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Fall’s mystery mushrooms

Out See Go, by Chris Engle, contributor

By the time I pulled into a faraway spot in the Gaylord Meijer parking lot and unbuckled my seat belt, another couple was already investigating the odd-looking fungi growing at the base of a small tree.

“You guys came to see the mushrooms too, eh?” I asked the husband and wife as they knelt beside the patch of landscaping mulch surrounding the tree trunk. There are dozens of these ornamental trees lining the outskirts of the grocery-store parking lot but only two were graced with stinkhorns this week.

One of the stinkhorns found growing at the base of a tree in a grocery store parking lot. Photo by Chris Engle

One of the stinkhorns found growing at the base of a tree in a grocery store parking lot. Photo by Chris Engle

“Stinkhorn” is one of those less-than-creative names in nature where two of its most obvious features — its smell and shape — were slapped together in a rushed taxological effort to name the thing. Another prime example is Africa’s white-bellied go-away bird, named for its (you guessed it) white belly and a call that kind of sounds like it’s saying “go away, go away!” Whoever named the poor creature really phoned it in that day.

This being my first time seeing a stinkhorn mushroom, I quickly dove in nose first to capture some of its rumored stench in my nostrils. Like a dog sniffing out his preferred potty spot I searched out its scent, with the best-case scenario of actually catching a good whiff of whatever awful aroma it exudes. But stink it did not.

I picked up a broken piece of a fallen-over stinkhorn and held it to my nose. It smelled like rain — it had been raining pretty good those last few days — with a hint of morel mushroom mixed in. Its texture was like a soggy sponge which could be explained by all the pores in its soft, white flesh.

The couple noted the mushroom sort of resembled a morel or, at best, a false morel, but the similarities ended there.

There’s no possible way a picker would confuse a stinkhorn for a morel. For starters, this is fall and morels emerge only in the spring (typically April to June). And while this variety shares a similar color palate with morels, most other stinkhorns are vibrant red or orange — colors usually reserved for inedible or toxic mushrooms.

A kraken-like stinkhorn, its tentacles uncurling from the soil. Photo courtesy kuriositas.com.

A kraken-like stinkhorn, its tentacles uncurling from the soil. Photo courtesy kuriositas.com.

A colorful and geometric variety of stinkhorn mushroom. Photo courtesy nybg.org.

A colorful and geometric variety of stinkhorn mushroom. Photo courtesy nybg.org.

A quick Internet search revealed other people who found stinkhorns growing in their mulch too. It seems the spores reside in the mulch (kept moist inside its factory packaging), grow into a fungus in the landscaped area and, when conditions are right, emerge as a mushroom to produce more spores.

Michigan State University Extension says Michigan’s two native species — stinky dog stinkhorn and elegant stinkhorn — use their foul smell to attract insects which then spread its spores across the landscape. Other plants like the rainforest “corpse flower” use the same strategy.

If you really want to see some mushrooms this time of year, you won’t have to go nosing around a grocery-chain car lot to do so. Check out one of my spots instead.

The first is Pine Baron Pathway down the dead-end Lone Pine Road (off Old Alba Road). The clover-shaped network of trails is host to all kinds of colorful fall mushrooms, my favorite being the red, yellow or orange varieties of amanitas. Also known as the “fly agaric,” these are the traditional fairytale toadstools from the storybooks. Don’t eat them unless you want to chase imaginary gnomes through the woods for the next 12 to 36 hours and risk dying in the process.

The second is HeadWaters Land Conservancy’s awesome Sturgeon River Preserve north of Gaylord on Whitmarsh Road (off Old 27). It’s here I find wispy white ghost flowers, lots of amanitas and all kinds of shelf mushrooms growing across the 40 acres of cedar and upland forests.

Happy hunting! Remember, some of the best fall colors are found looking down.

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

Have You Herd?

Jack Elk 1

Gaylord has it’s very own elk herd.  The Elk Park has over 70 elk, sika and fallow deer contained on 108 acres.  September is one of the best months to observe.  The male bulls are trying to establish dominance for mating with the female cows.  They are very active and make loud vocalizations known as “Bugling.” Their antlers are impressive and can weigh up to 40 pounds.  Some of these bulls weigh over 800 pounds and stand roughly 6’ tall.  The West end of the Elk Park is located at 116 Grandview Blvd. or take a walk on the paved trail in Aspen Park and view the South end.

