Sunday, September 9, 2012

Hiking and Biking Bois Blanc Island

There is something about being on an island: the onboard anticipation of the journey there, the defined boundaries of a shoreline, the sense of shared belonging with other castaways.  It's romantic escaping to an island, and as summer waned Anna and I spent a day marooned on Bois Blanc Island, where The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has protected over 200 acres of shoreline, swamps, inland lakes, and cedar-pine forest.  We biked, hiked, canoed, and discovered.

Islands of Life.  There are 32,000 islands in the Great Lakes, the world's largest collection of freshwater islands. "The Great Lakes islands are outstanding in terms of biological diversity.  These islands . .  include endemic species, rare habitats and critical biological functions.  They are important breeding and staging areas for colonial nesting waterbirds, harbour noteworthy assemblages of plants and animals and provide important stopover sites for migrating birds," according to a comprehensive analysis recently conducted by The Nature Conservancy and The Nature Conservancy of Canada with the support and assistance of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. The report "Islands of Life" (click here for full report) documents the great biodiversity of these islands which are of importance to two nations.

"Island biogeography" describes the unique nature of those species that evolved and exist in water-isolated places.  Certain species may be lacking and other species may be overly abundant, both conditions creating different plant-animal-environment relationships.  Some species may be unique, or endemic, to one particular island or the special environments that predominate on islands.  And of course the limited geography of an island puts at risk those species that may live in a place that cannot be replicated or its natural residents easily moved.  The introduction of alien, invasive species can be particularly devastating. All of this bring islands to the attention of conservationists.

Bois Blanc, which locals pronounce as Bob-Lo, stretches across Lake Huron on the eastern edge of the Straits of Mackinace.  It exists as an island because of the tough dolomite and limestone of which it is made.  It is part of a long run of resistant geology that arcs across northeast Lake Huron and the largest of a short run of three islands:  Mackinac, Round, and Bois Blanc.  The name in French means white wood, either a reference to the birch trees that grow on the island or perhaps to the white timber of the basswood tree used to make canoes by the native americans who were the first inhabitants of the island.

Like most visitors, we reached Bois Blanc by ferry, less than six miles from Cheboygan, riding across on a Sunday morning where the smooth, dimpled water begged for a canoe (the return trip seven hours later, with a strong side wind and bigger seas that wet the decks, revealed the dangerous variations of the Great Lakes ).  We rode our mountain bikes along the graveled road that borders the south and east sides of the island, returning waves from friendly islanders who slowed down their trucks, old cars, or ATVs in an attempt to reduce the dust that followed their passage.  A short ride brought us to the familiar green-and-white sign of the Snake Island Preserve that The Nature Conservancy has maintained since 1987.

Snake Island, a former island that low water has now connected to the larger Bois Blanc Island, is so named for the preponderance of eastern massasauga rattlesnakes that abide there.  A hot day at the end of a dry season did not leave any snakes out for easy viewing, and we were only a little disappointed not to see any.  Also missing were the dwarf lake iris that bloom earlier in the year. From a rocky shoreline, the preserve stretches inland, paralleling another long State land holding.  We followed the well maintained, if uneven, trail for less than a mile through a tangle of cedars and what would be moist wetlands in a normal year, or in springtime.

The route passes by a small beaver pond, the somewhat larger Mud Lake, and then arrives at Thompson Lake.  There are six inland lakes on Bois Blanc.  Good fortune made a canoe available to us and we were able to take a short paddle around the Lake, one half of which is deep, the other half shallow.  No docks or shoreline structures were apparent to us.  Floating along the forest-lined shallow end, we watched a beaver enter the lake, and later saw it swim nearly under our canoe.

Returning to shore, we walked back to the road again, marveling in the quiet of the island.  Later, on the return ferry, I met a local who knew the TNC trail well:  he said he makes frequent pilgrimages to a secret spot on one of the inland bodies of water to contemplate and commune.  Our lunch on the sunny, open shore of Lake Huron was also a solitary moment for us, but much different than the quiet enclosure of wood and inland pond.  We were exposed to the wind. We thought about searching for a stand of old growth trees on additional TNC land to the north of Mud Lake, but our bikes called us on to explore more of the island

Biking a landscape may be the perfect compromise between the slow, quiet passage of a hike and the speedy consumption of views from a motor vehicle.  We followed the well-groomed gravel road north and then west on the far side of the island.  There, just past the turn to Lake Mary, we followed a narrow two track through mostly State Forest.  The deep white cobbles of old shorelines forced us off our bikes several times, but we were rewarded with views through the trees to Lake Huron and Mackinac Island in the distance.  Our bikes gave us an easy return across the island and Fire Tower Road brought us back within plenty of time to catch the final ferry of the day.

Islands are special, and Bois Blanc is one to put on your list for a visit.  On the mainland, forests and farm fields can stretch on from crossroads to small town to suburb to city.  Many of these locations are unique, but often we struggle to find a sense of place. We look for a landscape feature, or a historical site, or distinctive architecture to help fix ourselves in space.  Islands, by their very definition, offer a ready made sense of place: shoreline, the boundary of land by water, and the unique residents--animal, plant, and human--are a strong statement of place.  In our busy, over-developed, under-appreciated region, our Great Lakes islands are places to be enjoyed, treasured, and saved.

To Visit:  take the ferry from Cheboygan (information and schedule here) and upon landing, head east and then north on Bob-Lo Drive until you see the TNC sign.  The trail to Thompson Lake is shortly after the sign on the left (west) side of the road.  Snake Island is another 100 yards or so on the right (east) side of the road where there is a small parking area.  Follow the old two-track to the cobble beach.

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