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.

Out See Go: Exploring the lower Black River

By Chris Engle, outdoor contributor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The base of the dam.

The base of the dam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, thanks.

No, thanks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out See Go: Aspen Park underground

By Chris Engle, contributor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tunnel of trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

Log pile

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

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

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

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

Bring a sled?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out See Go: Explore the Saunders property

By Chris Engle, contributor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Out See Go: Winter camping on the horizon

By Chris Engle, contributor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Know your limits

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

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

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

Hydrate

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

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

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

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

Cook something

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

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

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

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

Bring bug spray

Hahaha, just kidding. There’s no bugs.

Fire and shelter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out See Go: Explore the Jordan now or later

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deadman’s Hill Overlook

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

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

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

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

Landslide Overlook

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

The day hike

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

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

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

The overnighter

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

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

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

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

Jordan River National Fish Hatchery

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

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

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

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

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

The salmon

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Chris Engle, contributor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sturgeon River Preserve information

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

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

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

Out, See, Go: Fruits of the forest

By Chris Engle, contributor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Chris Engle, contributor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out, See, Go: Find your own worms

By Chris Engle, contributor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once you have a firm grip, the battle begins.

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

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

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

Good luck and happy picking!

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