The DNR also has a list of over 11 elk viewing locations.  Most viewing locations can be accessed by seasonal roads; however, some may require a short hike.  The Pigeon River State Forest is just a short drive from Gaylord.   This 105,000 acre forest is home to the Midwest’s only free ranging elk herd.

For More Information Visit>>>

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National Dog Day, Friday, August 26th

We are celebrating National Dog Day.

Here’s  to “man’s best friend,” from prehistoric Dino to Space age Astro, loveable Lassie, the always hungry Scooby Doo, the gifted Mr. Peabody or the modern day “Max” from the movie Pets. petsThey love us unconditionally and are always there to greet us with the enthusiasm of a Christmas morning.

Here are some recommendations to shower your pup with the tail wagging appreciation and adoration they deserve.  If you’re in the city head over to the “dog park” located at 540 S. Illinois.  For a “woodsie” setting, grab a leash and head over to Aspen Park.   Or, hit one of our many hiking trails and paths.  Afterward cool off with a dip at Otsego Lake State Park in the designated “dog swim area.”  Whether you are here for the day or staying overnight, Gaylord has many dog friendly accommodations.

So today, fill that kong with peanut butter, throw the tennis ball, buy them a new Frisbee, chew toy, or just take them for a ride, 4/55 (four windows down 55 miles an hour)!

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National Left Handers Day, Saturday, August 13th

Fellow lefties, advocates and supporters,                                                                                                  right handed desk

It’s National Left Hander’s day!  We definitely need to celebrate and raise awareness of the many challenges we face on a daily basis.  As children they tried to make us conform and write with our right hands but we persevered.  We took tests and wrote on the infamous half desk top (mysteriously only made for right handed children).  Many of us have learned to compensate and are able to exercise some ambidextrous abilities (like using right handed scissors and potato peelers).  Sometimes we even forget how unique we are.   People around us are a constant reminder.  They are amazed by us and often marvel and point out our left handedness when they see us writing.  So, when you are strategically placing yourself at a table of right handers be proud southpaw, only 10-12% of all people on earth are left handed!

Ripe blackberries hang from the tip of a vine, ready for the picking.

Foraging forest fruits for food & fun

Out See Go by Chris Engle, contributor

Chelsea raised her eyebrows at me from the passenger seat as my head swiveled excitedly to the tree line passing in a blur outside the car window.

“How can you even see the berries from here?” she asked.

To be honest, it’s pretty hard to spot the blackberries themselves when I’m going 55 mph behind the wheel of my dust-covered station wagon. It’s the telltale thorny vines, reaching upward in patches and clumps like city skylines, which spur their addition to my mental list of places to pick.

July is the month for wild raspberries. For those I simply walk the perimeter of my yard each day dropping the biggest, ripest berries into a tupperware container. Paige helps (and subsequently eats her fair share) while Miley nibbles them straight off the vine with canine teeth.

By August the raspberries give way to blackberries and now is the time to gather this wild fruit.

Being good at foraging blackberries starts with having a keen eye for their plants. This is best learned in May and June when they are in full blossom and patches of the thorny vine are covered in clusters of bluish-white flowers. This is where you’ll need to return come August because each flower will eventually become a berry.

A blackberry bush loaded with ripe berries. Photo by Chris Engle

A blackberry bush loaded with ripe berries. Photo by Chris Engle

Some of the best picking is conveniently located within sight of the roadway because blackberry bushes love full, direct sunlight. It’s not that you’ll be picking on the shoulder of M-32 or any other major roadway; rather, you’ll want to look for powerlines – the high-tension ones are best – and gas-well service roads and two tracks. Anything posted with signs is obviously off limits without permission so respect property owners by not trespassing.

High-tension power lines are great because there’s often a public easement for a snowmobile or ORV trail running directly underneath the crackling wires, which means foraging for berries is OK too.

Much of the public land around Gaylord and across Otsego County is also home to hundreds of oil and gas wells, each one graced with a two-track road that offers easy access (and much-needed sunlight) to blackberry patches. If one trail turns up empty, there’s always another just around the corner.

