A weekend in the Pigeon River Country
To start with, I absolutely love three-day weekends! From some one who was an over the road trucker for five years, I can’t tell you how much it means to me to actually have a full three days off. I took advantage of the long weekend to visit what I think of as my second home, the Pigeon River Country, just to the east off Vanderbilt, Michigan. My family started going up there back in the late 60’s, and I try to go back as often as I can.
First, a little about the Pigeon River Country. I am not sure how large it is, and I guess no one else is sure either, as I find different areas listed on different web sites, even the Michigan DNR lists different sizes for it. But that doesn’t matter so much, it is the largest “wilderness” area in the lower peninsula of Michigan. It is over 100 square miles, easy enough to get lost in, more on that later. It is an area that was left in shambles by early logging and the fires that followed. Going there now, it is hard to believe that this ever happened, but there are still scars there if you look close enough, from blackened stumps to the huge old logs left behind, and even an occasional grave where some unfortunate logger died on the job. Thanks to people like pioneer conservationist P.S. Lovejoy, the area was set aside for future generations, and allowed to recover nicely. There are still some of the old growth pines left there that were spared from the saw and survived the fires that devastated the area later. It is home to the largest herd of wild elk east of the Mississippi and forms a major part of the watershed of three of Michigan’s premier trout streams, the Sturgeon, the Pigeon River, and the Cheboygan Black.
Ernest Hemingway called the area “the great pine barrens east of Vanderbilt” and P.S. Lovejoy liked to call it “The Big Wild”, I call it The “High Lonesome”. It has always reminded me of the sub-alpine terrain of the foothill areas of the Rockies I have visited. No rocky, snow covered peaks, but it seems like there should be some in the distance. It is in the highest area of the lower peninsula, and it is lonesome there, if that’s what you are looking for. You’ll see a few cars on the roads, a few campers in the woods, but when you are out and about, you never see another human most of the time. There are no sweeping panoramic views, just lots of little cool places to find and explore, and miles and miles of trees. If you love forests, then this is the place for you. The area is home to nearly every species of animal native to Michigan, except for moose as far as I know. There are elk, deer, bear, martens, fishers, otters, beavers, and this spring, the DNR confirmed wolves in the area. They won’t say where, but having seen wolves twice in the Pigeon River Country, I have a pretty good idea. The numbers of songbirds has to be seen to be believed. Maybe that’s why I spend so much time up there in the spring when the woods and fields are filled with singing birds, no, it is the hungry trout that brings me back every spring!
Now, about my weekend. It was rainy, cold, and windy on the way up there, my kind of weather! Well, except for the wind, hard to flyfish in the wind. I stopped at the other campgrounds in the PRC on the way in to Round Lake, the one I was going to stay at, just to see how many people were there, and to confirm some things for a friend who wants to go there. As usual, even on a holiday weekend, none of the campgrounds were even close to being full. I made it to Round Lake around 1 PM, and at least the rain let up for a while. It is no fun putting up a tent in a gale, but I managed.
One of my goals for the weekend was to get pictures of bull elk and deer with antlers. I have pictures taken from out west of elk with racks, but none from Michigan. In my research, I learned that an area around the upper Black River was where my best chance for sighting a bull elk was, so off I went. I decided to take a shortcut from the campground, and promptly got lost. Now I have stayed at Round Lake dozens of times, and taken the shortcut to the Black a few times, so getting lost was something I didn’t expect, yet. The good thing was that almost as soon as I figured out I was lost, I started finding new places to explore. I found a couple of really good access sites to the Black River that I didn’t know were there, that’s one of the reason I have never fished the Black very often, I am not that familiar with it. When you have to cross to fantastic trout streams like the Sturgeon and the Pigeon to get to the Black, its little wonder I seldom make it that far.
I noted the new spots on my GPS, took the long way around to get back to the campground, then took the right turn this time on my way to try to find some elk. Along the way, I kept finding new things I never had seen before, like a pretty little beaver pond just off the road. There are few real roads up there, mostly they are 2 tracks, and the DNR opens and closes them at will. No map shows the roads as they really are, not even the maps from the DNR. I am finding the GPS unit I bought a year ago to be invaluable up there. It doesn’t show the roads correctly either, but I can record my tracks and add waypoints so I can return to those spots later.
So as I drive along, I am always on the look out for new things, like an opening in the trees that maybe a lake, a beaver pond, or a field that elk may feed in. Then I park, and walk back in to check it out. Often it seems like I am the first one there, I know that isn’t the case, but it is fun to pretend, even at my age. Once you get past checking the spot out, then you see the trash left by people who were there before, pigs! I also saw about a dozen deer on the way, no bucks, but all big does. It seemed like as soon as I stepped out of the explorer, the rain would start, then let up when I was driving again.
I made it to the area I planned to check out, I had never been to that section of the PRC before. Lots of things to check out, lakes, streams, hills, and woods. I did take lots of pictures, but because of the rain, they aren’t the greatest, but I’ll save them for future reference. All the time I was looking for elk sign, I saw some, but not a lot. If I had, I would have parked and waited for some to make an appearance. That was the purpose of this first night, I know driving around isn’t the way to sneak up on an elk, I was looking for a good “hunting” spot to walk to and wait for them.
