Tag Archives: country

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.

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.