Peace In A Tin Can

Peace In A Tin Can

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Wilderness State Park: A Modern Perspective

Unit Map, Wilderness State Park
My previous post gave a brief history of Wilderness State Park in northern lower Michigan, which is not only interesting but plays a role in the modern day park and how campers and day-use guests enjoy the area.  As stated, most of the area was logged or burnt by fire prior to 1900, leaving only one small stand and scattered trees intact.  Yet, through the efforts of Michigan's outstanding DNR, the area has been allowed to re-grow naturally and now stands as it once did, providing its visitors an opportunity to experience a Michigan landscape as it occurred prior to European settlement.

Every time I drive the 8 mile road into the entrance to Wilderness State Park, I run the risk of losing control of my car because I am so busy looking at the landscape.  It is such a beautiful place, and the thought that I am seeing it almost exactly the same way my ancestors saw it takes my breath away.  The many different eco-systems I pass through were not created by man.  They are a wonder of nature and sustain thousands of different forms of life.  That's pretty cool, would you agree?

I prefer camping in the lower campground, where the lucky few who know how to play the DNR Reservation System can reserve a campsite right on the beach.  The first thing I do upon arriving at my site, before I even set up my tent or unhitch my camper, is walk from my site to the shoreline (it's a short walk!) and stare out at Lake Michigan.  I feel like I've come home!  It never ceases to amaze me how the sandy paths leading to the water are not man-made entirely; The wind sweeps channels through the native dune grasses that naturally carve paths.  The paths may be kept clear from use, but they've always been there.

Once I've set up camp - which, if you know me, you know it takes a while to construct my "glampsite" - I go for a walk on the beach.  One of the nice things about the beach at Wilderness State Park is that's it's sandy, sometimes gravelly, but I have never seen a snake there.  They tend to hide on the more swampy beaches, or along reed-filled inland lakes and streams, but you don't see the snakes on the Northern shoreline of Lake Michigan.  This means I can take my shoes off!

In addition to beach walking, there are 22.75 miles of mapped trails to hike or bike, and metal detecting is permitted in the park, though any items found must be reviewed by park staff and may be retained pending further investigation.  I am always mindful that when I walk the beaches and trails of Wilderness State Park, countless artifacts lie beneath the surface.  It would be amazing to find one, but most likely the park staff would keep it.

Because I have a strong Native American heritage, I feel a connection to this land.  Once, when camping at Wilderness with friends, we met up with a guy who had found a piece of driftwood at the park and fashioned it into something he called a "Spirit Pole".  It is an acknowledgment of the people who came long before us, and is believed to honor the native spirits.  He taught me how to make one and I thoroughly enjoyed planting it beside the campfire and believing my ancestors were with us in spirit.

Every morning of my trip I would ride my bike 2 miles east of the campground, on the road with my faithful (and since departed) dog Murphy.  When we reached our destination, I would climb to the top of a small sand dune overlooking the great lake, let Murphy off his leash, and allow him to run for a bit.  He was a good dog and never strayed too far from me, but the landscape in this particular spot is indicative of much of the Lake Michigan shoreline; sandy open dunes with patches of pines and scrub brush growing out of the dune.  Murphy would weave in and out of the pines, chase mice from the brush, and when he had enough, would come sit next to me, sharing the spectacular view of Lake Michigan.  It was the best way to start my day, peaceful and serene, staring at the water with my dog at my side.  These days, I would be unable to do that; my current dog, Rooney, is a Newfoundland and a naughty one at that.  I could not take him off-leash unless I never wanted to see him again and wanted to risk getting fined by the DNR as Rooney happily swam out in Lake Michigan.

