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First Day of Spring March 20 09

Guess what day this is.

If you answered, “Friday, March 20,” you’re missing the point. It’s the first day of spring!

SPRIIIIINNNGGGG!!!!!

It’s finally here! Exuberance! Emancipation! We’ve made it through another cold, snowy Michigan winter, and now comes the payoff—because nothing can beat springtime in this beautiful state of ours.

By now you’ve no doubt seen your first robin and very likely tasted your first seventy-degree day. If you know what to look for, you may also have seen your first wildflower. Pushing up its odd, purple cowls through the ice and still-frozen earth in the swamps and wet woods and by the streamsides, the lowly skunk cabbage leads the pageant of native spring flowers.

Tear off a piece from any part of the plant, give it a sniff, and you’ll see why the skunk cabbage—also known by the equally unflattering appellations polecat weed and fetid pothos—is aptly named. But Symplocarpus foetidus is remarkable for more than just its pungent, burnt-rubber-and-onions aroma. The plant is a miniature heat engine, generating temperatures that average 36 degrees higher than the surrounding air—enough to melt through the surrounding snow and create a microclimate in which the new year’s first pollinating insects thrive while the rest of the world shivers in sub-freezing temperatures.

This ability to manufacture its own warmth is just one of a number of fascinating traits of the skunk cabbage. Learn more about it and you’ll be amazed at some of the qualities this unassuming little plant possesses. Forget the calendar; once I see my first skunk cabbage, I know that spring has truly arrived.

Still, it’s nice to see the calendar make the official click from winter to spring, as it did today at 7:44 a.m. Eastern Time. That was the time of the vernal equinox, when the center of the Sun crossed the equator. A person standing there would have watched the Sun pass directly overhead, while someone at the North Pole would have witnessed the Sun gently kiss the horizon and then ascend upward as six months of uninterrupted daylight began.

Closer to home, this last Wednesday, south of Middleville, I watched this winter’s next-to-last sunset and thought how different it felt from the last sunset of autumn. Transfigured by the waning light, high veils of cirrus drifted like dragon flames across the deep blue of the evening, their colors mirrored in the quiescent waters of Shaw Lake. On the far shore, a row of pine trees stood like dark sentinels silhouetted against the sky. Autumn’s last sunset had portended a descent into darkness, but this evening’s sunset seemed more like a sunrise, whispering a promise of light, of lengthening days and a return to life.

Spring is here—beautiful, gracious spring. The winter was lovely with the frigid beauty of Narnia under the White Witch’s rule. But now, at last, it is time for the redwing blackbird to sing, for pussy willows to don their fuzz in the wetlands, and for the sleeping land to awaken, stretch, and slip through the coming weeks into her emerald finery.

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Written by Dave.

Shapes of Nature Mar 27 09

This amazing, black-winged butterfly is nothing you’re ever likely to spot flitting among the milkweeds in a Michigan field. You can find it, however, at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, where the annual butterfly exhibit is underway in the tropical conservatory through April 30. The fellow here is just one of a multitude of beauties featured at the Gardens, and a dramatic example of the endless array of shapes and colors woven into nature’s tapestry.

With its magnificent greenhouses, nature trails, exhibits, and world-class sculpture park, Meijer Gardens has done a stellar job of showcasing the beauty of both natural and human art, and their graceful interconnection. But you don’t have to visit a conservatory to enjoy the artistry of nature. From cobblestone Great Lakes shores and rugged Keweenaw outcroppings to sunlit, inland fields and quiescent forests…from spider webs strung like dewdrop necklaces among the meadow grasses at sunrise, to silver-edged night clouds passing like swans before the moon…the Michigan outdoors abounds with the masterpieces of a mighty Artist who paints the world in living color.

The shapes of nature—beautiful, quirky, evocative. Shapes within shapes; forms reminiscent of other forms. Remember the childhood pastime of gazing up at the clouds and seeing all kinds of things in their appearance—a sailing ship, a giraffe, a fat man pushing a wheelbarrow? Chances are you still see shapes in the clouds today. Look around you and you’ll notice similarities in other places as well. An old, weatherbeaten stump resembles a woodland gnome. Viewed at just the right angle, a tangle of driftwood becomes an eagle in flight. Along the trailside, a knothole at the base of a tree peers up at you like one eye of a great owl.

Hiking last week out at Pickerel Lake in east-central Kent County, I stopped along the boardwalk to take in the sight of a sunken tree trunk thrusting up out of the waters, its dead branches reaching like old, gray fingers toward the sky. Here was a sculpture worthy of any showroom, and free of charge. Talk about art that integrates with a landscape, this piece of art was the landscape, or at least, a vital part of it—an ensemble of curves and lines, knots and sinew, reflected in the blue, mirror-smooth surface of the lake. No human sculptor could have conceived a more elegant form or planned a more exquisite display.

