Out See Go: Explore the Saunders property

By Chris Engle, contributor

Long the envy of any hunter or trout fisherman, the once-private Saunders property east of Gaylord is now in public hands and ready for you to explore its woods and waters.

The 517 acres of wild forests, meadows and marsh land were publicized in 2013 when, for a sum of $1.37 million, the state bought the property as the newest addition to the Pigeon River Country State Forest. That money came from the Natural Resources Trust Fund, a special account funded by the sale and royalties of mineral rights on public lands and used exclusively to buy land or improve public parks.

Dubbed the "Saunders Property" for its former owner, this 517-acre tract is the newest addition to the Pigeon River Country State Forest and is only a short drive from Gaylord. Photo by Chris Engle

Dubbed the “Saunders Property” for its former owner, this 517-acre tract is the newest addition to the Pigeon River Country State Forest and is only a short drive from Gaylord. Photo by Chris Engle

The first order of business for the state was to demolish a decades-old dam where the Black River flows through the heart of the property and reconnect the small stream to its spring-fed headwaters. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, along with several local conservation groups, aided in that restoration effort and the stream now flows unhindered, much to the approval of its prized brook trout.

One of the beauties of this property is that it is located on the Pigeon Forest’s southwest corner, putting it very close to Gaylord. From downtown it’s a 20-minute drive on plowed roads; from Treetops Resort it’s barely 10.

To get there, head east from Gaylord on Wilkinson Road then turn right in Sparr. From there, head 4 or 5 miles then turn left (north) onto Sawyer Road, then turn east onto Saunders Road. Access to the property is at an elbow near the end of Saunders Road. Park at the gate.

Don’t be fooled by tire or snowmobile tracks going past the gate and onto the property – motor vehicles are not allowed, with the exception of workers who maintain the still-functioning gas wells there.

Follow the two-track across the open field and into the woods. At the wood line you’re about 2/3 of a mile from the river. In total, round trip from the gate to the river is 1 to 1 ½ hours by snowshoe, depending on snow depth and your own pace. Don’t rush, bring along a bottle of water and give yourself enough daylight to make the trip.

A stand of evergreens laden with fresh snow, just one of the many postcard scenes of the Saunders property. Photo by Chris Engle

A stand of evergreens laden with fresh snow, just one of the many postcard scenes of the Saunders property. Photo by Chris Engle

The woods are a mix of aspen, pine and cedar, making for some really beautiful contrasts in color after fresh snow has fallen. This mix of cover also means you’re likely to encounter grouse, deer and other wildlife. During a hike on Jan. 2, my wife and I saw a hawk and three deer cross the trail about 50 yards ahead and there were deer tracks everywhere.

After about 25 minutes the two-track will fork left. Head right if you want to see the river.

The clearing and low hill at this spot is where the Saunders cabin used to sit. It was also demolished in 2013. Follow the unmarked path about 100 yards to the river – you won’t hear it flowing until you’re almost on top of it. The river is surrounded by a wide clearing, making it pretty easy to find.

There’s a gentle riffle now where the crumbling concrete dam used to sit. Huron Pines, a Gaylord nonprofit which headed the restoration project, uses cobblestone to help stabilize the soil in areas where excavation of dams or culverts has taken place. What was once a dramatic, 5-foot cascade of water is now an easy passageway for small brook trout.

The former site of the dam is now a short riffle of cobblestone. Photo by Chris Engle

The former site of the dam is now a short riffle of cobblestone. Photo by Chris Engle

Speaking of trout, the Black River is the only one in the Lower Peninsula managed exclusively for brook trout, Michigan’s state fish. Since they don’t face competition from brown or rainbow trout, the brookies are plentiful in this woody, wild stream. It is open to all tackle but is closed to fishing until April.

How the dam used to look in 2013 prior to its removal. A wooden foot bridge crossed the five-foot cascade. Photo courtesy of the Gaylord Herald Times

How the dam used to look in 2013 prior to its removal. A wooden foot bridge crossed the five-foot cascade. Photo courtesy of the Gaylord Herald Times

For the brook trout, having the dam out means they can escape to colder water upstream during warm summer months.

A pond that had formed upstream of the dam buried valuable spawning gravel in a thick layer of muck. Now that water flows freely through where the pond was, that mud will eventually be washed away, revealing the gravel bed beneath.

Just upstream of the dam site is the point where Saunders Creek joins the Black River. Walk along the bank to see where these two streams meet but don’t get too close to the water. There are still some mucky spots along this stretch.

Loking upstream at Saunders Creek near the spot where it flows into the Black River. Photo by Chris Engle

Loking upstream at Saunders Creek near the spot where it flows into the Black River. Photo by Chris Engle

As you explore the area, keep in mind this is the very same river used by an ancient fish to propagate its species.

Way downstream, near Onaway, giant lake sturgeon come up from Black Lake and spawn at the base of Tower-Kleber Dam in May. Some of these fish reach 150 pounds or more and their hulking silhouettes can be spotted from high up on the bank.

That crucial spawning site for the sturgeon has humble beginnings upstream at the Saunders property. Lucky for us, it’s in good hands — ours.

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and outdoor columnist for the Gaylord Area Convention & Tourism Bureau and the Gaylord Herald Times. He is a stay-at-home dad in Hayes Township, Otsego County. Photo by Chelsea Engle

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and outdoor columnist for the Gaylord Area Convention & Tourism Bureau and the Gaylord Herald Times. He is a stay-at-home dad in Hayes Township, Otsego County. Photo by Chelsea Engle

 

Mother Nature Not Cooperating? So what! Still a lot of things to do in the Gaylord area!

