Sunday, July 5, 2009

Day 8 - Michigan's Mitten

Sunshine at last!  We woke to an absolutely beautiful summer morning, the first so far on our trip. To day, we would return to the U.S. at the Sarnia-Port Huron Crossing in order to explore both the thumb and hand of Michigan’s mitten. The thumb refers to the small peninsula to the east between Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron.  The “hand” is the much larger peninsula to the west between Saginaw Bay and Lake Michigan.  The tip of the hand, where the middle finger would be, is Mackinaw City, where we had reserved a room for the night.

After a nice breakfast, I wandered around on the carefully landscaped grounds of the Elm Hurst Inn.  The one landscaping problem they couldn’t do anything about is the quality of the water, which runs brown with clay during flood.


Settled clay on the bottom of a clarified stream behind Elm Hurst Inn, Ingersoll, Ontario. 

For clay to settle out in such a way requires that it be flocculated, which means that something in the water must cause the clay particles to stick to each other before settling.  Usually, this is the presence of a mineral salt, most often sodium.   Seeing this made me wonder what else was in the water.


Crossing Paths

While loading the car for departure, I noticed a car with Michigan plates being loaded by a couple Steve was wearing what we later realized was familiar Michigan attire, a John Deere T-shirt, jeans, and a baseball cap.  Jill, who could do a great imitation of Sarah Palin if she tried, wore nice, but non-descript traveling clothes.  We were heading west from New England for a freshwater journey.  They were headed east to New England for genealogy.  I found it interesting that we crossed paths in the middle of Ontario.

I asked them if they had a favorite lake.  With out hesitation, Steve answered “Superior,” accompanied by a nod of agreement on Jill’s behalf. I asked them if they had a least-favorite lake.  “Huron,” they said.  “All of Huron?” I asked.  "No," they said, "just all around Saginaw Bay." That's Michigan’s answer to Wisconsin’s Green Bay, an industrialized river valley in a geological basin that opens north-northeast on the eastern side of the state. When I inquired about why Huron was yucky, they replied: Dow Chemical, all the industry, especially GM or General Motors, Inc.  Jill talked about how beautiful Bay City State Park used to be in the early 1980s, when she was a high school girl, and how weedy, discolored, and slimy the water has become since.  I recalled an old high school girlfriend of mine, who moved to Bay City.  She swam with me in the late sixties.  Did her kids swim with Jills in the early 80s? 

We left Ontario at the Port Huron border crossing, with Lake Huron to the north and Lake Erie to the south.   My passport -- issued in Chile after I the original was stolen during a mugging – was expired.  The Department of Homeland Security let me in anyway.  Entering the U.S. gave me a chance to reflect on the people of Ontario.  No one bad-mouthed the U.S.  All were helpful. Yesterday's local newspaper from London documented a poll that showed more support for Barack Obama than for any national Canadian leader.  I took this as an example of the grass always being greener on the other side of the fence. 

We also looked back on the many misunderstandings and built-in contradictions we heard about fresh water from the Canadians.  Removing gravel does not change the elevation of the water table.  Stable rivers in hydrological equilibrium do not need dredging.  Private water-treatment stores claim that what the city puts into water is bad, but proceed to elect politicians who put that stuff in the water.  This sounds a lot like what we experience in the United States.


Artificial Kettles

I’m studying page 43 of my Delorme Atlas and Gazetteer for Michigan.  Parallel to Interstate 69 and between exits 198 and 194 are nine small lakes, all within about six miles distance.  I look up and spot one, then another, then another.  There nice little ponds, now surrounded by trees.  The one with a trailer park had two guys sitting in the shade, watching the highway, rather than what I would think is a nicer view out back.  The one with stick-built homes had children playing in the yard. 

These are artificial lakes, created by the excavation of gravel used for building the interstate – probably in the 1960s or early 1970s -- and the shutting off of the large sump pumps that kept the growing depressions dry.  In terms of family lake culture, such former quarries are analogous to personal pan pizzas, being smaller than one might hope for, but big enough to satisfy the need.   