By now it was getting late, I hadn’t found a good place to hunt yet, but I thought I should head back to the campground for the night. Of course, that’s when I saw elk, with the help of people who were already parked watching them. There was a herd of a bull and about 20 cows, the people there told me the bull had just run off a smaller one. That’s when I heard it, the bull bugled! It is a strange sound, almost a whistle at some points, and I had heard it out west, but never before in Michigan. So cool, like being transported back in time before man tried to destroy the environment. I tried to get some pictures, but it was too dark, and they were too far away. They were on some of what little private property there is in the PRC, or that’s where I would have gone on Sunday evening.
Back at the campground, I fixed a sandwich and was eating when the coyotes in the area began to howl for their evening hunt, along with an owl in the distance hooting away. All in all, a great day! I had found lots of places to explore another time, found some elk, and what better way to drift off to sleep than with coyotes and owls serenading me to sleep! Oh, and I almost forgot, even though it had been cloudy and rainy all day, the clouds cleared long enough for me to get that incredible view of the night stars that you can only get when you are out in the wilds with no man-made lights.
Day two was more of the same. I started by visiting the PRC headquarters and found that they now have maps available outside. I picked up a set, and headed to the Black River area again, this time a little farther north from the night before. Since I also do a lot of kayaking, I wanted to check out the Crockett Rapids section of the Black. The upper Sturgeon is way too choked with downed trees to be fun to kayak, as is the Pigeon with in the PRC. I used to float the Pigeon a lot, but not anymore, no one keeps it open, and the logjams are nasty, along with the work the beavers have done on a stretch of it. I fished for about an hour there near Crockett Rapids, never even got a hit. That didn’t surprise me with the cold snap of going from the upper 80’s to the 50’s, along with a howling northwest wind. My day consisted of driving the open 2 tracks until I saw something in the distance to explore, or something on either my GPS or the DNR maps to check out. Then I would park and walk back in. Sometimes it was because the road ended, like Duby Lake Road. It is on the DNR maps as open, but part of it doesn’t show up on my GPS. I wanted to get back in to Dorsy Lake to check that out, but the road was flooded before I got close. The beavers must have dammed a stream there, I saw evidence of their work on the trees when I was checking to see if the road was good enough to drive. Sounds funny, but that’s the way it is up there in places, you walk a road first to see if you can drive through it. I dread the thought of getting stuck someplace back there, it could be a while before you could hike to find some one or get cell phone service to get a tow, and I’ll bet it would cost an arm and a leg. I drive an explorer, not a submarine, so Duby Lake Road was out. When the wildlife in the road are frogs, it is time to turn around.
I did find an abundance of wildflowers and various toadstools that caught my interest, along with a couple new to me lakes in the area. One thing I found left me kicking myself later, a large open field that as I was walking through it, I found an elk scrape. A scrape is where a male deer or elk paws the ground and then urinates in it. It is his “calling card” to females in the area. I’ll tell you, elk urine is not pleasant to the male human nose! A female will urinate in it if she is interested in mating. The males stop by repeatedly to see if any of the females are in the mood. The reason I am still kicking myself is that I didn’t go back there that evening, but went to another spot instead. The spot I went to is supposed to be a spot where you are almost guaranteed to see elk. So I parked, grabbed my camera, and walked to the back of the field, and waited, and waited, and waited. I sat there against a tree until it was almost dark, way to dark to take a picture if anything had appeared. I did get some good sunset pictures, so it wasn’t a total loss. I had a bad feeling walking in there, no elk sign at all, not even a track. I should have gone back to the field I found earlier, but by then, it was too late. Even driving, you can’t cover very much ground because the 2 tracks are so bad.
So it was back to the campground for supper, and another serenade by the coyotes and owls. I hadn’t been asleep too long before I was awakened by the sound of rain on the tent. It was till raining lightly off and on in the morning when I got up, perfect fishing weather! After coffee and food, I headed to my favorite trout stream, the Pigeon. The Pigeon is an in-between river, not too big, not too small. Not too clear, not too stained. Not too slow, not too fast. It is mostly gravel and rock bottom, and except for the deep holes, easy to wade. I had only made a few casts before I landed a very small rainbow, so things were looking good. I knew I wasn’t going to catch any trophies, as there is a yoga club just upstream that has been responsible for three major fish kills in the last 15 years. They bought the old Lansing Hunting Club property when the club disbanded. There is a dam on the Pigeon River that the yoga club controls, and they don’t seem to know how to operate it. They open the flood gates and release tons of sediment trapped behind the dam downstream. Then they realize their mistake, and close the flood gates, almost shutting off the flow of water to the river. This causes the trout to suffocate in the sediment in the river. Trout need fresh, cool, clean, highly oxygenated water to survive. The good news is that the dam is now scheduled for removal. Trout Unlimited, of which I am a life member, and the Pigeon River Country Association filed a lawsuit, and as terms of the settlement, those two organizations and the Michigan DNR are going to assist in the removal of the dam.
Back to the fishing, it was good, I caught a number of 6 to 10 inch rainbows, lost a similar sized brown, it was good to see how well the trout have been recovering, which is why I chose to fish there. Then the rain came with a vengeance. It was hard to fish because of the rain. I was hoping it would let up, but it didn’t. I fished my way to a good place to get out of the river and back to the road to my car, and did just that. Of course about the time I got back to the explorer the rain stopped, but by then it was 1 PM, and I still had to pack up. The sun came out and the wind started howling again, so it helped to dry out the tent. I had lunch while I was waiting, then packed up for the trip home.
The weekend went by way too quickly, as it always does up there. I have been going to the Pigeon River Country for over 40 years, and there are still parts of it I have never been to yet, though not as many as before this weekend.
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awesome read..thank you
September 7, 2010 at 5:47 pm