As spring progresses, the naked linearity of the winter landscape will clothe itself in gentler, vernal attire. Already you can see fuzz on some of the trees, and in another couple of weeks, a red haze will begin to infiltrate the woodlands as the tiny flowers of the maples flush into bloom. In the distance as I write, a large bird is circling in the thermals that come as warmer weather arrives, and a field of stratocumulus is thickening overhead, hinting at moist air pumping in from the south. Today is not exactly a warm day, but it is also not a cold one. If I didn’t have to be in Big Rapids in a few hours, I would take a hike. I love this time of year in Michigan—the time when spring is just beginning to set up shop. The time when nature’s cycle begins anew, and the artwork of the outdoors moves from black-and-white to full color.

The display is just beginning. Walk slowly, keep your senses attuned, and enjoy.

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Written by Dave.

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General Motors faces bankruptcy. The other Detroit auto giants may be next in line, bringing down with them a host of ancillary industries. Jobs in our state continue to evaporate by the thousands, and with them a massive pool of talent as our displaced workforce seeks out greener—or at least, relatively greener—economic pastures in other parts of the country.

Poor old Michigan! With the news daily going from bad to worse, why on earth would anyone want to live here? What’s to love about Michigan?

If at least half a dozen responses don’t instantly snap into your mind, let me help—because the answer is, plenty.

What not to love this incredible state of ours? In every direction—from the Upper Peninsula’s rugged Lake Superior shoreline to the lush vineyards of the lower southwest; from our west coast’s dramatic dunescapes past hundreds of inland lakes and streams to the fertile farmland of the Saginaw Valley—Michigan is an amazing state. We are blessed, wonderfully blessed, with an abundance of natural resources, diversity, interest, and beauty that rival any other state in this great country.

In the face of today’s economic woes, perhaps it’s time to stand back and refocus on all that Michigan has to offer. I love this state. It’s a wonderful place to live, and there are a wealth of factors that make it so. Big city culture and small town charm. Art fairs and Renaissance festivals. Lakes full of fish and forests filled with game. Fine dining and campfire cookouts. Swimming in the summer and skiing in the winter. Nature preserves and hiking trails. The color, richness, and drama of all four seasons…and so very, very much more.

With all this in mind, allow me to introduce What’s to Love about Michigan?—an exclusive WaterlandLiving series dedicated to exploring all the value that this magnificent state of ours affords. One a month, we’ll focus on a particular aspect of Michigan living that will remind you why the Mitten and the Land North of the Bridge are so special, and why no other folks are quite like the Trolls and da Yoopers.

What’s to Love about Michigan? won’t be so much a departure from the regular posts in this blog as an extension of them. Hopefully, your visits to this site have already enriched your appreciation for just how much there is to love about this state! But by taking a somewhat different angle, we hope to deepen your awareness of what makes life in Michigan so worthwhile.

This article is the launch. Next month we’ll focus on an actual aspect of Michigan living. By then, the spring will be well underway. With wildflowers carpeting the woodlands and trout fishermen patrolling the streams, it’s a wonderful season here in the northwoods—and one of the great many things to love about Michigan.

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Written by Dave.

Strolling through the Treetops at Sarrett Nature Center April 10 09

Normally, the only way you can get a squirrel’s-eye view of the landscape is to climb a tree. But east of Benton Harbor, just a mile or so from I-196, the Sarrett Nature Center lets you stroll through the treetops. Weaving fifty feet above the ground through the branches of a bottomland forest, Sarrett’s brand-new Treetop Trail is the most recent addition to director Chuck Nelson’s far-reaching vision for the 1,000-acre preserve.

With the Paw Paw River threading through its heart, Sarrett possesses a remarkably rich ecology, with habitats ranging from upland hardwoods, to floodplain forest, to open fields, to a variety of wetlands, including a unique, alkaline fen. Barred owls prowl the treetops, orchids and carnivorous pitcher plants bloom in the wetlands, and an endless procession of wild birds flit among the feeders outside the observation window at the park headquarters.

I’ve long been a fan of this beautiful sanctuary, with its trails that wind through quiet woodlands and riverine swamps. Amid the frantic pace of our millennial world, Sarrett is an oasis inviting one to slow down, way down, breathe easier, and reconnect with the simplicity that makes life worth living. The preserve is infused with a sense of changelessness. And Chuck Nelson is there to ensure that whatever changes do occur at Sarret enhance its quality and its ability to inspire a greater public appreciation for nature.

Evidently I picked exactly the right day to visit Sarrett. Not only was Chuck there, but so was the retired president of Pearson Construction Companies, Burton Pearson, along with family members visiting from Sweden. Pearson Construction is the firm that built the Treetop Trail, surmounting the challenges of penetrating sixty feet of soupy muck in order to firmly anchor the metal support towers. In the photo, Burton is the gentleman in the blue hat second from right, and that’s Chuck in the green bush hat.

