Category Archives: Outdoors

At the heart of the Northern Lower Peninsula, Otsego County is home to the headwaters of five major trout streams — the AuSable, Black, Manistee, Pigeon and Sturgeon rivers — and the sprawling 110,000+ acre Pigeon River Country State Forest, making it an outdoor recreation paradise.

Tapping into springtime

Out See Go
By Chris Engle, contributor

Songbirds whistled in the crowns of maple trees yesterday to the tune of cordless drills cutting holes into the trunks below.

The morning’s labor marked the beginning of spring for Ivan Witt (pictured above), a maple-syrup maker who draws his raw material – thousands of gallons of crystal-clear sap – from hundreds of trees on a hilly, 10-acre lease north of Gaylord.

Within the forest is a sprawling network of tubes and hoses that spider through the trees like frozen lightning bolts. Each tree within reach of the web will be tapped for its subtly sweet sap. Some trees will get two or three holes, depending on their size, with each one connected to the sap superhighway.

A plastic spile is hammered into a small hole in a maple tree, allowing sap to flow through into a tube and, eventually, to a collection tank. Photo by Chris Engle

A plastic spile is hammered into a small hole in a maple tree, allowing sap to flow through into a tube and, eventually, to a collection tank. Photo by Chris Engle

In between my writing projects last fall and winter, Witt hired me to shore up this infrastructure in the “sugar bush” as he calls it. Much of the weathered tubing needed to be replaced and stowed high enough above the snow pack to keep from being iced in when tapping time came.

Smaller, more traditional maple-syrup operations rely on buckets to catch sap as it drips from spigots on the trees. It’s a lot of work hauling gallons of sap out of the bush this way and, since a bucket can go from empty to full in a single day, this method forces you to work fast to keep from losing sap. Witt’s operation is too big to work this way.

A sap-cicle forms at the end of a broken maple branch where sap has dripped out and frozen. They're a sweet treat when you can reach them. Photo by Chris Engle

A sap-cicle forms at the end of a broken maple branch where sap has dripped out and frozen. They’re a sweet treat when you can reach them. Photo by Chris Engle

Instead, his system relies almost entirely on gravity.

This time of year, as below-freezing nights give way to above-freezing days, trees start pumping stores of sugar from their roots to their bud-lined branches. It’s this sugar that will power the buds as they burst with new leaves and flowers.

Each tap in a tree steals a tiny fraction of that sugar and sends it into the tube. As the sap flows downhill it’s joined by sap from other trees, merging into the network like cars on a freeway onramp. The tubes get bigger and busier as they continue downhill, sometimes skirting the ground or passing over valleys along the way, but all the time maintaining a downward angle.

At the very end is a giant collection tank and the sap empties in like a water slide into a pool. A pump provides an occasional vacuum boost to keep things moving.

A small section of the network of tubing used to link trees together and collect their sap using gravity. Photo by Chris Engle

A small section of the network of tubing used to link trees together and collect their sap using gravity. Photo by Chris Engle

None of this happens without first putting holes in the trees.

Equipped with a power drill and a fresh, sharp 5/16-inch bit, I made my way through the bush with a handful of other guys, stopping at each tree and drilling the requisite holes. Each tap has to go in just right, avoiding circular scars from previous taps and angling the hose for the proper downward angle. Putting taps in the warmer, south-facing side of the tree means sap will flow longer each day.

In a few days, when the collection tank is full, Witt will roll in with his pickup truck and an onboard tank to haul away sap to the sugar shack, the business end of the whole operation. It’s there that the water will be boiled off by the intense heat of a wood-fueled fire, leaving behind the golden-brown delicacy we know and love as maple syrup.

I spent a couple hours tapping trees that morning and got a text from Witt later that evening.

“We finished! Hallelujah!” he said about the tedious task of tapping hundreds of trees. “Do you want syrup in payment or cash?”

That’s an easy answer.

Next up: See what it takes for Witt to turn 12 gallons of sap into a single quart of succulent maple syrup. Chris Engle is an outdoorsman, freelance writer and house dad in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.

‘Tie One On’ to beat winter blues

Out See Go
By Chris Engle, contributor

***Please note: Due to poor road conditions, the ‘Tie One On’ event scheduled for the evening of March 2, has been canceled. The next event is still on for March 16.

