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Below the Mackinaw Bridge: Sailing on the Inland Seas

The S/V Inland Seas sailing under the Mackinaw Bridge

The date is July 6, 2016 and I’m standing at the helm of the tall ship Inland Seas, a two-masted, gaff rigged schooner like the ones that sailed the Great Lakes back in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. I’m guiding her through the Straits of Mackinaw in northern Lake Michigan towards the bridge, into Lake Huron and Mackinaw City. It’s about an hour into my third shift at the wheel and with the bridge in view, I am now navigating by site instead of the compass, which I find much easier.

I can feel the boats every movement under my feet. She is an extension of my body now, with my hands and arms controlling her through very slight movements of the wheel and I like the feeling. I feel the gust of wind on my face and feel the waves, both trying to push the bow to starboard, and I anticipate the small corrections needed to keep us on a steady course. I watch as the bow starts to move to starboard but quickly bounces back on course because of the corrections I make with the wheel.

The air is warm on my skin and there is a late afternoon haze over the water. The lake is dark blue out here in the Straits of Mackinaw, with waves of 1 to 2 feet and maybe occasional white caps, although it’s hard to tell with the sun glaring off the water. I look towards the bow and I watch a wave as it is caught by the prow and forced to race down the side of the hull until it is released at the stern. As I look past the stern, I see the trail we’re leaving in the water and it is much straighter now than it was with my first shift at the wheel early this morning.

The two freighters following us up the lake all day

A few moments ago I asked captain Ben for permission to stay at the helm as we pass under the Mackinaw Bridge. He agrees and I get my camera out since I may not have this opportunity again. Gary, another volunteer, friend, and member of the crew, is sitting on the life jacket box on the port side next to me and we talk as we watch the scene unfolding in front of and behind us. I give him my camera to take some pictures of me at the wheel. As I look back over the stern, in the distant haze, I see the dark silhouettes of the two leviathans that have been following us up the lake all day. They are just coming up out of the passage and making the 90 degree right turn putting us directly in their path. They are traveling much faster than we are and for the first time today, I realize that they may overtake us at the bridge. Captain Ben is watching them too and tells me to steer towards the south tower to give them plenty of room to pass down our port side.


 

Gary in the yellow shirt
Jeanie in the blue tee-shirt in the foreground

The Schooner that I am sailing on, also known as the “Schoolship”, is owned and operated by The Inland Seas Education Association (ISEA). This is a wonderful organization that was established in 1989 by Tom Kelly to provide aquatic science, environmental awareness, sail training and a great time for anyone on the water. It is a non-profit organization whose mission is to inspire Great Lakes curiosity, stewardship, and passion in people of all ages through hands on learning activities aboard a traditionally rigged tall ship schooner. In 2014 The Inland Seas Education Association celebrated their 25th anniversary and has connected over 100,000 participants to the ecology of the Great Lakes. I started volunteering with the Inland Seas in 2012 as an instructor and since then I have also been learning to crew. It has been a great learning experience for me.

When I arrive at the Inland Seas dock early this morning, it is one of those warm, humid and overcast July mornings that feels like it could rain at any moment. The temperature is already 71 degrees and as I looked out over Sutton’s Bay, there is a slight wind out of the north northwest. The water has scattered areas of slight ripple over an undulating sea reflecting a slate gray sky. Looking out of the bay past Stoney Point into Grand Traverse Bay everything is very gray. It’s hard to tell where the water ends and the sky begins. Rain is in our forecast.

The inland Seas leaving the dock in Suttons Bay

I will be sailing today as CIT (crew in training) and immediately start helping the crew with their boat checks. I climb over the stern into the tender boat to put in the drain plug and climb back out and help our first mate, Mathew, lower it to the water. We lower the rope ladder and I climb down into the small boat once again to test the small outboard. It starts on the second pull and I let it run until it runs smoothly without the choke. I try both forward and reverse and then kill the engine and clamber back up the ladder over the stern and onto the schooner. We then raise the small boat all the way up to its stowed position.

Soon, the captain calls everyone together on deck for a briefing before we depart. He says the radar shows two fast moving storms coming in our direction so we will not be putting up the sails when we leave this morning. We will motor out of the bay and north up Lake Michigan until the storms pass. The wind is forecasted to come out of the North-Northwest so it won’t be much help to us anyway. We then divide up the crew into three work groups that will rotate every 2 hours throughout the trip. I take first watch and settle in at the bow.

