Thursday, December 27, 2012

Barn Owl

 Barn Owls (Tyto alba) were once common in southern Michigan but in recent decades they have been very rare [pdf], with only a handful of sightings throughout the state.  They are protected as an endangered species in the state.  Barn Owls have been more successful in other parts of the US and have a global distribution, including parts of Europe, Africa, South America, Australia, and Asia.

Like other owls, the Barn Owl is a nocturnal hunter, eating rodents and other small animals.  Barn Owls prefer open grasslands to the wooded habitats of the Great Horned Owl.
The owl pictured here is used in education programs of the Lake Milton Raptor Center.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Country Roads of Indiana

Country Roads of Indiana
Sally McKinney

This small guidebook describes a dozen drives throughout the state of Indiana.  Each chapter gives driving directions and discusses the villages, shops, and vistas along the way.  A few pen and ink drawings illustrate every chapter and a list of phone contacts is included.

Four of the excursions in northern Indiana are reasonably close to Kalamazoo.

1. Meander through Amish Country: Elkhart to Lagrange
Elkhart, Bristol, Goshen, Nappanee, Middlebury, Shipshewana, Lagrange
"For a drive in the slow lane, travel through Indiana's Amish country with its tidy farms, clanging school bells, and horse-drawn buggies.  In two northern counties, Elkhart and Lagrange, about 17,000 Amish live in one of the three major communities in rural America."
Selected highlights:
Elkhart riverside parks and bike routes
Bonneyville Mill County Park
Amish Acres
Deutsch Kase Hause
Shipshewana Auctions and Flea Market

2. From Courthouse to Lakeshore: Crown Point to La Porte
Crown Point, Hebron, Valparaiso, Chesterton, Michigan City, La Porte
"A leisurely drive through northwestern Indiana from Crown Point to La Porte lets you cruise through small-town America, beside small farms, through suburbs, along Lake Michigan's southern shore, and inland to Indiana's small-lake country."
Selected highlights:
Stoney Run County Park
Indiana Dunes State Park
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

3. Wildflowers & Lake Country: Pokagon State Park to Gene Stratton Porter House
 Pokagon State Park, Angola, Orland, Greenfield Mills, Brighton, Mongo,  Ontario, Lagrange, Gene Stratton Porter House
"Northeastern Indiana has long been known for glacial lakes, forests, streams, and patches of wildflowers.  You can come by interstate, but once you arrive, follow the country roads to find nature preserves, hiking trails, boat rentals, small villages, antique shops, family resorts, and scenic waterways."
Selected highlights:
Pokagon State Park
Pigeon River Fish and Wildlife Area  (Trading Post canoe outfitters]
Gene Stratton Porter State Historical Site

4. Wings across the Plains: Jasper Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area to Plymouth
Jasper Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, Bass Lake, Culver, Twin Lakes,  Plymouth
"Sandhill cranes, the Jasper-Pulaski area's star visitors, stand up to three and a half feet tall, weigh 10 to 12 pounds, and fly on wingspreads up to seven feet.  During the autumn, they leave nesting grounds in the wetlands of southern Canada and the upper Midwest, using the Jasper-Pulaski area as a refuge before flying to marshlands in southern Georgia and Florida for the winter."
Selected highlights:
Jasper Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area
Tippecanoe River State Park

Apparently this book is out of print.  Amazon will let you "look inside" and Barnes and Noble may have used copies.  I got this from my public library.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Grand Ledge

Grand Ledge is a small town, a little over an hour's drive northeast of Kalamazoo, named for the sandstone bluffs on the Grand River.  The ledges and a series of narrow islands on the river made Grand Ledge an important tourist destination in the late 1800s.  While the resorts and paddleboat tours are long gone, Grand Ledge still makes an attractive daytrip. 

A 1987 Geological Society of America report [pdf] describes the ledges, their formation, their fossils, and their geology. "The Ledges of the Grand River are the best exposure of Pennsylvanian age rocks in the state of Michigan. Besides their scenic beauty, the Ledges and additional outcrops of the surrounding vicinity provide a unique setting in which to explore and investigate an ancient near-shore marine beach environment." 
Fitzgerald County Park provides the easiest access to the ledges, with plenty of parking ($5 vehicle access fee) and a stairway down to the Ledges Trail.  The park has a few other short nature trails in a downstream forested area.  Other amenities include a playground, disc golf course, restrooms, picnic areas, ball diamonds, a theater, and a small nature center.  The sandstone in the park is covered with velvety lichen, mosses, and ferns.

Across the river, the sandstone is bare and Oak Park offers a section that is open to rock climbing.  It may be the only natural climbing area in southern Michigan.  Some argue that it should be closed to climbers.  
The site of the Seven Islands Resort is now a Grand Ledge city park known as Island Park.  A pedestrian bridge connects the long narrow island to the town.  A paved path runs the length of the island and then continues upriver to Jaycee Park.

