later I would realize, as the sound of karaoke and fireworks split the night air, that if I closed my eyes, I could imagine myself floating across a body of water, my breathing, slow and steady.