Seeking Wilderness in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

photos and story by Lauren Ross, Communications & Events Coordinator

On a busy holiday weekend in late summer, I drove north as many people do, through slow-moving construction traffic, and past backed up lines of cars at the tollbooth on the Mackinac Bridge, continuing on until the number of cars on the road dwindled and the primary landmarks became decaying, abandoned motels and towering rows of pines. From there, turning off the main road onto a dirt road, I followed my GPS to an old forest service road (more two-track than road) up and down hills, and swerving left and right to avoid large rocks. Eventually I reached the end of the road, a big yellow sign on a pole announced “ROAD ENDS.”


At the trailhead a boot brush station informs visitors of the need to “Stop Invasive Species in their Tracks.” Beyond that, a trail is barely visible among the roots and rocks of the forest. I am grateful for the white diamonds nailed to trees that provide reassurance I am still on the path. It’s half-past three in the afternoon now, and the warmth of the sunlight peaks through cracks in the forest canopy. A recently downed tree partly blocks the trail about halfway in, but makes a nice seat as I swing my legs over. I know I am nearly there when I begin seeing blue diamonds through the trees—indicating the North Country Trail.


An old military-style canister rests on a post at the junction, inside are maps and a notebook for trail users to sign. There is a mix of factual information and colorful commentary on people’s treks. I continue straight across the NCT toward an opening in the trees. I have to duck past a few low-hanging branches, but soon come out onto a rock face to see the expanse of thousands of acres of forest, as far as I can see in all directions. A creek meanders through the trees several hundred feet below, and I am struck by the immense silence out on this cliff face. With barely a bird chirping, only a light breeze rattling the leaves overhead, I feel I must whisper to myself thoughts of awe and delight so as to not disturb the peace.


Back on the NCT, I headed in search of a suitable spot to set up my tent. The goal, an amazing sunrise view off to the east, overlooking those thousands of acres of forest. I finally decided on a spot about a mile from the initial overlook and set up my tent a safe distance from the edge of another cliff. Boiling some water to rehydrate my backpacking meal, I watched the long shadow of the ridge I was on extend out over the forest below as the sun began to set behind me to the west. I walked out onto the bluff and watched the nearly-full moon shine brightly in the bluish-purple sky that was becoming gradually darker. Then, with what remained of the day’s light I went to hang my food bag in a tree to keep it out of reach of any bears in the area.

A panoramic view from the overlook near camp.


At 3 a.m. I woke to my alarm as planned and laced up my boots, grabbed my camera, and carefully made my way to the cliff’s edge, my headlamp lighting the way. After setting up my tripod and camera, I turned off my headlamp and let my eyes begin to adjust to the darkness. Faintly in the sky over the ridge to the north, I could see the flashes of light indicating the aurora borealis was active, and so I released the shutter on my camera. “Pillars!” I spoke more loudly to myself now—a measure of security to ensure that my presence didn’t surprise any wildlife in the night. For nearly an hour I watched the lights dance, shrinking and growing and shrinking again in intensity.

The northern lights made a much-appreciated appearance overnight.


At 6:30 a.m. I woke again, the black sky turning gray as it began to regain its blue hue. In the forest below a fog had formed in the cool night air, and as the sun rose up over the horizon it released the moisture from the confines of the tree canopy where it gathered in low spots around creeks and ponds. With the aid of the fog, individual trees stood out in the forest below, and features of the landscape that were previously camouflaged became well-defined. The sun rose up over the nearby ridge, warming my face after a chilly night, and signaling that it was time to pack up and hike out before the day became too hot. But for one last moment, I took a deep breath of the fresh forest air and reveled in all that I had witnessed.

Sunrise from camp.


In Michigan, few places remain where people can experience nature on such a large scale. And though we have been reminded in recent years how important connecting to nature can be for our minds, bodies, and souls, threats continue to arise that could erase those places as we know them. Difficult to ignore were the flashing red lights of distant wind turbines even in this very remote place, a reminder that human-altered landscapes are everywhere. And like a crumpled piece of paper, these places, once altered, can never be the same again. So, they deserve our protection now.

Learn more about a coalition to protect this wilderness area in Michigan Nature Presents: Keep the U.P. Wild

Life on the Brink: Endangered Butterfly Gets a Helping Hand

Michigan nature is so full of wonder that… Some of the rarest species can be found here.