The aerial boardwalk is a truly remarkable accomplishment—an opportunity for hikers to experience what goes on among the topmost branches of a forest, where photosynthesis occurs. But Chuck’s plans for the preserve don’t stop there. Currently, he and his crew are hard at work constructing a couple of small ponds on either side of the sidewalk that leads to the center’s headquarters. When finished, one of the ponds will be rimmed with a marsh. The other will be surrounded by northern forest vegetation, with a miniature sphagnum bog at one end featuring leatherleaf, native orchids, pitcher plants, and other peatland flora. Having model wetlands right outside the door is more than just an incredibly cool idea—it’s also a very practical one, broadening Sarrett’s educational opportunities for school groups and nature clubs.

Of course, you don’t have to join a group to enjoy Sarrett Nature Center. All you need is a nice day, two serviceable legs, and an eagerness to explore. Sarrett is vast, and the trails traverse only a small part of it. But what they do cover reflects the striking diversity of the place. After walking down a steep grade from the uplands into the Paw Paw River valley, you’ll find a well-maintained system of trails and boardwalks to take you safely through floodplain forest, cedar swamp, and other wetlands. Watch out for poison sumac, which grows close by the trailside in the fen area.

During my own hike at Sarrett, I emerged from a grove of white cedars to encounter a rapid transition in the landscape from fen to floodplain. I stopped at a platform along the bank of the Paw Paw to take pictures. To my side, in the placid backwaters outside of the current, a sprinkling of red maple flowers nestled among the tiny green dots of emerging duckweed. Sprigs of spring-fresh grass poked out of the shallows, a down-payment on the fecundity of the coming season. Today was still chilly, in the upper forties, but the sun was bright, the redwing blackbirds were trilling, the odd, speckled cowls of skunk cabbages dappled the wet woods, and in every respect, the spring was progressing. Tomorrow would be warmer. And at Sarrett, the ongoing, subtle pageantry of the woods and wetlands would continue, proceeding softly and serenely toward abundance.

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Written by Dave.

Bradford Dickinson White Nature Preserve April 24 09

Now is the time of year when the wild leeks are greening the forest floor at Bradford Dickinson White Nature Preserve. Of course, you can find this twin-leaved, odoriferous member of the onion family carpeting sections of rich woodland pretty much anywhere in Michigan. But it’s a double pleasure to see the leeks announcing spring’s arrival in earnest at the White Preserve, where the lay of the land is picturesque and the simple but adequate, clearly marked foot trail invites hiking.

Located off of 36th Street south of Lowell, Michigan, the 45-acre preserve is owned by the Land Conservancy of West Michigan, which maintains thirteen unique, ecologically important properties such as Saul Lake Bog, Lamberton Lake Fen, and Lake Breeze. The Bradford Dickinson White Preserver is a place of contrasting terrain, of hillsides clad in oak, maple, and groves of red pine, slanting down to a cold water stream that threads its way through a shrubby wetland filled with spicebush, Michigan holly, poison sumac, poplar, and red osier dogwood.

Yesterday my lovely friend Lisa and I headed to the preserve with our cameras to enjoy a short but pleasant day hike. The temperature was cool but not unpleasant, just at the point where you wonder whether to wear your jacket or leave it in the car, and the sky was a flawless blue. With the first leaves barely beginning to appear on the shrubs, the afternoon light poured from above unhindered, bathing the trees in golden radiance and warming the wildflowers uncurling in the forest duff below.

A short jaunt into the preserve took us to a footbridge over the stream. It was a place to pause and take pictures. White Preserve is a cornucopia of images: huge, knobbly oaks with immense branches spreading heavenward. Smaller trees with twisty trunks corkscrewing up along the trailside. A clump of shining clubmoss butting up against a leafy knoll, looking for all the world like miniature evergreen trees. An old, dead trunk pockmarked with woodpecker holes. Last year’s leaves hanging from an oak sapling, backlit by the sun and glowing like Oriental lanterns.

Further down the trail, a young mullen spread its pale, fuzzy leaves in a sea-green rosette. If plants were children’s toys, mullen would be a stuffed animal—round, furry, and friendly. It’s not a plant I expect to find in the woods. Mullen is an inhabitant of the fields, prairies, and roadsides, not the woods. But this one evidently had a mind of its own, and it seemed to be doing just fine growing where had rooted.

Bradford Dickinson White Nature Preserve is a pleasant and easy place to hike. Its topography is varied and interesting, and the trail winds for roughly three quarters of a mile up hills and down through the bottomland, but no part of it is particularly challenging provided you’ve got two good legs and can walk up a flight of stairs without taxing yourself severely. A visit will always pay dividends, even some rare ones. You just might come across a pileated woodpecker, or perhaps a barred owl. At the very least, you’ll find yourself losing a few of your cares and regaining a piece of yourself that’s easy to lose amid the frenzy of daily affairs. The Michigan outdoors can do that for you. It has a God-designed, restorative impact. Set aside an hour or two this week, hit the trails, and experience it for yourself.

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Written by Dave.

