Tag Archives: otsego

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: The Great Nature Project comes to Treetops

By Chris Engle, contributor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out, See, Go: Shore lunch

By Chris Engle, outdoor contributor

I remember quite vividly my first meal of fish after moving to Gaylord a decade ago, partly because it was exciting and sad in equal parts.

New to town and without a boat, I got to know my surroundings by cruising the back roads in my Ford Escort in search of stream crossings or public boat launches for a place to fish. Guiding my hunt was a snowmobile trail map I permanently borrowed from work at the Gaylord Herald Times and I kept it splayed open on my steering wheel as I drove.

It was late August of 2005 and I was looking for a headwater of the AuSable River, this area’s famed trout stream which I’d never gotten the chance to fish. But where I ended up was a warm tributary of Jones Lake, in northeastern Crawford County, where the rock bass fed like piranhas at the roadside.

With a few minutes of casting a nightcrawler from the culvert I’d collected three or four rock bass in my bucket – not the brook trout I was hoping for but something to satisfy my urge for a meal of fish.

When it comes to looks, rock bass are pretty much the exact opposite of brook trout which are known for their brilliant orange bellies, stark white-trimmed fins and beautiful speckles along their flanks. Rock bass – especially this particular ditch-dwelling variety – have muddy bellies and just enough black parasites speckled in their scaly skin to make you think twice about eating them.

The parasites apparently die when the meat is cooked so I took my catch home to my apartment overlooking Otsego Lake, cleaned them, and cooked the fillets on my single-serve George Foreman Grill.

I know. Sad, right?

Believe it or not, they tasted … edible. Some beer brought over as a house warming present helped wash them down. Actually I was only 20, so it had to have been apple juice. Yep, just juice.

By fall I had a canoe and a few boat launches marked on my map. I caught perch and bluegill and never had to resort to ditch bass ever again.

That next spring I discovered better trout waters and was catching an occasional brookie for my frying pan. Smashing such a beautiful trout in a Foreman grill just seemed wrong.

Shore fishing has always remained one of my favorite things to do so I thought I’d share a few spots in Gaylord area you should try this summer. Here they are, in no particular order, and I hope they lead you to some great fishing.

Otsego Lake State Park fishing pier

This one’s pretty self explanatory. Otsego Lake State Park is about 10 minutes south of town on Old 27. There you’ll find a well-maintained floating fishing pier extending off the south side of the point near the boat launch.

It’s a pretty popular place in the summer but I’ve never had trouble finding a spot to fish off it. There’s three great things about this pier: It reaches into fairly deep water (about 8 to 10 feet) which makes for good fishing, it is wheelchair accessible, and you could hook into a true monster.

Since the mid 1980s the Department of Natural Resources has stocked lake sturgeon in Otsego Lake. These fish reach gargantuan proportions and 50-inch sturgeon are not unheard of. They eat nightcrawlers – coincidentally the same bait you’d use for panfish – so that next strike on your bobber could be the fish of a lifetime.

Bright and Glory lakes

Down near Hartwick Pines State Park in Grayling are two small, deep kettle lakes open to fishing. Bright Lake has been regularly stocked with sunfish and rainbow trout and both lakes have panfish, bass and trout. There’s no stocking data for Glory Lake since 2008.

There’s a fishing platform on each lake and boat access for canoes and kayaks. It’s a good place to stop and eat lunch after touring the old lumber camp at Hartwick Pines.

In case you needed one more reason to bring your rod, the area around Hartwick Pines is home to the East Branch of the AuSable River, so ducking down a gravel road or two-track might take you to some trout water.

The brilliant pattern of teal and gold on a sunfish. Photo by Chelsea Engle

The brilliant pattern of teal and gold on a sunfish. Photo by Chelsea Engle

Horseshoe and Bluegill Lakes

Further south of Otsego Lake State Park, near the county line, is a dirt road heading east. Just a short drive down are two little lakes that are a bobber-angler’s paradise. Take in a sunset while you sit on shore waiting for that next bluegill bite. I like wading there but watch out for leeches.

Big Lake beach

Big Lake lies east of Gaylord. It’s a good place to fish from a boat but the public boat launch offers enough frontage to spread out and fish from shore. You’ll only hit about 6 feet casting straight out, but that’s enough to get into some good weeds for bass, pike and panfish.

Any culvert or bridge

My best piece of advice is to keep your eyes peeled while you’re driving around, especially in the extreme northern or southern parts of Otsego County. Any place where the road crosses a small stream is a potential fishing spot.

In exchange for these tips, I have one request: Please keep these places clean. Too often I find trash strewn at public access sites and it is upsetting. It’s like people only think of themselves and not the others who will come after them. Pick up your garbage and if you see any that’s not yours, pick that up too. It’s for the benefit of the resource and everyone who wants to enjoy it.