Any indication that spring is near has literally gone out the window – I’m looking out one right now and the few patches of bare ground out there have disappeared under a blanket of heavy snow. The lion of March’s slogan, “in like a lion, out like a lamb,” is tearing through Northern Michigan today.

Thankfully, a cure for the winter blues is coming up again on Thursday, March 2. It’s the next round of “Tie One On,” a free fly tying workshop hosted by the local Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited. It takes place at 6 p.m. at BJ’s Restaurant & Catering on North Center Ave., just past Otsego Memorial Hospital.

Sofia Messinis, of Gaylord, wraps thread around a fly. "I have a kit at home but I haven't tied in a while," she said. Photo by Chris Engle

Sofia Messinis, of Gaylord, wraps thread around a fly. “I have a kit at home but I haven’t tied in a while,” she said. Photo by Chris Engle

The workshop is usually attended by a mix of young and old anglers learning new fly patterns or practicing old ones. The skill level is mixed too – tying equipment is provided to those who don’t have it, and fellow tyers are eager and willing to help those who need a hand. Nonmembers are welcome, and food and drink is available for purchase in an open and inviting atmosphere.

Alex Cerveniak sits at his tying station with a completed fly. He aims a camera at his vise as he works and projects the feed on a screen so others can follow his steps. Photo by Chris Engle

Alex Cerveniak sits at his tying station with a completed fly. He aims a camera at his vise as he works and projects the feed on a screen so others can follow his steps. Photo by Chris Engle

At the workshop two weeks ago, Gaylord’s Alex Cerveniak, president of the TU chapter and owner of Northern Michigan Fly Fishing, used a camera and projector to demonstrate how to tie a rubber-legged stonefly. A live video feed of his fingers and tools at work was projected on the big screen for all others to follow. The pattern was fairly simple, taking only a few minutes to complete, and covered several of the basic techniques needed on any given fly.

Prior to Cerveniak’s demonstration, Gates AuSable Lodge owner and fly-fishing celebrity Josh Greenberg gave a presentation about fishing the AuSable and Manistee rivers in wintertime. Each workshop hosts a speaker and unique fly tying demostration – on Thursday it’s Russ Maddon, fly innovator and guide with Hawkins Outfitters, followed by demonstrations on tying a glo bug and San Juan worm. See the entire series schedule here.

All the flies you tie there are free to take home and, if spring ever comes, you can even try to catch something on them!

Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited is hosting their annual banquet at Ellison Place in Gaylord April 22. Tickets and more information are available here.

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

A fine day for an ice fishing derby

Out See Go by Chris Engle, contributor

Historically held on one of the worst weather weekends of the year, Saturday’s Youth Ice Fishing Derby instead came with sunshine and a sweet southerly breeze that carried with it 70 young anglers and their families ready to fish Otsego Lake.

Feb. 18, 2017 cast aside any notion of what fishing on a frozen lake is like — numb fingers, cold feet and blistering winds — and swapped them with smiling faces on frolicking children who built snowmen and ate snacks as they “fished.”

The sun shines over the ice out from Otsego Lake State Park Feb. 18 during the annual youth ice fishing derby. Photo by Chris Engle

The sun shines over the ice out from Otsego Lake State Park Feb. 18 during the annual youth ice fishing derby. Photo by Chris Engle

Maybe it was the distraction of snowball fights and cheese puffs but only eight fish, all perch, were caught during that morning’s contest.

It’s not the catch so much as the turnout that makes organizers of the annual tradition happy.

“That’s more kids than we’ve had in a long time,” said Walt Owen.

Bridgette Zeilinger, 9, of Gaylord, and her perch. Photo by Chris Engle

Bridgette Zeilinger, 9, of Gaylord, and her perch. Photo by Chris Engle

Abraham Zeilinger, 2 1/2, of Gaylord, proudly holds his catch. Photo by Chris Engle

Abraham Zeilinger, 2 1/2, of Gaylord, proudly holds his catch. Photo by Chris Engle

That figure is way up from last year, when only four kids turned up to fish in wind chills topping -20. Temperatures this year were almost 70 degrees warmer.

The contest, hosted by the Northland Sportsmen’s Club of Gaylord, is held every February at Otsego Lake State Park. It coincides with Michigan’s Free Fishing Weekend, when all fishing license fees are waived, and the park waives passport fees for the day to allow anyone to take part.