Google identifies the footpath running from Grand Ledge to Fitzgerald County Park as the "Riverwalk" but local signs label it the "Ledges Trail".  It's not a boardwalk but a dirt path halfway down the riverbank.  It's under a mile from Island Park at the edge of the business district to the railroad bridge that marks the boundary of the county park.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Historic Bridge County Park

Historic Bridge County Park is a small park on the Kalamazoo River just east of the city of Battle Creek.  It's about 25 miles east of Kalamazoo.  Several iron and steel bridges from the late 19th and early 20th centuries have been moved from nearby counties to this park and restored.  A walking trail connects the bridges as they crisscross a small creek.

The park wasn't open when I tried to visit last year.  Apparently it was closed for nearly two years due to the Kalamazoo River oil spill.  The park reopened this summer.

The park isn't wilderness by any stretch.  I-94 crosses the Kalamazoo River on a modern bridge directly across from the county park and the drone of traffic is constant background noise.  The paved trail along Dickinson Creek was formerly a county road.  An active railroad crosses the park trail and Dickinson Creek on a double-arched historic stone bridge. There are, however, still natural features.  I saw a trout from one of the bridges and a Kingfisher flying overhead.  New interpretive signs along the Kalamazoo River indicate that this area provides good habitat for otters.

The park offers several benches and picnic tables near the river, a picnic shelter, a playground, restrooms, and a boat launch.  The Calhoun County Trailway will connect the park to the Battle Creek Linear Park and the North Country Trail.

I'm not sure the Historic Bridge Park is big enough to be a destination in its own right, but it's close to the Ott Preserve and convenient to other area attractions.  There are, I discovered, bridge enthusiasts who might make this park the center of a trip. says, "The bridges in Historic Bridge Park represent some of the best metal truss bridge restoration work to be found in the country."  They provide a detailed visitor's guide for the park.   

Historic Bridge County Park
14930 9 Mile Rd
Battle Creek, MI 49014


Sunday, December 2, 2012


A late fall walk in the woods provides fewer distractions: no wildflowers, no colorful leaves, no snakes, no turtles, no frogs.  Birds can be easier to see, since they can't hide in the foliage, and squirrels are very visible as they build their winter nests and harvest seeds and nuts.  My attention was also drawn to some lower-profile flora-- the lichens.

On a recent walk at the Sarett Nature Center,  I noticed a group of trees with interesting displays of lichen on their branches.  I snapped a few pictures and figured I could identify them when I got home.  One branch was covered with the cup-topped stems of the lichen's fruiting body, which I thought would make it simple to classify.

Lichens are composite, symbiotic organisms that combine a fungus and an algae (or a blue-green algae).  The fungus provides the physical structure and the algae provides the ability to photosynthesize.  They can grow where regular plants can not survive and they take many different forms.

My problem came when I tried to identify the lichen; Michigan has over 800 kinds of lichen and I quickly got overwhelmed.  At first, I thought the fruiting bodies matched a picture of Pixie Cup lichen but then I found that many other lichens have similar structures.  Then I realized that in some photos I had multiple different lichen growing alongside each other.   A Harvard webpage on identifying lichens provided this advice: "By far the best way to start identifying lichens is by attending one or more workshop, course, or field trip led by an experienced lichenologist. It is hard to pick up identification skills on one's own and easy to get onto the wrong track, so beginners should seek help in getting started."

See thousands of lichen photos on Steve Sharnoff's webpage.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Hiking Michigan

Hiking Michigan (2nd edition)
Roger Storm and Susan Wedzel

This guidebook presents 146 day hikes throughout the state of Michigan, including several hikes on islands in the Great Lakes.  Each entry includes a trail map, a thumbnail state map showing its location, information about the park or recreation area, description of the trails, and a list of nearby points of interest.  Some hikes are illustrated with black&white photos.  The hikes are divided into three regions-- the Upper Peninsula, the Northern Lower Peninsula, and the Southern Lower Peninsula-- with about a third of the book devoted to each region.  I particularly liked the book's "Trail Finder" section, an expanded table of contents that includes distance, difficulty, and features for each trail.   

Hiking Michigan near Kalamazoo

1. Kalamazoo Nature Center
Beech-Maple Riverwalk Trail 1.1 miles
Fern Valley Trail 0.6 miles
"Cooper's Glen, as the area used to be known, is named after James Fennimore Cooper, who visited the area in 1847 and 1848.  While he pursued business interests in the vicinity, he collected information on natural features for a novel, Oak Openings."
Other points of interest:  Kellogg Bird Sanctuary, Kal-Haven Sesquicentennial State Park
Kalamazoo Nature Center

2. Yankee Springs Recreation Area
Hall Lake Trail 2.5 miles
Long Lake Trail 5.2 miles
"Almost 5,200 acres of diverse terrain, once the hunting grounds of the Algonquian Indians, provide varied recreation experiences." 
Other points of interest: Barry State Game Area
Yankee Springs Recreation Area

