Articles on nature and the natural history of the Grand Traverse Region. From descriptions of geological strata or animals and plants of the Great Lakes states to nature walks and gardens of the region, this feature covers everything in the great outdoors.
Dockaquacology takes place in the anonymity of the cold Spring water of the lakes of Northern Michigan. The dockaquacologist drives the sections from stacks on the shore into place with waders on. The sections are manufactured with precision using exotic metals. They fit together and are leveled to within inches of the water’s surface, they run straight and true for hundreds of feet to that magic ski boat depth.
The docks are strong enough to hold the entire family and more. Strong enough to hold up to being beaten with a rock by the dockaquacologist when something gets stuck, but not strong enough to stand up to the crushing force of the Winter ice. That is why teams of dockaqucologists return in the Fall to remove sections and float the hosts. Everything is stacked back onto prime waterfront.
Docks and piers in Northern Michigan were once the center of commerce. Many ships tied up and were loaded and unload at these structures. The pilings that held these piers have been ground to nubs by the ice. Those nubs can still be seen at ghost town locations near Good Harbor, Otter Creek and Pierport.
Docks are now the center of recreational activities. All manner of shiny craft are loaded with coolers, water skies, dogs and children. Water fronts are readied for the recreational boaters after the ice melts and before Memorial Day. The dockaquacologist imagines all the activities at the dock as he assembles the family fun land. (I am sure there are lady dockaquacologists but I have yet to meet one.)
I recently interviewed Wes Worden and his crew as they installed a dock with three boat hoists on Long Lake. We met at the Crescent Shore boat launch and boarded the “barge” and took a short ride to the site where the dock was to be erected. Long Lake was quiet that morning and the shoreline had a pristine appearance with only a few docks.
The barge was tied up next to the stack of dock sections and the crew of four: Wes, Greg, Levy and put on their waders. The barge contained all the tools the crew would need. They started by fitting large wheels into the base of the huge boat lifts and rolling them into the shallow water. Then Wes artfully set the first section of dock into the real estate.
Each section was assembled and dropped into the water legs up to be floated into place. Wes used a level to make sure each section was true. Levy rolled the sections in chest deep water and in legs down position the sections were set in place and bolted. The legs were tamped into the sand and gravel of the lake bottom.
Once the dock was complete, large pieces of foam were tucked under the boat hoist. All four men guided this huge machine into chest deep water where the foam was kicked out and the hoist dropped into place right next to the dock.
Imagine the shores in their pristine state without the vast array of equipment water front owners deploy with the help of dockaquacologists. Huge white pine and cedar overhanging the banks provided shade for fish to spawn, fur bearing creatures to hunt and fowl to nest. The shores are the most vital and productive areas for wildlife and the most pleasant for humans. We now dominate the shore for our own pleasure with a wild assortment of gadgets. Together these watercraft leak oil and gas into the water and have numerous other harmful effects on the shallow waters of our lakes. (1)
When I saw Dockaquacologist Gabe take a ride on a large chunk of foam back to shore I was reminded of Bruce Catton’s description of loggers. Note, Wes and crew were a fine group of men. They did not fight and clearly relished the work on the water.
“But hard living and hard fighting were not the whole story. There were easy stretches on every drive – times when the logs floated smoothly down a steady current, with no tangles, no jams and nothing to worry about. At such moments a riverman would jab the spike of his peavey into one end of the log, light his pipe, look up at the clouds, and let all of tomorrow’s problems take care of themselves. This is the time when he saw the glamor of his own existence, and reveled in it.” (2)
The dockaquacologist has occasional easy stretches where the sections bolt together and level without problem. At such moments the dockaquacologist sees the glamor of his own existence and revels in it in a way that those with shiny toys tied up to the dock will not witness.
(1) The Effects of Motorized Watercraft on Aquatic Ecosystems. Timothy R. Asplund, University of Wisconsin
(2) Waiting for the Morning Train. Bruce Catton
Stewart A. McFerran is a former deck hand with Lang fisheries in Leland MI. Leader of the Antioch College Great Lakes Environmental Field Program and Innisfree Naturalist.
When Nello Valentine left Chicago in his VW Van his destination was not Leelanau County. He passed through Leelanau on his tour of the Nation. After travelling the Nation’s highways and scenic byways the journey was complete with a stroll on Haight Ashbury Street in the other Bay Area. He traded the van for a houseboat that was docked near the Jack London Square in Oakland, California. His son was born there before he and his wife Margie decided to move to Leelanau.
They bought a Rambler and arrived at the Candle Light Inn outside of Suttons Bay in December of 1968. “I had long hair, a mustache and no idea there would be such prejudice against hippies.” Nello and Margie bought 100 acres outside of Cedar. Many of the farms of Leelanau County had soil that did not react as expected when deforested and grazed. Erosion cut into the sandy hillsides of cut rate acreage.