Where the Stream Winds May 1 09

Where I grew up as a kid on the outskirts of Cascade, Michigan, it was a quick scramble from my backyard across the Rainbow Bridge to the woods behind our house. From there, the forest stretched for hundreds of acres all the way out to the Thornapple River and the expressway. It was a green paradise threaded with trails of my own making, and the Rainbow Bridge was its gateway.

The Bridge was in reality an old, living tree that had fallen long ago across the sandy-bottom stream that bordered my parents’ property. Strained by its own weight, the trunk had bent, forming a graceful arch that a child—or, for that matter, an adult—could walk across from our yard into the waiting woods, where the upper half of the old hardwood patriarch rested on the ground, its live branches thrusting skyward among the spicebush and witch hazel. The Rainbow Bridge is a fond memory of my boyhood, and so is the stream.

Ah, the stream! From its headwaters by the airport several miles away, it broadened rapidly as it wound its way through the swampy bottomlands beneath the forested ridge that overlooked my neighborhood, flowing through log tangles and around innumerable bends and sandy points before dispersing into a marshy bayou that emptied, in turn, into the wide, friendly river. There were carp in that creek, which some of the other neighborhood boys used to try to spear, and rumor had it that trout had once dwelt there. I had never seen any, but the creek was certainly deep, cold, and swift enough to have harbored them.

I have walked along many streams since those days, and I have enjoyed every step, even the ones that were wetter and muddier than I anticipated. There is a unique quality about flowing water, a combination of movement and tranquility. Where a creek is, there is life. Fish swim in it. Wildlife drink from it. Water striders skate across its surface. Trillums and trout lilies grace its banks.

Not all streams in Michigan are the same, though. Some thread through the thick interiors of cedar swamps, their waters brown like tea from the soil’s peaty tannins. Others meander through grassy fens that stretch in luxuriant, emerald expanses under the early spring sunshine. Still others wind gently through wooded valleys, as did the stream of my youth, making their bubbling, unhurried journey from their headwaters to some greater river, and ultimately to one of the vast Great Lakes.

Where do streams start? When you look at a map, they seem to simply appear out of nowhere. But each thin blue line that traces its way across the paper has a unique origin. A spring on the side of a wooded hill. Runoff converging from a swamp, its drainage gathering, becoming a current. Or perhaps a no-nonsense opening along a lakeshore, where a stream can waste no time getting about its business.

Northeast of Belding, Michigan, in the Flat River State Game Area, there is just such a lakeshore with just such a stream head. The lake is remote, tucked away amid the backwoods—exactly the way I prefer my lakes—with a gravel road bridging the mouth of the stream where it empties out of the eastern shore and begins its pilgrimage through the forests and wetlands of Montcalm County.

One night early last autumn I stood on the shores of that lake, right by the headwaters of the stream, where the current began to pick up beneath braided strands of loosestrife arching out from the bank, and watched the September sun set. A gentle billow of fair-weather cumulus drifted along to the west, looking for all the world like a pile of vanilla ice cream coasting through the sky, its image mirrored in the lake waters.

It doesn’t take much to make me happy. It shouldn’t take any of us much. Perhaps one of the blessings we’ll rediscover in these austere times is how little it really takes to be rich. In the words of Paul the apostle, “Having food and clothing, let us therewith be content.” Contentment is simple, or at least, it can be. Simple as watching the colors of a sunset play on a stream whose waters flow placidly through God’s great outdoors.

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Written by Dave.

Great White Trilliums May 8 09

Have you noticed? The trilliums are in bloom.

Where they grow thickest, you can often see broad stretches of rich, open maple and beech woods carpeted with white, as if someone had strewn popcorn through the hardwoods. Of all the spring wildflowers, the great white trillium is the icon of this time in the northwoods when the forest floor comes alive with color.

For the past two weeks I had been laid up with a nasty bug. I finally reemerged from my enforced confinement, where life had been reduced to four walls and many a bowl of homemade chicken soup, to discover that spring had not waited for me. What had a short time before been just the first hints of emerging greenery—wild leeks popping up in the woods, the first Canadian anemones and a few pioneer trout lilies showing their blooms—had become a full-blown explosion of color and life.

My first tentative, post-convalescent hike told me that I was by no means up to snuff yet physically. But by my second outing earlier this week, I had improved greatly, and was in good enough shape to finally enjoy the season’s progression along the Coldwater River.

Stately sycamores grace both sides of the river along the Dolan Trail where I went walking. Their striking olive, beige, and gray mottled bark so much resembles camouflage that you’d swear nature had cloaked the trunks in RealTree. The woods along the trail are marked by large trees of every kind—huge sycamores, big maples, immense old beeches. With large branches spreading high overhead, the understory is thin, and the presiding mood is spacious, ancient, and cathedral-like, the way I have always pictured Sherwood Forest. Pileated woodpeckers nest there, and I once watched an enormous gray owl hopscotch through the treetops. On this day, as I sat by the bluff just below where the fast-flowing river forks into two channels, an otter slipped along the opposite bank and disappeared into a hole.

