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Out See Go: Irontone Springs, a hot spot for a cool drink

By Chris Engle, contributor

Last month I took you down washed out and rutted back roads of the Black River area in a fruitless search for spawning sturgeon. Sorry if I ruined your shoes with that one.

This time we’re taking the sunny side of the street to a place that’s right on the beaten path but is overlooked if you’re in a hurry to get somewhere.

That place is Frank Wilkinson Park, known to locals and admirers as Irontone Springs for the rust-stained artesian drinking fountain flowing eternally there.

Irontone Springs is known for its artesian well that offers cold, clean mineral water fresh for the drinking. Photo by Chris Engle

Irontone Springs is known for its artesian well that offers cold, clean water fresh for the drinking. Photo by Chris Engle

The park is just a few miles north of Gaylord on the east side of the road where Old 27 drops and bends to the right. The small, pull-through park can be easily missed if you’re going too fast on this scenic stretch of highway so chill out and keep your eyes peeled for the park’s sign or its many flower beds and bridges.

To me, Irontone is the gem of the Otsego County Parks & Rec Department and it’s evident they feel the same way because the staff keep it up really well. The flower beds are blooming now and the tables, grills and pavilion are all picnic ready.

Flowers in bloom at Irontone Springs. Photo by Chris Engle

Flowers in bloom at Irontone Springs. Photo by Chris Engle

The first thing you’ll notice are the bridges crossing the small creek there. The stream is marked on the county map as Mossback Creek, one of the very early headwaters of the Sturgeon River which ends up in Burt Lake far to the north. If you’re nimble you can pull off a Jean-Claude Van Damme split and put one foot on each creek bank. Look down and you’ll see small fish darting in and out of the shady spots. Clean, cold headwaters like these are what make the Sturgeon River such a prime habitat for trout a little further downstream.

Let’s talk geology for a little bit because it’s what makes Irontone so unique and special.

One thing you’ll notice from the parking lot is that there’s a bed of cattails in a marsh uphill of where you’re standing. This is what makes the artesian well work: The hills on both sides of this stretch of Old 27 are saturated, putting the park below the water table. This pressurizes the artesian well enough to create a gentle, six-inch stream of water that’s perfect for drinking or filling up a water bottle.

Imagine sitting in a rowboat on a pond then drilling a hole in the floor of your boat. A geyser of water will shoot up out of that hole just like in the cartoons. That’s essentially what’s happening at Irontone Springs – the well being the hole – but the park doesn’t flood because Mossback Creek carries that water away to the Sturgeon River.

A cascade of water rolls over a slab of stone in Mossback Creek. Whether it's a natural waterfall or not, it's still very pretty and worth a look. Photo by Chris Engle

A cascade of water rolls over a slab of stone in Mossback Creek. Whether it’s a natural waterfall or not, it’s still very pretty and worth a look. Photo by Chris Engle

Another interesting geological feature is the exposed bedrock in the creek. Though I’m not certain it’s there naturally – this place has a long history with people that I’ll talk about in a bit – the rocks make miniature waterfalls that sound just as wonderful as they look. I had a short stint taking graduation photos and this is where I took my one client for her pictures.

As for its history, a 2011 story in the Gaylord Herald Times said this:

The park is located at the site of the former Detroit Iron Furnace Company’s Kiln No. 2. The company purchased a large tract of timbered land in the area in 1881 and built several kilns to provide a steady supply of charcoal for their Detroit foundries.

A small community for kiln workers grew in the Mossback Creek Valley just north of the park. The valley was referred to as “Smoky Valley” as the burning of wood to produce charcoal smoked up the neighborhood.

Sometime before 1930, a small service station sprung up at the site and sold gas, hot dogs and candy. I interviewed Chuck Rich back in 2009 for a Herald Times feature about the park. Rich, who was 83 at the time, was a toddler when his dad owned the service station but remembered the cars pulling up for gas.

A picnic table and grill await a family for lunch. Photo by Chris Engle

A picnic table and grill await a family for lunch. Photo by Chris Engle

“Back then it was all Model-Ts,” he said, adding the water flowing from the spring “was just as good then as it is today.” He said camping was permitted there for some time.

The park’s namesake, Frank Wilkinson, was Otsego County’s first road commissioner. Carol Wilkinson of Gaylord was married to Frank’s grandson, Frank C. Wilkinson, who died in 2012.

