Interstate Falls a hidden gem
By Mike Ivey
Interstate Falls along the Montreal River between northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula might qualify as the most scenic little waterfall few ever visit.
Cascading over a 20-foot drop, the wilderness falls are spectacular throughout the year and really roar to life when the 200+ inches of Lake Superior snow belt melts in springtime.
Sometimes also known as Peterson Falls, Siebert Falls or Montreal Falls, the natural feature has long been an attraction for both locals and tourists in the Ironwood-Hurley area.
But just finding the falls was a challenge and required a drive along a muddy lane then a hike through the woods across private land. It was the best kept secret in town.
“You really had to know what you were looking for,” says resident Ian Shackleford.
Now this hidden gem could soon enjoy a new influx of admirers following the recent purchase of a key parcel that will provide easier public access.
Shackleford for years has been working to both protect and publicize the many waterfalls that gallop down the Montreal before the final dramatic plunge at Saxon Falls into Lake Superior. He sees the falls as a draw for visitors, but also a way to spur appreciation for the natural beauty of the former iron-mining region.
In 2007, Shackleford set up a website – www.InterstateFalls.org – to generate more interest in the site.
“We’ve got one of the highest concentrations of waterfalls anywhere in the Midwest,” says Shackleford, a San Diego native who works for the Ottawa National Forest office in Ironwood. His wife, Monie, is a biologist who helped develop the Miners Memorial Park in Ironwood from an old mining site.
The land purchase to preserve Interstate Falls was facilitated by the Northwoods Land Trust (NWLT). The Eagle River-based conservation group was able to secure a permanent easement on the existing trail to the falls along with the 39-acre parcel that includes a half-mile of river front property on the Wisconsin side.
The $188,000 deal which closed in December was made possible by a matching grant from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund program. The NWLT secured 50 percent of the purchase price from private foundations and from contributions from many individuals, families and businesses.
“These are local people who are putting up their own dollars because they wanted to see Interstate Falls protected forever,” says Bryan Pierce, executive director of the NWLT.
It wasn’t easy. The purchase from owners Donald and Nancy Siebert evolved over an eight-year process once the property was listed for sale in May 2007.
“Even from the time we started on the offer to purchase, it took over a year to finally receive all of the grant funding and close on the transaction,” says Pierce. “We really appreciate the patience of the Sieberts.”
Putting trust in the NWLT
The sale also marked the first ever outright purchase of conservation land by the Northwoods Land Trust. NWLT owns four other conservation properties which were donated outright by the private landowners.
The Northwoods Land Trust works with private landowners to help preserve natural areas, promote sustainable forest management and enhance recreation opportunities for the public. The non-profit covers areas of Vilas, Oneida, Forest, Florence, Iron and Price Counties in north central Wisconsin.
Pierce notes that major grants were provided by the Caerus Foundation, John C. Bock Foundation, James E. Dutton Foundation, James D. & Jane P. Watermolen Foundation and the Modestus Bauer Foundation.
“Without their funding support to leverage the Stewardship Fund grant, this project would not have been possible,” he says.
For conservationists, there had been a sense of urgency ever since the property went on the market.
Access on the Michigan side was already closed because of private homes built along the river, and public access along the Wisconsin side would have been lost if the Siebert property was sold for development. For over 60 years, the Siebert family had allowed the public to walk the trail to view the falls, with many using the property to access the Montreal River for trout fishing.
Further complicating matters was the fact that one week after the Northwoods Land Trust submitted its Stewardship grant application paperwork, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker came out with a budget proposal to eliminate funding for the program entirely.
“Fortunately, many conservationists from all over the state contacted their legislators in support of the program, and funding – while cut in half –was restored in the budget,” Pierce notes.
Pierce also thanked Wisconsin Sen. Janet Bewley (D-Delta) and Rep. Beth Meyers (D-Bayfield) for both visiting the falls and providing support for the project.
With a Stewardship grant eventually secured, the final contract ensures the land will remain protected in perpetuity. The deal will also provide open public access for hiking, snowshoeing, back country skiing, nature observation, fishing, trapping and hunting.
The property features about 2,500 feet of frontage on the Montreal River, a Class II trout stream, meaning it requires some fish stocking. The land also includes a quarter-mile of stream corridor on Cominski Creek, a small, Class I brook trout stream meaning fish are reproducing naturally.
A management plan prepared for the property by the Northwoods Land Trust calls for better signage along U.S. Highway 2, a new parking area and a trailhead with a map for the main access trail to the falls.
Local governments played a role in the purchase with Town of Kimball (Iron County) chairman Ronald Ahonen participating in the closing and the town board approving the draft management plan.
In fact, the land trust has offered to gift the property to Kimball Township as a scenic park. Having the property owned by the Town would allow for better control by the local community, Pierce says.
If the town okays taking ownership, an official dedication and public open house event will be held this summer.
Pierce also envisions some safety features to allow people to better view the falls from above and below. Until those are installed, people will continue to need to exercise caution as they approach the falls area, he cautions.
Indeed. During a hike to the falls on New Year’s Day 2016, I had to walk carefully along an icy path to avoid sliding down into the chilly waters of the Montreal. A good pair of hiking boots are a necessity — at least for winter visits.
To visit the falls, take U.S. Highway 2 a quarter-mile past the U.S. 51 intersection on the north side of Hurley. Turn right on Center Drive and go another quarter-mile to an undeveloped parking area. Then follow the trail to left for about a third of a mile through a hemlock woods and start listening.
You will hear Interstate Falls well before you see it. Once you get there, however, you’ll want to stay simply to enjoy the solitude and reflect on the millions of gallons of water that poured over the falls without humans ever noticing.