Virginia bluebells were at their peak, covering large patches of the woodland in an Impressionistic azure wash. Fat bumblebees moved busily among the flowers, poking their heads into the long, bell-like tubes. I’ve never been stung by a bumblebee and I hope never to acquire the experience. Judging from their size, I’m sure the bees pack a wallop. But they seem to be docile, peace-loving creatures that pay little attention to me. We’ve ranged through the same stands of bluebells together for many springs, coexisting, the bees pursuing with single-minded purpose their mission of pollinating the flowers and ensuring that in the few places where this rare Michigan wildflower grows, it spreads and prospers in profusion.

Unlike the Virginia bluebell, the great white trillium is fairly easy to find. Most Michigan residents know it by sight. With its three rich, creamy white petals and three broad leaves, Trillium grandiflorum is a flamboyant plant, commonly growing in colonies too large to overlook. Not that it grows everywhere. I don’t find it in oak woods, which tend to be a bit sterile overall. The trillium is a friend of maples, beeches, and rich, black soils, and it prefers woods edges and settings where light can filter through rather than deep, heavily shaded forest interiors.

From now until late May, this queen of the spring wildflowers holds court. In another week or two, look for some of the older flowers to start turning pink. Another species of trillium has dark red petals, but the two plants are distinctly different. There are in fact a number of trillium species native to Michigan, most being considerably rarer than the great white trillium. The toad trillium’s hallmark is its odd, mottled leaves; the painted trillium has a striking, crimson V on each of its three white petals; the diminutive snow trillium is one of the earliest of the spring wildflowers.

But the great white trillium is the belle of them all–showy,  stately, graceful, an emblem of the Michigan wildwoods in the spring.

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Written by Dave.

In Search of the Painted Trillium May 15 09

If I seem to be going a little wildflower crazy lately, please bear with me. I promise I’ll shift to other topics. But of all the seasons in Michigan, spring is the time when the woods come to life in a gentle but irresistible explosion of color. Much of that color is available for anyone who cares to look. But some of it is so rare that you could spend a lifetime traipsing through the forests and never get so much as a glimpse. Such is the painted trillium.

I take particular delight in sharing the images in this post, knowing that I’m offering you something most unusual and, I think you’ll agree, quite beautiful. While common farther east in the Smoky Mountains and New England states, Trillium undulatum grows in Michigan in only a handful of locations near Port Huron. The Michigan Nature Association (MNA) has had the foresight to purchase some of those sites for preservation “in perpetuity.” Other sites are subject to the vagaries of human impact.

Last Monday Lisa and I made the drive east to a place where I knew the plants grew. But it had been quite a few years since the last time I had visited the location. Since it was a property of the MNA, I wasn’t concerned whether the site still existed. It was more a matter of whether I could still find it.

I did, and so did the mosquitoes. The day was cool, almost chilly, but that didn’t deter swarms of the hungry little monsters from descending on us. I hadn’t taken them into account, and both of us were wearing only short-sleeved shirts. Hopping back in the car, we made a dash to Port Huron and purchased some insect repellent. That did the trick. Back at the preserve, we still found ourselves surrounded by a penumbra of mosquitoes, but while they were a nuisance, they didn’t land on us and bite. Off we went into the woods with our cameras.

Painted trilliums don’t form extensive colonies like the familiar great white trillium, Trillium grandiflorum. They grow singly or in groups of two or three. Here in Michigan, we found the plants growing on hummocks festooned with partridge berries and wild lilies of the valley in wet woods populated by eastern hemlock and paper birch. While I never saw the trilliums growing directly below the hemlocks, they seem to like having the evergreens nearby.

At the same preserve, we also came across another uncommon trillium. The red trillium, Trillium erectum, resembles the common, white trillium in the shape and color of its leaves. But its deep, burgundy petals distinguish it clearly. The pretty flower hangs shyly below its umbrella of three leaves, making it a bit of a challenge to photograph. Plan on getting belly-close to the soil if you want to get pictures. But the results are worth the effort.

Like many wildflowers, the red trillium goes by a number of alternative names. Wakerobin is picturesque enough. Stinking Benjamin and wet dog trillium are a bit less flattering, deriving from the pungent aroma of the flowers.

Never pick a trillium. This is particularly true for rarer species such as the painted trillium, but the rule applies to all trilliums. Pick one below the leaves and you’ve killed the entire plant. It won’t grow back the following spring. I know, I know…a bouquet of trilliums would make a wonderful gift for your sweetheart. But it would also make an illegal one, since all trilliums are protected by law.

So enjoy trilliums outdoors, where their beauty is freely on display. If you’re lucky, you may encounter one of the more uncommon varieties, such as the red trillium.

And if you’re fortunate enough to look in exactly the right place at the right time, you may even find the painted trillium. If you do, be sure to congratulate yourself for me. You’ve seen something very few people in our state ever see. Enjoy it—and let it grow in peace. Some things need and deserve to remain untouched.