In terms of hydrology, these spring-fed ponds resemble small kettle ponds, depressions formed when a block of stagnant glacial ice was buried by meltwater sand and gravel before the ice disappeared. In terms of shape, however, the ones along the highway more closely resemble baking and, being rectangles, or in one case a triangle.  I can hardly think of a better case sequential land-use development than gravel quarries turned into ponds.

The super-flat road near Imlay City was under construction. The dirt there was glued together in huge peels, indicating how clay rich it was.   As was the case yesterday near Aylmer, we were crossing the floor of an expanded great lakes. In fact, at that time, the lakes were confluent.

With the landscape so flat, I began to study the map.  In St. Clair County about 10 miles due west of Lakeport (on Lake Huron), was a lake with a most fascinating shape. Aside from a bulge on the southwest side, the lake was perfectly circular, as if a canal had been excavated back on itself.  That’s what I guessed it to be, a speedway dredged out for motor boats.  Two nearby towns were named Fargo and Yale.  Having visited both, I can hardly imagine two places being so different.  


Fractal Network

The Water Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey does a wonderful job measuring the quality and quantity of flow of our nation’s rivers and streams.  They do this to identify long-term trends and to provide the data needed to predict floods and droughts.  I noticed from my map that one of their gaging (measurement and sampling) was located on Farmer’s Creek in La Peer, Michigan.  We turned off Interstate 69 to investigate the first of several Michigan streams.

We stopped at a convenience store to get the name of an unlabeled road.  The manager of the store had no idea what a gaging station was. His befuddlement reminded me not to make any assumptions about what people know or do not know about fresh water.  He was able to give me directions, however:  turn right after the gas pumps: go straight past McDonalds and Payless Shoes; turn right and pass the enormous Wall Mart and its parasitic stores and parking lots; head for the stream.  We made the turns, just fine, but got swept up into a four lane divided highway that dumped us out onto a tiny county road, soon to become gravel. This was an overbuilt and unnecessary overbuild if I ever saw one.

We never found the stream gauge because of all the development.  But I can tell you one thing for sure.  If it were still operating, it would document four local trends that are well known from other settings in snow country where miles of exit ramp, strip-mall development have taken place.  Stream runoff is flashier, meaning it’s more prone to flooding, because the pavement and rooftops are completely impervious. Groundwater recharge is usually lower because the rainfall and snowmelt left as runoff, rather than infiltrate into what used to be pastures and fields. The quality of the water is greatly reduced, and in some cases toxic, because the residues of car exhaust and parking lot spills are quickly rinsed into streams.  Finally, the hundreds of acres of roads and pavements require applications of salt and sand to melt ice and provide traction during the long winter. Everything, of course, washes into streams.  

While traveling to the site of our failed search, I studied the map for its stream linkages. Our target stream, Farmer’s creek, paid tribute to Mill Creek.  That’s where the term tributary comes from.  In turn, Mill Creek paid tribute to the South Branch of the Flint River, then the merged Flint River, then the Shawassee River, and then finally the Saginaw River before entering Green Bay.  Upstream of the gaging station, Farmer’s Creek had two main branches, both of which originated in a concentration of small kettle lakes fed by springs. 

This makes the Saginaw River a seventh-order stream, using the map that I had. The smallest tributaries are considered first order. When two first-order streams join, they form a second order and so forth down the line to the stream mouth in Saginaw Bay.   This hierarchical pattern is typical of most stream systems. On glacial moraines however, the first link, the one not counted, is a lake or swamp.  In lake country, kettles serve the streams, rather than the other way around.


Bronson Lake

Just south of Bronson Lake is a clue to what’s wrong with so many lakes from Maine to Montana.  Behind an otherwise nice house and well-kept barn was a small pond, which was probably impounded to water livestock perhaps a century ago.  The water of that pond was hidden beneath a floating carpet of lime-green duckweed so thick that a songbird could have walked on water.  


The light-colored material in the photo is not a sand trap. Instead, it is a coating of green duckweed covering a pond below a small feedlot, La Peer County, Michigan. 

Duckweed is a tiny flowering plant about the size and shape of a small housefly.  Botanically, it’s an amazing and beautiful adaptation. However, their presence usually indicates a pond overloaded with nutrient, usually phosphorous and nitrogen in unusually high concentrations.

