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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.

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: 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.