Tag Archives: michigan

Tapping into springtime

Out See Go
By Chris Engle, contributor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, his system relies almost entirely on gravity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s an easy answer.

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

How to have your own elk encounter

Out See Go, by Chris Engle, contributor

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

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

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

“Elk!” he said. “Two of them!”

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

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

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

Then one more animal appeared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out See Go by Chris Engle, contributor

Let’s start this story way back in 1962.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

See it in chunks

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

Be willing to explore

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

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

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

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

Layer, hydrate and wear good shoes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Paddle the Jordan or 5 other rivers

Out See Go by Chris Engle, contributor

Have you seen the new fountain on the lawn of the Otsego County Courthouse? It’s been a busy spot this summer as a gathering place for Alpenfest revelers and as a place where teenagers chase virtual Pokemon characters with their cell phones. A prophecy made during a push to make Gaylord more friendly to pedestrians proclaimed that a water feature in an otherwise dry downtown area will draw people in – and the prophecy has been fulfilled.

But there’s something you may have overlooked about the fountain which consists of a granite boulder set over a circular pool. Five streams of water occasionally leap from the pool and splash onto the rock, sending rivulets trickling down the giant stone in all directions.

That’s the key: Five streams.

The design phase of the courthouse lawn project took input from the people of Gaylord and a recurring suggestion was for a fountain which would, in some shape or form, represent the waterways that originate in Otsego County. Five streams – the AuSable, Black, Manistee, Pigeon and Sturgeon rivers – all start here. It’s something we’re proud of and the new fountain is a way for us to spread the word to visitors to our town. So far the message has been well received.

There’s one stream that’s not represented by the fountain because it is just slightly outside the borders of our county. Even so, I still consider the Jordan River as one of ours – maybe even moreso than the AuSable which is rightfully claimed by the trout-centric town of Grayling to the south.

I’ve written about the Jordan River before so I won’t go into detail about how it is born from ice-cold springs near Elmira, winds through 18,000 acres of wild forests, feeds a federal hatchery’s 3 million lake trout with fresh water and empties into one of Michigan’s largest inland lakes – Lake Charlevoix, with 62 miles of coastline – at East Jordan.

Wide enough to float in a canoe or kayak, the Jordan River still has plenty of obstacles to maneuver around. Photo by Chelsea Engle

Wide enough to float in a canoe or kayak, the Jordan River still has plenty of obstacles to maneuver around. Photo by Chelsea Engle

Instead, I’ll take you on a short float of its midsection by canoe, which my wife and I did last weekend to beat the heat and you should too as long as this hot weather persists.

We dropped the canoe at Webster Bridge, about six miles south of East Jordan as the crow flies, then spotted my car about four miles downstream at Rogers Road. Unless you want to hitchhike back upstream to your starting point – thumbing for a ride in the midday sun on the shoulder of M-66 is not my idea of fun – then you’ll need to take two cars and park (spot) one at your planned end point.

Webster Bridge, a popular put-in spot on the Jordan River. Photo by Chris Engle

Webster Bridge, a popular put-in spot on the Jordan River. Photo by Chris Engle

There were about a dozen people either putting in or taking out at Webster Bridge when we got there and loaded our canoe with fishing rods, snacks and sunscreen. The blazing noontime sun had no apparent effect on the spring-fueled river which stays somewhere around 50 degrees throughout the summer and stings with your first step in.

“Don’t worry, your feet get numb after a few minutes,” a man joked from his canoe pulled up at the bank.

With a light shove from the bank we were immediately carried away in our canoe. Just 20 feet wide and two feet deep, the Jordan is deceivingly swift. We drifted at a fast walking pace without paddling and often had to steer around deadfalls or under overhanging cedar trees. Snagging on one of these obstacles could easily cause the canoe to roll over and that’s why our camera, phone and keys were locked in a water-tight dry box in the middle of the boat.

In an instant I saw Chels relax in her seat and start to take in the sights and sounds of her first ever river canoe trip. This was only my third time floating a small river – and the second time on the Jordan – and I was falling right into relaxation mode with her.

The Jordan River flows under a canopy of overhanging cedars but plenty of sunshine still makes it through in the middle of the day. Photo by Chelsea Engle

The Jordan River flows under a canopy of overhanging cedars but plenty of sunshine still makes it through in the middle of the day. Photo by Chelsea Engle

It’s hard not to get caught up in the scenery of wildflowers, dancing damsel flies and singing blue jays. Every so often a submerged log slams the keel and jars your attention back on where the current is taking you. There’s a lot to take in because, thanks to the current carrying you swiftly along, the scenery is ever changing.

The only fish photo we managed to get the whole trip -- the small but spunky trout like to jump and throw the hook. Photo by Chelsea Engle

The only fish photo we managed to get the whole trip — the small but spunky trout like to jump and throw the hook. Photo by Chelsea Engle

Fishing from the canoe is difficult as I could only get one or two casts in under the low-hanging branches before I had to change our course with my paddle. If you’re in to trout fishing – and there are plenty of spunky brookies and browns ready to test your ability – then I recommend pulling up to a sandbar and working the river’s deep pools and undercut banks that way.