The 2009 story said the elder Frank Wilkinson later owned the property and deeded it to the Otsego County Road Commission which used it as a rest area in the days before I-75. The road commission donated it to the parks department in the mid ‘90s.

Looking over one of the bridges crossing Mossback Creek. Photo by Chris Engle

Looking over one of the bridges crossing Mossback Creek. Photo by Chris Engle

Carol Wilkinson guessed that it was sometime around 1961 when the park was dedicated in the elder Frank’s name.

“We’ve had a lot of family celebrations there,” she said. “Even as high school kids it was a picnic spot. As a child, riding with your parents, it was the thing to do to stop at the park and have a drink from the fountain.”

Whether people call it Frank Wilkinson Park or Irontone Springs, it’s all about the water. It’s cold, fresh, clean and full of minerals — its high iron content is what stains the fountain and surrounding ground a red rust color. I’ve seen people filling up gallon jugs and I once filled a five-gallon pail with which I brewed my first batch of beer. I named it Irontone IPA and it was not bad at all.

So this summer, on a really hot day, take the family out for a picnic at Irontone Springs. Play with the kids, work up a good thirst, and take a long drink from the fountain just like generations have before.

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

Out See Go: Exploring the lower Black River

By Chris Engle, outdoor contributor

As far as names go, “Black River” is a pretty common one in Michigan. Between the two peninsulas there are seven Black Rivers and I’ve fished three – one in Oscoda for brook trout and salmon, one along US-2 in Mackinac County where I missed a trout under a low bridge, and one here with its roots in Otsego County.

Our Black River may be just one of many but it is undeniably special.

The Black is one of five Northern Michigan trout streams that originate in Otsego County and radiate like sun rays in all directions: The AuSable flows to Oscoda, the Manistee to the town of Manistee on Lake Michigan, the Pigeon ends up in Mullet Lake and the Sturgeon speeds to Burt Lake.

This time of year, the Black stands apart from all the rest because its lower stretch, between the dam and Black Lake, is home to giants.

Spring is spawning season for lake sturgeon that live in Black Lake and the river is where they go to make it happen. Their trip upstream lends a unique opportunity to spot the massive fish – adults top 100 pounds – from the river’s high banks.

Personally I’ve held a few small sturgeon captured during netting surveys with the DNR Fisheries crews but I’ve only seen the adults in pictures. So on a rainy morning last week I set off to the lower Black River with my daughter and a friend to see at least one.

I’ll say right off the bat that our trip netted no fish but the search took us deep into Pacific Northwest kind of territory where a heavy mist dripped off the trees and the river cascaded over low bedrock ledges in places. A giant sturgeon, or perhaps even Sasquatch, could have been lurking around the next bend.

The base of the dam.

The base of the dam.

Our tour started at Tower-Kleber Dam northwest of Onaway and the nearby sturgeon hatchery where staff collect eggs and sperm from adult fish to hatch and raise young sturgeon for stocking efforts. I’ve toured the facility before and you can too during public tours once or twice a year.

The entrance to the sturgeon hatchery by Tower-Kleber Dam on the Black River.

The entrance to the sturgeon hatchery by Tower-Kleber Dam on the Black River.

We found some geese and a couple wood ducks at the north end of Tower Pond, a large impoundment of the Black River behind the dam. I got a photo of the geese but the woodies flew off before I got close enough with the camera.

Geese wade flooded grass at the north end of Tower Pond.

Geese wade flooded grass at the north end of Tower Pond.

Downstream of the dam we found a small but energetic tributary of the Black. Still loaded from snowmelt and the day’s rain, the river was gushing through culverts and over exposed bedrock, a rare sight in Northern Michigan unless you’re near the Lake Huron coastline. Paige, who is picking up my habit of throwing rocks at the water, tossed a couple stones into the rapids.

Paige smiles after tossing a couple stones into the white water of a Black River tributary.

Paige smiles after tossing a couple stones into the white water of a Black River tributary.

We drove deeper into the woods and down washed-out dirt roads that were cratered and rutted by recent timber activity. We checked each two track that shot off in the direction of the river to see if it would get us there. None did.

Another route took us through a forest high above the river and we could just barely make out the river valley below through all the trees. Without a GPS we could only guess where we were in relation to the road atlas splayed on my lap. We stopped a few times at forks in the road so I could scratch arrows into the wet sand with my hiking boots – “bread crumbs,” as Mike called them, to help us find our way out of the labyrinth.

One of the landscapes we came across was a sprawling plantation of jack pines.