Nello decided to plant trees on his property. Ellsworth Esch had been planting trees in the county for many years. He worked with the soil conservation district programs that targeted timber stand improvement, soil erosion and wildlife. “Ellsworth hired Indians to plant the trees”, said Nello.
Nello hired his own crew and started planting trees in 1974. As an occasional member of the crew I recall that we mostly planted white pine, red pine and Norway spruce. At that time the DNR wildlife experts were recommending that autumn olive be planted for “food plots”. Nello sometimes took his crew to remote two acre oil well sites that had been abandoned. These areas were slated to be covered with autumn olive. Autumn olive is now considered an invasive species by experts.
Nello recalls the giant hemlocks that once covered Leelanau. He rues the days those giants were cut just for bark and left to rot on the sandy soil. Elms were dying or dead county-wide when Nello first moved to Leelanau. He said they made good fire wood. The ash trees have gone the way of the elm and are now providing firewood.
At this moment in time when so many kinds of trees are threatened by invasive species, disease, and climate change, Nello calls on his degree in comparative religion. Today a walk in the woods can be dangerous due to falling timber, says forester Kama Ross.
At the time Nello began planting there were many large farms in Leelanau. Those farmers could take advantage of the programs though the soil conservation service and work with Nello to have trees planted on their sandy hillsides. We would walk together with canvas bags on our hips and plant trees every eight or ten feet. The federal government dictated the spacing of the trees. It was always important to slot the root of the tree straight into the earth and avoid having a “J Root”. We could carry fifty trees on our hips and plant thousands of trees a day.
Spring was the best time to plant and Nello’s crew often planted 80,000 trees during those cool months. The Fall planting time was shorter but often the crew accomplished the rooting of 50,000 trees. The survival rate of the trees we planted was 80%. Nello has seen that reduced due to hotter weather and longer droughts. He has resorted to watering trees on his farm.
I recently met John DeKorn at the Lake Ann Brewery. John was one of Nello’s best tree planters. His home brewed beer “Old Burdickville” was sometimes provided to the crew at lunch in the field. I recall that on those days the rows of trees became serpentine after lunch.
Many of the farms of Leelanau have been subdivided. The soil conservation district still offers trees. Nello and crew of hippies planted trees from 1974 to 2004. His conservative estimate is that we planted 2 million trees in Leelanau, Benzie and Grand Traverse counties, an accomplishment that I for one am proud of.
Stewart A. McFerran is a former deck hand with Lang fisheries in Leland MI. Leader of the Antioch College Great Lakes Environmental Field Program and Innisfree Naturalist.
September 2017: The Aisling (the author’s own boat, whose reintroduction to the water after a long absence was detailed in a previous article) approached the Manistee light from the deep water of Lake Michigan under sail. We encountered the sports fishing fleet trolling the waters for some of the 25,470,199 fish that were raised in DNR fish farms and released into the rivers and open waters around the State. The inner harbor was busy with large boats hauling complex arrays of bait. The Aisling, with a weight of over two tons pushed by the wind, was dogged by fishers with powerful engines, diesel and gas. No expense was spared to transport clients from the Manistee dock to fishing grounds miles out in Lake Michigan.
Once at dock in the Manistee River we learned a fishing tournament was taking place on the big lake. The fishing was not good and the sporting men were grumpy but still purchasing rivers of fuel. Many of the crews were catching nothing. The fish that were caught were small. But the trophies were large. They were chasing the non-native, farm raised creatures released into the open water. I wonder if this scheme is sustainable?
Fish farming is practiced by the State of Michigan in service of the sports fishing industry. The ecological changes in the big lakes have put that industry on shaky ground. If big fish are not displayed and celebrated at tournaments one has to wonder what the future holds for the sports fishing fleet.
Fish farming by the commercial fish farmer is sustainable. I have been in contact with Dan Vogler of Harietta Hills Trout Farm about fishery management and asked his professional opinion on matter fishery practices in Michigan. During our conversation, as you will see, we often came back to the conundrum, ‘What is native, what are we protecting’.
A Conversation with Fish Farmer Dan Vogler:
D.V. That’s an interesting read (referring to a previous article published in Grand Traverse Journal). Fishery management is certainly not something that draws unanimous consent in most proceedings.
S.A.M. The DNR has the funds and is pushing forward with the Fish Pass project on the Boardman River. But just what fish are going to pass? Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and the Adams Chapter of Trout Unlimited, feel that the “Fish Pass” is a dubious proposition.
D.V. In my opinion, having open river systems with 100% passage would be great…if we were still dealing with native systems…but we aren’t. We now have fish in the Great Lakes that will exploit passage to the detriment of many species upstream. Sometimes “natural” isn’t as natural as it might first appear.