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Written by Dave.

The scent of wild olives and lilacs.

Trees leafing out in the warm May sun.

Fishermen finessing their catch through a swift current..

Sandhill cranes ratcheting in the wetlands. 

I love spring in Michigan, don’t you?

Beyond winter’s snowy domain lies the season when the land returns to life. Spring may come to our state later than we’d like, but when it arrives, it does so with energy. The redwing blackbirds reappear to stake out their territory in the countryside. Trout lilies and hepaticas grace the woodlands, and marsh marigolds light the swamps. As the days lengthen, the warming skies alternate between glorious fair weather and lightning-laced storms. It’s all part of the drama and pageantry of spring in this beautiful and diverse state of ours.

I came across Lucy Kish and Charlie Ellis at the Flat River Grill in Lowell. They couldn’t have picked a more pleasant evening to enjoy dinner there on the outdoor patio, with the river gliding by just a stone’s throw away.

“What do you love about spring in Michigan?” I asked them.

“The trees leafing out,” Lucy replied. “The flowers,” said Charlie. “The warmer weather—though I’m a four-season guy.”

I suppose it’s because we get all four seasons here in Michigan that spring is so special. And Charlie is not alone in appreciating the flowers. After winter’s black-and-white austerity, the explosion of color that characterizes April, May, and June is a highlight for anyone who calls Michigan home.

I myself am pretty gonzo about the spring flowers. With its abundance of water and vast variety of ecosystems, Michigan is a botanist’s dream, home to hundreds of colorful treasures such as the wild phlox in this photo. But of course, this time of year offers plenty of other delights as well for the outdoors enthusiast.

In Fallasburg Park, while I was photographing the Flat River from the footbridge, a fisherman worked his way out into the water and began casting. At least one of the things he loved about spring in Michigan seemed pretty clear, but I asked him the question anyway.

“I’ll tell you something,” he said. “I come from Austin, Texas. There, you have to travel a long way to see the countryside. Here…” He shrugged. “The outdoors is easy to get to.”

Indeed it is. Whether your passion is fishing, or gardening, or hiking, or turkey hunting, springtime in our state is a season when the outdoors opens for business with as many options to offer as there are kinds of people to enjoy them.

What’s to love about Michigan this time of year? Chances are, you’ve got answers of your own.

So…what do you love about Michigan in the spring?

Why not drop us a comment and share your thoughts.

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Written by Dave.

Covered Bridges of the Flat River may 29 09

I have yet to see a river in Michigan that wasn’t a beauty to behold, at least in its better stretches. But the Flat, unmarred for most of its journey from its headwaters in Six Lakes to its juncture with the Grand in Lowell, is an exceptionally lovely river.

Granted, my opinion may be a bit slanted, as I know the Flat better than any other river except the Thornapple. Years ago, a friend and I canoed from Belding to Lowell, a distance of eleven miles as the crow flies. But a river isn’t a crow, and its ideas of how to get from point A to point B involve many a twist and turn. Going by memory and looking at the map, I’d say that my buddy and I covered roughly twenty miles in what amounted to a full working day of paddling—so precisely an eight-hour shift that we could have punched time cards by it.

Years later, I and my pastor at the church I attended dropped a couple of kayaks into the water up at Greenville and drifted downstream all the way down to Belding. The crow on that day would have had an easy five-mile flight, but the river had its own creative ideas about how to accomplish the trip. Not having looked at a map, neither of us were prepared for all those curves through the state game land, and particularly for the diversion we encountered on what we thought was the last leg of the journey. At a rough guess, I’d say we paddled twelve miles that day.

But time on the Flat River is always time well spent. With high, wooded banks punctuated by marshy shores and open fields, and with broad, lazy backwaters above its dams, the Flat offers an ever-changing feast of scenery for kayakers and canoeists. Among its most distinctive and picturesque views are its two covered bridges.

Five river miles upstream from Fallasburg Park lies Whites Bridge. A historical marker tells its story:

This picturesque covered bridge, one of the last of its kind in Michigan, was built in 1867 by Jared N. Brazee and J. N. Walker, builders of several covered bridges in this area. The name of the bridge derives from the White family, a prominent pioneer family. The crossing of the river here was known as White’s Crossing before the first primitive bridge was built. In 1840, a bridge of log-corduroy construction was erected. It was replaced by this covered bridge, costing $1,700. It is of the through-truss type with a gable roof. The hand-hewed trusses are sheeted over with rough pine boards. Wooden pegs and handcut square iron nails are used to secure the various parts of the bridge. White’s Bridge has been in constant use since 1867, proof that it was well made.

Just upstream lies the Whites Bridge Dam. The stretch of river that begins below the dam and flows below Whites Bridge past Fallasburg Park and on into Lowell is, in my opinion, one of the prettiest pieces for kayaking—or canoing, though when the water is low, parts of it are a bottom-scraper.

