Michigan author Jim Harrison writes about places which "impart an uncommon sense of well-being," and tries, elusively, to define what characteristics they have which make them so. There is no particular scientific or historical definition, though we often search for one. Eventually, he decides that these uniquely personal places are "simply the soul's best habitat." On a trip to the Upper Peninsula, I found two such places.
Echo Lake, northwest of Marquette, is The Nature Conservancy's newest preserve and Laughing Whitefish Lake, to the southeast, has been a cherished place since the American settlement of the area. My family started the day at Echo Lake, a 480-acre sanctuary of northern forest, granite outcroppings, and a small, cliff-lined body of water. This preserve is an introduction to the rugged and geologically important Michigamme Highlands that dominates the landscape on the south-central shore of Lake Superior. The fauna varies from thimbleberry patches, to hemlock forests, to scrubby red oak and birch stands, to lichen covered rocks.
A short walk on a road leads to Echo Lake and a trail leads around the north side. There an intersection presents a choice between a small peninsula in the lake or a climb. We started first with the uphill route and soon came out to two open areas, one with a view south over Echo Lake, and the other of Lake Superior to the north and east. Returning down the trail we took the junction to the rocky point into Echo Lake and sat on the shore of the calm lake.
Superior Re-creation. Getting to Echo Lake had been trying for us as three related individuals because of the breakdown of our aging VW camper. After an afternoon of mechanical and logistical challenges, a night away from our traveling home, and forced reliance on others for help, we were a bit discombobulated. We found a cure for our unease: a swim in the waters of a mountain lake; just us in this place of sky, rock, and trees. After cleansing away our troubles, we sunned and watched clear-winged dragonflies hover in the bracken. As we walked back around the lake, we came upon a white-tailed deer grazing.
I thought appreciatively of John Woollam, the benefactor that made possible the preserve at Echo Lake, and how such places offer us a connection with the natural world. Protected places are important because of the ecological values they conserve, but also because they are places for human re-creation. They also allow us to come together to learn and care about something greater than ourselves. This is evident at Echo Lake, where a volunteer Friends group has already formed to tend to this place. Earlier this year members of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Marquette, led by their youth, held a work day at the preserve; they were joined by Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts troops. They were there "to help create a trail from the road to a high point, atop a mountain where we can feel the wind, and reconnect with the better angels of our nature," said church member Kayla West.
A New View of Nature came out of Laughing Whitefish Lake Preserve at the turn of the last century. This area had been the location of the "camp" of Marquette founder Peter White in the second half of the nineteenth century. It was also the summer residence for 70 years of George Shiras III, White's son-in-law and a congressman from Pennsylvania. Here Shiras took the first ever nighttime photography of wildlife which won international acclaim and were featured in National Geographic in 1906.
Today the Preserve persists as a deeply forested retreat of 1,238 acres accessed by a narrow footbridge after a drive down some rarely travelled roads in western Alger County. The George Shiras III Discovery Trail winds through the uneven ground of a hemlock-hardwood forest and presents looks out at the northern, swampy end of Laughing Whitefish Lake. We visited shortly after a summer rain, and were distracted by many frogs of several varieties. The moist smell of the dark woods, the deep quiet of the moss covered logs, and the dominating trees provided a respite from the deer flies at the parking area and the bigger troubles of the world. We were the only people there.
Nature Restores. The bumper sticker on our van that greeted us after our explorations says "Restore the Great Lakes." We know that to accomplish this goal and to preserve the expansive environments of our region, we need to adopt effective public policies informed by science, work at the landscape scale, and build a sustainable economy. In Michigan's Upper Peninsula, The Nature Conservancy has had tremendous success with The Northern Great Lakes Forest Project, a 271,338 acre effort that conserves working forest lands through easements and the cooperation of the public and private sectors. The land is being managed for its environmental values (such as clean water from the rivers that flow through the woods to Lake Superior), and also the timber is being harvested, local real estate taxes are paid, and the land remains open for public use.
So while preserves are small in size comparison, they are large in our consciousness. These are the places that are set aside for our escape, that actively engage people in the out-of-doors, and offer us a sample of the larger landscapes we seek to protect and restore. Often we work to restore environments that have suffered from our neglect or abuse, but sometimes small places of the environment restore us.
And the impact on people who visits these sites cannot be overlooked. George Shiras III first visited Laughing Whitefish Lake at the age of 11. Several decades later, while involved in federal policy-making as a legislator and then as a trustee of the National Geographic Society, Shiras was an early advocate of the Migratory Bird Law. This federal legislation, still a forceful tool for conservation, can trace its roots to one particular place now preserved by The Nature Conservancy. One wonders if some young person recreating this summer at Echo Lake might go on to have an equally important impact on the policies needed to preserve the natural world upon which all life depends.
How to Visit. Information and directions to the Echo Lake, Laughing Whitefish Lake, and 16 other preserves of The Nature Center can be found at this page at nature.org.
Thanks to Tina Hall (pictured) and all the staff of The Nature Conservancy's UP Office for their great work and support; a big personal thank you to Danielle Miller.
George Shiras III photograph from National Geographic (info here); other photos by Anna Owens