Wednesday, July 25, 2012


 Isle Royale Remembered by Jerry Lang of Muskegon

I remember the first trip my wife and I took to Isle Royale – my favorite Michigan wilderness. There is something mysterious about this chunk of basaltic rock rubbed raw several times by glacial ice, periodically submerged by ancient lakes, historically ravaged for it’s copper ore, and once home to rugged seasonal fishermen.

As I gazed over the bow of the Ranger III at the 42-mile long island rising out the icy waters of Lake Superior, I felt the cares of the everyday world sinking into the wake behind us. A warm breeze carrying the boreal fragrance of sun-warmed balsam fir and spruce wafted over us on approach to the island. Despite an initial sunny welcome, we were fittingly ‘baptized’ into another world by a sudden summer rain shower just as we disembarked at Rock Harbor. 

Being the non-avid campers we are, my wife and I were thankful for the Park Service’s Rock Harbor Lodge on the east end of Isle Royale. By staying at the lodge, we were deprived of bragging rights about enduring blisters, hiking in downpours, and being bitten by blackflies along rugged portages. But we were still imbued by the wilderness feel of the place during our daily daypack and paddle trips.

Our introductory canoe trip was to the western end of Tobin Harbor.  The underwater panorama of sand, stones, sunken logs, and submerged plants changed beneath us with each silent stoke of the paddle while we slowly traveled along the wooded shoreline. We never glimpsed one of island’s resident moose nor heard a wolf howl in the distance; but the enigmatic call of nesting loons often echoed across the water.

We stopped on one of the many ‘boulder islands’ for lunch. It’s amazing how life clings to those granite rocks. Multicolored lichens covered much of the surface with bluebells, goldenrod, and even some small fir and spruce trees sprouting up in the cracks. 

Our second short canoe trip took us across Rock Harbor to nearby Raspberry Island. The boardwalk through a bog on the island offered a close-up view of a variety of carnivorous ‘Little Shop of Horrors plants’ like sundews and purple pitcher plants.

As an entomology graduate student, I studied the tiny non-biting pitcher plant mosquito, Wyeomyia smithii, whose closest relatives inhabit neotropical bromeliads. I’ve been known to use my wife’s turkey baster to suck water out of pitcher plant leaves looking for mosquito larvae. Luckily for my wife and the mosquitoes I had no baster handy on this trip. 

While Isle Royale is an officially designated wilderness area, we were forcefully reminded that the island is surrounded by the wildness of untamed Lake Superior. We encountered gale-force winds with 14-foot high waves on the return trip to Houghton. As most of the passengers gazed up from their barf bags at the mainland shoreline, we all had a new appreciation for our smallness amidst the raw power of planet earth’s wildness encountered right here in Michigan. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Reflections on the 25th Anniversary of the Michigan Wilderness Act

By Dave Dempsey, former staffer for Congressman Bob Carr, who introduced the legislation, and former environmental advisor to Gov. Blanchard.

Wilderness is about memories as much as it is about hopes for the future of humanity and the natural world.  So when I reflect on the 25th anniversary of Michigan’s federal wilderness law, I go back and forward in time all at once.

Wilderness moved from concept to reality for me when I joined a Michigan wilderness tour with Jane Elder, Bill Davis and other Sierrans in August 1981.  Not having backpacked before, I leaned heavily and sheepishly on my companions, who pitched my tent and led me almost by hand through the woods.  I’m glad they did.  

 Mingling with the majesty of the north woods and waters, I fell in love with wilderness and decided it, and environmental protection, would be my vocation as well as my avocation.  I remember, among other things, twilight over Horseshoe Bay, a moment fixed in my mind forever.  Mirroring the fading orange of the sky, the waters of the bay were fringed by gorgeous dark green conifers.  

At the time I hadn’t visited Nordhouse Dunes, the only Lower Peninsula wilderness area in the 1987 act.  I have many times since, and have always been awed – the real awe, not the one that is the root word of today’s overused “awesome” – by the miles of undeveloped dunes.  A few hundred years ago, hundreds of miles of the Lake Michigan shoreline might have looked like that.

 Advocates carry those images and powerful emotions along when they enter a legislative or Congressional committee room to do battle for wilderness.  Of course, it shouldn’t be battle; it should be consensus, for what makes more sense than conserving a small piece of the natural world for the enjoyment and scientific understanding of future generations?

But sense doesn’t always prevail in policymaking.  And so, when my boss, Governor Jim Blanchard, announced his support for Michigan wilderness in 1985, several political forces erupted.  Loudest was the late Senator Joe Mack of Ironwood, who called wilderness “a creeping cancer.”  (Joe also was quoted as saying that a wetland is “wherever a DNR employee takes a piss.”)  Senator Mack fought wilderness legislation every step of the way, and arrested its progress for a time, but ultimately lost the struggle.

But in the meantime, he and allies vilified Sierrans and other wilderness supporters as out-of-touch elitists sticking their nose in the business of northern Michigan.  I know it was tough on many advocates.  When a cause is so personal as well as so public, political epithets can break hearts.  Fortunately, the hearts of the Sierra Club were, and are, strong.

Thinking of the future, I worry about Michigan wilderness. The concept of climate change, let alone the term, is not one of which I knew in 1981.  How it will affect these islands of wilderness hope, I don’t know, but we are still better off with than without them.

There will always be the menace, too, of politicians and special interests who want to roll back wilderness, allow its exploitation, or even sell it off for short-term gain.  I rest easy knowing that the ranks of the Sierra Club will step forward each time the threat arises.