S.A.M. Yes. Bill Scharf (Professor Emeritus at Northwestern Michigan College; Professor of Biology at Lake Superior State University) shared an article with me that documents how the lake-run trout (steelhead) can contaminate the upper reaches of streams that have been isolated for many years and effect areas managed as separate units. I will send you that link . . . (Notre Dame University; Janetski et al. 2012)
D.V. Imagine also runs of Pacific salmon and Steelhead up the Boardman….some folks would be enthusiastic, but probably not good for our native species.
D.V. Not only that, but much higher predation rates by huge lake run piscivores!
D.V. So, not all desirable natives are trout….although I have to admit that these come to mind first….and Brookies are arguably in that category.
S.A.M. Maybe it is cynical, but if you accept that there are no native species of fish left (except for Coregonids) you can say: Why not have commercial aquaculture?
D.V. The reality is that we already have large-scale aquaculture in the Lakes. State hatcheries propagate and stock huge number of non-native fish that are essentially “ranched” on the “open range” of the Lakes, then “rounded up” by a fleet of fish cowboys. Why not have aquaculture that can feed lots of people?
D.V. Imagine a Fish Town in Leland that actually featured locally grown whitefish, and that it could actually support itself as a commercial enterprise again. It is possible.
S.A.M. I know Bill Carlson (commercial fisherman and owner of Carlson Fisheries in Leland) wanted that.
D.V. Unfortunately, only fish heretics talk about this type of thing nowadays…..The mythology that has been developed to discount aquaculture has the mainstream and most of the fish community running scared.
S.A.M. I would like to see a study comparing the pollution from a dock with motor boats to a small aquaculture operation.
D.V. So the studies on the aquaculture side have all been done up in Canada in the Georgian Bay and the Experimental Lakes region….Real science…peer-reviewed science. As for studies on marinas…I’m quite certain that they can’t possibly have any negative environmental impacts…otherwise everyone would be up in arms to make sure that they were banned.
Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, in a resolution recently stated: “If a chosen fish is a species currently raised in a hatchery, then passage up the Boardman River is tantamount to aiding and abetting aquaculture.”
There is a long history of aquaculture in all the Great Lakes States. It is not a crime. As we approach the “paradigm shift” that many fisheries biologists refer to we need to consider ending the State-run monopoly on fish farming. Decriminalizing private aquaculture operations is the least that can be done.
(BTW, an epic quest for Moby Dick does not have to be a part of every boat ride on the big lake. A sailboat ride is much more sustainable.)
Stewart A. McFerran is a former deck hand with Lang fisheries in Leland MI. Leader of the Antioch College Great Lakes Environmental Field Program and Innisfree Naturalist.
Of Things Ignored and Unloved: A Naturalist Walks Northern Michigan contains over thirty essays by the esteemed Dr. Richard Fidler. (Before you ask, no, he is not standing near me engaging in threatening gestures as I write this review. It is a totally unsolicited piece, however, the quality of this collection should be commended on the highest mountaintops and lowest freshwater sponge-riddle waterways. For real.)
Long time readers of Grand Traverse Journal will recognize parts of some of the essays, as many of Fidlers’ first iterations of these essays were published in this very magazine, a very distinguished honor to be sure! He covers nearly everything we regular, un-inquisitive folk visually pass right over, from ant nuptials to Trailing Arbutus. He includes the misunderstood milk snake, the repulsive sea lamprey, and the confusing clubmoss, giving each organism he sets his sights on the respect they are due. What are these things, and what, if anything, do they do? You will find these answers and more in this collection.
This is a truly unique collection, one I have not seen the like of before. Often, descriptions of the flora and fauna that are not well-loved (seal pups and baby orangutans, for example) are limited to brief, uninteresting, and ultimately uninformative encyclopedic clap-trap. Take, for example, this description of freshwater sponges from Britannica:
“Freshwater sponge, any of about 20 species of the genus Spongilla (class Demospongiae, siliceous sponges), a common, widely occurring group. Spongilla species are found in clean lake waters and slow streams. Freshwater sponges are delicate in structure, growing as encrusting or branching masses. They usually appear greenish because of the algae that live on them.”
Boooooorrrrringgggg. Also, nothing about what really interests me, which is primarily, what would this thing be like to squish between my fingers, and where can I see one in northern Michigan? Fidler answers both questions in his essay Godzilla vs. Spongilla: A Contrast in Lifestyles.
Perhaps you are interested in all things unique to our region? Fidler covers local phenomenon including ventifact fields and lag gravel, seiches specifically in Grand Traverse Bay, how the windstorm of 2015 affected local forests a year later, and other similar curiosities.
Truly, one of my favorite additions to these essays is Fidler’s hand drawn illustrations. Unlike in Grand Traverse Journal, which I typically illustrate on his behalf by using just okay, public domain images, you will get to see these organisms through the artistic pen of a man who cares. My favorite? The image of the water bear, which you can see in the essay At Play With Water Bears. I’ve never thought of Tardigrades as adorable before, but I certainly do now!
