A winter visit to Tahquamenon Falls, located in Northern Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, can provide a breathtaking photo opportunity. The sound of rushing water, nearly overwhelming during the summer months as it cascades over the Upper Falls at the rate of 50,000 gallons per second, is nearly silenced in the cold. It is easy for the mind to picture the Chippewa Indians who camped, hunted, trapped and fished the rich resource of the Tahquamenon River. Later, in the late 1800’s, lumberjacks harvested timber and the river was used to float logs.
I had planned for a year on how to best capture the magnificent falls. I wanted to highlight the different seasons, as the water and surrounding landscape is in a state of perpetual change. So I decided to shoot the falls during the summer and also during the winter. For the winter scene I wanted to show the falls frozen, but not completely frozen. The falls are located deep in the woods, and the water escapes along a narrow path, so shooting in the right light is a challenge. I began the first day of shooting at the leisurely hour of 5 AM, leaving the Lower Falls campground for the drive to the Upper Falls. There follows a short hike from the parking area to the falls. The walk is only about a quarter of a mile, but making the frigid hike in pre-dawn winter with about 3 feet of snow and carrying 50 pounds of camera gear is a unique challenge. Having been to the falls at other times of the year, I already knew where and how I wanted to compose the scenes I was about to shoot. I set up in this perfect spot and waited for the sun to rise. I envisioned the light from the newly risen sun streaming down the narrow (about 200 feet wide) path of the forested river, illuminating the plume of tannin colored water streaming over the huge ice pack that had grown at the falls since the start of winter. The light striking the water and intensifying the magnificent deep bronze colored water was exactly want I wanted to capture.
So I waited. It was 5 degrees below zero and would remain that cold all day. In fact, the temperature never rose above zero all that week. But as the dawn broke I saw that the sun’s position was not right and the light was less than optimal. I shot some scenes but I knew it was not going to look the way I wanted. So I made this same pilgrimage every morning at 5 AM, each time spending hours waiting for the right light. On the fifth day, just as the sun broke over the trees, the light streamed up the river and gave me the most wonderful illumination at this spectacular location. The bronze water glistened and exploded from beneath the ice and spilled out over the expanse of the multihued ice dam. I think I might have cried like a baby at both the beauty of the scene and because my feet were frozen.
Tahquamenon State Park is open year round and features a replica of the former logging camp, now transformed into a restaurant and gift shop. This is the land of Longfellow’s poem Hiawatha, the place where the founder of the Iroquois Confederacy built his canoe “by the rushing Tahquamenon.” The voices of Indians and lumberjacks are not lost in the past but seem to live on as subtle whispers heard behind the cascading waterfalls of winter and in the wind’s soft voice as it meanders through the forest.