3. Sarett Nature Center
River-Gentian-Two-Board trails 0.5 miles
Lowland-Upland Trails loop 2.1 miles 
"You cross boardwalks, bridges with benches, and overlook towers, walking along woodchip and natural trails.  You meander on ridges high above the Paw Paw River and cut through wetlands in this variety of habitats." 
Other points of interest: Tiscornia Park, Silver Beach County Park
Sarett Nature Center

4. Warren Dunes State Park/Warren Woods Natural Area
Nature-Blue Jay-Beach- Mt Randal Trails loop 4 miles
Warren Woods Natural Area 1.1 miles
"Both parks evolved through the foresight of Edward K. Warren who, in the 1870s, purchased the land that is now called Warren Woods Natural Area,  His effort preserved one of the few remaining virgin beech-maple forests in Michigan.  He continued to purchased undeveloped land, including land that eventually became Warren Dunes State Park."
Other points of interest: Grand Mere State Park
Warren Dunes State Park
Warren Woods Natural Area

5. Saugatuck Dunes State Park
North Trail 2 miles
BeachTrail 1.4 miles
Livingston Trail 2 miles
South Trail 4.6 miles
"Lake Michigan awaits those who are not intimidated by the 1-mile trek over the sandy dunes from the parking lot."
Other points of interest: DeGraaf Nature Center Preserve, Star of Saugatuck
Saugatuck Dunes State Park

6. PJ Hoffmaster State Park
Loop of Homestead and Dune Climb Staircase 2.4 miles
Walk-a-mile trail 1.6 miles
"A vigorous hike along the Dune Climb Stairway to a platform on top of the towering dune provides a panoramic overlook of the vast open waters of Lake Michigan."
Other points of interest: Gillette Sand Dune Visitor Center, Muskegon State Park
PJ Hoffmaster State Park

7. Muskegon State Park
Dune Ridge Trail loop 1.7 miles
Lost Lake Trail 1.7 miles 
"Muskegon State Park's 2 miles of sandy Lake Michigan beach rank with some of the most beautiful in the world."
Other points of interest: Duck Lake State Park, PJ Hoffmaster State Park
Muskegon State Park

8. Aman Park
Yellow Trail 1.1 miles
Red Trail 1.4 miles
"Wildflowers are spectacular in spring, and the diverse terrain and varied plants of the park produce continual showings throughout the year, from skunk cabbage and marsh marigold to beech and aspen, and even to the gray of leafless branches pocketed with ice crystals.  All seasons show off something in this retreat."
Other points of interest:Pigeon Creek Park, Meijer Gardens, Kent Trails, Blandford Nature Center
Aman Park

9. North Country National Scenic Trail
Birch Grove Trail 9 miles
"When completed the trail will stretch some 4,600 miles across seven northern states from Lake Champlain in New York to Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota.  Michigan has the longest segment of any state and over half of that distance is complete and certified."
North Country National Scenic Trail

10. Manistee National Forest
Loda Lake Wildflower Sanctuary Trail 1.2 miles
"Protected species include trailing arbutus, bird's foot violet, bittersweet, flowering dogwood, trillium, club mosses, Michigan holly, American lotus, gentian, and pipsissewa."
Other points of interest: Birch Grove Schoolhouse
Manistee National Forest Loda Lake Sanctuary

11. Whitehouse Nature Center
River's Edge Trail 0.9 miles
Prairie Trail 1 mile
Situated along the East Branch Kalamazoo River, only .25 mile from the main campus of Albion College, are the diverse lands of the Whitehouse Nature Center."
Other points of interest: Marshall
Whitehouse Nature Center

12. Pinckney Recreation Area
Crooked Lake Trail 5.1 miles
Losee Lake Hiking Trail 3.3 miles
"The rolling topography of hills and ridges interspersed with numerous inland water bodies is typical of a landscape shaped by glacial activity."
Other points of interest: Park Lyndon
Pinckney Recreation Area

13. Waterloo Recreation Area
Waterloo-Pinckney Hiking Trail (Portage Lake to Sackrider Hill) 5.8 miles
Oak Woods-Waterloo-Pinckney Hiking Trail -Hickory Hills 4.7 miles
"The landscape was shaped more than 10,000 years ago in the last glacial period.  Receding ice, often more than 1 mile thick, formed the moraines (ridges), kames (hills), and kettles (lakes, ponds, and low-lying areas) that characterize the area, providing an abundance of recreational opportunities today."
Other points of interest: Gerald E Eddy Discovery Center, Waterloo Area Farm Museum, Phyllis Haehnle Audubon Sanctuary
Waterloo Recreation Area

