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.

From the Archives: The Splendors of Keweenaw Country

from the Spring 2012 feature story in Michigan Nature magazine (with updates)


Stunning vistas of Lake Superior. Rugged shoreline harboring secluded sandy beaches. Hidden inland lakes glittering in the sunlight. Remote old-growth forests with towering, cathedral-like canopies.

Few places in the Midwest offer the natural beauty and solitude found in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula.

Overlook at MNA’s Russell and Miriam Grinnell Memorial Nature Sanctuary at Bare Bluff. Photo by Kelly Ramstack.

The Michigan Nature Association has been working to protect the splendors of “Keweenaw country” since 1973. After decades of hard work by volunteers and generous support from donors, MNA currently owns approximately 20 nature sanctuaries along the peninsula,  protecting a spectacular array of habitat types and rare species.

Given its name by the Ojibwa Indian tribe meaning “a place of crossing,” Indigenous people inhabited the remote region as early as 7,000 years ago. It was these native tribes that began the copper culture so commonly associated with the Keweenaw. Along with Isle Royale National Park, the Keweenaw is the only place in the country with evidence of prehistoric mining by Native Americans.

Industrial mining began in the 1840’s and the area quickly became one of the nation’s leaders in copper exports, but the industry declined and the old mining shafts and remaining ghost towns now add a unique sense of history to the natural beauty that characterizes the Keweenaw. The mining legacy endures in both positive and negative ways. The Keweenaw National Historic Park was established in 1992 to celebrate the life and history of the Keweenaw Peninsula. But stamp sands left behind from those mining operations now threaten important spawning grounds for fisheries and other important natural features.

A Rich Natural Heritage

The Keweenaw’s distinctive geologic past and location now make it an ideal habitat for a variety of wildlife. Forming one of the Great Lakes flyways, the Keweenaw is a crucial stop for thousands of raptors traveling north in the spring and south in the fall. Bald eagles, hawks and peregrine falcons can all be seen during their migratory journeys in the Keweenaw. Birds share the habitat with larger mammals such as black bear, moose, wolf and bobcat, showcasing the ecological diversity that can be found in the peninsula.

Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary photo by Kyle Rokos.

MNA’s Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary remains one of the most extraordinary sites for visitors to explore untouched Keweenaw wilderness. Saved from logging in the 1970s, the first 160 acres acquired in 1973 have grown to slightly over 570 total acres. Those who visit can immerse themselves in one of the largest stands of old-growth eastern pine in the Midwest, with trees reaching up to 125 feet tall and five feet in diameter. Copper mine pits dug three to four thousand years ago by Native Americans can also be spotted off the sanctuary’s Cathedral Grove trail if hikers look closely.

Much of the rock material found in the peninsula was created by ongoing volcanic activity about 1.1 billion years ago during the Mid-Continent Rift, which left behind layers of thick rock that are exposed in the northern reaches around the Keweenaw. The basin that was created from this rift eventually formed current-day Lake Superior. This massive syncline was filled with sediment and now separates the rock found on the Keweenaw from Isle Royale, which is composed of the same material.

More recently, after the last ice age more than ten thousand years ago, retreating glaciers carved out the many interesting hills and features that can be seen on the Keweenaw today. And sea stacks and cave structures formed by the powerful glacial lakes left behind can be seen throughout the peninsula, including MNA’s Grinnell Memorial Nature Sanctuary.

Protecting a Scenic Treasure

Northeast of the towering Estivant Pines is the Keweenaw Peninsula’s storied Brockway Mountain Drive, the highest road between the eastern Alleghenies and the Black Hills of South Dakota. The steep cliffs and stunning views of Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake, make this one of the most scenic stretches of road in America. And as the road reaches the summit of Brockway Mountain, there is often more to see than Lake Superior. Raptors, which can be viewed flying at eye level, are among the tens of thousands of birds that migrate through the area.

MNA now owns six natural areas along Brockway Mountain Drive, including the 150-acre James H. Klipfel Memorial Sanctuary adjacent to the summit of Brockway Mountain. Tucked away in the Klipfel Memorial Sanctuary are rare plants found only on the Keweenaw, like the heart-leaved arnica. Once privately held, the summit of Brockway Mountain itself is owned by Eagle Harbor Township as part of an ambitious conservation plan for the area.

MNA’s Upson Lake Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Jason Whalen | Fauna Creative

Public and privately-owned natural areas along Brockway Mountain Drive not only conserve land but promote tourism, the mainstay of the local economy. Unfortunately, the scenic vistas so important to the Brockway Mountain experience could be negatively impacted by the siting of a proposed cell phone tower next to an MNA nature sanctuary. In addition, migratory birds, such as eagles, falcons, and hawks, could suffer increased mortality rates, and running electrical lines across the landscape could also cause further loss of habitat for rare plants and wildlife. The Eagle Township Board denied a special use permit for the tower in September 2021, but that may not yet be the end of that issue should tower proponents try to find ways around local zoning.

The Keweenaw Peninsula is a special place, with special people. They believe in conservation and practice it in countless ways. MNA is proud of the many relationships and partnerships we have forged in the Keweenaw over the years as we have worked together to ­protect critical habitat, strengthen local communities, and prepare the next generation to meet the challenges ahead.

