The Toonerville Trolley is one of the many amazing gems in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It was honestly one of the most enjoyable excursions I have been on in a long time. Sadly, there isn’t a whole lot of advertising about it, and the only reason we found it is that my husband is a Yooper and had been on it before.
First and foremost, the nomenclature is misleading in every way. It isn’t in Toonerville, and it isn’t a trolley. It is a combination of a ride on a historical narrow gauge mining train through a mixture of fantastic UP forests and amazing UP bogs and a ride on a boat up the Tahquamenon River. If you want to see rural, rugged and reasonably undisturbed Michigan, this trip is for you. We were blown away by the natural surroundings, and the company does a pretty good job of providing an informative running monologue about the landscape as you pass through.
We got there early and my daughter and I spent some time wandering about the “station” taking pictures of the scenery that seemed impossibly beautiful. Everywhere we turned it looked like some National Geographic calendar.
If you haven’t been to Michigan before, you might not know that most of the surface water is black, like coffee. It isn’t opaque; you can see through it, it’s just colored like coffee or very dark tea. That is the effect of all the tannic acid from the bogs leaching into the water. It can be rather startling the first time you see it. The water in this little pond looked like something out of a movie. Every horror movie I had ever seen with creepy things hiding in black water came to mind. Greeeeat. Excellent timing. Come on imagination, get all worked up before going on a train in predator filled swamps. The start of a classic B movie, no?
Eventually the train filled up, and with much sadness I took a break from photographing the flowers and insects of the bog edge and got on board. The train portion of the trip is five and a half miles long through amazing terrain. The antique, (and adorably tiny) locomotive takes you through an almost primordial part of Michigan. If you don’t know what a narrow gauge rail is, google it. The ride is very different than a “normal” rail. The rails themselves are almost hidden in the grass, and were sometimes under water.
The area was wild enough that it has moose (didn’t see one) wolves (wish we had seen one) deer (which are super boring where we are from, but are becoming rare in the UP for reasons I will discuss below) and many birds.
I saw dozens of the endangered Sand Hill Cranes. Just hanging out. They sound like a strangling frog when they call. I saw one take off and wondered if they were the basis for the thunderbird stories. They are huge, but their wings sound like distant claps of thunder when they take off.
There is a guide on the train that helps describe local scenery, animals and history. They give you a brochure that has numbers and descriptions of tree species. As the train approaches the marked trees, the guide points them out. I had no idea that white cedar is high in vitamin C, and was used to treat scurvy.
The guide also, (and let me tell you I am reaaaaaly torn over this) bates bears to come to the tracks. One the one hand, training bears to associate people with food (they use donuts, if you are interested) is a very bad idea. On the other hand, it *IS* in the heart of miles and miles of private property and the donuts are left by the tracks, not given out by hand. Not a HUGE improvement, but the association is more likely with the train and the tracks than actual people. That is how I rationalize it to myself, anyway.
Normally, I would be indignant. I actually was when I realized what they were doing (they didn’t announce it, they just slyly dumped out two garbage bags full of donuts by the tracks at strategic intervals and I put it together). Then, I saw a bear. Not just one bear, mind you, but three…. in close proximity to a Sand Hill Crane. You know, the endangered ones emblazoned across the Nature Conservancy bookmarks? (Please donate to the Nature Conservancy here to support the preservation of the wildness of our world).
I have to admit that seeing them was quite a rush. They were far away and disappeared into the bogs as we approached on the train. I think I would feel a lot more angry about it if they hung out by the tracks begging, but since they saw the train and took off, I feel better about it. I also feel really guilty and like I should be outraged.
I spent a whole lot of that rail trip rubber-necking. The Upper Peninsula is in the middle of a transformation. Into what, you ask? The past. Once upon a time, it was a wet, swampy bog with stands of old growth evergreen forest. If you have never seen an old growth pine, it is mind blowing. It is hard to imagine a tree that large that isn’t a redwood. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, much of the UP was clear cut to build New York, Chicago, Detroit and surprisingly, ships. The few trees that remain were considered too small at that time.