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

Me and my dog at Section Four Pond during a July 2009 hike with friends.

Out, See, Go: Adventure is subjective

By Chris Engle, outdoor contributor

A friend of mine works for the U.S. Forest Service in Colorado. His job is to four-wheel and backpack his way up Colorado mountainsides and clear trails with his chainsaw. On his days off, he posts pictures to Facebook for every 14,000-foot mountain he summits in the Denver area. He’s at 24 and counting.

Another buddy in the Forest Service – coincidentally they’re both named Eric – has fought forest fires on an island in Washington’s Puget Sound. He and his fellow firefighters spend days at a time living in the backcountry working 14- and 16-hour shifts digging trenches and bulldozing fire breaks in the trees. They sleep in tents and eat out of cans and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

I, on the other hand, feel like I live on the opposite end of the high-adventure spectrum. I’ve rarely wandered outside of Michigan and have never left the country. I didn’t go to a university where they offered rock climbing or backcountry canoeing as electives. I regret that I’ve never seen Yellowstone National Park or the Appalachian Mountains but it doesn’t mean I never will.

Even so I’ve still taken some really great camping trips with family and friends and some of my best memories come from time spent in the Pigeon River Country State Forest with the two Erics.

I hiked the Shingle Mill Pathway with Eric Collins – “Colorado Eric” – and another friend Nathan in July 2009. We took our time covering the 12-mile loop.

The first day we stopped at Section Four Pond, an emerald-green sinkhole lake once stocked with trout. We fished for an hour in the hot sun before a thunderstorm rolled in and, for the next 20 minutes, it rained harder than I’ve ever seen before. We took shelter under overhanging branches – I chose to sit in a patch of poison ivy.

Once the storm passed Nathan caught a beautiful little rainbow trout that glimmered in the sunshine like a piece of silver jewelry.

That night, by the fire, Eric unpacked a small Rubbermaid container with all the fixings for three smores. He recited a line from “The Sandlot” as he assembled his sandwich of chocolate and marshmallow.

“First you take the graham,” he said. “You stick the chocolate on the graham. Then you roast the mallow. When the mallow’s flaming, you stick it on the chocolate then you cover it with the other end.

“THEN you stuff,” he said, taking a bite. We were rolling laughing with his ridiculously spot-on memory of the 90s movie.

MY FIRST TWO winter camping adventures were shared with Eric Dasso – “Washington Eric” – at Cornwall Flooding in the Pigeon River forest.

On the first trip we spent over an hour chopping through two feet of ice with a hatchet to try and catch a meal of panfish. Our cone-shaped hole tapered to just a couple inches wide when we finally broke through the bottom. Maybe it was all that chopping which scared the fish away but we never even got a bite.

That night our tarp shelter crinkled in the wind so much that we hardly got any sleep.

On the second time out I had a 30-minute lead ahead of Eric snowshoeing through the woods to our campsite. The sun set, it got cold, my sweat froze and I got nervous. My snowshoe caught a hidden branch and I fell. My bag chair, camera tripod and sleeping bag came loose from the straps of my pack and sank into the snow. I was miserable and it was the scariest moment I’ve ever had in the woods.

I collected my things and eventually made it to camp in the dark. I had time to build a fire and dry some of my clothes before Eric finally showed. He had reluctantly followed my tracks into thick tag alders knowing I’d made a wrong turn. Instead of taking the correct route, he pursued me to make sure I was OK.

Now there’s a friend.

THAT’S what these kinds of trips are good for. Whether it’s one night or 10, special bonds form when you spend time together in the outdoors.

Another friend of mine, Alex Code, has climbed rock cliffs in at least six states and met his girlfriend on a month-long canoeing excursion they were leading together in Canada. They had 20-some college freshmen tagging along as they paddled from lake to lake, spending as much time on the water as they did on shore.

He taught one girl, who had never canoed before, how to hold her paddle sideways while portaging over a bog so that it would stop her fall if she were to break through the floating mat of moss.

Another student ran screaming into the woods when the constant swarms of mosquitoes caused him to crack the first night.

He’s spent the night on a rock ledge jutting out from a cliff face and resumed climbing the next day.

Alex told me these stories Saturday while we fished together on Manuka Lake. This was no high-adventure trip, just a short drive and a very short walk onto the ice where we caught a couple bluegill and a bass.

I told him about a five-day hike I took along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the Upper Peninsula – my longest and greatest backcountry trip ever but a cake-walk compared to his experiences.

“I’ve always wanted to do that,” he said. “I love that place.”

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