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

Ten Years After Major Wildfire, Swamp Lakes Moose Refuge Sees Remarkable Recovery

On June 15, 2012 after burning more than 21,000 acres including part of MNA’s Swamp Lakes Moose Refuge Nature Sanctuary in Luce County, the Duck Lake Fire was officially contained. Now, 10 years later, we are taking a look at what has changed at this sanctuary as a result of the fire.

The sanctuary derives its name from the surrounding area known as the Swamp Lakes which is of significant importance as a large block of wildlife habitat. This area is known to be frequented by moose, gray wolf, pine marten, and numerous other species of wildlife requiring a landscape intermingled with forests and wetlands.

The forest here is dominated by Jack and Red Pines which, once mature, create a dormant understory of easily burning materials—a critical part of the Jack Pine life cycle as their cones will not release seeds except under the extreme heat of fire.

But the Jack Pine isn’t the only benefactor of wildfire. As William Rapai wrote in the July/August issue of Jack Pine Warbler, “Only days after the fire was brought under control, bark beetles moved in to eat the damaged trees. And where there are insects, there are insect-eating birds—including the Black-backed Woodpecker, a species of special concern in Michigan… That woodpecker species is associated with burned areas because one of its primary foods—the bark beetle—attacks trees damaged by fire.”

Water levels in many of the affected areas were very low for the season as seen in this photo from the Swamp Lakes Moose Refuge Nature Sanctuary taken one month after the fire. MNA Archives.

Other species that were observed returning to or newly entering the area shortly after the fire were white-tailed deer, black bear, snowshoe hare, and gray wolf.

Beaver are common to the area, and have been able to expand their territory without human intervention in the years since the fire. At Swamp Lakes Moose Refuge, beaver activity has restored the wetlands and allowed much regrowth to occur.

Possibly the most significant result of the fire is the potential for thousands of acres of new habitat for the Kirtland’s Warbler, which prefer nesting in young (5-20 years old) Jack Pine forests. These formerly endangered neotropical migrants have experienced population recovery after many years of habitat management efforts in the northern Lower Peninsula. While MNA does not have record of Kirtland’s Warbler at the Swamp Lake Moose Refuge Nature Sanctuary, the existence of young Jack Pines in the nearby forest gives hope for future populations.

Not all areas are expected to see the same recovery. Fire suppression efforts resulted in a significant amount of leaf litter and dead wood accumulating in the path of the fire, allowing the fire to burn much hotter and longer (nearly a month) than the soil is able to tolerate. “In some places, the Duck Lake Fire destroyed all the organic matter and microorganisms for some depth,” wrote William Rapai, “Particularly damaging will be the loss of the mycorrhizal fungus that is critical in the lifecycle of many species. The fungus has a symbiotic relationship with plants, helping them to absorb nurtients.”

Live at Swamp Lakes Moose Refuge Nature Sanctuary is abundant as seen in this photo taken from the same location as the photo above, in June 2022. Many beaver inhabit the area, as indicated by the beaver lodge at center. Photo by Andrew Bacon.

A month after the fire, early indications were that the natural communities within Swamp Lakes Moose Refuge would recover without restoration efforts. Given the sanctuary’s wetland composition, the fire has proved beneficial, thinning out the canopy and allowing other plants like bracken fern, blueberry, and leatherleaf to regenerate. MNA will continue to monitor nature’s recovery from the fire and the landscape changes through the years.

Making an Impact as an MNA Intern

by Emma Kull, MNA Communications Intern

Like many who now work in the field of conservation, I grew up with a special affinity to animals. Of course, I loved the ones that lived in my home. We would always compare our house to a zoo–and by ‘we’, I mean my dad, who was constantly attempting to be the voice of reason whenever my sister and I would point at a new creature in a pet store and yell ‘that one!’. I loved all animals, though, not just the ones who relied on me to take care of them. I loved the deer that would occasionally stroll beyond the nearby park boundaries and wander into our front yard. I loved the moles that our neighbors would spend hours trying to get off their property. I loved the chipmunks that would find their way into our attic and drive everyone mad, the birds that would sing to us in the morning, and the squirrels that ran up and down our fences all afternoon. I wasn’t sure how to help them, but I desperately wanted to do something. Naturally, when it came time for me to choose a field of study in college, that admiration and appreciation of animals played a large role in my decision.

Emma Kull at a natural area in Michigan. Photo courtesy Emma Kull.

Now a graduate of Michigan State University, I have more than a love for animals, but an understanding of them as well. This is key to doing any conservation work, and a lesson that I continue to learn everyday in the work that I do both at Howell Nature Center, and at the Michigan Nature Association.

