A week ago I visited Bond Falls Scenic Site in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. As beautiful as the falls are, the element of the resource that I find myself thinking about is the somewhat unique boardwalk. I am not sure of the designer’s intentions, but the wooden structure at the bottom of the falls was different from those I usually see at popular nature-based attractions.

At first glance, the boardwalk looks just as I would have expected it to look. There are earth tones, heavy plank construction, and viewing platforms with sturdy railings. The difference is the number of staircases offering direct access to the water. 

To me, boardwalks with railings are meant to be barriers. They help to maintain a distance between nature and humanity. This either protects visitors from potential danger or keeps people away from ecologically sensitive areas. The railings and boardwalks at Bond Falls don’t do either. At just about every spot I was tempted to step off the boardwalk to get closer to the water, there was a rustic staircase encouraging me to do so. As a result, the soil at water’s edge was compacted, and dozens of sightseers were taking selfies in locations where a false step would have put them in the river. 

I liked it this way. It didn’t seem that human impact was causing any more damage than floodwaters would have, and I don’t believe that the ignorant actions of a few careless people should prevent others from getting close enough to the falls to feel the mist. 

The question then becomes why bother with boardwalks and railings at all. Some kind of hardened surface was probably needed to accommodate heavy pedestrian traffic, but blacktop without railings would have worked just as well. The reason may be more than aesthetics. It is because some people like barriers. They want to see nature firsthand, but appreciate a railing between them and the resource. At Bond Falls, these people have a series of comfortable platforms for easy viewing. 

Other sightseers want to get as close the natural attraction as possible, and a small element of risk actually adds to the appeal. Most railed boardwalks I’ve ever seen have rogue trails at either end that circumvent attempts by management to corral visitors. The design at Bond Falls concedes that people are going to find a way to get down to water’s edge, so there may as well be steps. Instead of harsh warnings prohibiting people from going beyond the railing, there are kinder signs reminding visitors that wet steps and wet rocks are slippery.  

Finding the right balance between access and protection is always difficult. At Bond Falls, the only real damage caused by people near the water is to the natural view. Snowmelt likely erodes more soil and exposes more rock than tourists ever will. Also, at least half of the people clamoring down the steps to get close to the water are families with kids. Whenever children are involved, erring on the side of adventure and fun over preservation makes sense. The long view of conservation is that kids who play near the water will grow up to be environmentalists – and the ones who slip and fall into the river will become the most preservation-minded environmentalists of the lot. 

I speak from experience. When I tripped on an exposed tree root adjacent Bond Falls, Manyu’s only comment was, “You’ve been clumsy for as long as I’ve known you.” My first thought, although I didn’t say it, was, “You don’t trip on tree roots by staying on the boardwalk.”

Steven Simpson