ecology

A Railroad runs Through it

Last month, my wife and I went looking for narrow-gauge railroads in Clare County.  Well, narrow-gauge railroad beds, to be honest since the tracks and trains are long gone and have been for more than a century.

Clare county is a quiet county of some 32,000 residents in central Michigan.  But it wasn’t always so.  At one time, the ground shook with the fall of giant pines and the woods echoed with shouts of lumberjacks and the sound of trains hauling trees out of the woods to sawmills and then on to growing cities like Detroit and Chicago.

Preparing logs for transport

Narrow-gauge railroads were the transportation method of choice for hauling trees in many Michigan counties during that logging era.  Those trains could run wherever workers laid track and  carry heavy loads year around (something horses and carts couldn’t do).

Steam locomotive

And Clare county was perfect for narrow-gauge railroads as it is relatively flat, which made it relatively easy to lay track.   As a result, at one time Clare county had more miles of railroad track than any other in Michigan, wrote Roy Dodge in his book “Michigan Ghost Towns.”

Narrow-gauge railroads had another advantage:   The tracks could be pulled up and reused once the the valuable timber in an area was exhausted–something that eventually happened.   Then the workers, trains and track moved on leaving a barren landscape behind that slowly healed and the forests regrew.

Finding those former railroad beds now is a challenge since many of them lie deep in the woods with dense foliage around and on top of them.  What makes them noticeable is the fact that beds are often raised up above the surface of the surrounding land since workers had to make sure the ground on which the train tracks would be laid was somewhat flat.  In addition, hunters and hikers often have used them over the years to access the back country establishing trails or two-track roads.

It’s cool to find them and walk them.  Sometimes one even finds coal.  I’m hoping to someday find a rail spike, although that’s unlikely.  Most were taken to be reused and any that are left are buried under more than a century of soil and plants. Still, it’s a dream, kinda like the one in which I find some arrowheads and dinosaur bones (but not at the same time).

Take a trip to Clare County sometime and join in the search.  Late winter and spring are great times since the foliage hasn’t grown up and the mosquitoes aren’t yet looking to dine on man and beast.  But the country is pretty anytime of year.

See you on the trails, er railroad beds.

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Tortoise Triumph

I’ve found lost dogs before and returned them to their owners. I’ve even found a hamster and hermit crab–although the latter two don’t really count because they were mine, and I lost them in my house.   However, I have never found a tortoise before with or without red feet, not before today anyway.

I was in the schoolyard that backs up to our rear property line this evening and had just completed weed-whacking along our back fence. While heading home I was whacking some weeds along our neighbor’s fence when I was confronted by a South American Red Foot Tortoise.

Redfoot_TortoiseConfronted is probably not the right word since the creature was looking up at me from under some tall bushes.  Since it was only about a foot long I didn’t feel threatened.   In fact, I thought it was a cool looking animal with a colorful carapace (shell), red legs and face.  It also had a bit of an overbite that I figure it used to tear meat. Maybe I was wrong but I didn’t want to put my hand by it to find out.

While it’s not every day I run across amphibians while weed-whacking, I must admit I wasn’t too surprised to have found this one.  That’s because a sign had been posted for about a week on the front lawn of a home about 200 yards down the street from us with a photo of the creature I was looking at and the word “LOST” in large block letters.  In fact, I guess I was more surprised that 1) someone was looking for something other than a dog or cat and 2) the fact that someone could even LOSE a tortoise.  After all, it’s not like those things can run, jump or fly. In fact, I would think it’s pretty darn hard to lose one’s tortoise.

Anyway, to make a long story short, after finding the tortoise, I went home, dropped off the weed whacker and went in search of the owner.  I left the tortoise were it was figuring that since it had survived the wilds of the schoolyard for nearly a week it would be safe for a few more minutes.  Plus, my mama told me never to pick up strangers, be they people or tortoises.

I walked down the street to  find a woman sitting on the front porch of the house with the sign.  I announced my find and we set off.  While accompanying me to the spot she explained that the tortoise was native to South America and the family had owned it for about seven years.  She said it wasn’t very friendly but seemed to recognize their voices.  It lived in a fancy box in the house and  needed a heat lamp to keep it warm.