Those forests are actually part of a single global forest of evergreen that run across the Northern United States, Central and Southern Canada, Europe and Asia. A singular global forest that runs all the way around the northern Hemisphere called the Tiaga, or “Tiger.” Read more about it here!
Once the evergreens were cut, those open spaces were taken over with secondary growth and grass. Moose like and live in swampy forests, as do beaver. In fact; they require those sorts of habitats to survive and thrive. As The UP dried out, the deer, ever opportunistic, moved into the neighborhood in DROVES. The iconic deer hunting of the 1930’s with its decades of nostalgia were actually a relatively new phenomena. People rapidly adapted to the increased deer populations and hunting became a national past time. The sad thing is, white tailed deer aren’t actually native to the area in the levels people got used to.
In the last few decades, as industry has moved overseas, and logging has ended, the beaver are doing their thing and making the UP a swamp again. As the bogs return, the habitats that the deer depend on diminish, making it harder for the deer to survive. Throw in some extremely harsh winters, that have killed off a huge portion of the deer, a small number of wolf kills and the deer are becoming rare in the Big Woods. That is actually the way it should be, but try telling that to the locals that blame everything on the wolves. I have, it isn’t pretty. Some of my distant in-laws would like to feed me to a wolf. You can read all about it for yourself here.
So the UP is in the process of returning to the habitat it had a few centuries ago. It has some issues to deal with. There are some introduced pests that are really taking a toll on parts of it, but given enough time, it will return to the splendor that it was in the 17th century. As pristine as it felt, I cannot imagine how the end product will look.
Eventually, we reached a boat dock with a. (vintage? ancient? I’m not sure what to call it, really…) boat that looks like it would be perfectly at home on the British Colonial Nile, or Ganges. The train ride alone was pretty amazing, but a boat tour TOO?!?!? We filed on board and as the boat took off, it was incredibly pleasant. It is a pretty remote part of the Tahquamenon River. The water is the same coffee black, and it is not even difficult to imagine a time before the industrial revolution.
The river boat captain called out local landmarks, and gave local folklore. Let me tell you it is rough traveling being an anthropologist in the first place, but traveling with a Native American (that also happens to be an anthropologist) takes its toll on blissfully ignorant enjoyment. So many clueless people say so many clueless and unintentionally stupid things while trying their best to be educational. The captain tried to tell some Native folklore. Missed.
He kept speaking about Native Americans in the past tense, which was awkward as I was sitting next to one, but the real issue was that he was trying to tell Nanabush stories (a Chippewa cultural phenomenon similar to the kind of stories you get about Paul Bunion) except that rather than use the name Nanabush, he kept saying Mi’gwitch. The Brave Mi’gwitch, the Warrior Mi’gwitch, etc…. ummmmmm… Mi’gwitch means ”thanks.” Literally.
That is the Chippewa/Ojibwa word for “thank you.” So props for trying, and props for trying to tell folklore of the Native people…. but epic fail in referring to them solely in the past tense and trying to use the language. My husband had a very sour look on his face, which made it difficult for me to enjoy the beautiful scenery.
We finally docked on the north side of Tahquamenon Falls, adjacent to the state park. You go for a hike through the woods (mushroom hunters- great fungi on display!! There was an enormous hemlock covered in G. curtisii!) and come out just above the falls.
I have been to every observation point at the falls, and this was, BAR NONE, the closest you can get. The trail comes right out at the stone the water breaks over.
Amazing view. As you are standing over the falls, the roar is incredible!
It is difficult to decide which portion of the trip was the most amazing, honestly. The return back up river, and the train through the woods back to the station passed all too quickly. We saw another bear on the way out, and he again took off as the train approached. It was definitely something I plan to do again, and well worth your while!