Even though Mother Nature is not quite cooperating with our weather here in Gaylord, that doesn’t mean you can’t take a nice little trip with the family. There are plenty of fun things to see and do in the Gaylord Area for this winter break! After all, the kids are going to go crazy cooped in the house and so are you!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Treetops Skiing – First off, even though we don’t have much natural snow, Treetops Resort has been piling it up on the many cold nights and days that we have had. They are open for skiing and have a number of other activities planned for the week including horse drawn wagon rides. With the nights getting down into the low 20’s and upper teens they will resume snow making this week and the trails will get better each day! For a complete list of activities visit www.treetops.com

Gaylord Cinema – Gaylord offers a first rate movie theatre with six screens offering first run movies in the evening and with matinees as well. The Gaylord Cinema is located on the West side of Gaylord.

Otsego County Sportsplex – Even though we don’t have snow, you can still get plenty of skating in during the week. The Otsego County Sportsplex located on Wisconsin Street offers a hockey size ice rink with tons of public skating hours. They also offer plenty of skate rentals, skate sharpening and an indoor café for snacks and hot chocolate! If this isn’t enough the Sportsplex offers two, count them two indoor pools! They have a zero depth pool with shooting water that is bit warmer for the little ones as well as an Olympic size lap pool with a water slide!! You’ll have a blast as well as the kids. The Sportsplex is open daily with plenty of public hours.

Aspen Park – Normally this time of year Aspen Park would be covered in snow and groomed for cross country skiing, but it is still a great place to take a hike and get some energy out of those kids and you! Aspen Park is located off Commerce Boulevard and offers 2 miles of paved walking paths in an old growth forest. Even better the Park is flanked by the Elk Park which contains a herd of Elk, deer and turkeys. This is located on the North end of Aspen Park! Chances are very good you will see these animals.

call-of-the-wild-front-web-570x340Call of The Wild Museum – This classic museum that has been in Gaylord for over 50 years was recently listed on the list of the top 20 “must see” attractions in Michigan. Yes it is a bit kitschy but it is fun and the little kids will really enjoy it. You will see expertly stuffed and mounted animals in their natural environment, which is a great learning experience too. If you are not tired of shopping yet, The Call of the Wild has a gift shop that is one of the finest in Northern Michigan. It offers the widest range of western wear and gifts in Northern Michigan. This is a great morning or afternoon adventure.

Pigeon River State Forest Hiking – If you are looking forward to a little more adventurous hike, you can head out to the Pigeon River State Forest which is located 17 miles from Gaylord. The Shingle Mill Pathway is well marked and offers very scenic hiking with loops of one mile, 2 miles, 6 miles, 10 miles and 12 miles. It meanders along the Pigeon River for good portions of all of the hikes. The Pigeon River Forest Headquarters is a great stop to learn about the only free ranging elk herd in Michigan and other outdoor information and located in the Forest. This is a great activity to be followed by a hearty lunch!! The chances to see wildlife are numerous.

Big Bear Adventures – If you are looking for a really neat activity head up to Indian River, about a half hour drive, to Big Bear Adventures. You can go kayaking or winter rafting, complete with guide and open year round. They will drop you off and pick you up!

Avalanche Bay Indoor Water Park – If it is more the inside fun you are looking for Avalanche Bay indoor water park is located about 20 miles from Gaylord at Boyne Mountain. They have numerous pools, wave pools, and water slides to keep the whole family busy for the day. They have a snack bar and arcade as well.

Out See Go: Time for ice inventory

By Chris Engle, contributor

There was one day a year at the convenience store where I worked in college when every item in the shop – from the dustiest Caramello candy bar to the freshest pack of Camel cigarettes – was counted and logged.

January 1 was Inventory Day and I managed to weasel out of it every year, leaving the tedium to my coworkers at the cost of time-and-a-half wage of $7.75 an hour.

In theory, the idea was to start every year off fresh with a list of what we had in stock. In practice, it was an excuse to get rid of anything past its expiration date which, let’s be honest, included every single Caramello.

Though I never participated in Inventory Day I have personally applied the concept to my collection of fishing tackle ahead of every season.

With ice fishing so delayed this year I thought I’d take the time to share with you what my inventory holds. In return, I’d like to hear your suggestions on must-have lures for a winter tackle box.

My winter tackle box was a gift from my wife and her friend in senior year of high school. It was filled with Swedish Fish candy and gummy worms.

My winter tackle box was a gift from my wife and her friend in senior year of high school. It was filled with Swedish Fish candy and gummy worms.

 

I’ve ordered my list by species and have included photos for reference because I honestly can’t remember what most of these lures are called.

Panfish

In summer, bluegills, sunfish and crappie are aggressive feeders, gobbling down big chunks of worm and minnows casted on jigs. In winter their metabolism, appetite and physical activity slows to a crawl and bait presentations need to be adjusted accordingly.

By watching on an underwater camera and through the hole in a dark shanty, I’ve seen that panfish feed by approaching the bait slowly and slurping it in horizontally. The best option is to use a horizontal jig with a #8 or smaller hook bending upward.

My choice for panfish: #8 tungsten jig, the pinker the better.

My choice for panfish: #8 tungsten jig, the pinker the better.

Some of these jigs have flat bodies which help impart a nice wiggling action to a bait when jigged lightly. The tungsten ones are also heavy for their size which lets you go without a split shot, meaning less distraction for bluegill. My favorite colors: hot pink/yellow.

Perch

I’ve always preferred using minnows for perch and any lure that lets the minnow swim freely will work to your benefit.