The source of that nutrient was crystal clear.  Directly above the pond was a thoroughly trampled livestock pen with just a few cow-patties left undisturbed.   It was a small feedlot, a place where cattle are confined in one place and where the food is brought to them, rather than let them wander a pasture in search of grass.  Feedlots are more economically productive than pastures in terms of the amount of beef or milk produced per acre.  But besides boring the cattle nearly to death, they also create a nasty sludge of potential nutrient pollution.  If not diverted or treated, leachate responsible for turning many lakes green with algae or, in the worst case, duckweed.   Americans eat lots of meat and expect not to pay dearly for it, creating marketplace incentives conducive to feedlots, rather than pastures.  In this case, it is the lakes and streams that pay dearly.  

The road hugging the edge of Bronson Lake isn’t safe for people like us who don’t know where they’re going.  The uphill side is a steep bank of gravel, typical of glacial kettles, especially small round ones such as this. The lakeside edge of the road was fenced, and with narrow shoulders. We finally found a place to pull out.  The white pipe you see in the center of the photograph (below) ran directly beneath my feet to a white standpipe with a bright red cap.


Bronson Lake, near LaPeer, Michigan.

 When someone’s house or barn is on fire and the fire truck needs water, they spin off the red cap, hook up a hose, and suck water out as if from a straw.

Small lakes across the entire Blue Galaxy provide us with community fire protection.   They can save lives too.  When great wildfires struck places as far apart in geography and culture as Hinkeley, Minnesota and Wellfleet, Massachusetts, residents were saved by wading into the water and waiting for the fires to burn out around them. 

Within a few minutes were cruising by Holloway Lake, the water-supply reservoir for Flint, Michigan, an All American city where General Motors manufactured millions of cars before going bankrupt earlier this year. One would never have guessed that the region was in economic distress, based what I saw while driving along its southern shore.  The sky was light blue with puffy clouds -- the water a clean dark blue.  Countless motorized watercraft ranging from the floating patios called pontoons to self-propelled personal jets were on the water. Delighted kids were being towed on floating inflatable rafts of all size and shape.  Adrenaline-loving jet skiers were sending up great white sprays.  Water skiers were using the large wakes of boats as do snow skiers use moguls, to become temporarily airborne. I saw nothing powered by wind or muscle power, and nobody swimming.  I suspect swimming is illegal, as it is in reservoirs where I live.

The shoreline was Exhibit A in the case against poor shoreline management. Banks eroded by waves were dispersing suspended mud into the water.  Immaculate, and therefore fertilized and herbicide-sprayed lawns ran right to the edge of the water.  In some places, the shorelines were protected by boulders and vertical sheet pilings.  Oversized houses were spread along the shore.   The good news is that people were having fun. But at what cost?


Roadside Curiosities

We left the back country roads of LaPeer County for Michigan Route 15, heading north toward Saginaw.  My AAA (American Automobile Association) Atlas lists this as a scenic road, which it certainly is in the small city of Vassar.  Whoever planted the roadside petunias deserves a prize for community beautification.  No doubt, some of the fertilizer probably escaped to the groundwater table, a trivial input compared to the lush green corn fields we had been driving through.

The cheerful gauntlet lined both sides of the road for more than half a mile.  It began at lovely Hillside Park, within which was a small bandstand for the Vassar City Band, the kind that my father directed until he was in his mid 80s.  The petunias ended where McDonalds inaugurated the local “strip.” Across the street was a boarded up IGA.  Americans don’t cook as much as they used to.  They eat out instead, often from their cars.  But then again, this is Michigan, the auto state.

 “A Manufactured Home Community.”  I saw that billboard in Millington, though I don't know what it means.  Perhaps these folks are like those of a biker community that gels around a common theme.  Then again, it could be a trailer park without the hitches for being towed.

While studying the map, Kristine spotted another interesting billboard.  Its advertised Internet address was:  I can only guess what that’s about.  I wonder if anyone bordering the Holloway Reservoir used its services.  With amusement, I jotted down a more complete URL for the billboard:

To skip the city of Saginaw, we jumped on to Interstate 75 and turned left on a nearly identical road, Michigan Route 10.  The traffic was very light in our direction, which was north followed by west.  In the other direction toward Flint, Detroit, and the “I” states to the south – Indiana, Illinois, Iowa – the traffic was bumper to bumper for miles. I hope those trapped in cars were thinking happy thoughts of the lakes they left behind.   Practically all of the vehicles were American made, generally GM and Ford.  For the first time on the trip I felt a little guilty, cruising around in a Volvo with Connecticut plates.