14. Hidden Lake Gardens
 Pine Tree Trail 1.3 miles
Hikers' Trail 2.8 miles
"The 755-acre garden exhibits valuable plant collections and creates landscape pictures, fulfilling the objective of the Michigan State University-owned Hidden Lake Gardens."
Other points of interest: Bicentennial Woods, Walter J Hayes State Park, Walker Tavern Historic Complex
Hidden Lake Gardens

Available from Amazon, Barnes&Noble, other booksellers and some libraries.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Brook Trout

The creek at the Kalamazoo Nature Center is called Trout Run and I've enjoyed walking along it for years but I'd never seen trout in the stream before this Saturday.  I'm not sure if this was merely inattentiveness or perhaps not being there at the right time of the day or right time of year.  Or, perhaps the Nature Center's restoration efforts have attracted more trout.  In any case, yesterday a half dozen, or so, small trout were active near the footbridge over trout run.

The flutter of red fins really caught the eye as we crossed the bridge, otherwise their body patterns blended well with the sand and pebble creek bottom.  The red fins with white bands are an identifying feature for our native Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) which is Michigan's state fish.

We watched these fish dart about in the current and then hold still in one place for a minute before disappearing under the bridge.  It almost seemed like they were playing in the water.

The Nature Center isn't open for fishing.  Other tributaries of the Kalamazoo River have been recommended for angling.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Long-eared Owl

I wasn't familiar with the Long-eared Owl (Asio otus) and I've never seen one on the wild but these owls are native to Michigan, breeding in the north and wintering throughout the state.  They range throughout Canada and the northern United States as well as parts of northern Europe.

Their "ears" are only tufts of feathers while their true ears are hidden by feathers on the sides of their heads.  Like other owls they are a night predator.  They are a medium sized owl, much smaller than a Great Horned Owl but bigger than a Screech Owl.
Asio otus
Asio otus
The Long-eared owl is included in John James Audubon's Birds of America.
This bird is used in education programs of the Lake Milton Raptor Center.  They were in Kalamazoo this weekend for an event at Wedel's Garden Center.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Fall migration at the fish hatchery

The fish at Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery don't migrate, but the fish-rearing ponds do attract a variety of migrating waterfowl.  A Kalamazoo Gazette story on a bird-watching event at the hatchery sounded interesting and while I couldn't attend that event, I did visit the next weekend.

Canada Geese and Mallard Ducks live in Kalamazoo year round but many other species are only here during migration.  Buffleheads, a small diving duck with white sides and a large white headpatch, may be my favorite.  I also saw Ring-necked Ducks (although I never see the ring on their neck, but the white ring on their bill is much more visible), Northern Shovelers with their over-sized beaks, and small black Coots.  There were also a fair number of a duck I didn't recognize, with understated, almost elegant, grey plumage; these turned out to be Gadwalls.

While the trails at Wolf Lake are close to the ponds, the ponds themselves are big enough that you really need binoculars to appreciate the birds.  There is an observation deck at the largest pond, with a bench and illustrations of some of the common visitors.

Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery
34270 County Road 652
Mattawan, MI
(at the intersection of M-43 and Fish Hatchery Road)

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Winter events 2012-2013

A little snow ahead?  Winter in Kalamazoo is the time for skiing, sledding and skating.  Many nearby communities sponsor parades and winter festivals.  Winter beach walks are invigorating while a quiet walk in the woods can be contemplative.  Dress warmly!

Winter Events near Kalamazoo
November 10, 2012 The Annual Kalamazoo Holiday Parade 11 am Kalamazoo
November 26, 2012 Marshall's 48th Annual Christmas Parade 7:00 PM Marshall

November 27, 2012 Parade of Lights 6:30 PM Holland

December 7, 2012 Sinterklaas Eve Procession 7:00 PM Holland

December 8, 2012 Free Admission Day and Local Gift Fair  9 am -4 pm Kalamazoo Nature Center Kalamazoo

December 14, 2012 - January 5, 2013. Christmas Bird Count
December 15, 2012 Santacon Kalamazoo 6pm Kalamazoo

December 31, 2012 New Year's Eve Fest Kalamazoo
January 4-5 2013 Ice Sculpting Competition Holland

January 12-18 2013 Kalamazoo Beer Week Kalamazoo

 January 19 Schrier Park Winter Sports Fest.  Try skis or snowshoes from Lee's Adventure Sports Portage

January 24 - 27, 2013 Winterfest 2013 Grand Haven

January 26, 2013 Party in your Parka  Muskegon State Park

January 29 – February 2, 2013 Muskegon Snowfest Muskegon

February 1-3, 2013 Icebreaker 2013 South Haven

February 8-10, 2013 Magical Ice Carving Festival Saint Joseph

February 15 -18,  2013  Great Backyard Bird Count

February 16 - 17, 2013 Free Fishing Winter Weekend throughout Michigan

February 23, 2013 Winter Beer Festival Grand Rapids

March 2, 2013 Quietwater Symposium East Lansing

Ongoing events
International Festival of Lights Battle Creek November 17-December 31

