Black Creek Snowshoe Hike

By Megan Clute

Photo courtesy of Nancy Leonard

On January 14, 2012,
29 nature enthusiasts enjoyed a snowshoeing journey through the Black Creek Nature Sanctuary Trail. Despite 18 degree temperature and blustery morning weather, participants experienced the beauty of the snow-covered dunes, creeks and rivers leading to Lake Superior. From Michigan Tech students to retirees, the group consisted of both novice and experienced snowshoe hikers. The trip was guided by stewards Peter and Jill Pietila along with MNA member Nancy Leonard. They trekked through the fresh snow of Keweenaw County in conditions that were “pleasant but not too warm” according to Nancy. She also described the trip as picturesque, featuring the frozen rivers and Lake Superior which appeared as if “it could turn to ice in a moment.”

Throughout the journey, participants stopped for pictures on benches conveniently located along the trails for visitors to rest and take in the sights. After reaching Lake Superior, Peter and Jill led the hikers along the shoreline to their home located on a dune in the area. Participants were able to warm up from the hike and enjoy refreshments provided by the stewards.

Photo courtesy of Nancy Leonard

The Black Creek Sanctuary has been owned by the MNA since 1991, and in 2011 it was named one of the 20 Showcase Sanctuaries throughout the state. The sanctuary features two loops of trails, which are both two miles long, that show off the sanctuary’s sand dunes and lagoon formed by the combined waters of the Hills and Black Creeks. Visitors are welcome year-round to participate in activities such as hiking, taking photos, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

Join MNA at our next snowshoe hike at the Gratiot Lake Overlook Nature Sanctuary located in Keweenaw County. The hike will take place Sunday, March 25 from 1-3 p.m. Please visit our website for further details!

Toxaphene Dwindles in the Great Lakes Region

By Mitch Lex

A recent study by the Journal of Great Lakes Research has shown a vast improvement in dwindling levels of toxaphene, a harmful pesticide that has plagued the region long after it was banned in 1982. Toxaphene was used in some areas of the Great Lakes watershed in the late 1970s and early 80s, but the majority of the pesticide entered the region from the south, where it was used heavily for agriculture and was carried north by the wind.

Toxaphene breaks down slowly and accumulates in fish, sediment and other wildlife, which has allowed it to remain in the Great Lakes long after its use was outlawed. To measure the decrease of toxaphene, researchers sampled walleye from Lake Erie and lake trout from the other Great Lakes. Toxaphene levels found in lake trout in Lake Superior showed an 86 percent decrease between 1990 and 2009, while the walleye tested in Lake Erie had the lowest toxaphene concentrations of all the lakes.

Photo: EPA

Perhaps the biggest issue with high toxaphene levels is its effect on humans.  The most common way that people come into contact with the pesticide is through eating contaminated fish, but exposure can also happen by breathing it in, touching it or drinking contaminated water. Toxaphene is a known carcinogen and can damage kidneys, liver and the nervous system.

While the Great Lakes region enjoys reduced levels of toxaphene, other areas might not be as fortunate. As levels in the region decrease, the toxins travel elsewhere, bringing their harmful effects with them.

Deciphering Michigan’s Snowy Forests

By Mitch Lex

As the heart of winter approaches and the beautiful colors of autumn are replaced by naked trees and blankets of snow, differentiating the many types of hardwoods in the mitten state becomes seemingly impossible. Separating conifers and deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves seasonally) might be the only observation one can think to make, but identifying trees like oak, maple and birch can be just as easy in the cold months of winter as it is in the heart of summer or spring—if you are looking for the right things. Although subtle, there are several defining characteristics that can be spotted on bare trees that will help you identify the many species we have here in Michigan.

The first distinctive characteristic to look for when classifying is the branching formation. Trees will have one of two formations—opposite or alternate. Opposite branching is when smaller stems are paired, with one on each side of the larger twig. Maple, ash, and dogwood are all examples of trees that exhibit opposite branching. Alternate branching occurs when the smaller twigs alternate on either side of the larger branch, such as birch, elm and redbud trees. These branching features are often more visible and easier to distinguish in the winter months than they are in warmer seasons when the leaves can disguise them.

Besides the more obvious alternate and opposite formation of twigs, there are a few more subtle differences that can be seen by those with a keen eye. The thickness of twigs, as well as how many there are, can be a telling factor in the tree species—maples and elms tend to have many smaller, thin twigs, while trees such as the walnut have fewer and thicker twigs. For those who are very observant, the buds at the tip of each twig vary dramatically between species and can differ in size, shape, color and texture. Basswood trees, found commonly in Michigan, have a unique bud structure that is a maroon red color and has two scales. Unique features on a branch like the thorns covering a hawthorn tree are also good indicators.

As the most visible and easy part to observe, the bark on trees can be one of the simplest ways to differentiate species all year round. Ridges, flakes, colors, textures and patterns are just a few properties of bark that can help distinguish tree species. The white ash, one of the most common trees throughout the state, has a distinctive diamond shape pattern throughout its ridges that make it easy to identify. Another common tree in Michigan, the paper birch, is known for its white-colored bark that peels in horizontal strips and has small black scars along the trunk.

Fruits, nuts or seeds can also be good species indicators. Animals, wind, or other factors can move these, so the seed or nut must still be attached to the tree unless you are certain of its origin. Nuts from the hickory tree and acorns from several different oak species are just a couple examples that are easy to identify.

These are just a few basic methods to help identify different trees throughout the state in the harsh months of winter. There are many tree identification books available that can help you more accurately classify species and their characteristics. With more than 100 different species and 18 million acres of trees in the state of Michigan, there is plenty of exploring and identifying to do in our forests. I hope this has been a good starting point for your winter adventures!

For more information on deciphering tree species, check out this dichotomous key!