We crossed into county, speeding by Sanford Lake on Michigan Route 10.  It resembled the Holloway Reservoir, with perfect lawns leading up to a sharp edge held in place by sheet piling. 


Snow Snake Ski-Golf

 At Claire, we headed north on Interstate 127.  In Harrison, we took Exit 168 to explore a  “Unique Natural Landmark,” labeled “Glacial Moraine,” on my gazetteer.  Though definitely a moraine, it was hardly unique. Practically every hill in the mitten of Michigan is a moraine of some sort. With an endless supply of Canadian granite to the north and with enormous lobes of ice in the low spots (Erie Lobe, Saginaw Lobe, Lake Michigan Lobe), northern Michigan is festooned with a jumble of curved moraines, deposits of sand and gravel that washed out from beneath the ice and became concentrated in certain places. 

The Snow Snake Resort occupies the north face of a moraine ridge that was originally about 180 feet high, before they raised it an additional 20 feet of fill to squeak the height over 200 feet.  


Carved rock at entrance to Snow Snake Ski-Golf, Harrison, Michigan.

Being July, the chair lifts were empty.  Instead, golfers were practicing their drives and fairway shots by hitting them against the ski slope.  


Chair lifts at Snow Snake Ski-Golf, Harrison, Michigan. 

Outside, I talked with a nice young man named Garret Greer. He’s the skiing and snowboarding instructor during their short season from approximately Christmas to Valentines Day (if they are lucky).  During the summer – we saw him drive up on a golf cart – he does “whatever he’s told to do.”  When I asked him how many come from within a half hour drive, he said “about 90%” I’m guessing that population includes nobody from the Rocky Mountains.

I also talked with the inside manager, John Cleary, who runs the restaurant and store, a combination pro shop and ski shop.  His water issue involves the potential state control of the groundwater resource in the Michigan interior.  Located on a giant ridge of sand-gravel, the resort must get all of its water from the same stuff, but from below the water table.   They use pumped water for irrigating fairways and greens in the summer, and for snowmaking in the winter. Already the resort is required to report its water usage to authorities.  John mentioned that several bills have been introduced in the state legislature to do so, none of which have passed.  On the positive side is Michigan’s “cottage culture.”

Quite literally, those who ski the western mountains of the U.S., which reach above ten thousand feet, look down on those who ski the New England Appalachians, which rise no higher than Denver but, nonetheless, have elevation drops measuring more two thousand feet.  In turn, New Englanders look down on places like Snow Snake for its pitifully small 200 foot drop.  In turn, Snow Snake looks down on Chicago’s Mount Trashmore, a ski facility developed on a nearby abandoned landfill.  This pecking order of skiing confirms the first rule of real estate: Location, location, location means everything. Ninety percent of Snow Snake’s customers are locals, coming within 35 miles.

What like most about Snow Snake is that it has everything to do with water.  Frozen water the form of glacial ice brought the hill here. Frozen water in the form of snow brings the customers here. Liquid water, in the form of aquifers, brings them the water they need to operate. 

Michigan’s Largest Lake

Houghton Lake is the largest lake contained entirely within Michigan: the Great Lakes are shared with several other states and Canada. It borders on the “Dead Stream Swamp” within Au Sable State Forest.  Along the lake's south shore are the municipalities of Houghton Heights and Houghton Lake.  

Less than half a mile to the south is the regional sewage treatment plant, which drains toward lake, and which is currently in the process of being upgraded.


Sewage treatment plant for Houghton Lake, Michigan likes within a mile or so of the lake and drains toward it.

 Whenever a sewage plant is under construction, this usually indicates a problem of some sort, even if only about limited capacity.  