The tortoise was where I had found it and I pointed it out to her when we arrived.  The reunion was pretty unemotional on the part of both parties.  I guess I was more excited about finding the animal then the woman was about getting it back–or the tortoise was about going home.  Going out onto the internet afterwards I found those things retail for about $150 – $290 each when they are 3-4 inches long.  Based on that I would have thought the woman would have been ecstatic to find the creature since it must have been worth nearly a grand.

I was glad to have found it but I wouldn’t have wanted it.  Gimme a dog anytime.  And it doesn’t even have to have red feet.

Categories: ecology, General, Home life, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Go Where There is no Path

Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Middle Branch of the Rouge River in early spring

I know the above is really a metaphor, but I took it literally the other day.  I now know WHY it works better as a metaphor.

On a cool, cloudy afternoon I headed off to walk in the Holliday Nature Preserve in Westland, Michigan. I’ve written of the Preserve before; it’s a 500+ acre wildlife and forest natural area that runs along the Middle Rouge and Tonquish Creek and is under the jurisdiction of  Wayne County Parks.

I took my dog Bella with me (I’ve written about her too in these pages). That was really a no-no for a couple of reasons. One, it’s against Preserve rules and two, the route I wanted to take was not made for man or beast–especially a beast on leash.  That’s because for this route was on a steep slope on the south side of the river between Farmington and Wayne roads.

I chose the more difficult route because an old-timer told me he had found arrowheads and pottery on the slopes of a sandy hill somewhere near here.  In addition, I’ve heard a story that tribes of the Three Fires Confederacy–the Ottawa, Ojibwa and Potawatomi–used to meet near here to trade and talk.   I have also heard talk that when the Holliday Park Townhouses were built near this site a generation ago, ruins of a village or encampment were found, but kept quiet so as not to slow construction.

So with winter gone and the ground still free of  spring vegetation I figured might find that hill and stumble across something of historical value there too.

One of the many trees that blocked our path during our walk

So Bella and I walked.  Or should I say we clambered over and under and around fallen trees on the side of a very steep incline with a fence at the top and the cold river below.  The trees that littered the ground were the remains of Ash trees that had been killed by the Emerald Ash Borer that has decimated this species in much of Michigan.  And of course, having a dog on a retractable leash was not pleasant as we were not of the same mind in which route to take and many times during the 90-minute walk I had to reverse course so that dog, leash and I were not separated by lumber.

At one point as we neared the end of our adventure, Bella tensed and stared ahead at full alert.  I figured she saw, smelled or heard something.  As we slowly moved forward,three white-tail deer scampered away, much to Bella’s delight.  Only the leash kept her from joining them.

We eventually made it back to the car.  No injuries but no Indian artifacts either.  Part of the problem is that dead leaves still cover the hillside.  They not only made walking difficult, but covered the ground so thoroughly, even  an axehead couldn’t have been seen, even if such an item had been there.

So I may do the walk again after a heavy spring rain washes the leaves away.  And  this time, I will do it the easy and the legal way: sans dog.

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Red-winged Blackbird Heralds Return of Spring

Spring has spung, the grass has riz
I wonder where the birdies is?

Anonymous (and probably with good reason)

Red-winged blackbird photoFor me, one of the first signs of spring is the Red-winged Blackbird.

It’s a familiar summer visitor in Michigan and can easily be identified by its scarlet and yellow wing stripes.  The bird is about the size of a robin and arrives early in our state, often before  the snow has completely melted and just as the first green shoots are stirring from their winter slumber.

I saw the blackbird for the first time this season at our place in Harrison, Michigan this weekend, or should I say I heard one.  I never did glimpse the bird that was sitting somewhere in the cattail rushes at the west end of our two-acre pond.  I heard its call as I was walking out onto the ice, just a moment or so before I fell through the surface into the pond’s frigid knee-deep water.

Thin ice: that’s another way I knew spring would soon arrive.

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Continuing to Harp About Asian Carp

The other day, the U. S. Supreme Court refused to issue an immediate order closing the Chicago locks to prevent the Asian carp from gaining a foot (fin)hold in the Great Lakes.  The Court did not give a reason for its refusal.  Then, lo and behold, the Corp of Engineers that oversees the canals receives DNA evidence from December 2009 the fish might already be in the lakes.