Once common across much of the Midwest, now one of the rarest butterflies—the globally endangered Poweshiek skipperling—exists in only a handful of locations in Manitoba (Canada) and northern Oakland County, including at an MNA nature sanctuary. Over the course of just a few decades, the population of Poweshieks has crashed, for reasons mostly unknown (see Plight of the Poweshiek story map here). In the most recent surveys in 2021 and 2022, the number of wild Poweshiek skipperlings surveyed in the field has continued to decline.

Poweshiek skipperling. Photo by Cale Nordmeyer, Minnesota Zoo.


An international partnership that includes MNA, is working to better understand the reasons for the Poweshiek decline, and provide habitat and ex-situ (off-site) and captive rearing efforts to assist with recovery.


One such recovery effort involves partners at the Minnesota Zoo, John Ball Zoo, and the Haddad Lab at Michigan State University. The research partners have been collecting Poweshiek skipperling eggs for a captive-rearing program to help the species recover. And last month, 12 captive-reared Poweshiek butterflies were released at MNA’s nature sanctuary—representing a milestone for MNA and hope for future generations of Poweshiek in the wild. In all, a few dozen butterflies were released this year in the program, with hundreds more eggs laid. These eggs will overwinter in the rearing facility at John Ball Zoo, for breeding and release next year.

Dave Pavlik, a research assistant at the Haddad Lab, places a Poweshiek skipperling caterpillar into a special enclosure at John Ball Zoo. Photo by Lauren Ross.


In May, John Ball Zoo held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the opening of a second hoop house for the Poweshiek skipperling, more than doubling the capacity of the rearing program. “This is more than just a ray of hope. This is a giant leap forward,” explained Nick Haddad, who leads the Haddad Lab at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station.

Dave Pavlik, a research assistant at the Haddad Lab, releases a captive-reared Poweshiek skipperling butterfly on a Black-eyed susan. Photo by Lauren Ross.


MNA is proud to protect habitat critical for the Poweshiek skipperling’s survival, and to be part of the important partnership that is working to save this species from extinction. MNA looks forward to continuing participation in this partnership effort to increase the Poweshiek skipperling population in the wild in the coming years.

National Endangered Species Day 2021

Today, May 21, 2021 is National Endangered Species Day. Michigan is home to nearly 30 plants and animals that are listed on the federal endangered species list. MNA works to help these species recover by protecting habitat that is critical to their survival, and by educating the public about each of their crucial roles in the environment. One of the ways that we accomplish that goal is by hosting our annual Race for Michigan Nature series of 5Ks throughout the state.

Each 5K promotes one rare, threatened, or endangered species native to Michigan, and new for 2021 is the introduction of the Virtual 5K promoting all six species in the series. Each of these species and a brief description is found below.

Species Spotlight

Karner Blue Butterfly
The Karner blue butterfly was federally listed as an endangered species in 1992 due to habitat loss, climate change, and collection. Habitat throughout the butterfly’s range has been lost due to land development and lack of natural disturbance, such as fire and grazing by large mammals. Such disturbances help maintain the butterfly’s habitat by setting back encroaching forests and encouraging lupine and flowering plant growth. Another notable threat is climate change, which is playing a role in the growth, development, and reproductive patterns of the Karner blue butterfly. A third problem is illegal collection due to the Karner blue butterfly’s rarity and beauty. Because butterfly numbers are so low, the collection of even a few individuals could harm the butterfly population. Collection is illegal without a permit.

Karner blue butterfly photo by Valerie Lindeman


Monarch Butterfly
With a historic range spanning over 3,000 miles across North and Central America, as well as the northern part of South America, the Monarch butterfly is the most well-traveled, and one of the most recognizable of the butterflies. Every spring, millions of these winged wonders make the journey north as far as Canada from their wintering spots in Mexico. Largely the result of habitat loss, there has been a nearly 90% decline in the population of the Eastern monarch, which is the largest subset of the species and that which carries its migration into Michigan. This is a grave concern, as pollinators supply 1/3 of the world’s food and 3/4 of its flowers, and apart from being lovely, Monarchs are one of the most common and widespread butterfly species. Several initiatives are underway to preserve the necessary habitats to sustain their populations, including the Monarch Joint Venture and Journey North.

Monarch butterfly photo by Adrienne Bozic


Moose
Moose are native to Michigan and occurred throughout nearly the entire state prior to European settlement. Moose disappeared from the Lower Peninsula in the 1890s, and only a few scattered individuals remain in the Upper Peninsula. One cause was from extensive logging during the early 20th century eliminating millions of acres of moose habitat. Loggers, miners, and other settlers also took these large animals for food. Another contributing factor was brain worm, a fatal neurological disease in moose. Climate change is also a significant factor as it is slowing altering habitat to be less favorable to moose, expanding the range of white-tailed deer north, which transports the brain worm and increases tick and parasite survival ultimately having a negative impact on the moose population. Fun fact: Moose is an Algonquin term that means “twig eater”.