This style of teardrop has been my go-to for perch for years. Bobber for size comparison.

This style of teardrop has been my go-to for perch for years. Bobber for size comparison.

Weighted tear drops that hang vertically will allow a back-hooked minnow to move in a circular motion and attract more fish. Some anglers will hook a minnow further back on the tail and make the baitfish swim faster in order to right itself. Favorite colors: white, green, pink.

Walleye

Most tipup fishermen will use a super sized perch rig for walleye and bait those lines with walleye minnows (blues or grays).

I don’t have much luck with tipups and prefer to be more hands-on with my tactics. Thankfully there’s some great jigs for this purpose.

Looking like miniature stingrays, these winged jigs fly and glide in wide circles when jigged and are good at kicking up sand and silt from the bottom as a way to attract fish. At rest, a large lip-hooked minnow can still swim freely on the horizontal hook.

My walleye jigs of choice.

My walleye jigs of choice.

It’s important to remember to keep your line taut on the down-stroke because that’s when most walleye hit. A slack line means you won’t feel the bite and you’ll probably miss the fish. Favorite colors: Yellow, orange, green.

Trout

The most predictable thing about rainbows and splake is that they are unpredictable. Any of these tactics applied on trout lakes will catch fish but I’ve always found spoons to be the best bet.

Trout are in deeper water and this calls for a heavy lure that’s going to sink fast. The gold standard for ice-fishing spoons is the Swedish Pimple, a slim, dense lure that falls straight down where you want it.

Swedish Pimples come in all sizes and several different shapes but I’ve always preferred the smaller, narrowest versions. New lures come with an extra single hook and red or yellow plastic accents. I usually opt for the treble hook (to bait up with two waxworms or minnows) and the red plastic fin to mimic blood.

Mepps spoon on left, Swedish Pimple on right.

Mepps spoon on left, Swedish Pimple on right.

If you’re looking for more action in your lure, consider a Mepps Little Wolf. Its curved spoon shape will spin and flutter more with each jig but be careful: You’re more apt to get tangled and twisted with one of these. Favorite colors: silver, blue, pink, gold.

Smelt

The lakes around Otsego County where trout reside often have smelt too, but it’s going to take a much more subdued tactic to catch these finicky fish.

Again you’ll be in deep water so you will need a heavy lure that can get back down to the fish quick. You’ll also need a small hook for the smelt’s tiny mouth.osg6

For smelt it’s all about the Hali Jig, a pencil-shaped spoon with a thin, wiry hook dangling from a fine chain. Favorite colors: silver, blue, pink, white.

In the past couple years I’ve doubled my odds at a fish by tying a small black nymph fly about 18 inches to 2 feet above my Hali jig and tipping it with a waxworm. I catch about half of my fish on the Hali; the other half, on the fly.

Just a warning: If you have a fish on the Hali Jig, be careful as you bring it up to the hole. The fly has a tendency to snag on the bottom edge of the ice and I’ve lost a few fish when this happens.

The last item for the inventory is ice. Let’s hope it shows up soon!

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and outdoor columnist for the Gaylord Area Convention & Tourism Bureau and the Gaylord Herald Times. He lives in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.

Out See Go: Winter camping on the horizon

By Chris Engle, contributor

About eight years ago I bought my first axe. Technically it was a three-quarter axe – a lighter and more compact version of a standard one – but well suited for camping and backpacking for its portability.

I got it at a farm and home store, where burly lumberjack and contractor types usually come to replace their Carhartt overalls when they wear through their old ones with hard labor. These kinds of guys can sand wood with the rough palms of their hands. My fingers mainly punch keyboard keys and are baby soft. I typically don’t belong in these kinds of stores.

When I brought the axe to the register the young female cashier turned it over and read the label out loud, which I had really, really hoped she wouldn’t do.

“Boy’s axe?” she asked. Sensing my embarrassment she pulled out a black Sharpie, popped off the cap and crossed “boy’s” off the label. Now it was just an axe. A man’s axe, for chopping down trees and building houses and grooming.

That winter, before I even got to try it out, the axe fell into the snow when my sled tipped over just a few minutes into a winter camping trip. I didn’t realize I had lost it until the next day and, by then, fresh snow had obscured the previous day’s tracks and further buried my beloved boy’s axe. I mean man’s axe.

My friend and I got through the camping trip just fine without it but, in the middle of the Pigeon River Country State Forest in the middle of winter, fire is essential and anything that makes it easier to gather fuel to feed a fire is too.

With winter on the horizon I thought the time was right to share a few tips and things to bring if you’re thinking about planning a winter-camping adventure of your own. The sport is more popular than you think and serves just as well as summer camping when it comes to making lifetime memories.

Know your limits

In good health, gentle terrain, a light pack and comfortable shoes, an experienced backpacker can hike 10 miles a day without issue. Winter, however, brings a number of new challenges to deal with.

First and foremost, you’ll be wearing and carrying more clothes and gear and possibly wearing snowshoes. This equals added weight, faster exhaustion and lots of sweating. Dressing in layers is essential in regulating your body temperature and keeping your clothes from soaking up too much sweat. Once you stop or the sun goes down, that sweat is going to evaporate and/or freeze which can dramatically increase your chance of hypothermia. Take breaks to catch your breath and cool down during your hike, and consider investing in non-cotton underclothes.

The best way to know your limits is to keep your hiking distance short. You will not be able to cover as much ground as you do in summer, plain and simple. Establish a base camp within a mile of your starting point then, if you want to explore further, take day hikes from camp. It’s a good way to discover things you’d otherwise miss by just charging through the woods from point A to point B.

