{Irruption}: an invasion of birds in unusual places

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Laughing Whitefish Falls

Laughing Whitefish Falls

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.