Holiday Kerstmarkt Holland

Millennium Park Skate Rink
opens by December 15, 2012 Portage

See also

Discover Kalamazoo's event listing
February Happenings from West Michigan Weekly
Pure Michigan's February eventsHoliday Light events
Outdoor Athelete's Winter Sports events

Gazelle Sports Races and running calendar

Kalamazoo in Winter
from CommunityLink

West Michigan Winter Weekends

Sarrett Nature Center's Weekend Programs Benton Harbor

The Department of Natural Resources has events in the State Parks in November, December, January, and February.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A new Kalamazoo River trail

Construction is essentially done on the newest segment of the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail.  I'd been watching its progress throughout the summer and early fall but there were always crews still at work.  This morning was clear but cold (cold enough to try out my new winter bike gloves) and the trail was open.  There were a few workers doing some finish work, but the segment from Comstock to Mayor's Park in Kalamazoo is ride-able. 

The new section is about 3 miles long and it offers many views of the Kalamazoo River.  River access (and trail parking) are available at many spots including South Wenke Park, a DNR access site, and Mayor's Riverfront Park.  This section of the trail runs along King Highway (M-96) not through undeveloped woods but it is continuously along the river.  There is one highway crossing and then the trail follows the river through the old Georgia Pacific property where there's a clear view of the osprey perch from the trail.  A 400-foot-long bridge with views of the Grand Elk trainyard crosses the river to Mayor's Park.  From there, you can take the KRVT several miles north through Parchment and the Kalamazoo Nature Center to the D Avenue bridge.  Or, you could take the trail west through Kalamazoo to the KalHaven Trail and continue forty-some miles to Lake Michigan.

This segment parallels the kayak float we took on Labor Day, so it would be possible to boat down the river and then bike back.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

New landscaping at Asylum Lake

Western Michigan University's Asylum Lake Preserve had some major trail work done this summer along the east end of Asylum Lake.  Invasive shrubs and trees, like buckthorn, honeysuckle, and Norway maple, were removed to make room for native species.  The trails were re-graded to make them wheelchair accessible, part of a long run plan to make the preserve ADA compliant.  Stone retaining walls will prevent erosion and runoff.

It's nice to see WMU investing in the preserve and the improvements are attractive.  The heavy equipment did tear up the trail along the south side of Asylum Lake, leaving deep muddy ruts and pools of water.  A passerby told me they plan to repair that damage, but he speculated it might have to wait until Spring.

Asylum Lake access & parking: Drake Road, Parkview Avenue, or Winchell Avenue.

Asylum Lake Trail Map 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Middleville Spring Park

Middleville Spring Park doesn't look like anything special.  Tucked behind a Speedway gas station on M-37 on the southern edge of Middleville, it appears to be a typical small town park with a baseball diamond, some swings and a jungle gym, a picnic shelter, and a few disc golf baskets.  Yet, if you follow an inconspicuous trail, marked only by a small brown notice "MDEQ Wetland Conservation Easement", north from the ball field, you will find a hidden natural gem-- small, valuable, and (in-season) colorful.

Beyond the park is a fen: a rare habitat for some special wildflowers.  Some people call it the Barry County fen and others refer to the Middleton fen.  I don't know if it has an official name and I'm not sure it's officially part of Spring Park but it is open to the public with a few benches, bridges, and a short boardwalk.  Fens are wetlands somewhat like bogs but while bogs are acidic, fens have a neutral or alkaline pH and a high mineral content.

The fen doesn't offer dramatic scenery.  Instead, its beauty is small-scale and requires the viewer to stop and look.  When I visited in September, Fringed Gentians were in bloom all along the creek; orchids and other wildflowers bloom there in other seasons.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Maas Family Nature Preserve

The Maas Family Nature Preserve north of Rockford made a nice stop on the White Pine Trail.  I didn't know anything about it, but when I saw the sign and a bike rack, I decided to take a break from cycling.  The preserve was small (about 17 acres) and had one footpath crossing the entire preserve.

I noticed native prairie grasses growing amongst the oak trees and realized this was a special environment.  Oak Savannas or Oak Pine Barrens were once common in southwest Michigan.  Development and fire suppression has made these habitats increasingly rare.

Wild Lupine is one of the characteristic wildflowers of this area and it's the critical food for the endangered Karner Blue butterfly.  By protecting this preserve, the Land Conservancy of West Michigan provides habitat for this endangered species.
I'd like to return in May when the lupines are in bloom.

