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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.