Hydrate

Think about the breath you see coming out of your mouth in cold weather. That’s water vapor leaving your body and it must be replaced. The low humidity of winter air pulls a lot of moisture from your skin and lungs, and wind speeds up this process. Sweat from the added exertion of moving through snow or pulling a sled also speeds up dehydration.

Start your journey with plenty of water and consider camping near a source of fresh water, like a stream or frozen lake (and bring a boy’s axe to chop through the ice). Melting snow in a pot over a fire or stove is a long, tedious process and eating handfuls of snow is a bad idea.

Bring meals that will increase your fluid intake. Canned soups are good for short trips; dry soup mixes are lighter weight for longer journeys, and both will help replenish your lost fluids and electrolytes. Not to get too graphic but if your urine is dark yellow – or if you’re not peeing at all — you need to drink water.

Tea is a good use of water you boiled to sterilize it. Limit your alcohol consumption. Don’t bother with beer – it’s heavy and too much work to keep it from freezing, just trust me on this one.

Cook something

Don’t forget why you are camping – the experience, right? Nothing amps up a camping experience like a good meal, so take advantage of the fact you’re camping in nature’s refrigerator and bring along some raw meat to grill over the fire. A venison steak from this year’s buck or some fresh fish skewered on a roasting stick may be your best memory of the whole trip.

And again, anything that requires boiled water is a good thing to eat.

If you don’t have a camp stove, pick up some cans of chafing fuel – these are the little burners you see under food pans at catered events (sometimes called Sterno). A six-pack of chafing fuel costs $10 at Gordon Foods. Each burns for six hours and is reclosable with a twist-on lid. You’ll need to devise some sort of stand for your cooking pot and that’s what wire coat hangers are for.

There’s also some awesome YouTube videos on how to build your own camp stove from empty pop cans. This one is my favorite.

Bring bug spray

Hahaha, just kidding. There’s no bugs.

Fire and shelter

Stash lighters and matches in your pockets and throughout your gear. That way if one gets wet, there are backups.

An axe – full size or otherwise – or a saw will help when it comes to gathering dry wood and dead branches. A sled is good for towing loads of wood back to camp and for all other uses.

I’ve used both tents and tarps for shelter. Don’t expect these to keep you warm – that’s all up to your sleeping bag and bed roll. Get off the snow the best you can and bundle up.

I’ve heard of people building snow caves to sleep in at night and the insulation factor of snow is actually pretty good. It’s definitely something I’ve wanted to try.

Winter is long here in Northern Michigan so you might as well find something to do with it. Happy camping!

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman, stay-at-home dad and outdoor columnist for the Gaylord Herald Times. He lives in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.

Out See Go: Explore the Jordan now or later

If you didn’t make it to the top of Deadman’s Hill to check out the colors this year well, you’re a little late.

At 1,329 feet, the peak offers a bird’s-eye view of the Jordan River Valley which, only a week ago, was lit up like the Fourth of July. Aside from one or two cell towers in the distance, there’s not a single manmade structure in sight – just trees, rolling hills and a winding river for as far as the eye can see. Rightfully so, it’s a hotspot for tourists and locals who flock to the summit for photos.

A view of the Jordan River and surrounding fall colors. Photo by Chelsea Engle

A view of the Jordan River and surrounding fall colors. Photo by Chelsea Engle

That moment has come and gone but it’s still worth the trip to go see the valley for yourself, either from the top of the hill or from the spring-fed river for which the valley is named. Its 18,000 acres of protected and picturesque public land has much more to offer if you’re willing to look. The best part is that the valley is beautiful year round, so you’re never too late.

For your convenience, here are some of my favorite waypoints within the Jordan River Valley, some with basic directions of how to get there. In return, I ask you to leave these places better than you found them – pick up any trash you see and treat the area with respect. Much appreciated.

Deadman’s Hill Overlook

This is the easiest way to see the valley but you’ll have to work a little harder to experience it. More on that later.

Visitors to Deadman's Hill will read about the fate of "Big Sam," a lumberjack whose tragic fate in 1910 led to the hill's name.

Visitors to Deadman’s Hill will read about the fate of “Big Sam,” a lumberjack whose tragic fate in 1910 led to the hill’s name.

Access to the overlook is located on Deadman’s Hill Road just a few miles south of Elmira on US-131. Take the road to the end and follow the signs to the parking area. There’s a pit toilet and information kiosk here. It’s also the trailhead for a three-mile day hike and an 18-mile overnight loop.

Landslide Overlook

This is the lesser known but equally spectacular view of the valley from its southern end. The 18-mile loop will get you here but so will your car. Head west from Alba on C-42 a few miles until you see a brown DNR sign for the overlook on the north side of the road. Take that dirt road to the end. Keep in mind that both overlooks are at the end of seasonal roads.

The day hike

Don’t be fooled by the term “day hike” – even the 3-mile loop descends several hundred feet into the valley and calls for good hiking boots, a bottle of water and a starting time at least 4 hours before sundown. The sun sets early this time of year and it gets dark fast in the valley, so allow yourself enough time to get back out.

Basic survival stuff — knife, lighter and whistle – is recommended just in case you get lost. There’s only one road out and it’s a heck of a walk.

That said, you’ll be rewarded with good exercise, a deck view of one of the river’s feeder springs and a nice photo op with a gigantic rock left behind by the glacier that carved the valley.

The overnighter

I finally did this hike in 2012 with a couple friends. At the midway point is Pinney Bridge Campground, set back from the river on a hill. This stretch of the river is really unique for the dozens of little islands throughout, each one connected to the next with cedar roots serving as bridges.