Plants are recognizable for their deep green leaves and long, curved stems. This time of year, especially with the drought we’ve had, lower leaves have turned yellow and orange. Stems have nasty thorns that scratch skin with the softest graze. My arms and legs look like I moonlight as a cat wrangler which, I assure you, I do not. Definitely mind the thorns and consider wearing long pants and shirts when you pick.

Ripe berries are a deep purple color and grow in clumps on the vine. They are not single round berries but a cluster of “drupelets,” which is one of my favorite words relating to plants. Unripe berries are pink or red; very young berries are green, and a berry can go from pink to ripe in a single day so check the patch often.

There are different grades of ripe berries. Some are small and dense, meaning they’ll be mostly seeds when you eat them. The fatter berries will have drupelets swollen with juice and will give you a bigger bang for your buck. Those will usually be found in shadier spots than their sun-baked counterparts.

A tub of berries ready to go into a pie. Photo by Chris Engle

A tub of berries ready to go into a pie. Photo by Chris Engle

When all is said and done, hopefully you’ll have a good haul of berries to take home. Chels eats them daily in her oatmeal and yogurt and they’re also good in leafy salads. Pies and crisps are an excellent use as desserts go. Jams are great too; though seedless jellies take a LOT of berries to pull off.

Personally I’ll freeze them, unrinsed so they don’t clump together, and add them to pancakes well into winter. I’m also planning on brewing another “Forager Porter,” a home-brewed beer I made a couple years ago with about half a gallon of wild blackberry and raspberry juice. I gave it away for Christmas and everyone seemed to enjoy catching a blackberry buzz without a scratch to show for it.

Happy picking, and enjoy the well-earned fruits of your labor.

Request a map of the area or a Visitor Guide. More info >>>

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

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Celebrate National Chicken Wing Day in Gaylord, Michigan

By: Gaylord Tourism Bureau

wings from their fb lndscpTap 32

When it comes to hot wings we’ll be your wing-man.  Guess you could say we’re traditionalists.  We like wings in their “original “natural state (bones in) Buffalo style and when we say original, we’re referring to the original brand Frank’s Red Hot Sauce.

“In 1964 Frank’s Redhot® Cayenne Pepper Sauce was used as the secret ingredient for the first ever Buffalo wings in Buffalo, New York, putting it on the map and starting the flavor craze that has led to consumers obsession with all things Buffalo-flavor.” Hence the name Buffalo Wings!

In celebration of #NationalChickenWingDay today, July 29, we asked you, “where is the best place for wings in the Gaylord area?”

Wings 2 josh picBennethum’s

Asian zing, parmesan, lime, teriyaki, sweet and savory, barbeque, spicy barbeque we’ve got you covered.  There is something about these messy little, meat lacking, sauce laden, finger lickin’, lip smacking, delights that cause you to lose all etiquette unleashing the primal caveman in you as you eat with your hands shamelessly chewing meat off a bone.

The locals have voted and are sharing Gaylord’s best kept secrets on where you can get your wing fix on.

Here are a few favorites you will want to try on your next visit:

Bennethum’s Northern Inn (just south of Gaylord across from Otsego Lake on Old 27) Joyce Farms free range chicken drumettes feature a house-made garlic-chili-herb hot sauce with Jalapeno ranch dip. Another favorite is their Asian Wings

Tap 32 – (directly downtown Gaylord) Savory, Sweet and spicy asian chicken wings.

Treetops Resort – (Just east of town on Wilkinson Rd.) A variety of creative takes on the classic wing from traditional to Jack Daniels Glaze and…Blueberry Pomegranate?!

Last, but certainly not least…LaSenorita keeps the tradition alive (downtown Gaylord just east of the railroad tracks) 10 chicken wings sauced and tossed in your choice of flavor — original, hot honey, chipotle BBQ, garlic pepper. Around here locals know Monday night is wing night.

Blueberry Wings crppdTreetops Sports Bar

Follow link for complete details on restaurants mentioned and other dining options Dining>>>

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jordan9

Paddle the Jordan or 5 other rivers

Out See Go by Chris Engle, contributor

Have you seen the new fountain on the lawn of the Otsego County Courthouse? It’s been a busy spot this summer as a gathering place for Alpenfest revelers and as a place where teenagers chase virtual Pokemon characters with their cell phones. A prophecy made during a push to make Gaylord more friendly to pedestrians proclaimed that a water feature in an otherwise dry downtown area will draw people in – and the prophecy has been fulfilled.