“But Amy, I’m not excited by nature, what does this collection have for me?” If you are one of these people (and I’m not accusing you if you are), I dare say you have not looked at the world around you with Richard Fidler. His writing is informative, engaging, quick, and light. If you believe you have no interest in its content, I challenge you to pick up a copy, flip to any random page, and not be fascinated by some tidbit you had never considered before. This would be a fun book to read with a younger person who is just getting interested in the creepy-crawlies whom we share the world with. Impress your friends, astound your enemies, and open your eyes to the natural world of Northern Michigan with Fidler as your guide!
Of Things Ignored and Unloved: A Naturalist Walks Northern Michigan is on sale at Horizon Books, 243 E. Front Street, Traverse City; and online at Amazon.com.
The state of Michigan has a state flower: the apple blossom; it has a state bird: the American robin; it has a state wildflower: the Dwarf Lake Iris; it has a state gem: Lake Superior greenstone; it has a state stone: the Petoskey stone; and it has a state soil: Kalkaska sand.
Wait! A state soil? Who would care enough to advocate for a state soil? As a student of nature, I know that there can be only one answer—and correct me if I am wrong: a soil science class somewhere pushed state legislators for the adoption of Kalkaska sand as the state soil–and got the job done.
What of this Kalkaska sand, then? Besides a location where it is found, what more is to be said about it? Is it the soil that made this state rich in agriculture, the soil that grows soybeans, corn, potatoes, and fruit? Perhaps it is the rich mucky soil found around Kalamazoo that used to produce so much celery that the city was once called Celery City? Or, is it the fabled soil close to Michigan’s thumb with rich, black humus that goes down two feet or more?
No, it is none of these things. Kalkaska is located in the pine barrens of Northern Michigan. It once grew white pine, red pine, jack pine, and a variety of oaks—and still does between logging operations. It generally does not grow crops successfully, especially those requiring moisture retention—like soybeans, for example. The parent material of Kalkaska sand, is, unsurprisingly, a coarse sand that let’s water percolate through easily. It dries out quickly between rains.
The parent material of a soil is made up of varying amounts of clay, silt, and sand, those particles graded in size from very small to quite coarse. A clayey soil—most common in Southern Michigan—contains microscopic grains that retain moisture well–while sand is gritty, unable to retain water; silt is somewhere in between. Soils that are most versatile contain fair measures of clay, silt, and sand: they are termed loamy soils.
In Northern Michigan a soil much prized for cultivation of many crops—corn through potatoes—is Emmet till, a loamy sand that takes on a reddish hue when moist. It is commonly found plastered upon the hills of the region, the glacial morraines that cover much of Leelanau and Benzie counties as well as other nearby places. When you take a handful of it, and squeeze, you get a gritty ball that sticks together, unlike Kalkaska sand that slithers through your fingers like dry sugar when compressed.
All of the soils in Northern Michigan—and in Michigan generally—are transported, in the sense that the glaciers brought down the parent material from the north. Elsewhere, as in the Southern states, soil developed from underlying rock layers as they weathered. Commonly, such soils are made of reddish clay that dries almost as hard as concrete in droughty summers. Root crops—like potatoes—and flowers like lilies—struggle under such conditions.
Emmet till naturally supports hardwood forests made up of Sugar Maple, Red Maple, North American beech, American basswood, White Ash (now gone), and Eastern Hemlock, while Kalkaska sand (and its related sandy relatives) grow pines and oaks. From the beginning, settlers to the area recognized the fact that hardwoods made better farms than pines. Many abandoned homesteads are to be found in the sandy barrens of Nothern Michigan, testimony to the difficulty of making a living on such unpromising soil.
So, why should Kalkaska sand achieve such recognition? My theory is this: the state tree of Michigan is the White Pine, and for good reason–it supported the logging industry that eventually tamed a vast Michigan wilderness. That being the case, then what soil grows white pines in abundance? You know the answer—Kalkaska sand.
I knew from my friend’s lively cry that something big was afoot: “There is some kind of colonial animal living over here!”
She was knowledgeable about outdoor creatures, so I had little reason to doubt her unlikely comment.I came running over to where she was pointing.
“There, there, at the lip of the spillway—can you see it?”She was pointing at something twelve feet from where I stood on the concrete abutment above the dam that released water from Lake Dubonet to the Platt River system below.“No, I can’t see—it’s too dark!
“Just look.It’s perched on the edge of the spillway.”
My eyes were getting used to the shade cast by the abutment.“I see it!” I proclaimed, “and I think I know what it is,” I replied with a bit of hesitation in my voice.“It’s a freshwater sponge!I haven’t seen one in years.Let me get a picture of it.”
I worked myself down, as close as I could to where the thing was growing.It looked like a mass of gelatin, as large as a loaf of bread, without any recognizable appendages, without a head or a tail.Colonial animals, indeed!What else could it be?