Pinney Bridge crosses the Jordan River at a decent fishing and swimming hole but keep in mind the river fed by groundwater is extremely cold year round. The bridge can be reached by heading east off M-68 via Pinney Bridge Road.

My friends and I had planned on a trout dinner on our overnighter. We caught a few small trout but ended up eating a lot of rice and beans.

The first day we followed the river and got some fishing in. The second day took us to the hatchery and Landslide Overlook, plus a lot of elevation changes. It’s hard work but worth it.

Jordan River National Fish Hatchery

There’s three ways in to the hatchery: The trail, the road winding through the valley, and a nice paved road a few miles south of Elmira off US-131.

The federal hatchery produces about 2.2 million lake trout annually which are released into the Great Lakes. Currently they’re adding another raceway building which will house an experimental herring-rearing program.

The raceway buildings are open to the public and so are the numerous wildflower gardens on the hatchery grounds. They’re definitely worth a trip in the summer when thousands of native plants are in full bloom.

The many wildflower gardens at the Jordan River National Fish Hatchery have been planted to attract pollinators like this honeybee. Photo by Chris Engle

The many wildflower gardens at the Jordan River National Fish Hatchery have been planted to attract pollinators like this honeybee. Photo by Chris Engle

The salmon

There’s another interesting fish in the river and it has nothing to do with the hatchery. Though I’ve never spotted one alive, salmon run up the Jordan this time of year to spawn. I’ve only seen their carcasses.

Salmon running upriver is nothing new. What’s unique in this case is the obstacles they have to overcome to get as far up the Jordan as they do.

The fish leave Lake Michigan and swim through Round Lake and Lake Charlevoix before entering the river at East Jordan. From there they swim another 15 miles upstream, vaulting over cedar roots and under deadfalls, sometimes in only six inches of water. Finally they reach gravel spawning beds, do their business and die. Since salmon spawn where they hatch, all this effort must pay off.

All of this is what makes the Jordan River Valley a special place year round and it is always worth the adventure.

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman, stay-at-home dad and outdoor columnist for the Gaylord Area Convention & Tourism Bureau and the Gaylord Herald Times. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.

Out, See, Go: Hunting corpses on the Sturgeon River pathway

By Chris Engle, contributor

If you’re in the forest this fall at the right place and time, you just might see a ghost.

The woods of Northern Michigan are home to one of North America’s scarcest and strangest flowers: Monotropa uniflora, the ghost plant. It’s also known as Indian pipe but, with Halloween on the horizon, I prefer its more macabre name, the corpse plant.

This tiny flower should not be confused with the giant tropical plant of the same name, known for its blossoms which give off a pungent aroma of rotting bodies. Be thankful we don’t have those here.

Michigan’s corpse plants stand only a few inches tall. They are usually found in clusters of 5 or 10 stalks, each one curled over in a cane shape and tipped with a bell-like flower.

Even stranger than its name is its color: The whole plant, from root to tip, is translucent white.

A small cluster of ghost plants sprout from a bed of pine needles in the Sturgeon River Preserve north of Gaylord.

A small cluster of ghost plants sprout from a bed of pine needles in the Sturgeon River Preserve north of Gaylord.

We all learned in elementary school that plants use chlorophyll to turn sunlight into energy. Chlorophyll is green, thus so are most plants. The ghost flower is not like most plants in that it lacks chlorophyll – hence it’s white color – so it needs another way to find food.

Enter the mushroom, which there are plenty of at the Sturgeon River Preserve north of Gaylord. The corpse plant acts as a sort of parasite by stealing its nutrition from mushrooms which steal their nutrition from photosynthetic plants. Those particular fungi use mycorrhizae – a really cool word for fungus roots joined with plant roots – to obtain their food from trees. The corpse plant takes some of that energy to sustain itself. To me this seems more like an act of a zombie rather than a corpse but I’m no scientist.

Because it needs these particular living conditions, the plant is somewhat rare. They’re also easily overlooked in the thick cover of forests where they grow.

That’s where the Sturgeon River pathway comes in. In 2011 a 40-acre piece of property bordering the wild river was purchased by a private party and donated to Gaylord-based HeadWaters Land Conservancy with the intent of turning it into a public preserve.

One of my favorite views here showcases the dramatic change of forest cover types within the preserve.

One of my favorite views here showcases the dramatic change of forest cover types within the preserve.

Since then, volunteers and local Boy Scouts worked incredibly hard to cut two short trail loops. They terraced steep hills to make safe and walkable trails throughout the property. While they avoided the riverbank as a way to protect it from erosion, the trail planners made sure to cover all elevations of the land to give hikers a great cross section of the variety of cover types there. In a few minutes’ walk the forest changes from upland ferns standing 4 feet tall to marshy wetland and cedar swamp.

In between the transitions are all kinds of places to find corpse plants and mushrooms. During a hike last week I photographed a dozen different mushroom varieties and saw at least a dozen more, including yellow and white-spotted toadstools, fluorescent orange witches’ butter and many others I couldn’t identify.

A young fly agaric mushroom will soon blossom into a classic toadstool shape.

A young fly agaric mushroom will soon blossom into a classic toadstool shape.

Some toadstools there are stark white, leading me to believe they could be destroying angels, one of the most deadly mushrooms there is – as if its name didn’t give that away already. I can’t be sure but, either way, I strongly advise against eating any mushroom without knowing darn sure what it is.

The fall colors will be erupting soon but remember, some of the best color will be found at your feet and some of the most interesting plants will have no color at all.

Sturgeon River Preserve information

Location: Whitmarsh Road, east off Old 27 North, where the road crosses the river.15-20 minutes from Gaylord.