But there’s something you may have overlooked about the fountain which consists of a granite boulder set over a circular pool. Five streams of water occasionally leap from the pool and splash onto the rock, sending rivulets trickling down the giant stone in all directions.

That’s the key: Five streams.

The design phase of the courthouse lawn project took input from the people of Gaylord and a recurring suggestion was for a fountain which would, in some shape or form, represent the waterways that originate in Otsego County. Five streams – the AuSable, Black, Manistee, Pigeon and Sturgeon rivers – all start here. It’s something we’re proud of and the new fountain is a way for us to spread the word to visitors to our town. So far the message has been well received.

There’s one stream that’s not represented by the fountain because it is just slightly outside the borders of our county. Even so, I still consider the Jordan River as one of ours – maybe even moreso than the AuSable which is rightfully claimed by the trout-centric town of Grayling to the south.

I’ve written about the Jordan River before so I won’t go into detail about how it is born from ice-cold springs near Elmira, winds through 18,000 acres of wild forests, feeds a federal hatchery’s 3 million lake trout with fresh water and empties into one of Michigan’s largest inland lakes – Lake Charlevoix, with 62 miles of coastline – at East Jordan.

Wide enough to float in a canoe or kayak, the Jordan River still has plenty of obstacles to maneuver around. Photo by Chelsea Engle

Wide enough to float in a canoe or kayak, the Jordan River still has plenty of obstacles to maneuver around. Photo by Chelsea Engle

Instead, I’ll take you on a short float of its midsection by canoe, which my wife and I did last weekend to beat the heat and you should too as long as this hot weather persists.

We dropped the canoe at Webster Bridge, about six miles south of East Jordan as the crow flies, then spotted my car about four miles downstream at Rogers Road. Unless you want to hitchhike back upstream to your starting point – thumbing for a ride in the midday sun on the shoulder of M-66 is not my idea of fun – then you’ll need to take two cars and park (spot) one at your planned end point.

Webster Bridge, a popular put-in spot on the Jordan River. Photo by Chris Engle

Webster Bridge, a popular put-in spot on the Jordan River. Photo by Chris Engle

There were about a dozen people either putting in or taking out at Webster Bridge when we got there and loaded our canoe with fishing rods, snacks and sunscreen. The blazing noontime sun had no apparent effect on the spring-fueled river which stays somewhere around 50 degrees throughout the summer and stings with your first step in.

“Don’t worry, your feet get numb after a few minutes,” a man joked from his canoe pulled up at the bank.

With a light shove from the bank we were immediately carried away in our canoe. Just 20 feet wide and two feet deep, the Jordan is deceivingly swift. We drifted at a fast walking pace without paddling and often had to steer around deadfalls or under overhanging cedar trees. Snagging on one of these obstacles could easily cause the canoe to roll over and that’s why our camera, phone and keys were locked in a water-tight dry box in the middle of the boat.

In an instant I saw Chels relax in her seat and start to take in the sights and sounds of her first ever river canoe trip. This was only my third time floating a small river – and the second time on the Jordan – and I was falling right into relaxation mode with her.

The Jordan River flows under a canopy of overhanging cedars but plenty of sunshine still makes it through in the middle of the day. Photo by Chelsea Engle

The Jordan River flows under a canopy of overhanging cedars but plenty of sunshine still makes it through in the middle of the day. Photo by Chelsea Engle

It’s hard not to get caught up in the scenery of wildflowers, dancing damsel flies and singing blue jays. Every so often a submerged log slams the keel and jars your attention back on where the current is taking you. There’s a lot to take in because, thanks to the current carrying you swiftly along, the scenery is ever changing.

The only fish photo we managed to get the whole trip -- the small but spunky trout like to jump and throw the hook. Photo by Chelsea Engle

The only fish photo we managed to get the whole trip — the small but spunky trout like to jump and throw the hook. Photo by Chelsea Engle

Fishing from the canoe is difficult as I could only get one or two casts in under the low-hanging branches before I had to change our course with my paddle. If you’re in to trout fishing – and there are plenty of spunky brookies and browns ready to test your ability – then I recommend pulling up to a sandbar and working the river’s deep pools and undercut banks that way.

