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Poetry of the "Big Two-Hearted River"

By: Eric Larsen

It’s a dead end dirt road that deposits you at the mouth of the Big Two Hearted, a legendary Michigan stream. It’s where the river empties into the great inland sea known as Gichigami to the native Ojibwe, and Lake Superior to the rest of us.  Snowbound and impassible during the long months of an Upper Peninsula winter, the dirt road branches off between Newberry and Tahquamenon Falls State Park and, many sandy potholes later, terminates at a beautiful State Forest campground at the river’s mouth.  I’m native to the Upper Peninsula but somehow it took me 50+ years before I paddled it for the first time on a magnificent October 2015 weekend of peak fall color. With a few precious summer days to brush the calendar aside I decided to return again to paddle the Two Hearted and its sister stream the Tahquamenon in my folding Beach LT kayak.


After navigating the sandy potholes of the forest road, I arrived at the campground at the perfect time – just as a party was pulling out of site #3, the best of the four riverside campsites in the campground.  A Lansing-based group of kayak fisherman were in the next site but drifted over and proved to be both friendly and curious after I had camp set up and began assembling my Oru.  They had never seen an origami kayak before, and Richard was particularly intrigued, seeing as how he lived out of his motor home and a kayak he could carry inside it would be advantageous to his lifestyle.  My offer of a short spin in my Oru out on the campside water of the Two Hearted was eagerly accepted and convinced him to investigate Oru kayaks further. Introductions, boat trials, beers, and fishing tales concluded with the Lansing folks, I slipped off for a late evening paddle down where the Two Hearted joins Lake Superior.


It’s unusual for Lake Superior to be dead calm but this was turning out to be my lucky weekend.   Other than a small riffle where the Two Hearted merges into Superior, it was dead calm on the big lake and I spent a couple beautiful hours paddling eastward along the pristine pine dotted coast towards Whitefish Point, not far from where the ore freighter “Edmund Fitzgerald” went down on that fateful day in November 1975. “The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay if they’d put fifteen more miles behind her, “ in the classic Gordon Lightfoot tune.  No “witch of November” style storm arose on this quiet summer evening though, just a soft evening light as the setting sun enveloped the lake and sky with pastel yellow and red hues as my Oru bobbed peacefully on the clear cold waters of the greatest of our Great Lakes.


There are two runs on the Two Hearted, the upper run if you don’t mind pulling over river-wide beaver dams and sweepers, and the classic 12 mile lower trip that runs from the Reed and Green Bridge to the Lake Superior confluence. The lower run is flatwater with a few sweepers to navigate and absolutely no streamside development. It’s a beautiful run through a mixed deciduous and pine forest, kept pristine by its unique status as the only state designated Wilderness River in Michigan, which strictly prohibits any development in the river’s riparian corridor.  The black flies are rumored to rise to Old Testament plague levels for unlucky paddlers if you happen to choose the wrong time to be there, but again I lucked out – I was there in mid-July (the height of black fly season) but was little troubled by the buggers.

 


For my last day in the area I travelled south to the Tahquamenon River in Tahquamenon Falls State Park. The 46,179-acre park feature Upper Tahquamenon Falls, one of the highest waterfalls in the USA east of the Mississippi River. 


Home to wolves, whitetail deer, moose, black bear, marten, river otters and beaver, it’s one of the largest protected areas in the state of Michigan. In addition to the Upper and Lower Falls, the park has 40 miles of hiking trails, 13 inland lakes, and most importantly for the paddler, it buffers and protects a full 24 miles of the Tahquamenon River.  Paddle trips are possible both above and below the Falls area, and I chose to explore the area below the Lower Falls. There is a beautiful 17 mile class 1 run that starts below the Lower Falls and terminates where the Tahquamenon flows into Lake Superior near Paradise, Michigan.

 

A unique aspect of the Tahquamenon/Two Hearted area is its literary history.  In Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem “The Song of Hiawatha,” Manabozho (Hiawatha) builds his magical canoe “In the solitary forest, by the rushing Taquamenaw” (Tahquamenon).  More recently, novelists Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison have set stories in the area.  The famous Ernest Hemingway short story “Big Two Hearted River” is set here, sort of.  The tale actually describes the nearby Fox River, but Hemingway explains in “The Art of the Short Story” that “the change of name was made purposely, not from ignorance nor carelessness but because ‘Big Two Hearted River’ is poetry.”  Hemingway was exactly right – the river is paddling poetry itself.