Once you reach Fallasburg Park, look for the Flat River’s second, better-known covered bridge. The Fallasburg Bridge lies at a curve of the road on the southeast fringe of the park, right by the historical village of Fallasburg. If you live anywhere in Kent County, and if you enjoy picnicking at parks and outdoors activities, then chances are good you not only know of this beautiful old bridge, but have driven over it at one time or another. It’s a sturdy and serviceable tribute to the craftsmanship of the pioneer era in Michigan. Just be careful not to speed across it. A sign on the bridge advises motorists that there’s a $5.00 fine for proceeding any faster than a walker’s pace!

The covered bridges of the Flat River. Rustic, rugged, and elegant, they’re a part of Michigan history—a reminder of simpler times when beauty, form, and function came together in things that were made to last.

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Written by Dave.

The Scent of Locusts June 5 09

When you’re this close to a clump of locust blossoms, it’s a given that you can smell them. The fragrance comes with the view—and that’s a good thing, I think you’ll agree. The heady scent of black locusts is a part of their considerable beauty, and one of the delights of the Michigan countryside this time of year.

In late May and early June, all across the state, groves of locust trees step out of hiding and array themselves in lavish festoons of white blossoms. The locust isn’t exactly a flamboyant tree, just one that attracts attention. Any other time of year, its beauty is subdued, the knobbly branches and delicate, ladder-like braids of compound leaves melding unremarkably into the green texture of the landscape. But now, in this lush season of rings and weddings, is the time when the black locust stands resplendent, like a shy maiden who, donning her wedding gown, is transformed into a stunning, richly perfumed bride.

Drive down any country road and chances are good that you’ll encounter the black locust. Here is a cluster of trees overarching the way ahead of you on either side. Yonder stands a solitary giant clad in white. In the distance, a grove on the edge of a pasture shines in the slanting sun. Its amazing how a tree one rarely notices for eleven months of the year suddenly seems to be everywhere.

Yet it’s the smell of the black locust that I find particularly captivating. There have been times when I’ve found myself tooling down the road with my car windows down, not paying any particular attention to my surroundings, when suddenly an intoxicating fragrance has filled the air. It’s a scent that’s impossible to ignore, or—once a person has experienced it—to forget. Instantly I’ve snapped to attention and, sure enough, found myself passing through a cluster of locust trees conducting a seminar on the sense of smell.

Okay, riddle time: how is the black locust related to your supper time? Answer: it’s a member of the pea family. That’s right—that fifty-foot-tall tree decked with white flowers growing by the woods edge is related to those jolly little green peas you pile onto your dinner plate. Just compare the flowers and seed pods of the one to with the other and you’ll see the resemblance. Not that you’d want to shell out the long, brown pods of the black locust, cook the beans, and eat them. The pea family is a huge family with a lot of members, and not all of them are edible. Some are in fact toxic, the black locust being a case in point. So please refrain from any ideas of including it in your table fare.

But definitely take time to enjoy the beneficence that this tree has to offer your visual and olfactory senses. Now is the time. Out there, where the road winds over the next hill and the late afternoon sun gilds the landscape, one sniff is all you need to remind you that the locusts are in bloom.

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Written by Dave.

When you think of Michigan, you can’t help but think of water and lots of it. Sixty-four thousand nine hundred and eighty inland lakes, according to DNR statistics. Three thousand two hundred and eighty-eight miles of Great Lakes shoreline—or 4,987 miles, if you include all the Michigan islands. As for rivers, don’t ask. You’ll hurt my brain. The point is, this state of ours, surrounded as it is by four of the five Great Lakes, is abundantly blessed with water.

So if you’re a fisherman, it’s a no-brainer that the fishing here is fantastic. Whether you’re a bass pro armed with cutting-edge equipment or a kid hunting for panfish with a cane pole and bobber-whether you enjoy trout fishing in the solitude of a northern stream, or trolling for walleye in the broad waters of Lake Erie, or muscling in steelhead at the Sixth Street dam in Grand Rapids, or prowling the choppy waters of the Keweenaw Bay in search of lake trout–Michigan is unparalleled when it comes to the kinds of fishing you can do and the abundance of fish at your disposal.

Just ask Ben Kroll. Ben lives in Hamilton, but when I ran across him, he was bringing in his boat after a session out on Hall Lake in the Barry County State Game Area. Since my own experience with that location has been limited to an occasional bit of shore fishing, I was curious what Hall Lake had to offer from the vantage of a small craft. Mostly panfish, Ben said. Bass, too, but not big ones. If you like to eat bluegills, though, this is a great lake. Ben told me he likes to fish for ‘gills using a fly instead of live bait. He is first and foremost a fly fisherman, he said, showing me the fly rod and reel he takes with him on the waters along with the rest of his gear.

“So tell me,” I asked, “what do you love about fishing in Michigan?”