I took a couple of photographs with my camera held down as close as I could get it to the creature.The flash went off, so dark it was down there.I include the view in this article along with one taken by someone else, someone with an easier animal to photograph.
When I got home, I immediately began to have doubts about my identification.Freshwater sponges are not gelatinous, for one thing.They are rough to the touch, and generally green.I thought about my Invertebrate Biology course I had taken so many years ago—and I remembered.I emailed my friend: “It’s not a freshwater sponge.It’s a bryozoan, a moss animal!” Not having seen the species for nearly forty years, it was easy to see how I could have misidentified it.
Bryozoans are sedentary creatures made up of individuals with scores of tentacles, all of them connected to a horseshoe-shaped structure called a lopophore.They are not related to corals—which do not have a lopophore—but extract food from the water the same way they do: filtering out living organisms.This they do by movements of their tentacles and the cilia (moving hairs) upon them.
Like sponges and corals, they encrust various substrates—wood, rock, old tires, even water intakes–scarcely moving during their lives.The species my friend had found, Pectinatella magnifica, is known to move as a young colony, at the rate of two centimeters per day.Its possibilities for adventure are clearly limited by its sluggishness.
“Bryozoan” translates from the Greek as “moss animal.”In both freshwater and salt water, some species form mats somewhat reminiscent of a bank of moss, though they are rarely colored green.The species I photographed, genus Pectinatella, secretes a gelatinous outer body that looks like an unappetizing jam one might put on bread.No one would be tempted to do so, however, given its unprepossessing appearance.
However they might offend our mammalian standards for beauty, bryozoans choose attractive ponds and streams to live in: they prefer unpolluted water, water uncontaminated by mud, debris, or pollutants brought in by humans.Just as lichens point to unpolluted air, bryozoans indicate clean water.
The life cycle of Bryozoans lacks the drama of sperm from one colony actively seeking out eggs in another.Generally, sperm cells from one colony fertilize eggs from the same: a larva grows from the fertilized egg, and is eventually released into the water, often as the colony dies at the end of the summer season.
No one brags about the bryozoan he has captured.No one raves about how good they taste.No one tells of the sport they had in catching their first bryozoan.They live uninteresting lives unaffected by the major currents of a world dominated by other organisms.Does that make them less interesting to those of us who know them?Not at all.
by S.A. McFerran, B.A. Environmental Studies, Antioch University
A new group recently met at Fishtown in Leland to initiate the Fisheries Heritage Trail. The trail will link historic fishing villages throughout the Great Lakes. It will provide access to historic archives relating to commercial fishing as well as the sites occupied by shoreline communities where fishers lived.The effort is sponsored by Sea Grant, Michigan Maritime Museum, the Pokey Huddle Institute and NOAA Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and others.
Fresh Great Lakes fish bought in the market are caught by commercial fishers, sports fishers are not allowed to sell fish they catch by hook and line. Commercial fishing operations still use classic high deck tugs that can protect the crew from the weather all year round. The tug I worked on had a coal stove that really kicked out the heat. Trap net commercial operations use vessels with low decks and generally only fish in good weather.
It was decreed with consent that the sports/commercial fishing divide would be defined by kinds of fish caught as well as fishing methods. Commercial fishers catch coregonids, whitefish, chubs, cisco and herring. These native fish of the genus coregonus live in all parts of Great Lakes waters and throughout colder regions of the globe. Sports fishers catch large predator fish that are raised in hatcheries and have biometric tags inserted in their heads as they are released.
As the 20 year period of the consent decree approaches the end, it is apparent that the fisheries resources pie has changed since 2000. While some species have declined others have increased such as walleye in the Saginaw bay. Many feel it would be appropriate to allow commercial walleye fishing in the Saginaw Bay. Randall Claramunt of the DNR has recently talked about “paradigm shift” due to changing fish populations. 1.
The catch of native whitefish (coegonus cupaliformis) in Lake Michigan and Huron is still substantial, 2.2 million pounds in 2015. The trap nets whitefish are caught in stand on the bottom of the lake in shallow areas and are pulled up and checked for fish. The tugs set gill nets that can stand at depths of hundreds of feet.
Aquaculture in Michigan is in service of sportsmen. Sportsfishermen are fishing harder with their hooks and lines for the non-native game fish raised in State of Michigan Hatcheries. The State government has a firm hold on aquaculture and an enthusiastic constituency of sportsmen. As the ecosystem changes and the “consent decree” expires it is time to rethink how fisheries in Michigan are managed. With an eye to history, thoughtful decisions can be made with the consent of stake holders. Many who buy fresh Great Lakes fish in the market recognize the efforts of commercial fishers. Efforts to expand aquaculture operations in Great Lakes waters are long over due.