 Like most advocates, I am well aware of the criticism that “wilderness” protection is a futile effort to capture permanently a distorted picture of untouched land that in fact has been altered by humans since the last glaciation. 

To ascribe that notion to modern-day wilderness protection is to stereotype – and distort.  We are not trying to stuff time in a bottle.  We are trying to let the processes of nature work their way largely unimpeded on reserves of land that will also be reserves of our strength.  Inevitably, humankind will influence these lands and related ecosystems indirectly through carbon emissions and resulting consequences and through other means.  That doesn’t diminish the importance of the 1987 Michigan Wilderness Act; it affirms it.  We need these places to help us measure our hearts as well as to measure our science.  The two are not mutually exclusive.

It took many years, and many (often unnamed) people, working together with spirit and resolve, to make the 1987 law happen.  Let’s celebrate them as well as wilderness.  They have protected something truly grand and beautiful for us all to savor.  In the end, we and wilderness are all intertwined.  That mental picture of Horseshoe Bay I cherish?  It includes my friends on that wilderness tour, walking the beach in quiet happiness.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Michigan Wilderness Essay

By Missy Rogers
Our first trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes it seemed to take days to get there. “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” We asked the whole way.  When we arrived everything seemed so big. The hills seemed to touch the sky.  The shoreline went on for what seemed like miles. 100 more questions would be asked before it was over.  Lady’s Slipper, Forget Me Not and Iris painted the swamps and brookside blue and yellow along with other flowers. The  wild strawberry and red clover added a red tint to the fields and road side along with other various white yellow and blue flowering plants. On the sand covered hills of the dunes you could spot Pitchers Thistle, now on the endangered plants list.  It grows for 5 to 8 years before it blooms and gets 3 feet tall.  Trudging on up the hills, through all the sun heated sand as the wind blew, the waves rolled in, I finally made it to the cool water.  I truly believed that the water never ended looking out into the blue.

Sometime later I found myself curled up on the car floor as we crossed Mackinac Bridge.   I looked up at the strings. The bridge appeared to be held up by heaven.  As we stopped on the bridge, bravery led me to stick my head out the window.   I looked down to see the grates on the bridge, bravery soon ended and I curled back up on the floor. Quite sometime later we made it to Pictured Rocks.

A picture of my parents at Pictured Rocks fills my memory when I think of this day. Smiles painted their faces as Mother Nature painted the background.  I have only been out of Michigan 2 times in my life and yet I have seen some of the most beautiful spots in the world. I have felt the hot sand in my toes, heard the water fall down a 200 foot cliff where earth’s crust creates a colorful blend of layers and seen the sunset in what seems like an endless horizon. I have been to my little piece of heaven where I know that the sights, smells and sounds that surround me will always take me back to my childhood. I know that  my mother and father will be with me in spirit whenever I visit. It is where I will take my children and be with them in spirit when I am gone. These are the places that we create memories that last an eternity generation  after generation.

Missy Rogers is a mother of 8, from Newaygo, Michigan, wife of a wounded warrior, and blogs at

Rare Moments

A Michigan Wilderness Essay Contest Entry
By Steve Uptegraft

Evening settled gray sliding toward darkness across the forest. Our cross country skis etched softly threw unmarked snow in the Nordhouse Dunes. The cold air felt like snow would start falling at any moment. Other than us, the only movement was a late cardinal, a fleeting flash of red in the otherwise blackening landscape, hurrying to its nest in a cluster of spruce.

“Listen,” I said, stopping in a small, wooded opening.

“To what?” said my friend, looking puzzled. “I can’t hear anything.”

“That’s it,” I replied in a hushed voice. “Listen to the silence. When is the last time you heard it?

“Oh…ya,” he whispered. “Ya.”

We stood perfectly still, almost scared to move or breathe for fear of breaking the silence. It was a magical, mystical event. Then, as quickly as we had found it, it vanished. The cardinal we had seen called out, announcing he was home guarding his nest. Then a breeze rustled the treetops and a branch, overloaded with snow, unburdened itself in a miniature avalanche. An owl, some distance off, hooted a hello to his neighbors, letting them know he was up. Still, we had experienced the moment. A precious moment of natural silence that has become rarer and rarer in our modern world.

A cold, dry snow started falling as we skied back toward the van. I began reflecting on how close we came to losing this last patch of pure, unspoiled wilderness in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. I recalled the meetings, letters and articles. Then there were the many state house and senate office calls, committee meetings, and the trips to D.C. with the office visits and testimony at the house subcommittee hearing. And finally, victory, the victory that preserved this spot and the nine others in the Upper Peninsula for future generations to enjoy. A big smile filled my face and warmed my body.

I heard the silence again as we reached the van and began preparing to leaving, but it was somehow different.

“Can you hear that?” I asked.

“The silence, again?” came the reply, figuring that had to be to what I was referring.

“Yes, but no. Can you hearing a faint ringing sound in the background, like little, tiny glass bells?”

My friend stood quiet, listening, perhaps wondering if I was daft. Then a perplexed look came across his face in the light from the van’s overhead.

“Yes,” he finally said. “I think I hear it. What is it?”

“This may sound crazy,” I replied, “but I think it is the sound of the snowflakes hitting together.

“Weird. No way. Is that even possible?”

“I don’t know. I really don’t know”

I have thought about it many times since. Had we really heard the snowflakes colliding? Or was it mutual tinnitus…wishful thinking…madness? I don’t know. But still, we had the peaceful tranquility of the Nordhouse Dunes quiet to give us pause to ponder.