One of the landscapes we came across was a sprawling plantation of jack pines.

Our last shot at getting close enough to the river for a look at the fish was halted by a massive puddle three car-lengths long and of unknown depth. I decided not to take the chance of trying to cross it.

No, thanks.

No, thanks.

It was a nice drive through some country we hadn’t seen before but, were I to do it again, I’d probably check with Sturgeon for Tomorrow first to ask for directions.

If you’re not busy this spring, Sturgeon for Tomorrow is looking for people to volunteer with the Sturgeon Guard, a minuteman sort of group standing watch over the fish as they make the trip upstream.

If you just feel like getting lost for half a day, the Black River is a beautiful place to do it.

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

Out See Go: Celebrate spring by land, air and sea

Every spring, Otsego Lake County Park hosts a free camping weekend where people are invited to stay for free in exchange for some light physical labor. Campers enjoy one or two nights on the lake at no charge and, in return, clean up whatever site they’re on. The weekend usually falls sometime in late April or early May.

It’s a great system: The parks & rec department saves on labor and campers feel more vested in the park when they’re asked to treat it like their own back yard. That’s a feeling user fees can’t buy.

Between now and spring cleanup weekend the park will be practically dormant, visited only by the occasional person walking their dog. Visiting the park now when it is most quiet has become a sort of springtime tradition for me and my family.

The beach at Otsego Lake County Park is a tranquil place to take in the sight of ice leaving the lake.

The beach at Otsego Lake County Park is a tranquil place to take in the sight of ice leaving the lake.

Every year we get a jump on cleanup by building a small fire of pine cones, needles and branches in one of the lakeside fire pits. We’ll cook hot dogs and take in the sights and smells of early spring as they mix with campfire smoke. Even the melting lake ice gives off its own smell that adds to the anticipation of warmer days and open water to come.

During a visit there earlier this week, Paige and I heard the distant rumble of an A-10 warplane firing its massive gun over Camp Grayling’s Air Gunnery Range about 10 miles away. We packed up, snuffed our campfire and headed south to Waters to take in a very different springtime spectacle.

The bombing range is east of Waters on Marlette Road a couple miles past where the pavement ends. It is active most of the year but training exercises by Michigan’s Air National Guard only happen a few hours a day and just a few days a week. The best way to catch it is to keep your eyes peeled for the telltale jets circling south of Gaylord and listen for the distinct low tones of ammunition hitting the ground.

Here’s a little background before you go see for yourself. The A-10 is a single-seat warplane built around one of the largest guns in the world, the GAU-8. It is a 30mm, 7-barreled Gatling gun capable of firing more than 3,000 rounds per minute, though pilots only fire in short bursts that are still plenty powerful to take out a tank.

My daughter, perched atop my car with a Ring Pop on her finger, watches an A-10 as it prepares for a strafing run.

My daughter, perched atop my car with a Ring Pop on her finger, watches an A-10 as it prepares for a strafing run.

It is at the Air Gunnery Range where pilots learn to use this weapon in a unique training environment designed to simulate a warzone. There are mock buildings, streets, radar installations and missile sites spread out across the range. There are also numerous decommissioned armored personnel carriers, tanks and trucks that are living a hard “retired” life as target practice.

Small, remotely launched rockets add to the realism for pilots by simulating an attack from the ground.

You can see a lot of this from the shoulder of Marlette Road but the public is welcome for a closer look by appointment Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call the tower at 989-939-8880 to set up an appointment.

If you’re more of a lover than a fighter, go back to Otsego Lake to see its springtime pike marsh in action.

Volunteers with the Northland Sportsmen’s Club team up with the DNR’s Fisheries Division to operate a spawning marsh for Otsego Lake’s pike population. A metal trap catches pike then volunteers, using long handled nets, scoop the fish from the trap and move them over to the marsh. It is here where the fish can spawn without the risk of having their eggs or young eaten by other fish.

Al Raycraft cradles a 39-inch female northern pike, one of more than 300 fish that were transferred from Otsego Lake to an adjacent spawning marsh in the spring of 2014. Photo courtesy Gaylord Herald Times/WILD Northern Michigan

Al Raycraft cradles a 39-inch female northern pike, one of more than 300 fish that were transferred from Otsego Lake to an adjacent spawning marsh in the spring of 2014. Photo courtesy Gaylord Herald Times/WILD Northern Michigan

This year, since lake levels are abnormally high, volunteers are forgoing the trap and nets and allowing pike to leap over low boards into the marsh on their own. You can see this for yourself by going to the end of Evergreen Road, off North Otsego Lake Drive, and walking the short two-track to the marsh. Keep in mind the marsh is off limits to fishing and pike are out of season.

