Those of us who love Michigan’s sunrise side could toot our horns a bit more. If we celebrate the special places, folks still won’t come to us in droves like they do on the sunset side. And if they did come in droves, let’s face it we could use their visitor bucks so that would be OK too.
The River Road National Scenic Byway is one of only three National Forest scenic byways in Michigan. It extends westward from Lake Huron into the Huron National Forest. And it’s a significant extension–22 miles. It runs along the Au Sable River, the Rivier aux Sable (River of Sand). In lumbering days, the Au Sable was the major route for lumbering-out our giant white pines from the forest to sawmill towns on Lake Huron. Let’s not dwell on that too much. But the river has a storied history in the northeast that isn’t necessarily about the holy waters of fly-fishing.
This is the view looking to the east from the Westgate Welcome Center that is easily accessible from…from…the road. More on that in a moment.
Doesn’t that just knock your socks off?
That was the view in late December before the snows started in earnest. The river had a very thin crust of ice, but only in certain places. It is tough to get a sense of how high the bluff is from this photo. The hints are the very tall pines rimming “Loud Pond” and looking so teeny.
Another hint are those white specks in the river that look like Roman Cleanser bottles. Those are Trumpeter Swans. Trumpeter Swans. The endangered species (in Michigan) Trumpeter Swans, not to be confused with the invasive species, mean-tempered Mute Swans imported from Europe in the early 1800’s to fancy up some folks froufrou ponds and estates. According to the signage at the site, there are only about 300 Trumpeter pairs left in Michigan. It looked to me like about 30 of the 300 were lolling about in the river while we watched. We were the only visitors at the overlook and when we arrived and stood high above the river, many of the swans started trumpeting. That’s how I first realized they weren’t Roman Cleanser bottles.
What’s the key to the Trumpeters being here? I guess, that they are not dumb. This section of the river never quite freezes. That part of the story is thanks to a nearby power plant that warms the water. OK, maybe not too ecologically cool. But the power company also built and maintains the very nice overlook facilities. And the Trumpeter Swans gather and winter over at this section of the Au Sable where it broadens out to Loud Pond. That is definitely cool.
Here’s a photo of the overlook:
Here’s a view looking down from the bluff, from a bit further down the byway west from the main welcome center overlook.
Sometimes the sunrise side just can’t catch a break. There are often hard-luck stories even in our good-news stories. Don’t eat the fish from around this section of the river.
The Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH) has issued a “DO NOT EAT” advisory for all fish taken from Clarks Marsh, south of the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base. The warning includes that no one eat any of the “resident” fish taken from the lower Au Sable River downstream of Foote Dam to the mouth at Lake Huron. “Resident” fish are those living in the river year-round, who aren’t just passing through during the spawning runs. Wurtsmith was the culprit. You can read more about it here. There are high levels of perflourinated chemicals (PFCs) in the resident fish, like bluegills, perch and pumpkinseeds.
PFCs are a group of manmade chemicals that have been used for many years in products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water. PFCs are (or hopefully were) an ingredient in firefighting foam. Firefighting foam was used during training exercises at Wurtsmith, and probably even to fight a few fires. The PFCs moved through the soil and into the ponds in Clarks Marsh, which drain to the lower part of the river.
So, enough of the sad stuff. Wurtsmith has been closed since June of 1993. Twenty five years later and I wonder when we get to eat the fish again.
Where is this place? Hopefully the National Forest Service won’t mind if I snitch their map.
And its key:
Here’s some directions for driving the by-way:
Driving the Byway
- Start the byway 6.7 miles northeast of Hale, at the intersection of M-65 and Rollways Road.
- Continue east on M-65,4.3 miles to the intersection of M-65 and River Road, a county highway.
- Turn right onto River Road.
- Follow this road east for 17.7 miles until it intersects with US-23 (Huron Shores Heritage Route) in Oscoda, where the route terminates.
If you visit Hillman’s Long Lake from downstate and typically exit I-75 at Exit 202 for Rose City/Alger, exit at Standish instead, get thee to Hale, and you’ll be close.
We didn’t make it to the Lumberman’s Monument section of the byway this December, but here’s a public domain photo of the view from 200 feet up in a sand dune. Next year, that will be me (and my new hip) and Steve sitting on the dune looking down at this beautiful sunrise-side view.