Afterward, a hot dog lunch was held at the clubhouse and awards were given to the day’s top anglers. Winners were as follows:

In the 0-5 age group
Abraham Zeilinger, first fish and the only one to catch more than one — he caught two
Christian Goldsmith, 8 1/2-inch perch
Charlie Zeilinger, 8 1/4-inch perch
Maverick Coburn, 7 1/2-inch perch

In the 6-10 age group
Bridgette Zeilinger, first fish, an 8-inch perch
Ethan Cottrell, 8 1/2-inch perch
Caleb Ferguson, 6 1/2-inch perch

Aiden Sullivan, 4, of Pinckney, waits for a bite while his dad, Joe, chills on the ice.

Aiden Sullivan, 4, of Pinckney, waits for a bite while his dad, Joe, chills on the ice.

Maverick Coburn, 4, of Gaylord, holds up his catch. Photo by Chris Engle

Maverick Coburn, 4, of Gaylord, holds up his catch. Photo by Chris Engle

The Checks family -- Mason, Desi, Connor and Frank (l-r). Photo by Chris Engle

The Checks family — Mason, Desi, Connor and Frank (l-r). Photo by Chris Engle

Sponsors included Jay’s Sporting Goods, Eagle 101.5, Northern Sports Sales & Service, Jack Anderson, Michigan DNR, Gaylord Herald Times, Weekly Choice, and club members who donated their time and equipment.

I’d like to share a personal thank you to everyone who helps in this effort every year, from the cooks who make breakfast for the volunteers and lunch for the awards, to those doling out bait and hot cocoa to little hands. They are heroes in my eyes, helping perpetuate one of Michigan’s greatest outdoor traditions.

For more about the Northland Sportsmen’s Club, visit northlandsportsmensclub.org.

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

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What to know before fishing our frozen lakes

Out, See, Go, by Chris Engle, contributor

I had been planning to spend this month’s blog sharing some fishing and ice-safety advice before last weekend’s tragic news of the death of two local fishermen. Regrettably, in light of these terrible events, I feel I should open with a refresher in ice safety.

Over the weekend, thin ice claimed the lives of two anglers on nearby lakes. The first was 61-year-old Wayne Ballenger who fell through on Big Bear Lake east of Gaylord. His fate was discovered by two friends who’d gone to the lake to see if the ice was safe, only to find the lone man’s fishing bucket on the lake and his snow-covered vehicle parked on shore. They called 9-1-1 and rescuers had to wear protective rubber suits to retrieve the man’s body from the frigid water.

The second happened that same day when 69-year-old Terry Weber fell through a rural lake in Montmorency County not far from Big Bear Lake. Weber, who owned Advance Tackle and Michigan Stinger lures – popular trolling spoons I’ve used to fish for salmon – was also an experienced, veteran fisherman who made a fatal mistake by trusting first ice too soon.

Tracks lead 10 feet out onto Little Bradford Lake in Waters Dec. 20, evidence that someone had come either to fish or check the ice and didn't like what they saw. Photo by Chris Engle

Tracks lead 10 feet out onto Little Bradford Lake in Waters Dec. 20, evidence that someone had come either to fish or check the ice and didn’t like what they saw. Photo by Chris Engle

I have made the same mistake. Fifteen years ago, during a first-ice trip with my dad, I broke through 100 feet from shore and fell until my outstretched arms caught the edge of the hole. Luckily I was able to scramble out with the help of my dad. As we carefully but quickly made our way back to shore, dad’s foot went through into shallow water and, as he fell forward, his fist punched through too.

It was a hard lesson we both needed and neither of us have forgotten it. Even so, I’m still tempted every December to fish when the ice is still young and questionable. Fishermen dying is a tragic reminder that comes too often and we got the one-two punch this year.

Here are some recommendations for preparing to fish first ice, last ice, or any time in winter, as well as how to survive a fall into the lake.

Don’t go alone. This is especially important early and late in the season when ice conditions are most untrustworthy. If you’re like me and insist on going solo, tell someone where you’ll be fishing and when you’ll be back. Check in every so often with a text message or phone call. Seriously, your loved ones will thank you.

Check local conditions. Call your bait shops. Check public-access points for foot and sled traffic. See if anyone else has been out. Being first isn’t always best.