Specs: Two short trail loops on 40 acres. The trail is steepest at its entrance. Hiking time: 30-40 minutes. No restroom.

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and stay-at-home dad in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.

Out, See, Go: Fruits of the forest

By Chris Engle, contributor

Long before anyone paid me to write, I made my living making pizza in convenience-store pizza kitchens. My personal record for a day’s work stands at 34 pizzas, each one tossed, sauced, cheesed, topped, baked, boxed and sliced by hand.

Except for that extraordinarily busy day, I spent the lull between pizza orders studying and doing homework so I wouldn’t have to spend the rest of my life covered in flour and cheese, though I still enjoy making the occasional scratch pizza at home.

On really slow days my boss had me bake frozen pies to sell at the counter, my favorite of which was “fruits of the forest,” stuffed with not-so-foresty fruits like apples, rhubarb and strawberries but also loaded with raspberries and blackberries.

And this is what I’ve been getting at in my usual, unnecessary, roundabout way: Blackberry season is upon us!

I’ve been doing this blog for four seasons now and foraging is one of my favorite topics. It’s also one of my favorite hobbies since I’m less of a hunter than I used to be and the thrill of the hunt has been somewhat replaced by sleuthing out the next big berry patch.

The best part of picking wild fruit is that it’s a sustainable and super nutritious food and, with the exception of the cost of fuel, it’s free. And if you’re in Otsego County, you won’t have to drive very far to find berries.

Among Michigan’s 83 counties, Otsego County is ranked in the top five in the production of natural gas and oil. This means there are thousands of oil and gas wells across the county and surrounding areas, each with a 1- or 2-acre clearing and a two-track road leading to it. A vast number of these are on public land.

If it’s berries you’re after, this is where you should start. Blackberry bushes, recognized by their tall, curved and thorny stems, line these two tracks and clearings. They like direct sun and just a little shade, so I’ve found my best patches along roads that run east and west with the movement of the sun across the sky.

There’s another thing Otsego County has, especially in its southern areas: black bears. Guess what? They like berries too.

Though I’ve never come across a bear in one of my patches, I always pretend like there is one. This involves talking or singing to myself loudly and moving my arms a lot to make my presence known. Sure I look like a moron and you will too, but you’ll be a moron with a bucket of blackberries and all your limbs in place. What good are nutritious berries if you’re dead anyway?

As nutrition goes, wild berries are right up there with the best.

On Sunday mornings, usually on the way home from a fishing trip, I’ll listen to “Splendid Table,” a show about cooking and food on NPR. The host gets a little too excited about organic flax seeds or fair-trade fennel but she often has interesting guests talking about the science behind foods.

On one episode was Jo Robinson, author of Eating on the Wild Side. Robinson was talking about the benefits of antioxidants, a compound produced by wild plants to protect themselves from predators and help them heal from damage caused by browsing animals.

Wild berries, Robinson said, are especially high in these compounds.

“When we eat them,” she said, “their protection becomes our protection.”

Those compounds protect us against cancer, ulcers, diabetes and obesity, according to Robinson’s research.

These days there’s a growing concern about pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and other unsavory things in our food. None of the above exists in wild berries and the only reason to rinse them, if you’d consider it a reason at all, is to remove any bugs or soil – but that’s just extra nutrients wasted!

When it comes to eating what you’ve gathered, jams and pies are a no-brainer. My suggestion is to freeze them, unrinsed (to prevent clumping) and toss handfuls into pancake batter or oatmeal. Cooking thaws them just enough to release their juices and a few quarts in the freezer should last you all the way to Christmas.

Alright, enough reading. The berries are ripe for the picking.

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and stay-at-home dad who lives in Hayes Township. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.

Out, See, Go: The Great Nature Project comes to Treetops

By Chris Engle, contributor

Sometime in the 1980s, deep in the wilderness near Vanderbilt, a man and his wife built a park. There were buildings and trails to explore. There were wild animals to see. There were giraffes.

Welcome to “Project Nature,” a short-lived zoo and wildlife preserve northeast of Gaylord. I’ve lived here for a decade now and what little I know about the mythical park is pretty much just urban legend spoken around a campfire or at a pub. Jurassic Park seems more of a reality than giraffes wandering the woods of Northern Michigan.

The park didn’t last long and the expanse of old-growth forests, meadows and Sturgeon River headwaters has remained basically untouched since the park closed in the early 1990s. More recently, nearby Treetops Resort bought the property and will soon invite the public out to explore the natural wonders within during a BioBlitz event July 25.

Coincidentally, University Center Gaylord is hosting the event in support of National Geographic’s Great Nature Project, a massive endeavor to photograph and document every living species on Earth and make that information available to everyone in a global database. The monumental task is becoming a reality through the saying, “Many hands make light work.”

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By using a smartphone app, anyone can lend a hand in the Great Nature Project and this month’s BioBlitz is an excellent way to give Northern Michigan a jump start at being represented in the effort.

“We wanted to bring a collaboration of scientists, state and local governments, organizations and residents together to help put Michigan’s biodiversity into this global data bank,” said Lisa Marie Tobin, program coordinator and recent science graduate of Central Michigan University.

Tobin majored in biological sciences and conservation with a minor in environmental education, so this sort of project is right up her alley.

Here’s how the BioBlitz works: Attendees will download an app for their smartphone (iPhone or Android). This app allows the user to take a photo of any living thing and upload it to the Great Nature Project’s online database where it will be identified, mapped and catalogued alongside the already 500,000 existing entries. The goal of the BioBlitz is to document every kind of living thing within an area of Project Nature.