Information on the Maas Family Nature Preserve [pdf]

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Rogue River Nature Trail

The Rogue River Nature Trail isn't a serious hiking trail, but it is a very pretty path along the Rogue River in Rockford, Michigan.  The trail is made of distinct segments, developed over the last few years.  The newest segment is boardwalk on the west bank of the river that was completed in 2012.  Other sections, on the east side of the river, connect downtown shops to nearby playgrounds and parks including Rockford's new dog park.    That trail segment offers several benches and picnic tables near the river.
The combined length of the segments is only about a mile.  For those looking for a longer excursion, the White Pine Trail intersects the Rogue River Nature Trail and runs over ninety miles.

A walkway on dam over the Rogue River connects the different trail sections.
The boardwalk is off-limits to bikes.  For me, that made it an ideal place to stretch my legs after a long ride on the White Pine Trail.  The nature trail was very popular with families and tourists on a recent sunny afternoon.
Rockford is about an hour north of Kalamazoo on US 131.  Follow 10 Mile Road (exit 97) east to Rockford's downtown.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

White Pine Trail

A couple of days ago, I rode from Belmont to Sand Lake on the White Pine Trail.  The  entire trail runs 92 miles from Grand Rapids to Cadillac; the ride I took was about 17 miles (each way), passing through the towns of Rockford,  Cedar Springs, and Sand Lake.  This segment was paved, with a smooth asphalt surface.  Like other rail-trails, the White Pine Trail is fairly straight and level. 

North of Belmont, the trail passed through woods high above the Rogue River, which could be occasionally seen through the trees.  Approaching Rockford (about 4 miles), houses were visible, and then the trail crossed the river on an old iron bridge.

Rockford surprised me.  It felt like one of the tourist towns along the lakeshore, transplanted to the Rogue River.  The industrial buildings once served by the railroad had been repurposed as delis, restaurants, and wine bars.  A microbrewery was under construction right next to the trail and the smell of hops and roasted malt showed they had already begun brewing.  The river runs right through  town and many people were enjoying the nicely landscaped park where a dam creates an artificial waterfall and others strolled scenic paths along the riverbanks. 
North of Rockford, the trail ran alongside the river and then through farmland and forest.  From Cedar Springs,  the trail paralleled Northland Drive all the way to Sand Lake.  Cedar Springs (about 7 miles from Rockford), and Sand Lake (about 5 miles further) seemed like typical rural Michigan towns, with local family restaurants and some small stores.  After Sand Lake, the trail's pavement ended but the trail continued with a gravel surface.  A sign indicated it was 30 miles to Big Rapids.  The gravel/ cinder surface was rideable, but less fun, and I was getting tired at that point, so I only rode a half mile before turning back to Sand Lake.
Overall, this segment made a great ride.  Numerous trailheads provide access to the trail, so either shorter or longer trips could be put together.  Riding south from Belmont, the trail connects to Grand Rapids.

Officially, the trail is the Fred Meijer White Pine Trail State Park.
The Friends of the White Pine Trail provide trail information and promote various events on the trail.
The Rails to Trails Conservancy also has information in the trail, including user reviews and photos.

Belmont Trailhead
Rogue River Park
6300 Belshire Avenue
Belmont, MI 49306

Rockford offers several access points.  [pdf map]

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Oil spill clean-up continues

More than two years after the oil spill, containment booms are still in place on the Kalamazoo River.  Most of the river is open for recreation but workboats and the yellow booms are still very visible from River Oaks County Park.  There are signs saying the river is open, so it is probably possible to navigate through the booms.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently ordered the oil company to continue cleaning its spill.
Apparently the firm plans to build a new pipeline to replace its aging pipeline.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Sandhill Crane Fall Migration

Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) have already started their migration south.  As these large birds leave their breeding grounds in Michigan and other northern states and provinces to spend the winter in Texas and northern Mexico, or Florida, they gather by the thousands in wetlands along the flyway to feed and rest.  This creates great opportunities to see impressive numbers of cranes in the next few weeks.

Several of these areas are near Kalamazoo.

The closest is the Baker Sanctuary northeast of Battle Creek.  Each year they host Cranefest, which will be October 12-13 this year.  Access is via the adjacent Kiwanis Youth Conservation Area, with the best viewing in the late afternoon to just before dusk as the cranes fly overhead. 
Kiwanis Youth Conservation Area/Baker Sanctuary
22300 15 Mile Rd
Bellevue, Michigan 49021
The Haehnle Sanctuary near Jackson also features thousands of cranes each Fall.  They plan a festival on October 20, as well as tours and events throughout October.
Phyllis Haehnle Memorial Sanctuary
8746 Seymour Rd
Grass Lake, MI 49259
[address is approximate.]

Jasper Pulaski in Indiana is the best-known spot for Sandhill Cranes in the region.  It's about a 2.5 hour drive southwest from Kalamazoo.  Since it is farther south, the peak migration is later, typically in mid-November.
Jasper Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area
west of US Route 421 
Medaryville  IN  47959 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Spicebush berries

Fall is the season of many nuts and berries including the eye-catching fruits of the Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)  This shrub grows in partly-shady areas with moist soils.  It's widely distributed in the eastern United States and found throughout southern Michigan.