Moose photo from MNA Archives.


Eastern Box Turtle
The eastern box turtle is known for its high-domed carapace (top shell). The shell has irregular yellow or orange blotches on a brown background that mimic sunlight dappling on the forest floor. Eastern box turtles live in open woodlands and adjacent meadows, thickets, and gardens with sandy soils for nesting, which are often near shallow ponds, swamps, or streams. It is Michigan’s only truly terrestrial turtle. Box turtles are omnivorous and will feed on a variety of food items, including earthworms, slugs, snails, insects, frogs, toads, small snakes, carrion, leaves, grass, berries, fruits, and fungi. Eastern box turtles are uncommon to rare in the southern and western Lower Peninsula. Their populations are declining due to habitat loss, collection for pets, and road mortality. Box turtles are protected by Michigan law as a special concern species.

Eastern Box Turtle from MNA Archives


Lake Sturgeon
Despite their name, lake sturgeon are also found in rivers. Sturgeon prefer large shallow lakes and rivers and the Great Lakes shorelines. They are a bottom-dwelling nearshore fish that live at water depths of 15 to 30 feet and prefer the cobbly unvegetated run and pool habitats. The lake sturgeon was once located throughout the Great Lakes, but over-harvest by European settlers, destruction of food sources, invasive species, and dam construction on spawning rivers have all had an impact on their survival. Lake sturgeon are currently listed as a state threatened species. Conservation of this ancient species will be dependent on strict control of harvests and protection of spawning rivers and fish during spawning periods. The State of Michigan prohibits commercial fishing for lake sturgeon and closely regulates sturgeon sport fishing.

Lake sturgeon photo by Michael Thomas


Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake


The eastern massasauga rattlesnake has been listed as a federally threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The rattlesnake requires federal protection due to eradication, habitat loss, snake fungal disease, and lack of management, which results in excessive shading as habitat shifts toward forest. As an indicator species, the fact that massasaugas are in serious decline is a warning bell indicating additional problems. By protecting massasaugas, we conserve natural systems that support many species of plants and animals. Massasaugas live in wetlands including wet prairies, marshes, fens, and low areas along rivers and lakes. They often hibernate in crayfish burrows but may also be found under logs and tree roots or in small mammal burrows. Unlike other rattlesnakes, massasaugas hibernate alone.

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake photo by Zach Pacana

You can help us promote the need to protect habitat for the state’s most vulnerable species by sharing this post with your friends!

Sanctuary Spotlight: Franklin F. and Brenda L. Holly

For decades, Frank and Brenda Holly visited the 80-acre family retreat in Mason County, just outside of Ludington. There is a small cottage near the southwest corner of the property that Frank and his family have been slowly building over the past several decades; the rest consists of hemlock and pine forest, featuring wetland and prairie fen. Mr. Holly’s grandfather, Henry Millwood, was a local farmer and artist who spent much of his spare time caring for this property. Mr. Holly explained, “Every year in early December, Henry would walk the mile-and-a-half from his farm, with saw in hand, to this place and look for a tall pine tree with a nicely formed top. Then, he would climb way up high on this tree and cut its top off and carry it home so that it could serve as the family’s Christmas tree for that year.”

stream-hollyns- photo credit Lauren Ross

A small stream runs through the Franklin F. and Brenda L. Holly Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Lauren Ross.

The onsite wetlands are part of a much larger wetland complex which extends to the west and the southwest, and which drain into the North Bayou on Hamlin Lake. Exploring the vast forest of this property, one will find patches of sandy earth, ferns and cattails among the red maples, eastern hemlocks, and red and white pines. A small creek runs through the property, one of many in a network of arteries that wind up in nearby Hamlin Lake.

Today marks the one year anniversary of the donation of this unique property in northern Michigan. It also marks the time in which Henry Millwood would have visited the property in search of the perfect tree. In the past year, MNA has been working to develop a walking trail on the property that will serve as an educational opportunity for the local community in conjunction with a partnership with the local schools and community organizations.

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In the summer, the open spaces of the sanctuary become dense with a variety of ferns. Photo by Robb Johnston.

You can learn more about this unique sanctuary, and about the Holly Family legacy in the Fall 2019 issue of Michigan Nature magazine – available online at michigannature.org!