The Quest. On a recent fall Saturday, Anna and I accompanied a photographer friend (Michael DL Jordan) on his quest to record a sunrise over Lake Huron and capture some views of Saginaw Bay. It was a grand adventure: an early rise, coffee in a thermos, the GPS glowing on the dash, a traffic free drive up I-75, and then the challenge of finding our way out-of-doors in the dark. We drove to the end of the dirt road at Nayanquing Point State Wildlife Area north of Linwood. Even in the pre-dawn darkness we could see that the Bay was still some distance away, so we loaded up the photo gear and walked toward the shore to get a clear shot of the sun coming up over the water.
After walking a short distance on a path through shrubs around a marsh, I felt sand underfoot and could make out a treeline that marked the shore. I knew we must be close, but as we came up a slight dune rise, where there should be beach and waves I saw nothing but marsh grasses. Well, we were in a wildlife refuge, so how natural. I could make out a pathway through the reeds and headed east; the ground got squishy and the plants grew taller. Soon my feet were in water and my head was among swaying phragmites, the despicable alien plant that has invaded the wetlands of the Great Lakes. Defeated, I squished backwards in retreat. Where was Saginaw Bay?
Saginaw Bay is the body of water between the thumb and the hand of Michigan; it is among the biggest embayments in the Great Lakes and it has played an important role in the region's logging, industrial, shipping, and agricultural history. The watershed that drains into the Bay is the largest in Michigan. It is renowned by sportsmen for the fish and waterfowl that can be found there. It contains the longest stretch of extant coastal wetlands in the Great Lakes.
Saginaw Bay is typical of several other shallow water coastal areas of the Great Lakes. These areas are biologically rich and provide important spawning grounds that are integral to the aquatic food web. Small fish, and the foods they grow on, are found in the sheltered waters along the shore where the boundary between land and water is fuzzy with the green growth of marsh grasses and aquatic plants. The fish of the Great Lakes depend on these warm-water coastal areas. Likewise, migrating waterfowl and other birds thrive in these wetlands and associated shallow waters.
Ecosystem at Risk. What makes Saginaw Bay and other near shore areas ecologically rich, also puts them at risk. The natural cycles of Great Lakes water levels may create new beaches or erode dunes in some areas. In shallow areas, a drop like the 3-4 foot decrease in Lake Huron over the last few years exposes yards of rich lake bottom. Normally, this cycle allows wetland flora and other unique plants to flourish. However, the drop in Saginaw Bay coincided with the arrival of phragmites australis, an invasive species that crowds out native plants. These reeds grow so tall and dense that they block not only an intrepid photographer from reaching the shore, but prevent birds, mammals, and other aquatic species from using these wetlands for shelter or food. On our trip, we found several areas where the delicate marsh plants common to the shoreline were being overpowered by the phragmites. This is true throughout Saginaw Bay.
Another invasive species, the quagga mussel and its cousin the zebra mussel have also brought harm to Saginaw Bay. These small, but prodigious, shellfish filter water to feed and they have made the Bay waters clearer. While this may at first seem to be a good thing, the shallow waters of the Bay warm up faster as light penetrates deeper. The warmth and the sun support algae growth; the elevated amount of phosphorous in the Bay from run-off further feeds the blooms. Now, some coastal beaches of Saginaw Bay are plagued by what is unaffectionately called "muck," the detritus from unwanted algae growth. The most common algae is cladophora, which is unsightly and collects bacteria and other pathogens; more rare is the algae spirogyra, which can turn toxic. It can all make for an unpleasant walk on the beach.
Not all Bad News. Perhaps counterintuitively, several of the factors that challenge the health of the Bay have benefitted one of its greatest assets: walleye. The shallow waters of Saginaw Bay have historically supported a vibrant walleye population, and after some years of decline and concern, the population is now thriving. One theory is that another invasive species, the round goby, provides ample food for the walleye. Gobies are a small fish that arrived in the ballast water of ships from europe and feed on quagga and zebra mussels, among other things. So appealing are the gobies that you can now buy lures for bass or walleye fishing. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources used to stock walleye in Saginaw Bay, but has not needed to for several years now. The population appears to be self-sustaining.
Mostly what the last few years have shown is that Saginaw Bay, and the flora and fauna (and humans) who live there, are part of a complex system. The challenges to the health of the Bay are not easily defined to one single problem or vector. Much of what makes the Bay special--the walleye and the waterfowl, the open water boating, and several points of public access--remain. Also, there are some wonderful swimming beaches, on the northern stretches on both sides of the Bay. Birdwatchers also know the Bay well for several great birding hotspots. Many other recreation opportunities abound.
Working Together. Perhaps the best news is that several organizations are turning their attention to Saginaw Bay and bringing resources to bear on the challenges and opportunities in the region. The Saginaw Bay Watershed Initiative Network (WIN) has worked for many years to build a sustainable community centered on the Bay and its environmental assets. The State Department of Environmental Quality has made the Bay a priority and is working with local governments, the Sagniaw Bay Watershed Partnership and others on the Saginaw Bay Coastal Initiative. Importantly, the understanding of the connections and relationships of life in Saginaw Bay are becoming better known. With a stronger science base, conservation efforts will become more effective.
Most recently, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has become involved in Saginaw Bay as part of its Great Lakes Project. This system-wide strategy is working to protect coastal and near shore areas, reduce polluted run-off in watersheds, reconnect aquatic food webs, and fight aquatic invasive species; all these approaches are needed to restore Saginaw Bay. TNC is coordinating its effort here with two other shallow water areas: Green Bay in Wisconsin and Western Lake Erie. These three areas have very similar ecosystems and face similar challenges. What can be learned about the complex system in one place will likely apply in the others.
Sunrise for the Bay. On our search for Saginaw Bay, we retreated to the sand ridge and found a clear spot that allowed us to see water just beyond the marsh grasses and around the phragmites. Waves rippled in the distance on the morning breeze. Seagulls winged overhead and a pair of sandhill cranes croaked by in flight. The clouds on the horizon began to glow. The sky turned a pale blue. We could see egrets picking their way through the shallows in search of breakfast. Then, gloriously, the orange sun rose up from behind a cloud, the cameras clicked, and we smiled at the start of another great day on the sunrise side of the Great Lakes.
All photos (except this one) property of Michael David-Lorne Jordan/DLP. No reproduction without permission. More of Michael's beautiful work can be found in this slideshow of sustainable forestry in the Big Two Hearted River Watershed.
Click here for a map, address, and use rules for Nayanquing Point State Wildlife Refuge