It blooms in early Spring (mid-March, this year) before the forest leaves have opened.  The flowers, while tiny, are bright enough to make an eye-catching display of yellow among the bare branches.  Later in the year, it's a host plant for the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly.

The colorful berries (or drupes) are eaten by many different animals and a mixed flock of birds were feeding on them when I saw these.  Apparently people also consume these fruits, using them as a replacement for allspice.  People also make tea from the twigs.  In 2011, the Herb Society named Spicebush the Native Herb of the Year.

Sunday, September 30, 2012


I was taking a walk near the Kalamazoo River enjoying the early fall colors when this striking white caterpillar with black spots caught my eye.  I think it's a Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar (Lophocampa caryae).  Many slow-moving insects are camouflaged to hide from predators.  This hairy caterpillar uses the opposite approach: its colors warn predators not to eat it.  The hairs are stinging spines that can deliver a dose of toxins.  This defensive mechanism can cause a skin rash for people, if they touch this little creature.

In a few weeks, this caterpillar will weave a cocoon.  After winter is over, it will emerge as a moth.

The Discover Life website has a useful tool for identifying caterpillars.


Thursday, September 27, 2012

Thornapple Trail (Caledonia to Dutton)

Last Fall, I rode a short section of the Paul Henry Thornapple Trail starting in Middleville.  A few days ago, I re-rode that section (which was beautiful, with a large number of Sandhill cranes on the millpond) and then decided to try another segment of the trail.  This section started in Caledonia, a few miles north of Middleville.  Since I hadn't planned to ride both parts, I didn't note where the Caledonia trail started but it was easy enough to figure out by considering its history.  The trail runs along an old Grand River Valley Railroad right-of-way which linked industries and businesses that needed freight transportation.  The biggest buildings in Caledonia are in a complex of grain elevators, that were served by the railroad years ago.  Once I saw the elevators, I guessed the trail would be nearby and found it quickly.  (On Main Street, just west of Mill Avenue.)

The trail was smoothly paved asphalt and ran for about 5 miles to suburban Grand Rapids.  The trail seemed to alternate between right-of-ways for the old rail line and current powerlines, so long stretches would be perfectly straight, then a few turns would connect to a new section.  Near Caledonia, the trail offered short connecting paths to Caledonia Lakeside Park  and the Caledonia High School.  Outside of town, the trail passed farms and fields.  Approaching Grand Rapids, new suburban homes sprung up from cornfields and in the distance I could see the airport tower.  The trail ended at the intersection of 68th Street and E. Paris Avenue, next to a Steelcase factory and a landscape supply business.

Future plans are to extend the trail south to Middleville (and beyond) and to connect to the Kent County Trail system to the north.  This will be a great ride when it's complete.

Caledonia trailhead

Caledonia, MI 49316

Dutton trail end
6820 East Paris Ave SE
Caledonia, MI 49316

[Addresses are approximate]

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Fringed Gentian

Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita) is one of the star wildflowers of fall.  While Fringed Gentians grow in many Eastern states and provinces, they aren't particularly common anywhere.  I've only seen them in wet, sunny places.  Many years I miss them completely, but they are in bloom now and certainly worth looking for.  Gentians are often associated with calcareous soil (rich in calcium carbonate).  They are a biennial plant, living for two years.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Early Fall color in Kalamazoo

Cooler days and longer nights remind us that summer ends with the Autumn equinox this Saturday.  These changes also trigger chemical changes in deciduous tree leaves causing greens to be replaced by reds and yellows.  So far, most of the trees in Kalamazoo are still green but some early color is visible.

Virginia Creeper and Poison Ivy show the brightest colors now and Red Osier Dogwood leaves are turning purple.  Silver Maples are starting to change; they're one of our earliest trees to turn red.  I did see some scattered orange leaves on other maples and oaks, but they are predominantly green.

West Michigan's Weekly Color Report indicates similar conditions across most of Michigan, although some northern areas expect peak color to be early this year.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Northern Great Lakes Regional Guide

This travel guide by Forbes continues a long-running book of ratings published by Mobil.    The Northern Great Lakes guide covers Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ontario.  Each state's attractions are divided into regional sections.  For Michigan, the regions are: Northern Michigan, Southwest Michigan, Detroit, Southeast Michigan, Bloomfield Hills, and the Upper Peninsula.  Restaurants, hotels, and spas are rated on a 5-star scale.

Other types of attractions are listed without a rating, although some are highlighted under a question like, "What are Some of Michigan's Best Wineries?"  (Fenn Valley, St Julian, Tabor Hill, Warner Vineyards) or "What are some of the Best Places for Outdoor fun in Southwest Michigan?" (Dutch Village, Meijer Gardens, Michigan's Adventure, Musical Fountain, Warren Dunes State Park.)  Listings give a short description (a sentence or two) and contact information.  There are no illustrations or maps.

