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Sunset Theater nov20/09

Saturday dawned blue and beautiful, filled with November haze and blessed with temperatures warmer than we’ve got any right to expect this time of year. It was a great day for a walk, and out at the W. K. Kellogg Experimental Forest southeast of Gull Lake in Kalamazoo County, people were seizing the opportunity.

I was one of them. With snow in the forecast for next week, there’s no telling when I’ll be able to grab another hike through the woods under such pleasant skies. And the well-maintained, easy-to-walk trails at the Experimental Forest offer slices of the outdoors that are accessible and enjoyable for just about anyone.

Don’t let the “Experimental” part of the name fool you. Kellogg Forest is hardly some sterile laboratory with white-cloaked technicians ambling about. Yes, it’s a world-class MSU forestry research site. But what you’ll find there before anything else is a lovely composite of woods, trout stream, wetland, and field that makes you want to stretch your legs and explore what lies over the hill and around the bend.

To that end, the folks who run the place are very accommodating. According to the website,  “Activities include bow hunting, fishing, biking, hiking, horseback riding, and cross-county skiing, driving the forest loop, and several interpretive trails. Guides are available for group tours.”

The afternoon light was waning when I pulled into the parking lot off of Webster Road north of Augusta. michiganSunset_Theater_1Camera in hand, I headed for the covered bridge that spans Augusta Creek and serves as a gateway to much of the park’s trail system.

The creek is one of the many projects underway at Kellogg Forest. Degraded as a trout habitat in the early 1900s by extant agricultural practices, it is currently being restored, thanks to the hard work of Trout Unlimited and assistance from the Kellogg Forest staff.

The stream threads its way through marsh, fen, and brushy swamp, bordered by the upland woods. On another day in a greener time of year, I might have explored its wetlands, but today, the woodland trail beckoned me toward corridors of pine and hardwood trees.

On October 24, 2001, a violent storm system blasted through Kellogg Forest, leveling three of its experimental tree plantations and damaging three more. Fifty-seven acres were flattened by straight-line winds. But what many would have called a disaster, Kellogg Forest saw as an opportunity for research and profit. You can walk through the woods today and see where the gale swept through, and also the ways in which the staff at Kellogg have set about making lemonade out of lemons.

The sun, hovering like a glowing ball just above the horizon, was filtering its last light through a gray weave of November branches as I rounded a turn in the trail and emerged into an opening. There, a convocation of young fir trees crowded the field in an experimental Christmas tree farm.

“They look like a bunch of fuzzy creatures all gathered together, watching a movie,” said Lisa when she saw my photo. And you know, they do: an audience of evergreens convened at the Sunset Theater, watching the sun descend through the forest.

You can catch the show yourself whenever you feel like it. But I recommend that you not wait too long. Outdoor theaters aren’t much fun once the snows start flying here in Michigan.




Written by Dave.