Later in the day I would ride my bike east again and hit the Big Rock Trail or the Hemlock Trail at Mt. Nebo.  Both are great trails, and the last time I was there I had ridden for 6 days straight without seeing a snake.  So when my friends and husband suggested a long group bike ride on our last day there, I was pretty comfortable that I could join them without incident.  I wish I had realized that the grass cutter had preceded us earlier that morning.  We rode up to the Pines campground on top of the hill, saw the buildings that the CCC had built almost a century ago, took the Red Pine Trail past Big Stone Creek and the dam, where I held my breath the entire way ever fearful of snakes, and came back out to the road from the Hemlock Trail.  It was a great ride, I was enjoying the feel of forward movement and laughing with my friends.  As we rode on the road, where the grass cutter had trimmed the tall grasses on the sides of the road just that morning, I looked down and saw it.  A dead snake.  BAM! I am riding faster and faster, panic attack hitting me full force, when I look down and see another one.  My husband sees what is happening and is frantically trying to catch up to me, because he knows I am not breathing and adrenaline is pushing me faster and faster.  The only thing that saved me that day was keeping my feet on my bike pedals (not on the ground) and the kindly old gentleman who passed us in his truck heading back to the campground.  He realized something was wrong and turned back.  My husband lifted me into the cab of the truck, put my bike in the back, and the kind man drove me back to the campsite.  I almost made it through the week without disgracing myself!  What really bothered me, though, was those snakes had been hiding there all week as I happily rode my bike, and only came out when the grass cutter came along.  They were stalking me, I just know it.

Some points of interest, other than snakes, at Wilderness State Park are the CCC-built buildings, the dam, and the many trails.  Also, the majority of the many miles of shoreline consist of wide sandy beaches with scattered cobble, backed by one of the best developed and most diverse forested dune and swale complexes in Michigan, with some spectacular wetland areas mixed throughout, which I avoid for obvious reasons.  The beaches provide some of the habitat in Michigan for the federally endangered piping plover.  The piping plover is a beautiful little bird that nests on the beach, and most of the shoreline in Wilderness is designated protected area as a critical habitat for the bird.  Volunteers guard known nests, and the piping plover is the sole reason why dogs are not allowed anywhere near the beach.  People, too, can inadvertently step on a nest without being aware, and destroy the fragile eggs.  The DNR tracks the birds and protects them as they continue to pair and increase their numbers.

Another point of interest does not come from Mother Nature.  It comes from the general store 1 mile west of the park.  One of the things that brings me back to Wilderness is the Saturday morning glazed donut holes, fresh from the oven at the General Store.  I cannot begin to describe how delicious 2 homemade, warm glazed donut holes are.  Okay, usually I eat 4.  But when I've just returned from my morning ride to find 6 warm nuggets waiting for me, it is like heaven on earth.  I will fill my plate, sit in front of a morning campfire, and listen to the waves as I eat my 8 sweet treats.  Sometimes I have to go for an extra long bike ride to burn off the calories from 10 donut holes, by honestly, even a bike ride can't quite remove the feeling of a dozen warm glazed pastries nesting in my stomach.  Make sure you stop in at the General Store on Saturday morning.  You won't regret it!

On that same trip with friends, we came upon a man on the beach who had 10 kayaks that he allowed people to use for free.  I've said it before, campers are the best people who just want to share their love of the outdoors.  We borrowed a couple of kayaks and paddled around the shores of Lake Michigan for hours, being introduced to an activity that would become a particular interest of mine.  Thanks to the stranger on the beach, I now own a kayak, and plan to discover the blue waters of Lake Huron in it this summer.

If you go to Wilderness State Park - and I hope you do! - go for the unique and varied terrain, the history, the trails, the beach, and the magnificent waters of Lake Michigan.  Experience the donuts, the friendly campers and DNR staff, stunning views and abundant wildlife (except the snakes).  Even though you are not allowed to camp directly on the beach, sometimes you can set your tent up pretty close to the shoreline on the right camp site, put a camp chair next to your tent, and breathe.  After you spend your day swimming, fishing, hiking, biking, discovering and learning, sit in your chair, next to your tent, and look out over the water as the sun sets on another beautiful day.  Sweet dreams, everyone!

NOTE:  For more information on the varied habitats and piping plovers at Wilderness State Park, please go to my source, www.michigan.gov/dnr