Reflections on my weekend in the Pigeon River Country
As with most things, I find the more I learn about the Pigeon River Country, the more I find I really know nothing about it at all. I think when you love some one or someplace, that you have a desire to learn all that you can about the object of your affection, and so it is with me and the Pigeon River Country. Recent history of the area I know well, like the court battles over oil drilling and so on. But the area has a past, just like every one and every place else.
As I wander around the area, I come across old railroad grades, building foundations, and other signs of the people who once lived and worked in the area. The more of these things I find, the more my mind is set to thinking about the past, and how little I know about the history of the area. It is hard to imagine that there were little villages scattered through the area, as wild as the area has become once again. That in itself raises all kinds of philosophical points to ponder. The area has returned to a seemingly unspoiled wilderness, despite man’s attempts to destroy it through ignorance and over indulgence. Nature has a power beyond what we can comprehend, the ability to heal itself.
I remember as a kid seeing that parts of the forest had been logged off recently and wondered how could any one do that to such a beautiful woods. Being a young, idealistic type, I was vehemently opposed to logging, it left huge, ugly scars on the land I loved. My progression in thought on the subject over the years parallels the forest regrowth. With in just a few short years, regrowth was taking hold. By the time ten years had passed, the areas logged were alive with a stunning amount of new life, and not just trees. Old growth forests are beautiful places, but they really don’t support much in the way of animal life, mostly squirrels and a few other animals like martens that feed on the squirrels. A new forest in the first stages of growth on the other hand supports a huge number of animals and plants. The growth is within reach of deer, elk, and other herbivorous animals to feed on, and the predators return to feed on them. Eventually the trees grow tall and thick enough to block out the sunlight needed for new plants to take root, and the animals move off to better feeding grounds. Now that I am as old as the average lifespan of most trees, I see the same places that were logged off when I was a kid being logged off once again, and the cycle will repeat itself. I have to say though, a freshly logged area is butt ugly, I hate seeing it, but I know that it is a good thing in the long run.
We as humans base our measurements of nature on a day-to-day basis, when nature goes on forever. We see a tree, and that tree doesn’t change in a day, a month, or even a year, so we think that the tree has always been like it is, and always will be as it is today. We see a forest that seems to go on forever, and we start cutting, and it isn’t until the last tree has been cut down that we take a look around and say “oops, we may have cut too many!”. We see millions of passenger pigeons or bison, and we start killing, and it isn’t until the last one falls that we consider what we are doing. Show mankind an abundance of anything, and we will find a way to waste it and/or destroy it, and then complain that no one stopped us.
I don’t blame the loggers for cutting down all the trees, they were supplying a demand. I don’t blame the hunters for killing off the passenger pigeons, they were supplying a demand. They were just trying to earn a living. The smart ones got rich, the dumb ones got killed, and the majority in the middle made enough money to support their families. So it goes today, there are those who blame Nestle for making millions of us buy bottled water. Nestle is just supplying a demand, the true bad guys are the consumers who create the demand, not those who try to make a living supplying that demand. Blame the oil companies for the gas crisis, not those who drive gas guzzlers and think they have to drive 80 or 85 MPH all the time. Blame the tobacco companies, not those who smoke, and on it goes. Playing the blame game never solves a problem, often it makes things worse. The truth usually is to be found somewhere in the middle. Uncontrolled logging is bad, but trying to duplicate nature by burning forests instead, as many in the environmental movement today suggest, is in my opinion, just as bad or worse. Forests are a renewable resource, and we need the lumber to build our homes and furniture. I see it as a waste of the resource to do the prescribed burnings that often happen today, along with releasing tons of pollutants into the atmosphere. For all the evils committed by the lumber companies in the past, most have become good stewards of the lands and forests they still own today. Many of the large tracts of land they once owned have been donated or sold at reduced price to the state to be preserved.
But I have gotten way off track here. In an effort not to repeat the mistakes of those who came before me, learning what they did and why will help me choose a better path, which gets me back to the history of the Pigeon River Country.
At one time, there were many little communities where now there are none. It was common back in the lumbering days for the loggers to build new mills close to where they were logging, rather than try to move the huge trees to the mills that already existed. They would pull up the rails from the railroads, and reuse them over and over, probably where the saying “pulling up stakes” came from, not sure on that, but it would make sense. Everytime they built a new mill closer to the trees they were cutting, a new little community would spring up around the mill. Homes for the loggers and those who worked in the sawmills, a blacksmith’s shop, a store, a church, etc. Most of the structures were burned in the fires that raged through the area after the logging was done, fueled by the dried brush and branches left over from the logging. All that are left is a few foundations here and there. A few were rebuilt, but not many, with the trees gone, so were the loggers. A few people tried farming, but the soil is so poor that most of the farms failed in just a few years. Many of the people who had built up small fortunes in the logging business lost all their money selling the land they had bought to log for a lot less than they paid for it.
They sold mostly to hunt clubs. By now the forest was beginning to regrow, and wealthy people from places like Detroit and Chicago joined together to form hunting clubs, which bought up huge tracts of land for their members to hunt and fish on. The towns of Vanderbilt and Wolverine had dozens of hunt clubs around them. The members were not exactly saints, there were many abuses against nature committed, but they weren’t the sinners they are often portrayed as today either. It is hard to say what would have become of the area if it weren’t for the hunt clubs, this I know for sure. They kept large parcels of land together under one owner, and no matter what people may say, they played a large role in the return of the forests and wildlife to where they are today. The hunt clubs only survived if there was game there for the members to hunt. Most of the clubs were very well-managed as far as the forests and wildlife were concerned. The DNR played a large role by setting aside areas like the Pigeon River Country, but it started off small and wasn’t enough on its own. The members of hunt clubs are often portrayed in the media as a bunch of rich snobs going through the woods shooting anything that moved. There was some of that, but mostly, the members were sportsmen who loved the area and wished to preserve it. Much of what is now the Pigeon River Country was once owned by those hunt clubs, and when the clubs disbanded or decided to sell, either sold or donated it to the state to be absorbed into the Pigeon River Country.
The Green Timbers section of the Pigeon River Country is a perfect example of that. Green Timbers, so named in 1942 by Don McLouth of McLouth Steel, was developed and used as a hunting and fishing resort. Prior to the McLouth ownership, the southeastern portion was used as a recreational retreat by Titus Glen Phillips, while the north portion was owned by Cornwall Lumber Company. That’s another 6,300 acres added to the Pigeon River Country that probably wouldn’t have been if had been broken up and sold as smaller parcels.
And so it goes. As I wander around in the Pigeon River Country learning about the animals and plants in the area, I am also learning the history of the area, and the story of man’s ignorance leading to the destruction of a wilderness, and the rebirth of that wilderness in less than 100 years. I only hope that the story isn’t lost, and that we don’t repeat our past mistakes.