One of the small storms greets us as we leave Grand Traverse Bay and enter Lake Michigan. We put on our foul weather gear but soon hear thunder and the captain orders everyone below until it passes. A few of us gather around the table in the forward cabin. Rob, another Schoolship Instructor and CIT, Lisa, and  I begin a game of euchre. We barely get started and the quick moving storm races passed us before we are halfway through the game. Fred, the executive director of The Inland Seas Education Association, says he needs to use the cabin for the staff meeting they had planned so we scramble back up on deck. Which is where I’d rather be anyway.

Our first Mate Mathew in the blue shirt and Fred Sitkins, ISEA Director in the black shirt, with me at the wheel

Our course will take us north out of Suttons Bay and into Grand Traverse Bay, then along the northwest shore of Michigan, through grays reef passage, up through the straits of Mackinaw, into Lake Huron and Mackinaw City. As we leave Grand Traverse Bay behind and sail out into the big lake we haul up the sails starting with the mainsail, the foresail, the staysail and finally the jib. We rig the sails “close hauled” as we are sailing almost up wind at this point. With the wind coming out of the northwest it won’t be much help so the captain keeps the diesel engaged and we will “motor sail” most of our trip.

There is a surface current in Lake Michigan, though very slight and undetectable at this latitude, which is much dependent on the wind at the surface and won’t be much help to us either. Looking at the Great Lakes Currents map by NOOA this morning, I see a great counterclockwise rotation in the south end of the lake and a small current running north along the Michigan shoreline about halfway up the lake but then it kind of weakens and goes out in many different directions. At our latitude, the current is very chaotic. There is also a movement in the lake, as the water is pulled very slowly to the north. The greatest flow will be felt in the narrowest part of the lake at the Straits of Mackinaw. The flow in the Straits is met by the water coming down from Lake Superior flowing into Lake Huron. It causes the flow from Lake Michigan to be very erratic flowing both directions in the Straits of Mackinaw with the average flow into Lake Huron. But what force is pulling all this water?

Captain Ben with the Michigan Potato
Our cook found a potato shaped like the lower peninsula of Michigan and we all took pictures with it.
That’s life on a schooner

Maybe it is our altitude. We can’t see that we are sailing on water that is nearly six hundred feet above sea-level because we have no visible references in our view. We can’t see the great cataract at Niagara Falls, or the rapids and the locks and canals that connect us to the St Lawrence River that flows into the Atlantic Ocean. The Great Lakes system is so vast and the ocean is so far away, it’s hard for us to comprehend. But is this just about gravity or is there something more?

Maybe it is what some old-timers called the pull of the sea. A force that pulls the water across the land to the sea like a great syphon. I feel this pull when standing near a large river. My eyes are automatically pulled along with the current until the river bends out of view. Whenever I step into a stream, I feel the pull of the current on my legs as it try’s to pull me along with it. Water carries a tremendous amount of energy when it is in motion. It’s not gravity that I’m feeling, but a strong moving force in the water. Wendell Berry talked about it very eloquently in his essay “A Native Hill” when he said “All waters are one. This is a reach of the sea, flung like a net over the hill, and now drawn back to the sea.” If you’ve ever visited Niagara Falls and stood at the precipice looking down, watching all that lake water being pulled over the escarpment, you may have felt it to. I had to take a step back from the edge, no longer trusting my position for fear of being pulled over the edge along with the water.

I like to think it is because all those rain drops that fall on our great lake were stolen from the sea, carried here by the wind, and must return. From the moment these drops of water enter the lake they begin their long journey back to the sea. It may take them a hundred years or more just to leave Lake Michigan, but eventually, like all water, they must return to the sea.

Gray’s Reef Lighthouse

As we near grays reef passage the Grays Reef Lighthouse, guarding its southern entrance, comes into view. I am standing on deck, off duty for the moment, taking pictures as we approach the lighthouse very closely and I notice the water that is rising and falling in rhythm against its concrete platform. The surface of the lake looks very chaotic, with ripples upon waves and waves upon swells. On the boat you get used to the motion of the water and you don’t realize how much it is really moving. The rhythm of the swells rising and falling against the concrete structure reminds me of the rhythmic breathing of a giant living organism. One that is very delicate and under constant attack by invasive species, pollution, climate change, and human encroachment. One that can be very calm and beautifully blue at one moment and then, when the gales are blowing, she can be very dark and powerful, explosive, and terrifying. Today though she is very calm as we quietly glide across her slick blue surface without leaving much disturbance.