Here is a selection from their listings near Kalamazoo

Bittersweet Ski Area
Bronson Park
Echo Valley
Gilmore Car Museum
Kalamazoo Air Zoo
Kalamazoo Institute of Arts
Kalamazoo Nature Center
Timber Ridge Ski Area
Western Michigan University

Battle Creek
Binder Park Zoo
Fort Custer State Recreation Area
Kimball House Museum
Kingman Museum of Natural History
Leila Arboretum
Sojourner Truth Grave
Willard Beach (on Goguac Lake)
Kellogg Bird Sanctuary

It's available from AmazonBarnes & Noble, and other booksellers.  I borrowed a copy from my library.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Prairie River

The Prairie River was a fun paddle.  The water was clear and shallow, so we could see a variety of fish.  It wound through bottomland forest with plenty of Silver Maples and Sycamores.  (It should have some gorgeous fall color soon.)  Shallow roots and wet soil meant a lot of deadfall across the river, so we needed to frequently maneuver around obstacles.  This made the trip more challenging than many other local rivers, but it didn't get frustrating and we never had to get out of the kayaks to go around or over a barrier.  (Thanks to Liquid Therapy outfitters who cut openings to keep the river runnable.)

The Prairie River is about a half hour drive south of Kalamazoo.  We paddled from Centreville to Lutz Rd just south of Three Rivers, about six miles, in three and a half hours.  Hoshel Canoe Park, about halfway through this section, off Hoshel Road, looked like another good place for a put-in or take-out.  Most of the river feels very natural, with only the occasional house visible.  There were a few farms, some with industrial-sized irrigation pumps, but mostly it was woods.  There were some spectacular patches of Cardinal Flower in bloom. 

Centreville put-in
(small park, just north of Centreville, plenty of parking)
550 Covered Bridge Road
Centreville, MI 49032
Lutz Road takeout
(on the left, downstream of the bridge; roadside parking)
Three Rivers, MI 49093

[addresses are approximate

Boat rental and spotting are available from
Liquid Therapy
221 S. Main Street
Three Rivers, MI 49093

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Three Mile Lake

Three Mile Lake is about 25 miles west of Kalamazoo, just off of I-94.  It's a mid-sized lake (176 acres) with an unusual shape-- kind of a curving T-- which means you can't see the whole lake from any particular spot.  (Michigan's DNR provides a map [pdf].)  A shallow channel connects to Little Three Mile Lake. 

Threemile Lake came to my attention since it is one of the few lakes with motorboat restrictions.  We visited on a hot afternoon and lots of people were cooling off in the lake at the boat launch.  Houses lined the eastern shore while the western shore was pretty much undeveloped.  There were a few noisy jetskis and waterskiers (since the speed restrictions don't go into effect until evening.)  Little Three Mile Lake was quieter, with just a few people sunning on their docks.  We saw three Sandhill Cranes among the lilypads on the smaller lake and a couple of Great Blue Herons.

DNR public boat launch
Paw Paw, MI 49079
[address is approximate.]

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Kalamazoo River (Comstock to Parchment)

On Labor Day weekend, we wanted to go kayaking but kept procrastinating until it was too late for an out-of-town destination.  Since we still wanted to get on the water, we decided to try a stretch of the nearby Kalamazoo River: from Comstock to Parchment.  Comstock has a few different river access points and without planning it, we tried two of them.  We dropped a kayak at Merrill Park and then left a car on Commerce Lane in Parchment.  Driving back to the start, I took a different route and ended up on the wrong side of the river.  Because of construction on the River Street bridge, we would have needed to make a long detour to get back to Merrill Park.  Instead, we launched across the river at South Wenke Park and ferried the kayak back.

As I expected, this section of the Kalamazoo River was more industrial than the river between Parchment and D Avenue.  The first mile or so was mostly natural, with just a few buildings visible from the water.  As we approached Kalamazoo, we paddled past the former Georgia Pacific paper mill site, where the EPA is capping a landfill designed to keep PCBs out of the river.  Sights along this stretch of the river included Kalamazoo's sewage treatment plant, a Grand Elk railyard, and various other industrial buildings.  Numerous bridges crossed the river and in places the shoreline was walled with oxidized steel.  Despite all of this, there was a surprising amount of wildlife: turtles, ducks & geese, kingfishers, a half dozen Great Blue Herons, and even a pair of Osprey.

From the river, we saw progress on the construction of a new segment of the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail, as well as the existing trail to Mayors Riverfront Park.

We paddled about 5 miles on the river in less than two hours.  While not wilderness, the float was certainly interesting and we enjoyed seeing another aspect of Kalamazoo. 
Merrill Park
5845 Comstock Ave
Comstock, Michigan 49048

South Wenke Park
5800 Kings Highway
Comstock, Michigan 49048

[addresses are approximate]