In two hours we’d covered about 4 or 5 miles of river and had stopped a couple times to cast, swim and snack. We moved slower than everyone else – about 15 kayaks passed us on the way – but our butts were just starting to get sore in our seats when we pulled up to our end point.

A giant willow marks the take-out point at Rogers Road. Photo by Chelsea Engle

A giant willow marks the take-out point at Rogers Road. Photo by Chelsea Engle

The Jordan – and all the other area rivers for that matter – have outfitter services that will gladly set you up with a canoe, kayak, tube or raft for the day and give you a ride to/from the river, making spotting a car or hitchhiking unnecessary. This weekend is going to be another hot one, so pick a river and stay cool.

Information on rivers, outfitters and rentals: http://goo.gl/AYmGhR

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and outdoor columnist. He is a stay-at-home dad in Hayes Township, Otsego County. Contact him at englemobile@gmail.com.

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Out See Go: 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: Last ice at last

By Chris Engle, outdoors contributor

If you like to ski, snowboard, snowshoe or snowmobile, you had an awesome season. Good for you.

If you like to fish, odds are you didn’t. You’re not alone.

For us poor saps who spend the winter staring at a hole in the ice waiting patiently, then impatiently, for the fish to bite, the phase known as “last ice” is a shot at redemption. The time to redeem our season is now.

We launched into December with optimism, our rods and tipups freshly lined and baited with brand-new lures we convinced our spouses we needed. We marched onto the lake with our heads held high and bored through the few inches of ice without even breaking a sweat. For minimal effort, we caught some fish.

December usually treats us well, and January does too. But February is another story.

As the ice and snow mounted this year, temperatures also dropped. February was the coldest on record for Gaylord. The snow and cold makes our job as anglers challenging but it’s important to remember we are not the only ones affected.

Snow and ice blots out what little sun the lake bottom might see in February. Summer’s robust weed beds collapse and decay, snuffing out the remaining oxygen. The anoxic underwater environment is a harsh world in which to live, and fish cope by slowing their metabolism to a standstill.

This point in the year is so hard that it leaves a physical marker in fish. Annual growth rings on scales and ear bones, or otoliths, which can be seen under a microscope, bear dark bands marking where the fish stopped growing. They’re just like the rings of a tree and the dark ring represents February on a fish’s calendar.

Low metabolism means fish have little use for food. That’s why your electronic fish finder and underwater camera can show panfish all day long but not a single one bites. They’re just not that into you.

February is about the time the Department of Natural Resources starts to put out press releases alerting people to the potential of what they call “winter kill” – the inevitable fish dieoff caused by this anoxic phase. It’s normal, but some years are more severe and it can be shocking to lake residents when the receding ice reveals dozens of dead fish near their shore.

Then comes the glorious “big thaw” as the Weather Channel has been calling it lately. We know it here as “t-shirt weather” and I’ve even seen a few enterprising folks wearing shorts. God bless ‘em.

My daughter, Paige, 3, reels in a perch March 10 on Thumb Lake, north of Gaylord.

My daughter, Paige, 3, reels in a perch March 10 on Thumb Lake, north of Gaylord.

A few things start to happen in March. The snowmelt seeps through holes and cracks into the ice and flows into the lake, carrying with it oxygen the same way your aerator works in your minnow bucket. It’s a much-needed breath of fresh air for fish.

Second, sunlight starts to penetrate the ice and warm the lake, getting the fish moving a little more.

Finally, meltwater from the woods flows into creeks, ditches and marshes and eventually into lakes. This tinted water is carrying a message in the form of tannins – compounds from rotting leaves and trees which signal some species that it’s time to spawn.

In Alpena, tannin-stained creeks and ditches turn black with perch this time of year. It’s an awesome sight and a good roadside fishing opportunity.

On Otsego Lake, this meltwater fills up Hoxie Marsh and trickles through a weir and into the lake. This signals pike to head to the north end of the lake where their marsh is ready for them to spawn.

The weir was put in decades ago by the Northland Sportsmen’s Club and the DNR, and volunteers operate it each spring to capture pike and move them into the marsh where they can spawn without other fish species eating their eggs.

Using long-handled nets, club members scoop the pike from the weir, measure and sex them, then release them through a PVC waterslide into the marsh.

A few hundred fish are put in each spring and they’ll remain there for about a month until their eggs hatch. Then, with little fanfare, club members will remove the boards damming the marsh and release the adults and thousands, if not millions, of fry into the lake.

The effort is credited with maintaining a solid pike sport fishery on Otsego Lake and some of those females which get trapped in the weir can top 40 inches.

There is precious little time between now and the day the ice is no longer fishable. In that short window, fishing should pick up. Great weather means it’s also easier to get the whole family out enjoying a sport which is reserved only for the battle-hardened in February.

Put on your shorts and go fishing! The fish are waiting.

– Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and stay-at-home dad who lives in Hayes Township, Otsego County.