Gray’s Reef Lighthouse is located out in Lake Michigan about 6 miles west of Waugoshance Point, marking a narrow passage between Gray’s Reef and Vienna Shoal. Gray’s Reef juts out into the lake from Waugoshance Point off the northwest tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, and Vienna Shoal is part of the Beaver Island Archipelago. The narrow channel traverses an area of very shallow rocky water and is considered a key component to the Great Lakes Navigation System. 

In 1891, one of the earliest Federal Lightships placed into service on the Great Lakes, Lightship LV57, was anchored at the entrance to the passage. It was replaced with Lightship LV103 in 1923. With authorization from the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1935, a deep-draft federal navigation channel, 3,000 feet wide and 25 feet deep was dug through the reef and in 1936 the permanent structure for the Gray’s Reef Lighthouse was placed at the southern entrance.

Captain Ben telling me to steer close to the south tower of the bridge

We pass the lighthouse closely along our port side correcting our course to align with the channel of Gray’s Reef Passage which is almost due North. The Passage is marked with a series of buoys red to port, and green to starboard when entering from the south. Buoys in the Great Lakes are placed in a similar manner as they are in the sea. The way I was taught to remember which side of the buoys to be on when you only have one buoy in view is “Red Right Return”. Meaning, keep the red buoy on your right or Starboard side when returning from the sea. Since today we are not returning but are traveling toward the sea, we will keep the red buoys on our left or port side.

The Mackinaw Bridge

As we leave Gray’s Reef Passage we adjust our course to almost due East and with the bridge in view, I can now navigate by sight. As we approach the bridge I hear chatter on the radio from the two Great Lakes freighters that are fast approaching from our stern. They are discussing who will go under the bridge first. I find it curious that there is no mention of our schooner directly in their path. Captain Ben tells me to steer close to the south tower to give them plenty of room.

The Stewart J Court
The first 1000-foot vessel on the Great Lakes in 1972.

As we approach the bridge, I hear a warning on the radio to stay clear from an ongoing rescue of a personal watercraft near the north tower and about that time I see 4 jet skis racing out to greet us from under the bridge. This is all happening as we approach the bridge and the first freighter, the Stewart J. Court, passes us down our port side. Interestingly, the Stewart J Court was built in two sections, bow and stern and then joined together in Mississippi to make the trip to the Great Lakes. They called it the “Stumpy”.  This was necessary to pass through the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Welland Canal locks. It was then cut apart and joined with the midbody in Erie Pennsylvania. The Stewart  J Court was the only 1000-footer with the pilot house and all crew accommodations forward.         

The Lubie going under the bridge with us and one of the jet skies just off to the left

The second freighter, the Lubie follows close behind as we all stand on deck with our cameras taking pictures. This is an ocean going bulk carrier built in 2011 owned by the Polish Steamship Co., Szczecin, Poland (Polstean). It is a 623 footer with a cargo capacity of 30,000 gross tons flying the flag of the Bahamas. Of course the little camera lens on my phone makes everything look much farther away than it actually is.

When we emerge on the other side of the bridge we are now in Lake Huron. Captain Ben tells me to bring her about and I turn the wheel hard over to Starboard until we are facing up wind and the crew begins dropping and stowing the sails. Captain Ben then relieves me at the wheel and when all the sails are down and secure he guides the schooner through the narrow channel into the Mackinaw City harbor and we tie up at the end of the pier and end a very memorable day on the Great Lakes.

 

Featured

The Schoolship and The Challenger

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There is something nostalgic and even romantic about the Great Lakes and the big boats that come and go each day carrying their heavy loads to unknown ports. Maybe it’s because of the many stories we’ve heard of violent storms and shipwrecks, or maybe it’s because the big freighters seem to stay in service and our memories a long time. For it is quite common and even a joy to see the same freighter working out on the lake for many decades. There are a lot of people that photograph and follow these freighters as a kind of hobby throughout their lifetime and even get kind of attached to them.

Recently, I read an article about the Saint Mary’s Challenger. After 107 years of moving freight on the Great Lakes, she would be converted to a barge. The article said she needed a new engine and many costly repairs and it would be more cost effective to just remove the old engine and pilothouse and use it as a barge. This would mark a sad ending for the crew and many followers of the oldest working freighter on the Great Lakes.

I remember the Challenger as a familiar friend that I would see from time to time, laboring out on Lake Michigan in my many travels north from Traverse City to Petoskey on US 31. I traveled that route for over 30 years for work and enjoyed seeing her moving through all kinds of weather out on the Lake. I’ll never forget the last time I saw her up close. It was from the deck of the schooner “Inland Seas” (the “Schoolship”).