The Great Lakes Fisheries Heritage Trail can provide perspective on how the fisheries resource has changed. The Consent Decree renegotiation is an opportunity to envision a new paradigm. Former commercial fishers and others knowledgeable in fisheries issues support the expansion of commercial fishing and aquaculture in the open waters of the Great Lakes. State governments have the expertise to manage such operations without interfering with sportsmen as they take their boat rides in fine weather.
1. “King salmon reign becomes more precarious on changing Great Lakes”; Keith Matheny, Detroit Free Press Published, Oct. 23, 2017
Stewart. A. McFerran teaches a class on the Natural History of Michigan Rivers at NMC and is a frequent contributor to the Grand Traverse Journal.
Outside Oryana Food Co-op at Lake St. and Tenth, just beyond the old railroad yard, a stand of grass grows far taller than my six-foot frame. The stalks are sturdy and straight, colored with maroon, gold, and a touch of blue at the nodes where the leaves come out. They grow in the rubble of a formerly active railroad, amid the cinders, stones, broken glass, and pieces of coal of the roadbed. Alongside the tallest grasses is a shorter species which looks much like the larger, but reaching only a bit above my knees. It definitely plays second fiddle to its larger cousin.
I know these grasses. The larger is Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), and the smaller—appropriately—Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). Both are native to Michigan, the smaller species quite common along interstate highways and sandy, well-drained fields in locations where farming proved nearly impossible decades ago. Big Bluestem is harder to find: the most likely place in Northern Michigan to find it is near Lake Michigan among the dunes.
Both grasses are prairie species. As components of that ecosystem, they depend upon environmental disturbance for their survival, that taking the form of occasional drought, fire, and windblown soil. In Michigan we do not have good examples of prairie ecosystems. Perhaps the oak openings around Kalamazoo and the sandy, unstable soils near Lake Michigan come the closest, but they lack many prairie species present further west. Sleeping Bear dunes has areas heavily populated with prairie grasses, especially Big and Little Bluestem.
If prairies are the natural habitat of these grasses, then why are they found along railroad tracks? Two reasons occur to me: first, railroads do away with woody plants growing near the tracks through pruning or herbicides. With no trees to shade them out, grasses have the advantage. The second reason has to do with fire. Before the days of diesel engines, fires along railroad tracks were common as hot cinders escaped the smoke stacks of steam engines. Fire would spread from the tracks, sometimes starting wildfires that extended for miles. Of course, lightning causes such fires, too.
Michigan does not have the endless oceans of grass rippling in the wind as the Dakotas or eastern Montana do. Buffalo did not wander among stalks of Big Bluestem that grew shoulder-high to those animals. The sky did not spread to the far horizon, creating a sense of both immensity and emptiness as Western writers describe for us. Instead, here the hills and trees make for a more closed—some would say, friendly environment. Still, in small places and large expanses all around—by old railroad tracks and in sand dunes—we get a hint of the prairie further west, only we must search hard to find it. Look along railroad tracks to find Big and Little Bluestem before the snow presses their stalks to the earth.
Close to the railroad trestle across the Boardman River at Eighth Street, a large patch of ragweed grows tall, some plants reaching five feet high. It covers disturbed ground with a dense tangle of leaves and stems, never gracing the landscape with a hint of color. Not particular to good soil or poor, it grows wherever the soil has been disturbed, only reaching gigantic proportions under the best conditions. Though an annual, it comes up year after year unless attention is paid to its control.
Ragweed will eventually go away as other plants move in to squeeze it out, but its retreat is often slow and uneven. Uprooting the plant gets rid of it for a scant year or two, but as long as the ground is bare of other plants, it will come back. The only real solution is to seed an area with something more desirable- grass or shrubs, for example. That, of course, involves a plan, disciplined labor, and money for seed. In the past Traverse City applied a simpler remedy: paying children to eradicate ragweed. While spreading wealth among the youth, it never quite did the job. Ragweed flourishes now as it always has.
With the building of the homes, railroads, farms, docks, and factories that replaced the great pine forests of the Traverse area came the pests that survive and thrive on the leavings of humankind: spilled grain from a mill, garbage left beside a house, a dump sited near residences, the river with its flowing cargo of waste and dead fish, horse manure that nourished clouds of floes. Rat and sparrows, locusts and flies- even unwanted plants like ragweed- arrived in our town and, like their fellow human immigrants, settled down to make decent homes for themselves. Seeing no future in the Old World, Norway rats fled to America, obtaining free transportation aboard boats shipping seed corn and food to the New World. Invited by certain misguided individuals who missed the birds of Europe, house sparrows were set free on the East Coast of the United States in 1852. It did not take them long to find Traverse City for it is noted in a Record-Eagle article of 1923 that a bounty of two cents was offered for every sparrow carcass brought in to the examiners.