Each of the 11 stations at the BioBlitz will be staffed by a professor, scientist or expert in their field who will lead fun and educational hands-on activities. These include capturing and identifying microorganisms in the Sturgeon River, using nets to collect and document wild birds, and investigating tree rings and soil samples to learn the history of forest fires and glacial activity in the area, among many others.

Attendees will work as “citizen scientists,” using the same equipment, technology and methods of collecting and understanding information as the professionals do.

Attendees will be given a passport to have stamped at each of the 11 stations. Completed passports earn their holder the official title of Citizen Scientist and a badge.

Sam Cornelius and Nancie Kersey of Kids Outdoors Otsego will lead short nature hikes for younger children and their parents. This is the only activity younger children must complete in order to earn their Citizen Scientist title and badge.

“Hopefully they’ll take away with them an inspiration for discovering the natural world around them,” Tobin said.

This inspiration is more important than ever, Tobin added, because modern culture and technology is causing young people to spend less time outdoors.

“When I grew up it was natural for us to be out and investigating the outdoors on our own,” she said. “Through our interaction we develop an appreciation for the environment we carry with us through adulthood and an understanding that our actions impact the environment both good and bad.”

The BioBlitz runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, July 25 and attendees may come and go as they please. Cost is $10 per person and free for ages 4 and under. There is a family rate of $35. Attendees may also preorder lunch or purchase snacks at the event. Public restrooms are available.

The BioBlitz is located 4440 Whitmarsh Road. From Gaylord take Old 27 North 3.6 miles north of Gaylord and head east on Whitmarsh Road another 3.5 miles. The entrance is just past the crossing of the Sturgeon River.

Register at www.ucgaylord.org or by calling 989-705-3700. More information about the Great Nature Project as a whole is available at greatnatureproject.org.

Out, See, Go: Find your own worms

By Chris Engle, contributor

The summer installment of Michigan’s Free Fishing Weekend has come and gone but I have a way you can still save money if your fishing budget is tight and you don’t mind mingling with the creepy-crawlies around your house at night.

On June 13 and 14, fishing license fees were waived in a twice-a-year effort to get people, who otherwise aren’t bigtime fishermen, on the water and enjoying the sport in the hope they’ll eventually buy a license and keep fishing. It’s a great program and kudos to the state for doing such a thing.

I’d like to see four Free Fishing Weekends a year instead of just once in the summer and once in the winter – spring and fall in Northern Michigan offer their own unique fishing opportunities like spawning runs which could get more new fishermen hooked.

But back to my point about saving money: I just spent a bunch of cash giving my boat some much-needed renovations and I’ll be operating on a tight budget the rest of the season. I thought I’d share what I’ll be doing to make sure there’s enough money left over to put beer in the cooler.

My mom taught me how to pick nightcrawlers when I was about 10 years old. Late that night, hunched over our flashlight beams, she and I filled up a plastic Cool Whip tub with more than a hundred worms. Realizing we’d gone a little haywire with our picking, we kept a couple dozen for fishing and dumped the rest in her rose garden.

I use the terms “nightcrawler” and “worm” interchangeably but I’m talking about earthworms – the big, fat Canadian kind you buy by the dozen from the bait shop. “Worms” are the smaller annelids you find under logs and are too fragile for my tastes when it comes to threading them on a hook. Still, some trout and panfish anglers prefer skinny worms over nightcrawlers. I am not one of them.

Nightcrawlers are an essential part of a healthy lawn. They aerate the soil as they tunnel through it, eating organic matter and breaking it down into nutrient-rich castings which feeds grass and plants. That’s why we dumped our surplus worms into the rose garden and mom had beautiful roses for years.

This is important to keep in mind as you roam your lawn picking worms: Don’t hit one spot too heavy or you’ll risk depleting the soil there. Move around, hunt leaf piles and wander into your neighbor’s yard if you have to. (Just kidding. Please don’t get shot for stealing your neighbor’s worms.)

Picking worms is all about technique and requires stealth, speed, keen eyesight and cat-like reflexes. You’ll also need a headlamp and some sort of container – the Styrofoam boxes worms come in at the store work best, especially if you keep the dirt once you’ve used up the worms.

One more thing: You’ll have to wait until at least 10 p.m. to start picking because that’s when the worms emerge to look for mates on the surface.

I was in marching band in high school and one of the skills drilled into our squad was “roll stepping,” a style of walking where your shoe rolls smoothly, from heel to toe, to eliminate any bounce in your step. We learned it for parades and halftime shows and now I roll step my way around the yard because even the slightest sound will send the crawlers scurrying back down their tunnels.

Flashlight beams will also startle worms into their holes so keep your headlamp on low and hunt with the outer edge of your beam. You’re looking for a worm’s glistening body and shining your spotlight for more than a second will spook them away. I’ve found that red LEDs work great, so does taping some red plastic wrap over the flashlight lens.

The bigger nightcrawlers can stretch 10 or 12 inches across the ground and the more body they have exposed, the easier they’ll be to catch. Their one defense is that they keep the other half of their body tunneled into the ground and will retract in a split second once they’re grabbed or startled, so reflexes are really important.

You’ll need to grab at the base of the worm’s body where it’s coming out of the ground. Grabbing at their head – the thick part with the ring – will result in a miss or, worse yet, breaking the worm in half. See my awesome hand-drawn diagram?

Sometimes it just helps me to draw a picture instead of illustrating an idea with words.

Sometimes it just helps me to draw a picture instead of illustrating an idea with words.

Once you have a firm grip, the battle begins.