And we are just getting started. …


As MNA celebrates our 70th Anniversary in 2022, we look forward to protecting habitat for rare, threatened, and endangered species in the Keweenaw Peninsula and other exceptional lands throughout the state. Land acquisitions on and around Brockway Mountain have been ongoing, most recently with an additional 42 acres on Brockway and a 60-acre addition to the Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary, increasing the sanctuary to 570 acres and adding a half-mile of frontage on the Montreal River—one of Michigan’s cold-water rivers that provides critical spawning grounds for trout and habitat for other aquatic species.

As part of a multi-agency partnership, MNA also supports the effort to secure nearly 16,000 acres of land for the public trust for habitat protection and recreational use. The Keweenaw Outdoor Recreation Coalition—a 300-plus member organization of individuals, businesses, and recreation, conservation, and community organizations—is currently working to have the land purchased using Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund dollars. If successful, the campaign would secure permanent, public access to these recreational and conservation lands that are now in private ownership and at risk for development.

But it is not just the conservation and recreation values that inspire Keweenaw residents to act. “There’s a soul that exists here… and at the heart of that is the wilderness,” explains Keweenaw resident and photographer Steve Brimm in a video that MNA created with the help of award-winning videographers Fauna Creative.

MNA is proud to be part of protecting the splendors of Keweenaw country. The work that we do would not be possible without the incredible support of our members, donors, and the generations of individuals who have helped us achieve our mission. And we look forward to continuing this work in the future, across the state, to protect Michigan nature forever, for everyone. You can join us at michigannature.org.

Celebrating Migratory Birds on World Migratory Bird Day

by Zoë Goodrow

World Migratory Bird Day is on May 14th this year, where over 700 events and programs around the world will take place to educate the public on migratory birds and how to conserve them. Migration is a spectacular event – especially in Michigan. Two major flight paths, or “flyways”, run through Michigan. These paths are the route birds take between their breeding grounds up north and their overwintering grounds in the south. You can track this migration on the website birdcast.info. Nearly 400 species of birds pass through Michigan via either the Atlantic or Mississippi Flyway. Our Great Lakes habitat serves as a critical stop for migratory birds, resulting in exceptional opportunities for Michiganders to observe them. Because Michigan is such a critical stop for migratory birds, the availability of suitable habitat for them is essential for their survival. A study published in “Science in 2019 said three billion birds have been lost in Michigan since 1970. There are species of migratory birds that are important to Michigan’s biodiversity that are threatened by habitat loss and other issues that impact environmental health.

Common loon with chick. Photo by Joni Roberts

One of the first species to pass through during spring migration is the common loon. A beloved and iconic species in our state, the common loon nests in northern Michigan. Common loons return to the same nesting site each year, and each year more nesting sites are destroyed from lakeshore development, damming, or poor water quality. Their diet consists of macro invertebrates and fish, which also share the same threats. Common loons can live over 30 years – because of their longevity and their place higher up in the food chain, they are considered indicator species of water quality and environmental health. In recent years, much research has been done to understand the impact of lead, mercury, and PFAS accumulation in common loons. Efforts to conserve loon habitat and increase the number of breeding pairs in Michigan have been underway for years, and numbers have been slightly rising. There are an estimated 500-700 breeding pairs in Michigan, which is a success given the goal of the Michigan Loon Recovery Plan is to maintain at least 575 breeding pairs.

Another migratory bird that is the focus of significant conservation efforts in Michigan is the purple martin. Although the global population of purple martins is stable, the Michigan population has been steadily and steeply declining for the past six decades. Over one-third of their population has disappeared in the last 50 years. This decline is a result of a combination of factors including nesting habitat loss, competition with invasive species, decreased prey availability from insecticide use, and climate change. Conservation efforts include providing nesting boxes in purple martin habitat. Research suggests that nesting boxes (often referred to as “condos”) installed by purple martin “landlords” across the state are the only thing keeping the species alive. There are numerous outreach programs in Michigan and beyond to educate the public about purple martins and the individual actions that can be taken to protect their populations, including limiting insecticide use, creating native plant habitat, and installing nesting boxes.

Kirtland’s warbler. Photo courtesy Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

The Kirtland’s warbler is an exceptional conservation success story – one that shows how collaborative work and adaptive land management can lead to the comeback of a species. In 2019, this beloved songbird was removed from the endangered species list after once being nearly extinct. Scientists worked with land managers in Michigan to conserve and expand suitable habitat for the Kirtland’s warbler by creating and maintaining young jack pines stands across the state. This practice in combination with managing brown-headed cowbirds, who parasitize Kirtland warbler nests, are what led to the thriving population of Kirtland’s warbler we have in Michigan today.

The success story of the Kirtland’s warbler, and the stories of other important migratory birds in Michigan, are testaments to the importance of habitat conservation and restoration. At the Michigan Nature Association (MNA), we work to acquire, protect, and maintain natural areas that are home to important habitat for endangered and threatened migratory birds. With the help of organizations like MNA from the local to the national level, legislators, scientific research, and generous donations – more conservation success stories are possible. This migration season, see how you can help protect these species that are important to Michigan’s biodiversity. One action Michiganders can take is, at the recommendation of the DNR, remove bird baths and feeders to mitigate the risk of HPAI (avian flu) to migratory birds.