In two hours we’d covered about 4 or 5 miles of river and had stopped a couple times to cast, swim and snack. We moved slower than everyone else – about 15 kayaks passed us on the way – but our butts were just starting to get sore in our seats when we pulled up to our end point.

A giant willow marks the take-out point at Rogers Road. Photo by Chelsea Engle

A giant willow marks the take-out point at Rogers Road. Photo by Chelsea Engle

The Jordan – and all the other area rivers for that matter – have outfitter services that will gladly set you up with a canoe, kayak, tube or raft for the day and give you a ride to/from the river, making spotting a car or hitchhiking unnecessary. This weekend is going to be another hot one, so pick a river and stay cool.

Information on rivers, outfitters and rentals: http://goo.gl/AYmGhR

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

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Biking in Gaylord Michigan: Fun Half-Day Excursions

Northern Michigan Biking is at it’s best starting right here in Gaylord.

Gaylord To Vanderbilt:
7.6 miles, round-trip 15.6. Expect open farmlands and two tunnels. Once you arrive in Vanderbilt, fuel up at the Elkhorn Grill, 8294 Mill St. Open seven days a week, this restaurant is known for its great burgers, pizza and spirits. Breakfast is served 7:00 a.m. to noon. Another great spot: Trail Town Tavern, 6461 Old 27 South. Opens at 11:00 a.m. daily.

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Vanderbilt to Wolverine:
10.9 miles, 21.8 round-trip. A gorgeous section of trail, this stretch has four miles with no road access as you pass through Stewart’s Creek Marsh. Pause to take in the wildlife and hear multiple bird calls. This section of trail also crosses the Sturgeon River twice and the west branch of the Sturgeon near Wolverine. You’ll arrive in Wolverine at the local riverside park. Keep going up the hill to the Whistle Stop, 4853 Webb Road, on the east side of the expressway and across the street from Shultz’s Party Store. Enjoy a full menu, though we recommend one of their delicious sub sandwiches. Open M-T-W 8 to 3, Th-F 8 to 9, Sun 8 to 8. 231-525-9188

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Wolverine To Indian River:
9.6 miles, 19.2 miles round-trip. This section of the trail runs parallel to the Sturgeon River, with a nice rustic campground two miles north of Wolverine – Haakwood State Forest Campground – if you’re interested in an overnight stop. Another mile north of the campground you’ll find the Rondo Canoe Access site, where the trail crosses the river. Stop here for a scenic picnic spot, even a swim in the river.

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Spend some time in Indian River, which is home to Burt Lake State Park. This is not far from the trail which now also connects to the North Eastern State Trail in this location and features a modern campground and beach. Local public shoreline Devoe Beach on Burt Lake also isn’t far off the trail Stop for ice cream at Dairy Mart, 3448 S. Straits Highway, across from the trailhead and the local Chamber of Commerce building. A nearby canoe livery, Big Bear Adventures, offers bike shuttle service. 231-238-8181.

Click Here for other tours and biking information,

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Three Bikes and Some Bears on the Shingle Mill Pathway

The morning sun is bright on the windshield as we speed along the gentle curves of Sturgeon Valley Road toward the Shingle Mill Pathway in the Pigeon River Country Forest. Although it is late May – Memorial Day weekend in fact – the trees on either side glow a brilliant spring green. I look forward between my brother-in-law and sister-in-law in the front seats. They are visiting from the Kalamazoo area for the weekend. As avid cyclists (both road and mountain), they never miss an opportunity to explore a new trail.

 

I keep my eye out for the bridge that crosses the Pigeon River. When I spot it, I tell Will to park in the dirt parking area to the south of the road, on the right just after crossing the bridge. We get the bikes unloaded, clip on helmets, and secure our hydration packs to our backs. I lead Will and Renee across the paved road into the small campground nestled in the corner made by the road and the river.

 

At the trailhead I let Will take the lead. At over six feet tall and a carpenter by trade, he’s the strongest rider in our little group. Renee and I are both about the same size, around 5 feet 4 inches. But one would be mistaken to judge us on our small stature. Renee is a ‘roadie’ as she calls it and tough as nails. Every Saturday morning she joins a group of guys and one other woman for a blisteringly fast road ride. Although she doesn’t mountain bike as often as Will, she can hold her own on the single-track trails as well.