The Schooner Inland Seas out on West Grand Traverse Bay
The Schooner Inland Seas out on West Grand Traverse Bay

That day started as a very cold, dark, and windy morning. It was my morning to teach the fish station on the Schoolship.  The date was May 23, 2013 but it felt more like early March. My thermometer read just 40 degrees and it was raining sideways with the wind. I put on my long johns under my jeans, grabbed my foul weather gear, a thermos of coffee, and prepared myself for one of those cold, finger numbing mornings out on the lake.

When I stepped outside in the driveway, the howling wind sent a chill clear through me. The smell and feeling of the cold crisp air transported me back many years to deer camp. I suddenly felt as if I was almost there, deer hunting with my father and brother in the Rattle Snake Hills, just outside Atlanta, Michigan. Isn’t it strange how just a smell or a feeling can trigger a memory in your brain so vivid that for a moment you are transported back in time?

I climbed in my truck and pointed it north towards Suttons Bay where I would meet up with the Schooner Inland Seas. Because of the high volume of students in the spring, the Schoolship also uses the Manitou out of Traverse City for its program. But today, as I pass the Manitou dock on West Grand Traverse Bay, I notice the large waves out on the Bay and I think to myself, I’m glad I am sailing on Suttons Bay today.

West Grand Traverse Bay is a very large bay that runs north and south with its opening to the north. This morning, there are gale force winds blowing the full length of the bay. Suttons Bay, however, is a small bay that comes off of the west side of Grand Travers Bay with its opening to the northeast so it adds a little more protection from the wind and high waves.

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I arrive at the dock in Suttons Bay a little after 8 am and I am shocked to see the Saint Mary’s Challenger parked in the entrance to the bay. This is a really big freighter for such a small body of water and it reminds me of a “boat in a bottle” as it appears to almost block the entrance to the bay. It is motionless as it lies at anchor, safe for the moment, from the gale blowing out on the lake.

During our pre-trip briefing, we are told that the Manitou out of Traverse City is stuck in port because of the weather. The waves are much lower on Suttons Bay so we will be going out but we collect all of our samples except the fish sample dockside since it is just too rough to try and anchor. We will collect our fish sample with the Otter Trawl while motoring out into the bay.

When we have our fish sample it is time to raise the sails. The students report to their sail stations and as Captain Ben points us into the wind, its hand-over-hand on the halyards until the red sails are up. First the mainsail and then the Foresail. Both of which will be reefed today because of the wind. As the Captain turns us on a tack to take us across the bay, the sails suddenly catch the wind, billow, and we are off like a shot across the water.

The learning stations on the Schoolship are run every 15 minutes while under sail and include the fish station – my station today, Benthos, Water Chemistry, Plankton, Stewardship, and Seamanship – where the students can take turns at the ships wheel steering the boat. We have 6 stations and 5 groups of students so each of the instructors will have 15 minutes off during the sail to see what is going on around them. Since you only have 15 minutes to teach your station to each group, you really don’t have time for anything else.

When my break finally comes, I look around and I see the Challenger still sitting at anchor. I was so engrossed in teaching I had totally forgotten about her. I look back at the helm and see a couple of smiling and laughing students with their hands holding tightly to the wheel as we turn on another tack to take us across the bay. The sails catch the wind and the schooner with the red sails shoots across the water in front of the Challenger as if to say “come and play with us”.

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This is probably a sight that the Challenger has seen many times in its early days and I wonder if she is having one of those nostalgic moments. When she was  built in 1906 by the Great Lakes Engineering Works, Ecorse, MI, it was one of the largest and most powerful vessels on Lake Michigan and although freight hauling schooners were on their way out there were still many schooners on the lake.

This freighter was not always called the Saint Mary’s Challenger. She has had many names and owners in her lifetime. She was launched in 1906 as the William P. Snyder, and then as ownership changed renamed the Elton Hoyt II, Alex D. Chisholm, Medusa Challenger and finally the Saint Mary’s Challenger. It is the Medusa and Saint Mary’s Challenger that I would see on my many travels along the shore of Lake Michigan.

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As we reach the end of the bay once more, I watch as the enthusiastic students turn the wheel on another tack to take us once again past the Challenger. I watch as the sails swing across the deck now to the starboard side. They fill with wind, the boat heels and I grab the railing and hang on as we shoot out across the water in front of the Challenger again as if to say “come and catch us”. But the Challenger just sits there at anchor, for she is much too big to maneuver in such a small bay, and much too tired from fighting the gale out on Lake Michigan the day before.