Practically every destination lake, even when completely surrounded by forest, experiences a viscous cycle of pollution. The lake brings in people, who bring in more people. Because only a limited amount of human wastewater can be handled by onsite septic systems, eventually the lake degrades in response to the increase in nutrient and bacterial pathogens.  Next is the arrival of a sewage treatment plant, which allows more people to move in.  Eventually, the capacity of the original plant is taxed, which sets the stage for a bigger plant, then, more people, and so forth.   Chicago started this way as well. 

Only when I reached the south shore of Houghton Lake, did I understand one of the billboards I had passed a few miles back. It advertised a company claiming to be the state’s (if not the world’s) largest dealer in pontoon boats.  


Pontoon boat and jet skis at Houghton Lake, Michigan.

These are basically floating patios; platforms surrounded by guardrails that float above two long cylinders the diameter of a barrel, and with their forward ends tapering to a rounded point.  They are big enough to party on, but small enough to trailer.  The whole thing is driven by a gasoline power motor, generally 25 horsepower or above. 

On pontoons, people can do whatever they do when picnicking at the shore, which is to sit, drink, eat, talk, fish from the edge, and jump in and out of the water.  These floating islands are the perfect answer for those who don’t own shoreline property that is actually underlain by soil.  Never in my life have I seen more pontoons on the water from a single vantage, perhaps fifty from a single vantage point on the shore.

Further up I stopped at something labeled “Dead Stream Swamp,” on my map. It’s more marsh than swamp, having no trees and being inhabited by muskrats and great blue herons.  Apparently this enormous wetland had been drained by the early settlers who thought it would improve things, which it didn’t.  Recently, residents reversed this process by building a dam and raising the water back to where it was.  


Water control structures for maintained marsh at Houghton Lake Michigan.

The drainage ditches have become canals, though no boats are allowed to use them.   This is a very good idea.


Marshes adjacent to Houghton Lake, Michigan. 

My last look at Houghton Lake was at the end of Yeager Road opposite Long Point. There, the water was a slightly cloudy distinctly brown. I suspect this was from the dissolved organic acids associated with the nearby wetlands.  

The shore is a case study of overdevelopment.  


Shoreline of northwest Houghton Lake, Michigan.

There were hundreds of boats on dozens of long docks serving an untold number of homes pressed up against the shore.  Beach sand was imported.  Boulders guarded some shores, sheet pilings guarded others.  Everyone I saw looked completely relaxed, which is a good thing.  No one seems to have a care in the world, which is not a good thing from the point of view of shoreline restoration.


Lake Management as People Management

Between Houghton and Higgins Lakes, we stopped for a pick-me-up at Little Cottage Ice Cream Shop, which was great. There, I interviewed a family of five; Jeremy the dad, Margaret the mom, Jarid the son, and Leanna and Shelby, the daughters.  All were having some down-time and enjoying ice cream’s holy trinity of sucrose, fat, and a trace of milk protein.   The parents had both been raised in Flint, and were frequently brought here as children on holiday.  Today, one generation later, Jeremy and Margaret brought their kids up for the long Fourth of July weekend.  Though staying on Houghton Lake, they had gone to Higgins Lake State Park to swim because the water wasn’t so “yucky.”

When I asked the family about water issues, nobody had anything to say.  Thoughts about water?  Highs or lows?  Anything?   Jarid sensed me getting desperate, so he replied “seaweed,” exposing his blue tongue as he spoke (he was eating that artificially colored blue ice cream).  This was in reference to the “seven lakes” back near home in Flint.   As gently as possible, I let him know that aquatic macrophytes were neither weeds, nor were they from the sea. 

After giving him my card, the attendant at the gate of South Higgins Beach State Park let me in for a few minutes with the driver’s license as collateral. The place was absolutely crammed.  No lake could stand such attention if it happened every day.


Heavy use of South Higgins Beach State Park near 5:00 PM, Sunday, July 6.  Note armada of boats in the water.

Upon reaching Higgins Lake, the first thing I saw was a sign precluding people from bringing their animals to the beach. The second thing I saw was a young man with his dog on the shore.  


Sign with man, dog, and girl friend (at lower left) on South Higgins Lake State Park, Michigan. Within moments, man and dog were swimming.

They soon went for a swim together in the company of hundreds of witnesses.  Nobody, including me, made a comment.  Why do people believe they are above the rule of law? This is one of the most persistent problems with lake management. People just do what they want, in spite of regulations. 