According to an article in the Jan. 21, 2010 edition of The Detroit News, the Corp received that information FOUR DAYS before the high court issued its ruling but never turned that information over to the court.  U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan sent a letter to the Supreme Court Clerk’s Office explaining that the new DNA testing data was not passed along in time for the justices’ decision because the Solicitor’s Office learned of the evidence the same day the court ruled.

Now I am not a cynic, however it strikes me as kind of…well, fishy…that the Corp, which oversee the locks and so has a stake in keeping them open, receives evidence that just might influence the Court to immediately close the locks but somehow doesn’t pass that information along, not until FOUR DAYS later.

Luckily (insert sarcasm here), the White House is stepping in to host an immediate summit on the problem.  Of course, that crew came out against closing the canals so it will be interesting to see what decision comes out of the summit.  I bet the answer will be “a study.”

What’s really sad is this problem has been brewing for years and now that the horse is out of the barn (or the carp is into the lakes) it  is finally getting some attention.  However, I figure that by the time any action steps are taken, the question of whether or not to close the canal will be moot;  the carp will be in Lake Erie.

Carpe Diem or Carpe Carp.

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A Man. A Plan. A Canal. A Fish

There’s a battle going on before the U.S. Supreme Court by a man with a plan to close a canal because of a fish.

The fight involves Illinois and Michigan.  In this state vs. state battle, Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox (the man) is suing to close the Chicago Canal (the plan and the canal), a man-made waterway that connects the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan.  The reason he is looking to do so is because of  the Asian Carp (the fish).

This carp is an invasive.  They were brought in by catfish farmers down south several decades ago and have been working there way north since large floods in the early 1990s caused many of the catfish farm ponds to overflow their banks.  The fish are now poised to invade the Great Lakes through the canal.  Closing the locks appears to be only way to keep them out.

This carp is a nasty fish that has a tendency to jump out of the water when startled. Because of its size and the speed at which it exits the water, it can cause serious injury to boaters and fisherman.  Check out any of the videos on YouTube if you want to see the carp in action.  In addition, the fish has a voracious appetite and has the potential to harm the Great Lakes ecosystem.  According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency:

“Asian Carp are a significant threat to the Great Lakes because they are large, extremely prolific, and consume vast amounts of food.  They can weigh up to 100 pounds, and can grow to a length of more than four feet.  They are well-suited to the climate of the Great Lakes region, which is similar to their native Asian habitats.

“Researchers expect that Asian carp would disrupt the food chain that supports the native fish of the Great Lakes.  Due to their large size, ravenous appetites, and rapid rate of reproduction, these fish could pose a significant risk to the Great Lakes Ecosystem.”

Illinois disagrees about the closure .  It claims the canal is needed to transport goods into and out of the Great Lakes and closing the canal would cause it great economic loss to the tune of $300 million a year.  What they don’t mention is that the fish threatens tourism and fishing interests valued at $7 billion per year (including losses to Illinois since it also borders Lake Michigan).

Michigan wants the canal closed for all the above reasons. Other states that border the Great Lakes and Ontario agree.  So do I.  The canal should be closed.  The damage the fish can do to the Great Lakes region as a whole is far greater than the economic benefit the canal brings to Illinois.

Illinois disagrees. It appears to see nothing but the dollars the canal brings in; the Great Lakes and the rest of us be damned.   Even the Obama administration weighed into this fight and took the side of Illinois.  So much for the president and his environmental stand…

The Wall Street Journal, in an article this past December, included the comment below from a reader.  If you have any doubt about the validity of closing the canal, what this person wrote might just change your mind.

“I have a 100 ft boat on the Mississippi. The bow of my boat is at least 10 feet up from the river. These slimy fish jump into my boat. They bleed profusely from the impact and you have not smelled something as foul as an Asian Carp.

“My grandkids used to jet-ski on the river. They can’t now because I sold the jet-skis after one of them was knocked off the machine and injured by a jumping carp. Furthermore, you can’t fish or swim in the river any longer.

“These fish are destroying the ecosystems of our rivers and must be stopped.”

Go Mike Cox.

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