“The variety,” Ben replied. “No two lakes are the same. The fishing here isn’t bland. There are a lot of fish, and a lot of ways to fish them.” Ben enjoys all of those ways, but being a fly fisherman at heart, his favorite approach is river fishing. “Steelhead are fine,” he said, “but I’d rather fish for brookies and rainbow trout.”

Holly Woodsworth would agree wholeheartedly with Ben’s love for rivers. When I met her, she was sitting on the bank of the Grand River in Lowell, waiting for a strike on one of the three lines she had in the water. She’s a friendly, gregarious woman, and when I asked her what she loved about fishing in Michigan, her response was immediate. “Lots of fish!” she said. Holly used to live in New Mexico, a state not exactly known for its blue ribbon fishing waters. Here in Michigan, she and her husband and three young daughters can fish to their hearts’ content.

“My dad first took me fishing when I was three years old,” she told me. She’s been at it ever since. “Fishing is so relaxing and calming, especially here on the river,” she said.

To me, Holly was perfect proof that you don’t need a lot of expensive equipment to enjoy a day of fishing. Her setup consisted of three good, old-fashioned close-faced reels, and while I didn’t ask, I’m almost certain they weren’t matched up with $300 Loomis rods. But what caught my eye was the rig she was using to prop up her poles while she waited for a strike: a stout branch stuck in the ground, with a perfect right angle to it that supported Holly’s poles perfectly.

Earlier that day, the family had been fishing up the road a few miles on the Flat River. Holly’s husband had left his pole momentarily, and when he turned around, it was disappearing into the water. Naturally, he did what any smart, sane outdoorsman would have done and waded in after it. Grabbing his pole, he discovered that a fish was on the other end. A BIG fish. After a brief but intense battle, he hauled in an immense sucker–not necessarily the specialty of a river loaded with smallmouth bass, panfish, and trout, but what the heck. You take what you get, have fun with it, and then release it if it’s not what you’re looking for. Not everything has to end up in the frying pan.

If you love to fish, then I need not tell you what a paradise Michigan is for pursuing your passion. But you can probably tell me. What is it about fishing in Michigan that you love? If you’d like to share your thoughts, your knowledge, a favorite fishing tale, or whatever, please drop us a comment. We’d love to hear from you.

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Written by Dave.

Along the Loda Lake Trail July 19 09

I had thought the time for pink ladyslippers was past, at least in the woods if not in the bogs. But a few late bloomers gave Lisa and me a pleasant surprise earlier this week along the trail at Loda Lake.

Dave has already written about this remarkable backwoods wildflower sanctuary in a previous post, but the subject bears revisiting. I’ve known of Loda Lake since I was twelve or thirteen years old, and it is truly a special place. Located in the heart of the Manistee National Forest eight miles north of White Cloud, sixty-one miles north of downtown Grand Rapids, and eighty-eight miles from my hometown of Caledonia, the lake is situated in the transition zone between the hardwoods of southern Michigan and the northern forests that extend from around Newaygo toward the bridge. Between Dave’s post and the Loda Lake website, you can get a good feel for the sanctuary’s history,  a partial list of its flora, and other details. No need for me to repeat what has already been said, but I thought you might enjoy a few personal glimpses from along the trail.

It had been quite a few years since my last visit to Loda Lake. But nothing about the place had changed. The only noticeable human impact has been minimal and positive—some handy, low-key interpretive markers along the trail that identify various native plants such as partridgeberry, trailing arbutus, and starflower. The boardwalk through the wetlands and the lakeside trail were as I’ve always remembered them, as is the tranquility of the place.

Lisa and I began our hike at the boat launch, where pitcher plants were blooming in the boggy shoreline. From there, we followed the trail east around the lake, stopping at different places to take pictures and savor nature’s subtle offerings to the senses: the faint, sweet smell of wetlands…Impressionistic lily pads dotting the water…the taste of fresh wintergreen leaves…the call of a woodpecker from somewhere nearby…the dance of dragonflies by the shoreline.

Loda Lake was the first place where I encountered the painted trillium in Michigan. That was many years ago, back when I was a kid, and the painted trilliums were not endemic, but had been transplanted. I have no idea whether they still grow at Loda Lake. I suspect that they didn’t survive long, as the habitat may not have been quite right. But hundreds of other Michigan wildflowers, ferns, mushrooms, trees, and shrubs find perfect conditions within Loda Lakes’s varied ecological niches—its old farm, fields, pine plantations, northern hardwood forest, bog, and the lake itself. The wildlife, too, enjoys plenty of cover and room to move about, even deep-woods denizens such as the pileated woodpecker. If you’re lucky—or unlucky, depending on your point of view—you may even spot an occasional black bear.

Loda Lake. Named after an Indian princess, it captures and preserves a slice of natural Michigan. Come savor the whisper of the wind through the treetops, the scent of white pines, and the play of sunlight on the waters. It’s an easy and pleasant drive north of Grand Rapids and beyond Newaygo to the place where the northwoods begins.

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Written by Dave.