Six to eight weeks from now, the boards damming the marsh will be removed and it will empty into the lake, taking adult pike and millions of two-inch fry with it. Thanks to the marsh, Otsego Lake boasts a healthy pike fishery.

So long snow, hello spring. It’s good to see you again.

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

Out See Go: Aspen Park underground

By Chris Engle, contributor

In last month’s post I talked about snowshoeing the upper Black River area where a recent dam removal has restored the quiet creek to its natural state. It’s a two-mile hike through deep snow down an unmarked trail and you’ll have to use your eyes and ears to find the river. By no means is it “high adventure” but it’s also not for the faint of heart – seriously, this is not the place to have a heart attack so know your limits or take a buddy who knows CPR.

This month I’m visiting the far opposite end of the spectrum: Gaylord’s Aspen Park, a gem of gentle paved and groomed trails open to all levels of physical fitness.

On any given day, the park hosts groups of sixth-grade gym class students clamoring and giggling their way down the winding tracks on skis, and retirees who work a quick cross-country cardio session into the middle of their daily routine.

Students in Mrs. Cerak's sixth-grade phys ed class ski the trails of Aspen Park. Photo by Chris Engle

Students in Mrs. Cerak’s sixth-grade phys ed class ski the trails of Aspen Park. Photo by Chris Engle

The trails are excellent this time of year but you won’t see the park’s coolest features unless you stray from the beaten path.

Tunnel of trees

Along the eastern edge of Aspen Park is a plantation of pine trees in neat, tight rows. Since the pines are so close together, not much snow gets to the ground which makes for easy going. There’s also no undergrowth to trip up your snowshoes or skis.

The mountain bike trail which runs through the field along the park’s eastern fence goes into the woods from the north. Once it turns into pines, all you need to do is pick a row of trees you like and follow it. You’ll never be too far from the paved trail and you can cut out to it anytime.

The tunnel of trees looks cool in the daytime but is even better in the dark when shadows from distant trail lights or the moon make interesting patterns in the woods. Photo by Chris Engle

The tunnel of trees looks cool in the daytime but is even better in the dark when shadows from distant trail lights or the moon make interesting patterns in the woods. Photo by Chris Engle

This place is especially cool at night under a full moon, when the snow clinging to the pines glows just enough to illuminate the whole forest. The patterns of trees and shadows are almost psychedelic. The next full moon is Feb. 22.

One more thing: Keep an eye out for moths. In March, when nighttime temps are above freezing, small white moths emerge and hover 3 or 4 feet off the ground throughout this pine forest. It’s a bizarre spectacle to see so many delicate bugs fluttering around with so much snow still on the ground.

Log pile

Feeling brave? About midway through the tunnel of trees you’ll spot a 12-foot tall pile of logs at the edge of a clearing. It’s the highest point of the whole park and there’s two ways you can get to the top: climb up the sloped side or tackle the face like it’s a rock wall. Make sure to carry a stick you can plant for your country at the summit.

My daughter stands at the summit of the Aspen Park log pile. Photo by Chris Engle

My daughter stands at the summit of the Aspen Park log pile. Photo by Chris Engle

There’s two ways to get off the log pile and I’ll leave that up to you.

Bring a sled?

Aspen Park’s best-kept secret is that it offers the greatest sledding in town. While some prefer the slope at the parking area, there’s a better hill about five minutes away.

Take the trail that runs along the pond – don’t sled on the trail because it wrecks the groomed ski tracks – and follow it until you’re about halfway past the pond. Look to your left and you’ll see a trail that runs up the hill for a good distance. It’s not groomed so you won’t be upsetting any skiers when you come blasting down the hill.

Though faded, the "you are here" marker on this map points to the top of the sledding hill.

Though faded, the “you are here” marker on this map points to the top of the sledding hill. The hill ends at Scott’s Pond.

Keep in mind that the clearing on the hill is not very wide so you’ll want to have some control to keep from going into the trees. I also recommend hitting the brakes before you cross the ski trail and continue onto the pond. I can’t vouch for the ice thickness and you’re probably going to take out a few branches in the process.

There you have it, my guide to Aspen Park’s underbelly. Be safe, have fun, and let your inner child shine for a while.

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

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.