Prepare for the worst. Wear a life vest. Drape a short length of rope over your shoulders with an old screwdriver tied to each end. These can be used as ice picks should you fall in.

Crafted after I fell through the ice 15 years ago, this set of ice picks are worn over my shoulders early and late in the season. Photo by Chris Engle

Crafted after I fell through the ice 15 years ago, this set of ice picks are worn over my shoulders early and late in the season. Photo by Chris Engle

Keep your head. If you go through, turn back toward shore and try to climb onto the ice. This ice supported you on the way out, so it’s your best chance at getting back. Try not to panic. Get your legs horizontal with the ice and attempt to kick your way out.

Roll to safety. Once you’re out of the lake, don’t stand up. Distribute your weight by rolling, if possible, to shore. If there’s too much snow to roll, crawl on all fours until you are safe. Forget about your gear.

Get to shelter. Now that’ you’re freezing cold, soaking wet and in shock, you are far from out of danger. Hypothermia can still get you, so go to the nearest home, pound on the door, and ask to come inside. Drink warm fluids and wear a blanket. (I ask that lakeshore residents welcome anglers in distress into their homes.)
If a house isn’t an option, get to your vehicle and turn on the heat.
In either case, it is critical you remove all wet clothing. Being bare and dry is far better for survival than wearing cold, wet clothes. No one will care that you’re naked in this life-or-death situation. Call 9-1-1 if your cell phone is working.

I truly hope no one else will have to rely on this advice this year. Two deaths in one weekend is too many for one season.

I’ll be checking back in in January with some fishing advice. If all goes well, we should have relatively safe ice by then.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all.

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.

How to have your own elk encounter

Out See Go, by Chris Engle, contributor

My first run-in with a wild elk became a close call with an entire herd.

I was snowmobiling with family through Montmorency County about 40 or 50 miles east of Gaylord when the lead sled came to a sudden halt. My uncle shut off his machine and lifted his helmet. I pulled up alongside him and did the same.

He silently aimed his finger at a shadow lurking at the edge of the trail barely 20 yards ahead and whispered excitedly.

“Elk!” he said. “Two of them!”

Sure enough, the shadow moved into view, followed by another. Two cow elk stood broadside to us, pausing just long enough to see if we were a threat. In a few steps they were gone, disappeared into the thick aspen grove like ghosts.

But it was far from over. Twenty more cows and calves trailed behind, trotting across our path without a glance or hesitation. I swear we could feel their heavy hooves punching through the compacted snow of the groomed trail. Without a doubt, these were huge animals.

When the last one vanished into the aspens, we turned to each other and exchanged grins and nervous laughter.

Then one more animal appeared.

Before us was a massive bull, its antlers reaching up like arms of bone. It towered well above the cows and stood in the middle of the trail staring straight at us. We were in a showdown and I, a teenager on a meager Polaris 340, was certainly the underdog against the half-ton, testosterone-fueled beast.

After staring us down for an eternity of 10 or 15 seconds, the bull turned and headed off into the grove behind his harem of cows. Stunned by what just happened, my uncles and I finally started breathing again.

I remember firing up our machines and continuing down the trail as that bull watched us from a hillside.

A small elk herd as seen from a DNR spotter plane during my flight with biologists counting the animals in 2014. Photo courtesy Gaylord Herald Times' archives

A small elk herd as seen from a DNR spotter plane during my flight with biologists counting the animals in 2014. Photo courtesy Gaylord Herald Times’ archives

It would be 15 years before I saw another wild elk, despite frequent hikes through the Pigeon River Country State Forest and countless drives through Atlanta, Michigan’s official elk capital.

By no measure are elk the most elusive of animals. Moving in herds and grazing in agricultural clearings, you can’t miss elk when they’re near.

It’s their scarcity that makes them an uncommon sight – fewer than 1,000 animals live across an area covering a few hundred square miles of Northern Michigan. Compare that to whitetail deer which number well over a million across the state. That’s what makes seeing them such a treat for most people who encounter them, whether they meant to or not.

Elk bedded under a tree at the edge of a field in the winter of 2014. Photo courtesy Gaylord Herald Times' archives

Elk bedded under a tree at the edge of a field in the winter of 2014. Photo courtesy Gaylord Herald Times’ archives

To help people in search of elk, the Department of Natural Resources published an online elk-viewing guide with waypoints marked across a map of the Pigeon River Country State Forest, a 110,000-acre tract of public wilderness dead center in the core elk range.

