Thursday, February 14, 2013

Winter Like it Used to Be

"In my day, the winters were so much more . . . snowy, or colder, or predictable" seems to be a frequent complaint I hear from mid-Michigan residents over the age of 30  (climate data shows that anyone under the age of 27 has never experienced a colder than average month, anytime of year).  I too remember my youth when I could open the back door most any day between Christmas and President's Day, throw on a pair of nordic skis, and take a cross-country exploration along the Shiawassee River.  Now, with climate change, these days are rare.  So, in a quest to find Winter Like It Used to Be, my wife Anna and I headed to the eastern shore of Lake Superior, and there in the Great White North found a very special place.  And, a very good conservation story as well.

The Algoma Highlands muscle in on Lake Superior north of Sault Ste Marie and in so doing create one of the most beautiful big landscapes of the Great Lakes. Underlying the hills, and much apparent in cliffs along the shore, are some of earth's oldest rocks, remnants of geological upheavals that occurred long before life appeared on the planet.  As we headed north across the flat eastern Upper Peninsula, across the now tamed St. Mary's River, and dropped down the big hill into the plain of the Goulais River, we were stepping back some two millions years from the young, glacial topography of the lower Great Lakes to the Precambrian era of the Canadian Shield.  The temperature was a minus -9 F (-22 C) and there was lots of snow on the ground.
In the early 20th Century, the beauty of the Algoma Highlands attracted Canadian landscape artists like Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. 

Our destination was Stokely Creek, a small resort from another time and country.  With miles of groomed cross-country ski trails, a Scandinavian aesthetic to the lodge buildings, an absence of televisions and vehicles, and a warm social atmosphere, Stokely Creek is a respite from the hectic 21st American Century. It begins when you park your car at the edge of the resort and ski in to the lodge, it deepens when you sneak off into the woods and the creek plays hide and seek among snow and ice, and it transform you when you discover a frozen waterfall, a glimpse of Lake Superior from one of the high points, or the sight of a wolf on an ice covered lake.  For me, the snow, the silence, and the setting of Stokely Creek create winter the way it should be.

Creating, and Preserving, a Place like Stokely Creek takes dedication, and time, and in this case the efforts of several generations of several families, business partners, and a local land conservancy.  The resort opened in the late 1970s and Chuck Peterson, the founder, then spent the next two decades building the business, setting trails, and patiently acquiring surrounding parcels.  At the time of his death in 2000, he had assembled a precious natural area of more than 8,000 acres.  Unfortunately, as is sometimes the case, the estate process was not straightforward or quick.  Eventually, a creative partnership was formed between a logging company, who purchased most of the property, the Byker-Phair family, who acquired the lodge buildings and continue to operate the resort, and the Algoma Highlands Conservancy, who protected 2,600 ecologically important acres of the land.

The partnership balances the economic returns of logging and tourism, with the environmental benefits of land protection, with the socio-spiritual attachments people and families form with certain places over time.  Susan and Gaylen Byker have been an important force, helping to broker the deal that allows Stokely Creek exclusive right to use and maintain 120 kilometers of trails on various parcels owned by a logging company or the Conservancy.  They have also financially supported the Conservancy in their land acquisitions, and provided them office space as well.   Asked why he went to this trouble, Gaylen Byker points to his grandchildren and says, “We want to save this place for the next generation.”

Legacy Lessons become clear as one learns the history of this special place. First, it's hard work that requires a passion for place and the future.  Land preservation can make economic sense, but the parties involved usually also have an awareness of some greater goals and obligations.  Second, preservation is rarely a one-time deal and true conservation takes time.  The Algoma Highlands Conservancy still carries a debt  from its acquisition of King Mountain and surrounding areas that complements its Robertson Lake Cliffs landholding.  Fortunately, fundraising is proceeding well, most recently with a Foster a Forest campaign that enables the Conservancy to receive matching funds for every dollar donated.  Finally, the saga of the last 12 years reminds all of us involved in land preservation that foresight and planning are valuable components of any conservation effort. (Note: if you are planning a legacy gift of land or financial assets, you should make sure that you have consulted with the beneficiaries and that your estate plan is clear and current.)

The Great Lakes have many legacy places that enrich the landscape.  We enjoy many national, state, provincial, and local parks because of the foresight of elected officials and engaged citizens sometime in the past.  The land trust and conservancy movement has grown up in the last 60 years to provide for land preserves now totaling hundreds of thousands of acres, and private individuals, their families, and their companies take action day in and day out to sustain nature.  Recently, it has become clear that to protect these places, we will need to do more than secure and steward land.  The actions of surrounding neighbors can have a deleterious impact; poorly planned public roads, power facilities, and other infrastructure investments can change the character of a place; the arrival of invasive species on land or water can harm an ecosystem in a season; and larger environmental changes to air, water, and climate can have a disastrous consequences on even the best protected nature preserves.  If we are truly to hand down a legacy of nature, place, and environmental health to our children and their children, then we need to turn our energies to policies as well as places.

Our weekend in the Algoma Highlands did take me back to a winter that met or surpassed my romanticized memories, and for that I am thankful.  But, the morning we left, the weather turned, and it began to rain.  There is work to do.

Useful Links
  • To learn more about the ongoing efforts to protect this place, and to make a donation, go to
  • To plan a winter ski vacation, or other season visit, go to
  • To learn more about creating a conservation legacy with your land or other assets, you can visit this useful site of The Nature Conservancy or learn more about options for land donation from the Land Trust Alliance. 
  • To learn more about the Group of Seven and visiting the places that inspired these artists, go here

King Mountain in the background


  1. So Tom :) This is a wonderful new start! Thank you for the information, great links and winter wonderland photos. It's a delight to visit!

  2. Chuck Peterson? My uncle. I spent MANY a childhood weekend CLEARING those trail, hauling trash from the old miner's cabin on the site, bushwacking up King Mtn (which my family also owned at one time). Nice memory. Let's connect and I'll share more (including skiing at 50 below....). KP