The Challenger has had a hard life carrying its load of over 10,000 tons of cargo back and forth on Lake Michigan. She has fought gale force winds, monster waves, snow, ice storms, and was even hit by a water spout in 1997. She has run aground, hit a pier, and even survived a head on collision in a 1950’s snow storm with the Enders M. Voorhees in the Straits of Mackinaw.

The Saint Mary’s Challenger is the last active US flag freighter built before WW II and at 106 years old, one of the oldest working ships in the world. The end of this season on the lake she faces a decision by its owners to either upgrade her engine or turn her into a barge. Unfortunately for her, the latter was deemed to be her fate.

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At the end of our morning Schoolship sail we tie up to the dock, disembark, and I begin the long walk back up the boardwalk along the wetlands to the parking lot and my truck. I take one last look over my shoulder at the Saint Mary’s Challenger and wonder what the people of Suttons Bay thought that morning when they awoke to see a huge freighter anchored in their bay. She certainly must have been the talk of the town.

I suppose she left that night after the winds died down. Not to any fanfare and probably unnoticed in the dark. She will raise her anchor, quietly back out of the entrance to the bay and point her bow north towards the open waters of Lake Michigan, not knowing what fate awaits her. She will slowly move away and disappear past Omena point, and will be gone.

Some of my shipmates aboard the Inland Seas
Some of my shipmates aboard the Inland Seas

Featured

The Bowfin

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I was standing by the aquariums at the Inland Seas Education Center waiting to do my weekly aquarium maintenance, but not wanting to begin until the morning’s class had left for the boat and their great adventure out on the lake. I was watching the Bowfin swim lazily about the tank when the students from one of the many schools in the area came into the building.

Children bring their own atmosphere with them, don’t they? It’s amazing how the atmosphere in a room can change from a dull, silent slumber to a bustling and somewhat chaotic place as they try to see all of the displays in the short time that they have before leaving for their science expedition aboard the schooner Inland Seas.

I remained right where I was by the aquariums, not wanting to interfere with this new constant flow of traffic about the room. The students would come by and look into the aquariums at the fish and some would ask me their names. Fish are really good at attracting the attention of children. That’s probably because they are moving in a different medium and are always on display. However, the tank that they stared at the most was tank number 3. They would look at it very closely, walking around it looking in every corner of the tank for a while before finally asking me “is anything in here?” Of course there wasn’t any fish in the tank since I had just drained and cleaned the tank the week before.

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I was showing a few of the students the Bowfin when one of the boys walked by, pointed, and said “Dogfish”. “That’s a Dogfish”. I called after him “Bowfin” but he was already gone. I explained to those still standing there that the Bowfin is known by several other names like Dogfish, Mudfish, Cypress trout, and many others but none of these names, I believe, give it the respect it deserves. For the Bowfin is really an ancient fish.

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The Bowfin (Amia calva) is the last remaining species in a family of fishes (Amiidae) that dates back to the age of the dinosaurs and if you look at its very bony skeleton and long needle like teeth, you would definitely see that it looks prehistoric. Bowfins are a very primitive fish and they are true predators. The average size is 12 to 24 inches long but they have been known to reach up to 30 inches. This fish is definitely at the top of its food-chain.

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This is a very stout fish with a long body and a rounded tail with an “eye spot” just in front of the tail fin. It has a single dorsal fin that runs three-quarters the length of its body and a terminal mouth and a head that resembles that of a trout. It is quite commonly found in deep waters associated with weed beds where it spends most of its time hunting for food which consists of other fish, crustaceans, frogs, and almost anything else.

The male fish will build a nest by removing vegetation in the sand and gravel bottom in shallow vegetated areas and will guard the nest until the young reach about 4 inches long. More than one female may contribute eggs to the nest. When the eggs hatch the young are tadpole like and have an adhesive like organ on the tip of their snout that attaches them to the nest.

This fish was designed for survival. Its gills have extra reinforcement so they do not collapse like most fish when removed from the water. It is also one of the air-breathing fish which has a long lung like device and modified bladder that allows them to gulp air at the surface during drought conditions. In periods of low water, it can bury itself in the mud and has been known to live up to 24 hours out of the water.

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Our little bowfin at the Education Center is only about 6 inches long and looks somewhat docile swimming in the tank. He is a little ragged about the fins these days but otherwise in good shape. Recently, while I was cleaning the tank next to him, I was watching him (and I think he was watching me too) and I saw him rise to the top of the tank, take a gulp and return to his position near the bottom of the tank. I assumed that he just grabbed a piece of food off the surface, but after a few moments he opened his mouth real wide and a huge bubble of air came out of his mouth and floated to the surface.