Worms have tiny hairs along their body which dig in to the sides of their tunnel. Worms are surprisingly strong and will fight for their life in a game of tug-of-war with your fingers. Much like fighting a big fish, you’ll have to tire the worm out and give it slack when needed. Having your drag set too tight with a monster fish will result in a broken line. Same goes for picking worms: Pulling too hard will break it in half, so be patient and fight it out.

Make sure your container has something in it that worms like. Wet grass or moist soil works best. A small container should only hold a dozen worms at a time, so get more containers if you need more worms.

I have one final point and word of warning: Worms are emerging to the surface to mate. Those little rings around their body near their head? That’s where their sex organs are. By midnight they will start coupling, pressing their rings together and wrapping themselves in slime. They’re no fun to pick when they’re doing this and, besides, you’ll be spoiling their fun too.

Good luck and happy picking!

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and stay-at-home dad who lives in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.

Out, See, Go: Shore lunch

By Chris Engle, outdoor contributor

I remember quite vividly my first meal of fish after moving to Gaylord a decade ago, partly because it was exciting and sad in equal parts.

New to town and without a boat, I got to know my surroundings by cruising the back roads in my Ford Escort in search of stream crossings or public boat launches for a place to fish. Guiding my hunt was a snowmobile trail map I permanently borrowed from work at the Gaylord Herald Times and I kept it splayed open on my steering wheel as I drove.

It was late August of 2005 and I was looking for a headwater of the AuSable River, this area’s famed trout stream which I’d never gotten the chance to fish. But where I ended up was a warm tributary of Jones Lake, in northeastern Crawford County, where the rock bass fed like piranhas at the roadside.

With a few minutes of casting a nightcrawler from the culvert I’d collected three or four rock bass in my bucket – not the brook trout I was hoping for but something to satisfy my urge for a meal of fish.

When it comes to looks, rock bass are pretty much the exact opposite of brook trout which are known for their brilliant orange bellies, stark white-trimmed fins and beautiful speckles along their flanks. Rock bass – especially this particular ditch-dwelling variety – have muddy bellies and just enough black parasites speckled in their scaly skin to make you think twice about eating them.

The parasites apparently die when the meat is cooked so I took my catch home to my apartment overlooking Otsego Lake, cleaned them, and cooked the fillets on my single-serve George Foreman Grill.

I know. Sad, right?

Believe it or not, they tasted … edible. Some beer brought over as a house warming present helped wash them down. Actually I was only 20, so it had to have been apple juice. Yep, just juice.

By fall I had a canoe and a few boat launches marked on my map. I caught perch and bluegill and never had to resort to ditch bass ever again.

That next spring I discovered better trout waters and was catching an occasional brookie for my frying pan. Smashing such a beautiful trout in a Foreman grill just seemed wrong.

Shore fishing has always remained one of my favorite things to do so I thought I’d share a few spots in Gaylord area you should try this summer. Here they are, in no particular order, and I hope they lead you to some great fishing.

Otsego Lake State Park fishing pier

This one’s pretty self explanatory. Otsego Lake State Park is about 10 minutes south of town on Old 27. There you’ll find a well-maintained floating fishing pier extending off the south side of the point near the boat launch.

It’s a pretty popular place in the summer but I’ve never had trouble finding a spot to fish off it. There’s three great things about this pier: It reaches into fairly deep water (about 8 to 10 feet) which makes for good fishing, it is wheelchair accessible, and you could hook into a true monster.

Since the mid 1980s the Department of Natural Resources has stocked lake sturgeon in Otsego Lake. These fish reach gargantuan proportions and 50-inch sturgeon are not unheard of. They eat nightcrawlers – coincidentally the same bait you’d use for panfish – so that next strike on your bobber could be the fish of a lifetime.

Bright and Glory lakes

Down near Hartwick Pines State Park in Grayling are two small, deep kettle lakes open to fishing. Bright Lake has been regularly stocked with sunfish and rainbow trout and both lakes have panfish, bass and trout. There’s no stocking data for Glory Lake since 2008.

There’s a fishing platform on each lake and boat access for canoes and kayaks. It’s a good place to stop and eat lunch after touring the old lumber camp at Hartwick Pines.

In case you needed one more reason to bring your rod, the area around Hartwick Pines is home to the East Branch of the AuSable River, so ducking down a gravel road or two-track might take you to some trout water.

The brilliant pattern of teal and gold on a sunfish. Photo by Chelsea Engle

The brilliant pattern of teal and gold on a sunfish. Photo by Chelsea Engle

Horseshoe and Bluegill Lakes

Further south of Otsego Lake State Park, near the county line, is a dirt road heading east. Just a short drive down are two little lakes that are a bobber-angler’s paradise. Take in a sunset while you sit on shore waiting for that next bluegill bite. I like wading there but watch out for leeches.

Big Lake beach

Big Lake lies east of Gaylord. It’s a good place to fish from a boat but the public boat launch offers enough frontage to spread out and fish from shore. You’ll only hit about 6 feet casting straight out, but that’s enough to get into some good weeds for bass, pike and panfish.

Any culvert or bridge

My best piece of advice is to keep your eyes peeled while you’re driving around, especially in the extreme northern or southern parts of Otsego County. Any place where the road crosses a small stream is a potential fishing spot.

In exchange for these tips, I have one request: Please keep these places clean. Too often I find trash strewn at public access sites and it is upsetting. It’s like people only think of themselves and not the others who will come after them. Pick up your garbage and if you see any that’s not yours, pick that up too. It’s for the benefit of the resource and everyone who wants to enjoy it.

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and stay-at-home dad who lives in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.