Forest forensics

Chocolay Bayou Nature Preserve reveals clues

Upper Peninsula Land Conservancy Executive Director Andrea Denham, right, talks about clues to the history of the organization’s Chocolay Bayou Nature Preserve on a guided walk on Saturday. Also shown is Hannah Boyd, UPLC administrative and communications manager. (Journal photo by Christie Mastric)

HARVEY — What does that bump in the road mean — literally?

The Upper Peninsula Land Conservancy on Saturday gave a guided hike, “Forest Forensics: Ghosts on the Landscape,” at its Chocolay Bayou Nature Preserve. Special features pertaining to its history were shown, such as a bump in the road, or in this case, trail.

The nature preserve contains 12.5 acres of unique habitat near the mouth of the Chocolay Rive, and bordered by the Iron Ore Heritage Trail and the North Country National Scenic Trail.

UPLC Executive Director Andrea Denham called forest forensics “a way of reading the forested landscape to learn about the history around you.”

And it’s not just the “obvious” history,” Denham said, pointing to a spot behind where she stood at the beginning of the hike — an Lake Superior & Ishpeming Railroad grade.

“We’re also going to be looking at, what can we see from the trees, the plants, the curves of the earth?” Denham said. “What can we read about the geologic, hydrologic, climate and human history out here on this piece of property?”

The bayou’s background is much older than the LS&I Railroad, she said.

“The history of the bayou goes all the way back to the First Nations people who lived here and called this area home for millennia,” Denham said. “If you were to look map of where the Escanaba River and the Chocolay River kind of meet, there’s actually a very short portage in between the two rivers. So, the Escanaba River from Lake Michigan and the Chocolay River from Lake Superior have for millennia have been an incredibly important transportation route — transportation of ideas, of goods, of plants, of people.”

With the preserve land being near the mouth of Lake Superior in a fairly high and dry spot, people can continue to learn about what has happened on the land over the last several thousand years, she said.

In fact, one particular site provides a calm shelter from weather for birds.

“That makes this spot an extremely important area for our migrating waterfowl and songbirds as well,” Denham said.

She asked the participants to notice the differences from one spot to another during the hike.

For example, the soil near the railroad grade is almost entirely sand, but a bit inland, the soil is darker and richer.

She also mentioned an undulating movement in the landscape.

“What you are actually seeing there is the literal history of both Lake Superior and the Chocolay River laid out in a landscape form,” Denham said.

Then there’s the dune-and-swale ecosystem.

“It’s a rare ecosystem for the Upper Peninsula, but it’s from different changes in the way the river runs, where the shoreline of the lake was,” she said.

Over the last millennia, the lake has moved back and forth and the river has continued eroding back and forth, she said. When it does that, it creates hills, valleys, dunes and swales.

“So, this is a really cool spot that creates different types of soils,” Denham said. “You get kind of this hot, dry soil at the top, and then wetter and wetter and more kind of thick and black and nutrient-rich soil down at the bottom.”

Part of the preserve’s purpose, she stressed, is to protect that dune-and-swale ecosystem.

“We almost exclusively built our trails on the tops of those dunes because they are more resilient to people walking on them,” Denham said.

Human influence seen

The area showed a lot of human history as well.

For example, an open spot next to a thickly forested one showed soil compaction, which would indicate the location of a building, railroad landing or place with repeated heavy use, she said.

“It just makes it a lot harder for things to grow up through there,” Denham said.

Unfortunately, there are not too many details of what went on in the area because the era from the 1830s to the 1850s was what Denham called ‘kind of Wild Westy.”

“We do know that the mouth of the Chocolay River, right onto Lake Superior, there was the site of the first steam-powered sawmill in the Upper Peninsula,” Denham said. “So this is literally where the logging boom of the 1880s started.”

Durring the height of the logging era, she noted, the river was used to float logs, which were piled on the bayou until they could be loaded into ships or put into lumber mills.

Another fact with which people might not be familiar concerns the river itself.

“Sometime in the 1890s or early 1900s, the course of the river was changed specifically to make tripping logs easier,” Denham said.

In fact, she pointed out that an aerial map of the preserve will indicate a “really weird spot” where the river goes straight, which was to facilitate the shipping of the logs to the docks that used to be at the river mouth.

Even the preserve’s parking lot has a bit of history.

Denham said the lot is technically still an LS&I easement for a railroad depot and the spot where the straightening of the Chocolay River started.

“If we were here 150 years ago, we would have walked straight out and the river and we would have been able to see the river cut straight through to the highway development here,” she said.

Hannah Boyd, administrative and communications manager, talked about what the preserve means to her.

“The bayou is probably, just personally speaking, one of my favorite preserves,” Boyd said. “I think a lot of people can relate. This is almost our original community forest. It really did take a village to protect this land.”

The UPLC also has been involved in the creation of the Dead River Community Forest, located in Negaunee Township.

For details on the UPLC, based at 102 W. Washington St., Suite 213, in Marquette, visit uplandconservancy.org or call 906-225-8067. An recording of the introductory webinar on forest forensics can be requested on the website.


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