Closest to Gaylord are viewing locations along Sturgeon Valley Road east of Vanderbilt, and Tin Shanty Road northeast of Sparr. There are 13 locations mapped.

Though the DNR says the months of September and October are best for viewing elk, winter months work too since the foliage is gone off the trees and the large, relatively dark bodies of elk stand out against snowy backdrops and agricultural clearings.

Many of the viewing areas are wildlife food plots maintained by the DNR as grazing areas for elk, deer and turkeys, and serve to help keep elk on public land and off private farms where they can cause serious damage to crops.

On that note, the DNR uses hunting as the primary method of keeping the elk population within the 500-900 range. Beyond that number, the herd pushes out into farmland and starts to cause problems, so between 200 and 300 elk are legally harvested by hunters annually — many of whom use guides to help locate the animals during the short fall hunting seasons.

Elk tourism has a strong foothold in the local economy here. When I reported on it for the Gaylord Herald Times in 2013, the manager of the Pigeon River Country State Forest estimated hundreds of visitors come to the forest each year solely to see elk. A log book in the forest headquarters had dozens of entries by folks from all across Michigan, the Midwest, and even British Columbia.

There’s an annual Elk Festival in Atlanta every September and the Chamber of Commerce there focuses much of it’s promotional budget on spreading the word about the herd.

Local farmers and hunters become guides-for-hire come hunting season, when elk hunters lucky enough to draw a license in the lottery seek scouts to improve the odds of filling their kill tags.

Of course, one doesn’t need to be a hunter to seek out or appreciate the majestic sight of a 900-pound elk. One doesn’t even need to venture out of Gaylord’s city limits.

A bull rests inside the city of Gaylord's elk enclosure, where some three dozen animals reside. Photo courtesy Gaylord Area Convention & Tourism Bureau

A bull rests inside the city of Gaylord’s elk enclosure, where some three dozen animals reside. Photo courtesy Beccy Quigley

At the end of Grandview Boulevard, east of Gobbler’s Restaurant, is a viewing area for the city’s own elk herd. A few dozen animals live in the sprawling enclosure and often wander near the fences to feed. If you want a really up-close look at these animals, this is the place.

If an adventure into the wild elk’s range of the Pigeon River Country State Forest is more your style, keep in mind most roads there are seasonal – meaning they are not plowed in winter – and there’s a chance of getting stuck. Cell phone reception is hit and miss so don’t count on AAA to bail you out.

Bring a map and GPS, food, water, warm clothes, blankets, a shovel, tow strap, plenty of gas, and emergency supplies along for the journey. Know your vehicle’s limits. A few people get lost or stranded in the Pigeon River Forest every year – don’t be one of them!

Alright, I’m starting to sound like your dad. Go have fun.

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

A man, a fish sandwich, and his gift to us

Out See Go by Chris Engle, contributor

Let’s start this story way back in 1962.

That spring, with the season of Lent on the horizon, two businessmen were betting that sales of their hamburgers were about to take a hit. Catholics shun meat on Fridays during those 40 days before Easter and there were a lot of Catholics in Ohio who ate at their restaurants.

As the story goes, the two men got creative and made a gentleman’s wager: Whoever sold more of their “burgers” before Easter would earn their new item a place on the menu.

Ray Kroc, obviously a smart businessman since he’s the guy who founded McDonald’s in the first place, hedged his bets with a sandwich that swapped 100-percent beef for a ring of pure pineapple. He called it the “Hula Burger.”

His franchisee and foe in the bet put his money on a Good Friday standby protein: fish. A slab of breaded, deep-fried fish found its way under a blanket of cheese and tartar sauce tucked between two steamed, golden buns.

The reason you never heard of the Hula Burger is because it was trampled by Lou Groen’s “Filet-O-Fish” sandwich. And because I’m writing this on a Friday and was raised by a Catholic mother, I’ve got a good craving going for one right now.

Groen would go on to own many McDonald’s restaurants, along with the company that makes Stop Sticks, those things cops stretch across the highway to puncture a perp’s tires during high-speed chases.

He’d also come into a massive tract of forest and lakes north of Johannesburg and vacationed there regularly with his dear wife, Edna.