Firearm control of animals was not confined to sparrows. Rats brought a richer reward than sparrows to young marksmen: ten cents per rat, the tail being sufficient evidence of a corpse. Of course, a wiser, and less violent approach would have been to make food unavailable to rodents and birds, but that simple idea would require time to take root in people’s consciousness. After all, shooting pests provides a certain satisfaction since success is easily measured by body counts, while eliminating food sources does not carry the same panache. Besides, the hunter’s instinct is never far from the surface in small towns of the American Middle West.
Undeserving of compassion, these hapless creatures were classified as “vermin” and were hated because they spread disease and filth about the city. More than the threat to public health they posed was the appearance of poverty and ugliness. They represented an insult to the civilization of a fine city: Traverse City, Michigan. To affronted townspeople, the only good sparrow was a dead sparrow; the only good rat was a dead rat.
The Record-Eagle joined the battle against vermin in 1924. Fresh from victories over the rat populations of Manistee and Muskegon, one Helen Caldwell became the field general for a local rat extermination campaign. Beneath a picture of Caldwell, the newspaper waxed poetic about the campaign:
Rodents and such were gathering fast,
When through the village street they passed
A youth [Caldwell] whose banner bore that strange device,
Straightaway unto Bill Hobbs she turned, And he it was who firstly learned, The power behind those magic words, “Rat Poison!”
And he took her to the paper place, Where the Record-Eagle entered the race To shout and cry from the top of the page, “Rat Poison!”
Then to the mayor she hied her way, And with him also she had her say, Which was and is and will be, too “Rat Poison!”
The board of health sat on the case, And a smile beamed over Doc Holliday’s face, As he decreed for the city’s pests “Rat Poison!”
Barium carbonate was the poison of choice. It was to be mixed with meat, cheese, cereals and cake- even fresh fruit like bananas and cantaloupe (apparently, rat insisted on a smorgasbord of delicacies). Care would be taken to keep the poison bait away from pets (and children, one would presume). In case an accident should occur, the sufferer should ingest Rochelle or Epson salts as an emetic.
The mayor of Traverse City, James T. Milliken, issued a proclamation in support of the rat extermination program:
Inasmuch as every person in the city is supporting two rats at a cost of $1.82 each and inasmuch as this expense can be eliminated, it is with considerable enthusiasm that I endorse the rat extermination campaign which is now being waged in Traverse City.
In endorsing this campaign I also designate the dates from July 31 to August 9 as “Rat Killing Week” and urge every citizen, including every boy and every girl, to join this movement and make Traverse City a ratless city.
With such publicity, the campaign could not but succeed. A week into the campaign the Record-Eagle reported, “Traverse City’s rat population has decreased by leaps and bounds almost overnight, the rats in their poison throes, leaping and bounding out into the open air to die by the dozens.” The mayor’s call to the boys and girls had brought in ample evidence of rat slaughter: rat tails by the dozens were turned over to the local Rotary Club and prizes and rewards were distributed to the children. The sales of barium carbonate had gone through the roof at local druggists and there was heavy traffic in rat traps in hardware stores around the area. Everyone agreed that, if the City was not entirely “rat-free,” at lease a dent had been made in the rat population. Miss Caldwell would carve another notch in her belt as she left town.
Rats were not the only pestilence afflicting the City. In some years grasshoppers increased beyond the bounds of human tolerance, their numbers soaring as they fed in scrub land that replaced the pine and hardwood forests that occupied the land in the nineteenth century. Authorities did not mess around in doing them in: Arsenic was the designated poison. To this day, land close to the City is contaminated with arsenic residue, a substance deemed so toxic by the EPA that severe restrictions have been placed upon its use.
Animals seen as predators of game birds and sport fish were dealt with sternly. Crows in particular were targeted as a nuisance since they attached young ruffed grouse whenever opportunity presented itself. Consequently, in one year (1937) 2100 of them were killed by teams of marksmen composed of members of the local Dog and Sportsman Club. Mergansers, (diving ducks) were shot in large numbers on the Bay and inland lakes because of their appetite for fish. Even fish were not immune from human prejudices: it was reported that a half ton of dogfish (bowfin) were speared in Lake Leelanau in 1930. There were called “obnoxious” by the perpetrators, presumably because they were not good to eat and competed with more desirable fish for food.
Animals were not alone in suffering punishment for getting in the way of human desires. Poplar trees were condemned within the City limits in the early twenties. Their crime? Their roots readily invaded sewage lines, sometimes causing unsanitary back-ups into people’s basements. Dr. A.G. Holliday, city health officer, insisted on strict enforcement of an existing anti-poplar ordinance after the City was forced to expend 200 to 500 dollars for the clearing of the roots from the sewers, an expense that would not be tolerated. It was noted in the paper that some citizens- in particular certain residents living on Sixth Street- would not suffer gladly this insult to their poplars. It is not known if their trees received a reprieve from the death penalty.
Casual observation about town nowadays reveals a plentiful growth of poplars of several varieties. Perhaps the vicious nature of the plant has cooled- or else city sewer system pipes are impervious to their probing roots. In any case, poplars have gained a small measure of respect- at least from some property owners.