At Howell Nature Center, I work directly with injured, impaired, and sick wildlife. The reality of working with wildlife is that it is hard. There are hundreds of animals that can’t be saved, and that is a call that someone has to make nearly every day. Sometimes even more difficult, is the ones that can be saved – these are the ones that you have to let go. Protecting wildlife is not about caretaking them. The best case scenario when an injured animal comes in is that they are released back into the wild. The part of you that loves animals wants to keep them safe in your care forever, but the part of you that understands animals knows they need to be wild.

Photo courtesy Emma Kull.

As an intern at MNA, I get to experience a whole other side of conservation work. This often looks like the ‘bigger picture’. In order to protect biodiversity and maintain healthy ecosystems, we must work to conserve habitats and species populations, not just individual animals. I’ve found the experience I’ve gained already at MNA to be invaluable as a tool for promoting conservation efforts. Though it is very different from the work I do at Howell Nature Center, it is closely related in that it promotes the true needs of the environment and wildlife. Once again, this comes with a true understanding of animals and not just an innate admiration.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to receive an opportunity to work at the Detroit Zoo over the summer. I am inspired by all of the important and groundbreaking work the DZS is doing for the welfare of their animals and the conservation of species in the wild. If you’re a frequent visitor of the Detroit Zoo, you might not see every animal every time. This is because the Detroit Zoo is a leading zoo in captive animal welfare and designs their exhibits with an emphasis on the individual animal’s wellbeing. Though guest experience is also extremely important, it is never allowed to interfere with the zoo’s important mission of ‘Saving and Celebrating Wildlife’. Thus, instead of keeping resident animals in smaller habitats with fewer shelters to make them more visible to guests, the Detroit Zoo teaches guests that their animals are more than just a sight to see. They focus on educating the public on important conservation issues, and they bring together people and animals through animal ambassador programs that are safe for the animals and provide guests with a more close-up picture. I’m proud to have a zoo in our community that is leading the way in these important issues, and I am excited to contribute to those efforts.

When you care about animals the way I do, it is such a rewarding experience to work to protect them, even if it’s not quite how you imagined it being as a kid. It can be more challenging than expected and often much less hands on. It can even be upsetting or heartbreaking. However, it is truly worth it for the change that you’ll make, the amazing people that you’ll meet, and all the creatures that you’ll help.

~~~

In the fall of 2021, Emma Kull began a graduate program at the University of Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School in the Environment and Sustainability program. We thank Emma for her contributions to MNA’s work and wish her the best in her endeavors. You can make a difference too as a Communications Intern with the Michigan Nature Association. Visit michigannature.org to learn more about how to apply.

Nurturing a Symbiotic Relationship with Michigan Nature

by Dan Burton, MNA Sanctuary Steward

March signals the end of another winter, woody invasive shrubs removal season. It is not exactly a season noted on the calendar or managed by regulators, but is well known to many volunteer stewards. For me the season begins when the trees have lost most of their leaves in late fall and ends as sap begins to swell overwintered buds in early spring. As I recently toured a prairie fen I steward noting this season’s piles of cut invasive shrubs and open canopy, I was excited for the restoration work completed. I was also saddened to see another season go, even though I knew it meant spring was around the corner.

Before restoration work. Photo by Dan Burton.

There is something about this restoration work that I find very rewarding. It is tough physical work in cold winter conditions, but I am still drawn (if not addicted) to it. Part of the draw is working outside immersed in the natural elements that awaken dormant senses not unlike the hours I spend hiking and canoeing. Part of it is the physical tasks that drain my ageing body’s meager energy reserves taking with it pent-up anxiety from everyday life and yet somehow leaving me recharged. Part of it is the positive feeling of helping out an underdog prairie fen as it fights off a formidable foe in invasive shrubs. The prairie fen has historically had the help of fire in this battle, but that friendly partner has been mostly absent these days and sorely missed by many of the prairie fen’s native flora and fauna that benefit from the open canopy created.

Another part is the human elements I find outdoors even when working solo. I usually get to work with some dedicated like minded volunteers and enjoy the camaraderie, but COVID restrictions made this a solo season. As this season came to an end and I looked around the prairie fen I had worked so hard to help in its struggle against invasive intruders, I found myself alone and thinking about my stepdad and his brother who introduced me to the outdoors as a kid. They are both gone now and in some way, I think I was hoping they would be proud of the restoration work, its benefit to wildlife, and how they played a role in it by introducing me to the outdoors so many years ago.

After restoration work. Photo by Dan Burton.

As I rested on a weathered downed tree tossing back trail mix, faded fond memories of early morning fishing and hunting trips with the two of them drifted in lifting my spirits. They would be proud of the restoration work, but being old school they likely would have questioned my sanity. It does seem crazy to think of the hours, effort and resources I put into volunteer stewardship, yet I benefit as much as the prairie fen and its fantastic native flora and fauna. I guess you could simply say I am in a symbiotic relationship with a pretty prairie fen and thankful for its many mutual benefits.


Learn more about how you can become a Sanctuary Steward with MNA and start nurturing your symbiotic relationship today at michigannature.org.