Three Bears

The large white pines close in and immediately we’re in a different world. The sunlight filters through the canopy and dapples the pine needles that layer the ground. The packed single track rolls away under my tire as I concentrate on avoiding the occasional tree root and keeping up with Will in front of me. The trail narrows as we get farther from the campground. When we pass the sign for the 2 mile loop, I can tell that less people venture farther than this point.

 

Before we get too far, we pass a lone biker going the other direction. Then it’s just us, the sun, the trail, and the woods for miles. It’s hard to believe we are only 25 minutes from downtown Gaylord and even closer to little Vanderbilt. Here on this rustic trail I feel like we’re the only people out here, three small dots in the expanse of 100,000 acres of Pigeon River Country Forest.

 

The trail dives down to meet the Pigeon River and I steal some glimpses of it on my left as I keep an eye on what’s in front of me. The water flows in the direction we’re going and I feel for a second like we’re racing the ripples on their way to the north. Then the river is gone as the trail leaves it to take a more direct route towards the Pigeon River Headquarters. I follow Will for about a mile with Renee behind me before we come out onto the gravel drive in front of the Headquarters.

 

We slow our pace and look around. The big log building on our left is familiar enough as I’ve visited on numerous occasions. If we were to stop, we’d find more information, maps, and displays inside. But there’s something new here too. A crushed gravel path leads from the right side of the building back to a smaller log building behind it. Built in the 1930’s, it used to house the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) unit managers. Now it is in the process of becoming the Pigeon River Country Discovery Center, an historical interpretive center.

 

I smile at the progress that’s been made on the project. My partner, Alex, and I have been exploring the Pigeon River Country since we moved to the area seven years ago. Although we have our favorite spots, we are always finding new areas to explore. When the opportunity arose for our small business to help sponsor some of the construction here, we jumped at it.

 

I don’t have too long to admire the new construction. We continue our ride onto the new crushed gravel path and then almost immediately take a right to follow the single track as it disappears into the woods again. In less than a mile we slow our pace when the trail spits us out into another campground. We navigate the gravel roads running through the campground by following the blue blazes on the trees. The road ends up running parallel to the Pigeon River and I can see it through a screen of trees. Then we take a left and the river comes into full view as we approach a bridge that will take us over it. A small boy stands next to the rail, looking over the edge. We wave at him as we pass.

 

Once over, the road turns to the right and we ride along the river, this time on the west bank. I keep an eye out because I know the single track starts up again on our right, between the road and river. It’s easy to miss, but we spot it and Will leads us through this overgrown section. The earth is moist – muddy in some places – and the grass is tall and damp. At some points, bushes reach into the trail and I duck my head to avoid getting hit in the face. All the plants down here are lush and wet so close to the river, in stark contrast to the dry pine woods we’ve come from.

 

As we come up out of the river bottom, we hit the intersection for the 6 mile loop. We take the trail on the right, heading north towards the 10 and 11 mile loops. This section is high and dry as the trail leaves the river. For a little under two miles we ride through hardwoods. The gently rolling uplands take us down into little valleys and back up again.

 

We stop at the intersection for the 10 and 11 miles loops. I’ve never been on the 11 mile loop section, but I know the 10 mile section is beautiful. It passes a sinkhole lake – a perfect circle of deep turquoise water down below the trail – and crosses a creek that flows into Grass Lake. Riders can catch glimpses of Grass Lake on the way up to the overlook. But all three of us want to go farther, and I’m curious to see what the 11 mile loop section is like, so we take the right trail.

mapShingle Mill Pathway map from: http://www.otsego.org/prca/smpw/smpw.htm

Almost immediately we cross a little creek and struggle up a steep and root-filled incline. I can tell right away that this section of the trail isn’t traveled as often as the 10 mile loop section. The single track narrows to not much wider than my tires. We pass through some hardwood groves and then are reunited with the Pigeon River once again as we dip down into an open, grassy area on the river bank. We struggle through a wet section of trail before climbing through hardwoods once again, our legs covered in mud. Almost immediately we see a couple backpackers up ahead. They have long pants and sleeves on and sport head nets to keep the mosquitoes away.

Apologizing for our loud intrusion, we pass them and continue through some tough climbs. I’m breathing heavily as we crest the last one. Renee and I have fallen a bit behind. Will waits for us after we cross a two track and end up on what looks like an old logging road. We take a quick break. Before we hit the trail again, the two backpackers come up behind us. I point them in the direction of the easily-missed single track heading off to the right of the logging road, knowing we’ll be passing them once again shortly. We hop on our bikes and leave the old logging road for the single track.

