Tag Archives: snowshoe

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