 

Johannesburg Lake, as viewed from a popular resting spot for visitors to the Louis M. Groen Nature Preserve. Photo by Chris Engle

Johannesburg Lake, as viewed from a popular resting spot for visitors to the Louis M. Groen Nature Preserve. Photo by Chris Engle

In 2009 Groen, wanting to share his wealth with the good people of Otsego County, approached our local officials about donating this property as a public park. There were a lot of strings attached with the deal – restrictions on use, development and the like – and a lot of meetings were held to sort it all out. “Lou” Groen, then nearly 90, came to each meeting with a sack of piping-hot Filet-O-Fish sandwiches, so many and so often that county officials were tiring of eating them but did anyway because it was the right thing to do.

Much of the 800-acre property is mixed hardwood forest. Photo by Chris Engle

Much of the 800-acre property is mixed hardwood forest. Photo by Chris Engle

 

When all was said and done, 800 acres of forests, trails and lakes became the Louis M. Groen Nature Preserve, a monumental gift to Otsego County and Northern Michigan. Lou died two years later and his wife, Edna, whom I had the pleasure to meet during the dedication in 2009, went shortly thereafter.

That basically catches us up to now and the preserve welcomes guests on foot, bike and horseback to explore its woods and trails. After years of putting it off, I finally went Sept. 30 with my daughter in tow – she rode her half-wheeler as I pulled her behind my mountain bike. Here are my takeaways from the visit.

One of several pieces of rust along "Antique Alley" where old cars and farming equipment have been put to rest. Photo by Chris Engle

One of several pieces of rust along “Antique Alley” where old cars and farming equipment have been put to rest. Photo by Chris Engle

See it in chunks

Unless you’re a triathlete, there’s really no way of covering the entire preserve in one trip. For starters, it’s 800 acres. Secondly, there are 23 miles of trails to see – that’s almost marathon distance – and much of it runs through hills. Take your time and don’t over-exert yourself.

Be willing to explore

One major thing that sets Groen apart from any other trail system I’ve ever explored is the almost limitless choice of route.

While maps there suggest four main trail routes – paths A, B, C or D – there are plenty of “shortcuts” to create your own route. Each path is marked with color-coded posts and each trail intersection is clearly labeled with numbers and wayfinding arrows. Even so, there are dozens of numbered intersections and waypoints which create endless possibilities for new routes. I actually found it a little overwhelming on this first visit and was checking my map often.

Dozens of interpretive signs can be found along the trail, each sharing some information about plants, animals or other features of the property. Photo by Chris Engle

Dozens of interpretive signs can be found along the trail, each sharing some information about plants, animals or other features of the property. Photo by Chris Engle

Layer, hydrate and wear good shoes

There are, at the moment, no paved trails at Groen. The pathways are a network of two-track roads of dirt or wood chips.

If you’re exploring on foot, you’ll want a pair of low-rise hiking boots or running shoes with aggressive tread.

Mountain bikes are a must – street tires won’t be able to handle the soft dirt and wood chips very well. If you’re pushing a stroller, it better be the big-wheeled kind. Leave the rollerblades at home.dsc_0984

I think the best way to see Groen would be on horseback and equestrian riders are permitted one or two days a week. Bikes are not allowed on horse days so make sure to check the weekly schedule. A fall color hike is planned for Oct. 15 from 10 a.m. to noon. Maps of the Nature Preserve >>>

There are restrooms and a drinking fountain at the logging camp which is about a 20 to 30 minute walk from the entrance. You’ll definitely want to bring a water bottle on warm days or if you plan on exerting yourself at all, so plan accordingly. Same goes for clothing – dress in layers so you don’t get too warm.

The ruins of an old logging camp can still be seen with about a 20- or 30-minute walk from the parking area. Photo by Chris Engle

The ruins of an old logging camp can still be seen with about a 20- or 30-minute walk from the parking area. Photo by Chris Engle

That said, I would really love to someday see a paved trail circuit out there. It would not detract from the natural setting and would encourage more people to come see it.

The preserve is located about a mile north of M-32 off Gingell Road, just west of Johannesburg. With fall color season just around the corner, this place should definitely be on your list. And if you work up an appetite, a sack of Filet-O-Fish sandwiches should do the trick.

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and freelance writer in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.

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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.

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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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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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.