As we leave the backpackers behind once again, I imagine hiking this trail and for an instant regret our fast pace. It’s what I love and hate about mountain biking – the speed. It creates the challenge that makes mountain biking so addicting, but it also means I’m missing all those things I would have noticed if I’d been on my own two feet.

My musing is interrupted by an exclamation from Will ahead of me. I look up and instantly see a big black shape moving quickly through the trees away from us. The angle that the creature has taken makes its profile clear to me. It is definitely a black bear, and it is definitely the closest I’ve ever seen one in the wild. It must have been only 35 feet up the trail from us when it bolted. I know that black bears are much smaller and less aggressive than other types of bears, but the size of this one startles me. My nervousness is only heightened when Will asks if I can see the bear cubs.

By now the three of us are all stopped in the middle of the trail as we gaze up at the two cubs looking down on us. They have each found their own birch tree to climb. Will says they were 40 feet up within four seconds of seeing him. Both are completely black except for their light brown snouts. Their little rounded ears are perked up as they try to gather as much information as possible from their surroundings.  The birch trees are tall and in this thick canopy they don’t have any branches until much farther above the cubs. The one I’m watching looks down at us, then over its shoulder. It is clearly nervous as it climbs a bit higher. They are so small, like a couple of beagles up in the trees.

However, I’m very conscious of the fact that they are not beagles. All of the stories I’ve heard of aggressive black bears have involved cubs, and I don’t want to linger too long. Will and Renee feel the same and before we can even think to take pictures, we are on our bikes again, leaving the little cubs behind high in the trees.

The excitement of seeing the bears wears off as we travel farther along the trail. After a little climb we come to an intersection and follow the sign to an overlook. A bench sits in front of the view. The full foliage of spring is spread out in front of us. I can only imagine what it looks like in full fall colors. We snap a couple pictures and head back to the intersection. We’ve delayed long enough that the backpackers have caught up with us again. We chat for a bit and learn that they are from Grand Rapids and they’ll be camping off the trail tonight.

At the overlookAt the overlook

We take our leave of the two backpackers for the last time. Skirting around a little lake, we ride past Grass Lake. We don’t get to see as much of it as we could have from the 10 mile loop which follows the east side of the lake as well. After a couple miles of hardwoods and then an open area of young pine, we hit Ford Lake, pass another backpacking couple, and then pass the intersection for the 6 mile loop. We are getting closer to the end of the trail, but I know we still have some challenging sections coming up.

As we draw closer to the Pigeon River again, we come to a cedar swamp. We enter this dark, cool part of the forest and the path rides up onto a two-plank pathway about two feet wide. The planks sit atop logs, putting us about a foot and a half above the forest floor. It is a little disconcerting to think of the extra height we would fall if one of our tires slips off the planks.

As we continue farther into the swamp, the plank pathway just keeps going. Later I’ll read that it is about a quarter of a mile long, but right now it just seems to go on forever. It twists and turns between cedar trunks. I notice the deep moss covering the forest floor, but I can’t look around too much for fear I’ll slip off the planks. I can hear Renee’s exclamation as we come to the end of the plank pathway. There are so many roots that there is no avoiding them. I try to gain speed, but the roots rise up in a lumpy mass that almost stops me.  I bump from one root to the next. They finally come to an end after I pedal through a grassy clearing.

Will and Renee are waiting for me. Almost right away we are biking up the short incline to Sturgeon Valley Road. Once we reach the level black-top we take a left, crossing the Pigeon River one last time before arriving at the dirt parking lot. We are tired, sweaty, and muddy, but we are all beaming. We’ve had a blast on the varied terrain of the Shingle Mill Pathway. We throw our gear in the trunk and load the bikes on the rack. As we drive west along Sturgeon Valley Road, I imagine three bears wandering deeper into Pigeon River Country. They may forget their chance encounter with three bikes on the Shingle Mill Pathway, but I definitely will not.

Jessica Kane is a small business owner and outdoor enthusiast living near Gaylord, Michigan. She can be reached at jkane@line-45.com. For more information about the Pigeon River Country, visit the Pigeon River Country Association.

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.