You can absolutely decide what kind of day you’re going to have. Will you choose to be disappointed in the 40-degree September weather, the wind, the still surprising throngs of humanity parked and hiking everywhere, as the water bottle you spilled in your backpack leaks through to your ass, or will you stop to admire the beauty all around you, to listen to the water rippling through the woods, becoming a loud crash as you reach each waterfall and an absolutely magnificent roar as you come upon Lake Superior? And realize that whichever perspective you choose, you are right.
I can’t remember exactly the last time I saw Chapel Rock (aside from seeing it on the back of the most recent US Michigan quarter), and I certainly didn’t remember hiking the 3.2 miles from the parking lot to get there. What I do remember is that my friend Joan, one of the few people I know who has read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha multiple times, told me that I’d love this spot. A Native American name for Lake Superior is Gitche Gumee, and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is featured all throughout this poem. She told me that Chapel Rock is where Hiawatha married Minnehaha, on the shores of Gitche Gumee.
I’m not sure if this is exactly correct, but I’ll never forget that first moment when I saw Chapel Rock some double-digit years ago, and I imagined Hiawatha and Minnehaha standing on top of it before Mother Earth and Father Sky. Back then the tree which sits on top of it would have looked very different: smaller, and roots unexposed by the sandstone that was yet to crumble and fall into the lake in the 1940s.
I had told some of my friends that morning that I was late for “church.” After a long week at work and all the turmoil in the news, my soul was in need of a little cleansing. For me, the best medicine is the woods. Nothing sets me as right or reminds me that the world still is inherently good like a hike in God’s Country, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
I knew that Pictured Rocks has seen an incredible upsurge in tourism over the last few years, so I was only partially surprised when the parking lot at the end of the muddy 5-mile road was completely full and spilling out down the road on the last Saturday morning in September. In the back of my mind I’d hoped for a little more solitude. This is never an issue in the UP – there are plenty of other places I could have gone to fill my need for alone time, but today I would have to share Mother Nature’s gift with many others.
I read somewhere that sadness comes from dwelling in the past, and anxiety comes from spending too much time looking into the future, so I vowed to focus only on the present moment and whatever came into view as I hiked along the Chapel-Mosquito trailhead.
I focused on how bright and green the trees still were in September, even though it was cloudy and rainy today, and the days are getting oh, so much shorter.
I focused on the quiet peace of the woods, uninterrupted by the sounds of insects and only occasionally sprinkled with the sounds of woodpeckers, chickadees, and people.
I focused on the gurgling of water, which gave way into a rushing sound which at first I had a hard time distinguishing from the wind, but which then gave way to Chapel Falls.
I focused on what a gift it was to see so many angles of a single waterfall, and I noticed where thousands have tread before me and had worn trails into the fragile but resilient earth. I wondered if anyone had stepped too close to the many ledges and had a fleeting adrenaline rush when they realized that one wrong step to get that perfect selfie might change their entire life.
Did anyone else experience what I did that day? It’s impossible to not feel small and insignificant just for a moment when rounding that last turn when Lake Superior comes into view and witnessing the sheer power of wind and water. I was so consumed and enchanted and humbled by Gitche Gumee that it took me a few seconds to realize that proudly witnessing the panorama with me was Chapel Rock.
I had walked right up to the reason for my journey and had not immediately seen it.
Apparently, neither had the hiker who was backpacking along the North Country Trail, which runs right through Pictured Rocks. After a surprising “Whoa!” we exchanged some small talk and mutual admiration for something so tenacious and steadfast as to hold onto its position in life, even when the world is literally crumbling down around you. I hope others saw and appreciated the metaphor, too.
I found a nice sit spot right at the mouth of Chapel Creek, where I witnessed the beauty and restrained fury of a lake which I knew could snap a man-made freighter like a twig, once the gales of November came rolling. And it had, back in 1975 when it sank the Edmund Fitzgerald, just 15 miles shy of Whitefish bay.
I don’t remember how long I sat here, but it was enough time for me to realize that when I looked behind me and saw dozens of people filtering through, that I’d probably ruined their good many selfie opportunities by daydreaming in my picture-perfect spot. I can only hope that they also chose to dwell in the moment, and not be saddened by selfies they missed in the past or anxious about selfies they were yet to post in the future.
When I walked out of the woods, I decided to take the inland route past Chapel Lake and Little Chapel Lake, and save the Mosquito portion of the loop for another day, another contemplation. The three mile hike back to the parking lot was mostly solitary bliss, save for the couple hiking far ahead of me, who made me smile when I caught them holding hands, or the many hikers of all ages and shapes and sizes who were just starting their journey as I was finishing, asking me for directions.
You can absolutely decide what kind of day you’re going to have, I realized as my almost-dry ass made it back to my muddy car. As I sit here presently, in my recliner, sipping coffee on a quiet Sunday morning, I realize I’m sad that I’m not back there right now, but also anxious to return again.
Be happy, be well.