He was looking at me out of the corner of his eye as if to say “See what I can do?”

 

References: MI DNR Fish Identification – Bowfin University of MI Museum of Zoology – Animal Diversity Web Pictures: MI DNR Fish Identification Nova – Other Fish in the Sea Will Bowfin, Bowfin Anglers Stephen Luk – Fish Osteology Konrad P. Schmidt, hatch.clehd.umn.edu

	
Featured

A Big Two Hearted River

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What is it about a place that beckons you back year after year? There are a lot of places in the Upper peninsula of Michigan that are very beautiful. In fact they are too many to mention. Is it the memories? Is it because it is familiar and you know what to expect? Is it a special feeling? Or something else you just can’t explain? The Two Hearted River is that special place for me. It is like a beacon that keeps calling me back.

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The two Hearted River is small in comparison to many of the rivers in the UP, being only about 34 miles long, but it makes up for this in its beauty and character. It has several branches, but it is the main branch that flows into Lake Superior that I am especially fond of. I’ve canoed this section with one of my sons and fished and camped with both of my boys and two of my grandsons for several years.

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This river in Northeast Luce County is one of the rivers in the UP that flows Northeast into Lake Superior. The UP of Michigan is unique in that driving East or West you may cross over one river flowing North into Lake Superior and the next river may be flowing South into Lake Michigan. The Two Hearted River drains an area of about 180 square miles and has a strong flow of cold water over a rust colored bottom of mostly sand with some pebbles in the runs and a lot of downed trees or dead falls, making this a great stream for Brook and Rainbow Trout. The North branch is clear at the headwaters but passes through fields of black spruce, balsam and tamarack and becomes light brown in color. The main branch has a great fall run of Steelhead and Salmon. Some of my best memories with my two boys are fishing here.

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It is known that Salmon and Steelhead will return home to spawn in the very place they were born. It is believed that sometime during that first year of life the river is imprinted on them and guides them back. This may be a smell, a taste, a chemical composition, or all of these things together. Or it could be something we really don’t yet understand. Since we have lost that connection to nature thousands of years ago, we may never fully understand this. The salmon will travel downstream to Lake Superior where they will feed and grow for the next few years before returning in the fall. When returning, they swim along the shoreline looking for their river and will congregate there before making their run up-stream.

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One of the unique things about the river is that just before emptying into Lake Superior it makes a turn east and runs for some distance parallel to the lake. The land between the river and the lake runs to a point where the river finally breaks free into Lake Superior. At the mouth, there is a State Forest campground and a suspended foot bridge that crosses the river so you can walk out on this finger of beach and dune separating the river from the lake. At the mouth there are usually fishermen fishing for Salmon and Steelhead in the surf.

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“The Big Two Hearted River” was the title for a couple of short stories written by Ernest Hemingway in 1924 when he was just 25 years old which made this river famous. The story begins as he gets off the train in Seney, a lumber town that shortly before had burned to the ground. Nothing was left but a few cracked cement foundations. Everything was burned. Even the ground was burned off. He walks through town on a dirt road that runs north along the river and says to himself “I will keep going. It couldn’t all have burned”. He camps and fishes along the river for trout as he tries to put his military past behind him.

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Of course most people today know he wasn’t really talking about the Two Hearted River at all but the Fox River which runs close to Seney. He said later that he really didn’t name the river he was fishing and that as a title “The Big Two Hearted River” was just poetry.

The Two Hearted River is no stranger to fire either. It too has had its share. On one of our camping and fishing trips here about 4 years ago there was a fire raging nearby and it was close enough for us to smell the smoke. We and other campers would check in at the Rainbow Lodge to get updates on the fire. The Rainbow Lodge was like a camp store with essentials, gas and canoe rentals and it was the only connection to the outside world in this remote area of the forest.

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This area was able to dodge the fire that year but was not so lucky in 2012 when it was devastated by the “Duck Lake Fire”. It burned the forest right down to the river’s edge, then jumped the river and burned to the Lake Superior Shoreline just west of the park. They were able to save most of the park, with only the outer campsites being burned. The Rainbow lodge though, was burned to the ground.

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I visited the area that summer after the fire with my wife. The foot bridge was still there without too much damage. Standing on the bridge suspended above the middle of the river I looked up-stream. What was once a very beautiful place where the river comes flowing out of the dark forest I could see only the blackened trees on the hills on both sides of the river and it made me shiver. Certainly things will change here without the trees to hold back the sand.

