Sunday, July 10, 2011

On the Shores of Lake Huron

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has an ambitious and essential goal to ensure the Great Lakes are a sustainable, healthy, and resilient resource that provides benefits to both nature and people. Those of us who live in the region defined by Lakes Michigan, Superior, Huron, Erie and Ontario of course identify with what some have called "the North Coast." However, when do we actually experience the Great Lakes themselves? For a few of my friends, fortunate opportunity brings them onto one of the five big lakes as sailors, boaters, or fishers. But for me and many others, our Great Lakes encounters are from the land looking out. The coasts are the most accessible, attractive, biologically diverse, ecologically important--and most threatened--components of the Great Lakes ecosystem.

I reconnected with the Great Lakes this past weekend with visits to a pair of TNC preserves on Lake Huron: Grass Bay east of Cheboygan and the Carl Gerstacker Preserve at Dudley Bay east of Cedarville. As well, we stopped in at the Mackinac Bay preserve near Hessel, maintained by the Little Traverse Conservancy. These preserves are across from each other at the northwest end of Lake Huron (just east of the Straits of Mackinac).

View Lake Huron Preserves in a larger map

While all three of the preserves are important coastal habitats, they have very different features. Dudley Bay, the most easterly preserve, is a rocky shoreline of bedrock limestone backed by a pine and hardwood forest. Mackinac Bay, the most northern of the three, is a large wetland marsh interspersed with a shallow area of Lake Huron. Grass Bay, to the south, is a sandy coastal zone where changing lake levels have left an interesting ecological heritage of various wetlands, open dune areas, and shoreline forests. Visiting all three in a day illustrates the importance of preserving the diverse coastal areas of the Great Lakes.

Dudley Bay, home to the Carl A. Gerstacker Preserve, is where we started our day with a hike on the several miles of trail The Nature Conservany maintains. The trails lead in from the coast through a spruce, white pine, and hardwood forest to the delicate Little Trout Lake. Our inland lakes are their own little treasures, and this protected lake is free from all development, a rarity in Michigan. The "Blue" Trail crosses several small hills that offer an outlook on the water; we observed a cruising family of mergansers . After our hike, we went for a walk on the shore of Lake Huron, starting out on a classic sand beach and then progressing to a rocky shoreline which harbored interesting plants and lichens. The proximite shallow water areas and woods support a smorgasbord of insect food options for migratory birds in the spring, who make landfall here after crossing Lake Huron.

The establishment of this preserve began in 1993 and has been expanded over the years to more than 900 acres. A large 1996 acquisition of coastline and woods was made possible the Dow Chemical Company Foundation, the Herbert H. & Grace A. Dow Foundation and the Rollin M. Gerstacker Foundation. At that time, the preserve was named the Carl A. Gerstacker Preserve, in honor of the former chairman of the board of Dow Chemical and a founding member of The Nature Conservancy's Michigan board of trustees. He was but the first of many corporate and philanthropic leaders who were committed to preserving the most precious places in the Great Lakes.

Mackinac Bay Preserve was our destination after our morning hike. Just west of Hessel, the observation deck, interpretive signs, benches and a picnic table made a great spot for our lunch. Here one has a very different view than the rocky outcroppings and captured sand beaches of Dudley Bay. However, these 22 acres of well vegetated wetlands, tucked into the Les Cheneaux Islands, is critical habitat for threatened amphibians, migrating birds, spawning fish, and (as we saw) an active beaver. This preserve, a 1994 project of Little Traverse Conservancy was made possible by the active cooperation of Little Traverse and The Nature Conservancy with help from the local Les Cheneaux Community Foundation.

While The Nature Conservancy maintains several valuable preserves, it has saved more of the Great Lakes through cooperation with local land trusts, state land holders, and federal agencies. There is a long legacy of TNC using its scientific knowledge, real estate acumen, and access to funding to quickly acquire threatened and critical sites and work with other partners to permanently protect and manage the site. Since the early 1990s, The Nature Conservancy has worked with local partners to study and sustain the Les Cheneaux Island region. This has meant not only identifying and protecting key sites and critical habitat sites, but also helping to support a local community that sees the environment as an economic asset. Now, this area brings in a significant number of visitors interested in birdwatching, kayaking, fishing, hunting and other sustainable activities (learn more here).

Grass Bay Preserve, was our last stop of the day. Crossing the Mackinac Bridge from the upper peninsula to lower Michigan gives one another appreciation of the immensity of the Great Lake. Walking down the wooded slope and on to the beach at Grass Bay gives one an appreciation of the diversity of the Great Lakes shoreline. We dodged some poison ivy underneath hardwoods, passed by a stand of white pines, crossed an iris-lined creek, carefully edged around wetlands and ponds full of pitcher plants, crossed one more narrow line of trees, and stepped out on a broad sandy soil garden of interesting fauna. Beyond that, the declining level of Lake Huron has exposed new mudflats, with wetland species now sprouting (see photo above). In the nearby shallow waters several species of waterfowl bobbed on the gentle waves.

For reasons unclear to scientists, the levels of the Great Lakes have varied by up to five feet in any given 10 year period. While speculation about current lake level fluctuations have considered climate change, dredging and shipping activities, and the operation of locks, the 150 year record shows that rising and falling lake levels have always been part of the Great Lakes ecosystem. This is apparent at Grass Bay, where one can observe old shorelines and small dunes of various ages. (for data on lake levels, click here to visit the NOAA site)

What's so necessary about the work of The Nature Conservancy and others is to preserve places like Grass Bay where there is enough upland area and shallow coast area where plant species can adapt and move over time as lake levels rise and fall. We love our coasts and the vistas they provide of the Great Lakes, so we have tended to build our communities, our resorts, our second homes, and even our roads along the shore. When new land fill, seawalls, or lawns accompany this development, it can prevent the slow migration of plant species that is evident at a place like Grass Bay. A problem now throughout the Great Lakes is the destruction of wetlands by cottage owners and others who try to fight dropping lake levels by importing sand or removing plant life.

The Future of our Great Lakes coastline are imperiled by not only development pressures, but invasive species on both land and particularly water. It is a rare beach walk that is not now interrupted by piles of quagga and/or zebra mussel shells. Changes in the aquatic food web, declining water quality from sewer overflows and polluted run-off from surrounding lands, and climate change also threaten our unique freshwater coastal ecosystem. Thus, it becomes clear that in order to provide for a pleasant visit to the coast, we need to not only preserve key areas, we also need to make the policy changes necessary to address the systematic threats to the Great Lakes. Spending a day at three beautiful preserves gives me the inspiration to keep working for these improvements.

To Visit. The Les Cheneaux have a number of interesting preserves maintained not only by The Nature Conservancy, but also other land trusts and local and state government. The Carl Gerstacker Nature Preserve at Dudley Bay is east of Cedarville; go 12 miles on M-134 from its intersection with M-129. The first preserve sign on the north side of the road will lead you to a small parking area and trailhead where you can follow color coded trails inland. The second preserve sign is less than a mile further east on the right along the shore of Lake Huron.

Mackinac Bay Nature Preserve is 13.5 miles east of I-75 on M-134, just past the village of Hessel (click here for directions). Look for the sign that says "scenic turnout" on the south side of the highway. There is a parking area and well maintained viewing platform.

Grass Bay is not easily accessible and there is no dedicated parking area. The best opportunity to visit is through periodic field trips organized by the Michigan Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

(thanks to Anna Owens for the photos and the partnership on this journey)

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