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Swimming at the falls.

From 1946 to 1951, James McDowell and my father, David J. Dick--both teachers in the Tecumseh school system--managed a summer boys' facility called Camp North Woods on Douglas Lake near Pellston. The camp was limited to 40 boys in two age groups: juniors (7 to 11) and seniors (12 to 16). When I reached the minimum age, I too became one of the campers.

The routine at Camp North Woods had a military flavor, with daily reveille, flag raising, inspections, evening flag lowering, and taps at bedtime. As a result, every camper learned how to properly unfurl, raise, lower, and fold the flag. It was post-World War II, and I remember this as a very patriotic period. One counselor had served in the war and had leg wounds to show for it.

The usual camp activities were offered, but I especially liked rifle shooting, basketball, sailing, and aquaplaning, which was a cross between surfing and waterskiing. I didn't like swimming lessons (oh, those cold waters on some mornings!), but now realize how important it was to learn. We took day trips to Mackinac Island, to the Lake Michigan beaches between Cross Village and Wilderness State Park, and to other boys' camps on Douglas Lake and Burt Lake for competitive games. One activity I really enjoyed was the weekly capture-the-flag game. It was usually followed by dessert and glasses of Gumpert's, the Kool-Aid of the day.

A highlight of the summer camp was a two-day trip to the Upper Peninsula, where we visited Tahquamenon Falls. We had to get up around 6 a.m., load into several cars, and drive to Mackinaw City to catch the ferry for the U.P. before the lines formed. Our mini-caravan would then drive to Sault Ste. Marie to visit the Soo Locks before heading west to Tahquamenon Falls State Park. In those days, the state park was pretty rustic, with pit toilets, hand pumps, and no shower facilities or electricity. Campsites were simple marked clearings. I can remember setting up our World War I-era canvas pup tents (sewn together to accommodate two people), gathering firewood, pumping water to fill our canteens, and unrolling our sleeping bags for the evening. The tents had no bottom floor; when it rained, I had to make sure nothing was touching the inside of the tent, or water would seep through it. Although the tent flaps could be closed in the front, mosquitoes and the sound of the falls made it hard for me to get to sleep at night. And in the morning, the sounds of birds woke me too early.

After camping overnight, we would go swimming in the lower falls. Footpaths to the falls were narrow. Then we had to cross the river to get to an island. Luckily, a rope was strung taut between trees from the riverbank to the island, so we could walk safely to and fro. It was a little scary at first. But the river bottom was not slippery and I felt safe. (Today, you have to rent a boat to get to the island.)

The water was cold, but the excitement of swimming in whitewater and having it rush around your legs was exhilarating. Sometimes, the counselors would help us stand under the falls, so we could feel the water cascading off our backs. They always made sure we weren't doing anything dangerous. One year, though, I did suffer an accident: I stepped on a sharp rock that cut my foot. It was bleeding badly, and my father had to carry me back to the park lodge to get bandaged up. But it didn't slow me down much.

On the second day of our trip, we would pack up and load our camping equipment back into the cars then drive over to the upper falls. At that time, it was quite a hike to see these falls--more than a mile. But it built up the anticipation, especially when we started to hear the water roaring over the rocks. After viewing the upper falls and walking back to our cars, we would head to St. Ignace for the return ferry trip. When we arrived in late afternoon, the line of cars would be long. If the water was choppy, we always hoped to get on the Straits of Mackinac ferry. It was shorter. But it was still a challenge to traverse the trail. Then, in 2006, I revisited both falls with some friends from Brazil. Brazil has the huge Iguacu Falls, so the size of the two on the Tahquamenon River did not impress them. But they were amazed at the color of the water and the surrounding forests.

As for me, I was amazed at all the changes I observed since my early boyhood visits to the area. I didn't see anyone in the water, leading me to wonder if swimming is now prohibited there--probably a wise restriction, as going over the lower falls could lead to serious injury. I was also struck by the park's commercial activities, which were not present on my previous trips. Thankfully, they are tucked away near the entrance, so they don't clash with the natural beauty of the location I remember from days gone by.

Robert B. Dick, Ph.D. is a retired captain in the U.S. Public Health Service. He grew up in Tecumseh but currently resides in Cincinnati, Ohio.
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Title Annotation:remember the time; Tahquamenon Falls in Michigan
Author:Dick, Robert B.
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Jul 1, 2013
Words:898
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