Ragweed was another “planta non grata”. With its abundant pollen, it was known to cause hay fever, a problem back in the twenties as now. Northern Michigan was considered to be haven from the noxious weed. Hay fever sufferers flocked here in summer to find relief from the sneezing and runny nose they experienced in Illinois, Ohio, and Southern Michigan. In 1929 the City quickly went through its ragweed control budget of one hundred dollars in dealing out direct payments to children who would get ten cents for every hundred plants they brought in. Later, in the early fifties, movie tickets were distributed for armloads of ragweed which were carefully weighed to determine the number of tickets earned. On Occassion children who had allowed their plants to dry at home overnight were disappointed at the low weight totals of the wilted plants. It did not take long for them to understand that fresh ragweed weighed more.
The battle agains pests has hardly abated. In recent years Gypsy moths were subjected to airborne application of the bacterial spray Thuricide, that treatment saving the city’s ancient oaks and maples. Skunks invaded one city neighborhood shortly afterwards and began a miniature city of their own. Only a trapping program thwarted their plans for domination.
Invasive plants have marched into town, one species after another. Purple loosestrife was poised to cover every wetland until beetles were brought in to bring it under control. Baby’s breath, an escaped garden dweller, threatened to take over abandoned land especially by the railroad tracks. Autumn olive and buckthorn covered many acres inside and outside the city. Finally, an eight-foot high grass, Phragmites (aka, the common reed), has been recently sentenced to die through applications of topical poison. It cannot be allowed to take root upon the shores of lakes, river, and the Bay or else it will crowd out the natives.
There is a pattern of our responses to Nature’s assaults. At first, we call in the Army, Navy, and Air Force and give the battle all we’ve got. After time and expense, we back off, wondering if we cannot co-exist. Finally, we forget there ever was a problem and regard the pest as another somewhat disreputable member of the neighborhood. Maybe that should have been our approach from the beginning: acceptance of the pest’s right to exist, while denying it free rein to raise havoc. Respect within firmly set bounds. For that matter, it’s not a bad plan for humans. After all, we are an invasive species, too.
“Rats and Sparrows, Poplar and Ragweed: Traverse City versus Nature,” was originally published in Richard Fidler’s book, Gateways to Grand Traverse Past, recently republished under Mission Point Press in July 2017. Gateways is for sale at Horizon Books, Traverse City, and on Amazon.
We have all seen them, but we haven’t given them names: a swarm of tiny insects flying in a crowded formation often looking like a column. Certainly, it is much taller than wide, its width usually not more than a foot or two at most, its height often taller than we are. Our fear is that the insects will bite us, or, at the very least, we might inhale them. Unlike birds and bats, we do not relish them either for flavor or for nourishment. We steer clear of them and go about our business.
Midge swarms form in summer and early fall. The insects comprising them do not bite, though that passivity is often not enough to keep humans from spraying poisons on them. They transform from aquatic larvae, tiny forms resembling segmented worms, ready to mate upon emerging from their pupal cases, but not ready to eat since they do not possess the required mouthparts. So it is they do not harm us.
Most members of the swarm are male: they seek to mate with females that pass through the mass of flying insects. Upon being fertilized, the female will set about to lay eggs in the waters of ponds and ditches. Several broods are produced during the year with the last overwintering in mud underneath the ice.
According to Donald W. Stokes, author of A Guide to Observing Insect Lives, midge swarms are often found close to water, often above prominent features called “swarm markers.” These can be patches of light or dark on the ground, or high points such as the upthrust branches of a shrub or tree—or even the top of your own head! A shiny black piece of plastic will attract a certain species, if one wishes to try an experiment.
Swarms may form in the morning, evening, or even mid-day, depending on the species. Considering that the insects do not live for more than a couple of days, the observer cannot count on a week of entertainment. New broods, though, will prolong the joy of avid midge watchers.
Stokes notes that, in a wind, the midges face in one direction and move forward to the limit of the swarm marker and back, the effect making it look like the entire swarm is dancing. The resulting shimmy captures the interest of naturalists everywhere. Unsurprisingly—given their awareness of nature, the Japanese haiku poets have written about the swarms (which they call “mosquito (or midge)) columns:
Across the mosquito columns Hangs the floating bridge Of my dreams.
The mosquito columns, Big and thick As of a palace
The Capitol Is visible through a hole In the pillar of mosquitoes
(translations courtesy of R. H. Blythe)
The poets often portray the fleeting lives of mosquitoes (midges) as emblematic of the fleeting existence of things we imagine to be great and eternal, things like palaces and the Capitol (Kyoto). That is what we should take away from our experiences with midge swarms: the beauty and wonder of ephemeral things that live out lives unnoticed by us all.
Locally-produced digital magazine featuring nature and local history from the Grand Traverse Region.