As I approached the beach, I wondered how such a beautiful, azure-colored lake could stay so clean, and maintain such a healthy trout population. Aside from good regulation, and strong springs, I suspect it’s primarily about the lake’s depth, which reaches 135 feet.  Half the surface area lies above water more than 50 feet deep.  Depths like this ensure a large lake volume relative to its surface area, which keeps the average temperature down, which keeps the oxygen content high and the algal population low.

In spite of its clarity and the number of people swimming, the sign near the park store reported the presence of “swimmer’s itch.” This is a shistosome parasite that bores into your skin and creates a local infection. It’s also a sign of eutrophic waters. 

When leaving the lake we crossed its clear-flowing outlet, the Cut River.  Thinking it was unusually straight for a natural stream, we slowed to read a sign. It was cut during the timber days to enhance the transport of logs to Houghton Lake.  If the flow were the other way around, Higgins Lake would not be quite so nice.

Man Killing Clam?

Our last stop before Mackinaw City was Sea Shell City [] in Cheyboygan. It's a roadside tourist trap that's proud of its reputation as "Michigan’s Largest Retail Dealer in Shells and Coral." 

What drew me in was the “man-killing clam” (Tidacna gigas) advertised on their billboard. 

Man-killing (?) clam at tourist trap called Sea Shell City in  Cheboyban, Michigan.

Leslie, the vice president did point out that their sign near the clam didn’t say “man-eating.” Everyone should know that clams are filter feeders without teeth, organisms that live on microscopic things like zooplankton and algae.  Baleen whales are also big, but that doesn't make them scary.  They too are filter feeders, harmless vegetarians. So why does the sign in the store say: “Legend has it that the GIANT CLAM indeed have the capacity to snuff out mans life with one sharp snap.”  Maybe. Maybe not. 

Leslie Earl, the vice president, had a few issues with water.  On the down side, she “doesn’t like people walking on my beach.”  (Here, she is referring to a public beach on Lake Huron.) On the up side, she said “ I can swim in the water and not worry about being eaten,” referring to the beaches near Miami where she takes some time away from northern Michigan. 

Kim, her employee, had even more interesting stories.  She hates "them dang zebra mussels.  You can't go swimmin' without cutting your feet up."  She says the Canadians are making the Great Lakes Salty with the Soo Locks, which doesn't make much sense to me.  She also says we've now got dead gulls from dead fish from zebra mussels with botulism. 

In spite of all this, the gift shop is full of positive thinking, for example the saying on the T shirt I almost bought as a house gift for my sister.


A T-shirt in a Cheyboygan Michigan gift shop sets the mood for the day.

Within minutes, we were back on the road heading for Mackinaw City for the night.  A full-sized billboard on the road caught my attention advertising It’s pretty clear what that’s about.

We arrived in time to photograph our third Great Lake before dark.


 Lake Huron looking east at the Strait of Mackinac, Mackinaw City, Michigan.

Dinner brought us a surprise, a fillet of whitefish hanging over the edge of my dinner plate.  It’s a regional delicacy, akin to lobster from Maine and salmon from Seattle.  Whitefish travel in great schools, and are only freshwater fish in the area known to do so. Their flesh is high in protein and oil, which made them excellent fish to smoke. With wild rice, a piece of smoked whitefish could keep a voyageur going all day long.

In the trading post was a section for taxidermy sales.  There, I discovered that some people would part with up to $500 in order to get a stuffed raccoon.


Dead raccoons used for amusement at the Mackinac Trading Post, Mackinaw City, Michigan. 

They may have been trapped in suburbs as nuisance animals, or worse raised on farms, or even worse, trapped in the wild for killing and stuffing.   Though I would eat a raccoon if I were hungry enough, this strikes me as unethical treatment of animals, if only because we devalue them as as a separate species. I would not want to be stuffed and mounted like this.  The water story here involves the definition of amphibious.  Nobody would call a raccoon an amphibian, but they are certainly amphibious.  Though they nest in trees of the forest, they get most of their food at lakeside. Among the cleanest and smartest animals, they wash their food before eating it, which is more than most human kids do.

I hope I don't dream of raccoons tonight.