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My wife and I walked out on the sliver of sand separating Lake Superior and the river and there was one sole fisherman standing in the surf. I looked down at the river at my feet and noticed something wasn’t right. What was it? I got down on my knees to get a closer look. The color. The rust color of the bottom that I remembered was now dark and almost black. I looked closely at the bottom and discovered it was now covered in black soot from the fire. I got up and followed the river with my eyes out into Lake Superior and a thought occurred to. The Salmon! Will they be able to find there river this year? Certainly the smell, taste, and even the chemical makeup of the river was now changed.

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Well, the Salmon did return that year. Somehow the river did summon them home. Much like it is summoning me now during this cold winter in Northern Michigan. I will return this summer to see how much Mother Nature has improved things and I am sure it will amaze me once again.

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Fly Fishing Rapid City’s Spring Creek

 

The Black Hills is an island of mountains surrounded by prairie. Home to cold trout streams fed by spring flows.

The Black Hills provide ideal conditions for trout. The majority of streams contain self-sustaining wild populations of brown and brook trout.

Brown trout management in the Black Hills focuses on development of wild fisheries. However, catchable brown trout are stocked in stream reaches where pressure is high as it is in Spring Creek.

Brook trout are primarily found in small streams and beaver ponds at higher elevations. All the brook trout in the Black Hills are wild.

My Son Frank Fly Fishing.

Spring Creek is the most accessible stream in the Black Hills.

I see cruising Brown Trout in the pools but have no success in getting them to strike on my offerings.

My son Joe, uses a spinning outfit to try to coax a brown to bite.

It is a sunny, warm day and I try a smaller tippet and continue to try different patters but to no avail.

Most years there is sufficient water to allow put-and-take management, but during dry years this section may dry up or become too warm to support trout.

Finally I try a small hex pattern and cast into a rapids and a nice brown hits it immediately.

 

After releasing the first fish I cast to the same location and hook up with another Brown Trout about 15 inches.

 

 

A Volunteer Schoolship Instructor

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I am just finishing up Schoolship training for the upcoming 2014 season which will begin the first of May. It is good to refresh my memory since it has been since last October, when the Schoolship season ended, that I was immersed in Great Lakes Science. It brings to mind my first year going through the training that was held at the NMC’s Water Studies Institute in Traverse City, MI.

I first heard about the Schoolship program from a TV spot asking for volunteers to train to be Schoolship instructors. “Go to Schoolship.org for more information” The TV spot said. The goal of The Inland Seas Education Association (ISEA), that operates the Schoolship, is to protect the Great Lakes through education and on-board experiences.

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In the Fall of 2012, having just retired and wondering what I was going to do with all of this new found free time, I was curious and went to the web site. What I found really intrigued me. I could train to be an instructor at Inland Seas Education Center and sail aboard the Inland Seas or the Manitou. Both of these vessels are replicas of the two-masted schooners that sailed the Great Lakes back in the 1800’s and early 1900’s.

The training consisted of 6 weekly sessions that covered all of the science we would need to know along with seamanship and a brief history of the Great Lakes and the schooners that sailed them.

Following the winter training sessions there was an all-day training session that was a “cram course” that included all 6 sessions and like the winter sessions, also included examples of each station. These 6 stations included water chemistry, benthos, plankton, fish, stewardship, and seamanship. Group sampling – weather and limnology was also included.

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The way the program worked, the groups that came aboard the Schoolship would learn about the science of sampling the Great Lakes ecosystem and also learn about sailing in a half day program. This is intended to teach and promote stewardship of the Great Lakes. Hopefully, those attending the program would leave there with a better understanding of the Great Lakes and would feel a responsibility to protect it.

This program was perfect for me since I love anything to do with the natural world and I have always enjoyed being on the water. The chance to be an instructor and to be a small part of something I really believe in gave me a new purpose.

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I have been a member of a lot of conservation organizations over the years but was never able to take an active part in promoting stewardship of our natural world. Maybe now I can help make a difference. Someone once said that when you really love something you will put forth extra effort to protect it. But to love something you first have to understand it; and to understand it you have to experience it. I can’t think of a better way for our young people, who will be the leaders of tomorrow, to experience it than on board the Schoolship.

Steward of Northern Michigan Cold Rivers and Great Lakes
Steward of Northern Michigan’s Cold Rivers and Great Lakes

Sun Dogs Courtesy of the Polar Vortex

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Sun dog, scientific name parhelion

      The Polar Vortex has given us above average snowfall this January, below zero temperatures, high winds, and now Sundogs.

According to Wikipedia, Sundogs are commonly made by the refraction of light from hexagonal ice crystals in cirrus clouds or during very cold weather. These ice crystals are called Diamond dust and drift in the air at low levels. The crystals act as prisms, bending the light rays passing through them. As the crystals sink through the air, they become vertically aligned, so sunlight is refracted horizontally. You will see one on each side of the Sun.

Sundogs are red-colored at the side nearest the sun. Farther out the colors grade through oranges to blue.

Gloria took pictures of these two colorful Sundogs, one on each side of the sun, this morning at around 8:45 am. The temperature was around 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

Change of Watch at Inland Seas

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Tom Kelly being presented the ships wheel and Fred Sitkins on his left

My wife and I recently attended a Change of Watch ceremony held at the History Center in Traverse City, MI. I had never heard the term “Change of Watch ceremony” before receiving the invitation from Inland Seas Education Association so I went on line to find out just what this was all about.

A Change of Watch ceremony, which is a Maritime ceremony, is typically held for a change in command in front of the people being affected by the change. In this case, since this is a mostly volunteer organization, a few staff, members of the board, and hundreds of volunteers. In the Navy, a Change of Watch Ceremony is usually held aboard ship in front of the crew to introduce the new captain and to relieve the old captain.

The Change of Watch ceremony also presents the accomplishments, which in this case are many, of the person being relieved along with the course or direction the ship or organization is heading. The person taking control is introduced in front of  the organization so that everyone sees who is now in command.

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Director Tom Kelly

On Friday, November 8, 2013, Captain, Director and Founder of Inland Seas Education Association, Tom Kelly, turned over the Direction of the ISEA organization to Fred Sitkins.

Tom Kelly followed a dream and founded the ISEA with the help of John Elder and Peter Dorn in 1989. With Tom Kelly at the “wheel” for the last 25 years, he has directed it to the exceptional Great Lakes education program that it is today.

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Fred Sitkins 

Fred Sitkins, educator, school principal, and past Schoolship volunteer will take the helm of ISEA and guide it into a new season in 2014.

The mission of ISEA is to “Enhance public understanding and stewardship of the Great Lakes through shipboard and onshore education programs for children and adults”. The shipboard programs run in the spring, summer and fall with the spring and fall program for School kids 4th grade through high school. The summer program is for families of all ages.

Looking for insects along the Boardman

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     Wednesday, October 9, was a great day for exploring the trails at the Grand Traverse County Natural Education Reserve and to identify bugs. Our Insects and Bugs class, part of the Northern Naturalist Program, was there along with our instructor from NMC. It was one of those beautiful, warm and sunny fall days that made you glad just to be outside. We explored the area above and below Sabin dam. Since this is one of the dams on the Boardman River to be removed in 2015, the ecology of the area above the dam will change significantly with the removal of the pond.

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Boardman Rivers Sabin Pond

  The Boardman River is a “Designated Natural River” that flows over 28 miles, from Kalkaska to Traverse City, MI and empties into the West arm of Grand Travers Bay. Its watershed drains an area of about 295 sq. miles and is considered to be one of the top 10 Trout Streams in Michigan. Three of the 4 dams along its path have been selected to be removed. In 2012 the Brown Bridge Dam was removed which caused some flooding when the dewatering device failed. The other two dams, Boardman and Sabin, are scheduled to be removed in 2015.

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Jack’s Creek
One of the many creeks that flows into the Boardman River along its course.

   The GTCD Nature Center is located on Cass Road and is the starting point for two of the 6 gorgeous trails along the Boardman River. We hiked both trails, the “Fox Den” Trail (2) and “The Sabin Pond” trail (3) in search of insects to identify. We identified over 30 insects and spiders including a Northern Black Widow Spider with a bumble bee in its nest.

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 Is this an insect on the post or just a chip in the wood? 

     The insect in the picture above is a common Bagworm (Psychidae family of Lepidoptera) a caterpillar that builds a small protective case in which to hide. They are masters of disguise if they pick the materials from where they attach themselves, they become almost invisible to prey. They may carry this around with them and can attach to almost anything. I have once found them attached to the tires of my trailer. In this case, the disguise does not work so well. The adults are called Bag moths.

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Closer View

     Upon closer inspection you can see that this is not just a chip in the wood but a collection of bits and pieces of the wooden post that is held together around the Bagworm with the silk that is connected inside the casing. Since this is fall, it is probably attached here for the winter.

     When this bug wakes up in the spring it will be totally different than it is today. It will be a moth with wings and will no longer have to carry its home around with it.

I wonder if it will remember its previous life.

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