My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

The stench lingers on, the Pigeon River Part III

Just so that there are no misunderstanding, most of this post is going to be my recollections and my opinions about the Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning Ranch and the dam that they operate on the Pigeon River.

First of all, I have to correct an error in my previous post “Victory for the Pigeon River! Part II” concerning the history of the dam. It has been widely reported that the dam was originally built by the owners of the Lansing Club, however, further research has shown that the dam actually precedes the hunt club days and was built by the Cornwall Lumber Company to make it easier to float logs down the Pigeon during the lumber era. That’s what I get for trusting newspaper articles, but I wasn’t alive at the turn of the last century to know that.

Anyway, you can read the previous post for a history of the dam, or I’ll do a short one here. It was originally an earthen and log dam built to float logs downstream. After the Lansing Club purchased the property they maintained the dam and the pond above it. In May of 1957, a heavy rainfall washed part of the earthen dam out, releasing sediment from behind the dam and resulted in a minor fish-kill down river from the dam. The dam was reconstructed using concrete to repair the damage. In 1970, Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning purchased the land and the dam and set up a yoga retreat on the property. In 1984, and again in 2008, Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning  erred in their operation of the dam, causing two more massive fish-kills in the Pigeon River.

Which was worse? It’s hard to say. The reason for the 1984 incident was that there had been an inspection of the dam, and it was found that work needed to be done on the floodgates to prevent a failure of the dam. The Michigan DNR issued a permit along with a schedule for Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning to slowly release water from behind the dam in a controlled manner as not to cause a release of the sediment trapped above the dam, so that the floodgates could be repaired. As the drawdown began, the lowered water levels in the impoundment exposed acres of the black, organic silt that is the major portion of the sediment to view, and to air. Instead of the idyllic pond that Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning was used to, there were acres of rotting organic silt mudflats that offended senses of the guests that had paid to stay at Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning Ranch.

“Humans need as much consideration as some little goofy fish” J. Oliver Black, the founder of Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning once said while overlooking the dam that has caused so much destruction. “If it weren’t for the DNR, we wouldn’t have had this trouble in the first place”. Taken from the book “Pigeon River Country: a Michigan forest”  By Dale Clarke Franz

Richard Armour, the maintenance man for Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning told the real story in the court proceedings that resulted from the 1984 incident. He acted under the orders of J. Oliver Black, otherwise know as Yogacharya Black, and raised the floodgates high enough to perform the repairs, then quickly shut them as soon as he was finished, all under the cover of darkness. This was confirmed by an automated flow gauge operated by the United States Geological Survey just a few miles downstream of the dam.

Fearing a loss of income, Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning opened the floodgates all the way, drained the impoundment way too quickly, and released tons of the rotting organic silt downstream that resulted in the first stage of the fish-killing process. After quickly repairing the floodgates, Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning then closed them to refill the impoundment as quickly as possible to restore the pond to its normal level. That’s the second part of the fish-killing equation, because then, the sediment that is being transported downstream settles out, coating the river bottom with the sediment, and the reduced flow of water leaves most of any surviving fish stranded high and dry.

If Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning had followed the DNR’s orders, none of that would have happened. As it was, when the DNR investigated the fish-kill, Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning tried to deny they were responsible. Of course that didn’t hold up, as the floodgates had been repaired, and the only way that could have taken place is if the impoundment had been drained.

Fast forward to June 22nd of 2008. The river was just getting completely healthy again, when Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning chose to ignore the fact that the automated system for the dam’s operation was malfunctioning, and needed to be repaired. The floodgates were opened all the way, releasing another torrent of sediment downstream, and rather than respond to the alarms going off, the operators of the dam ignored them until morning, when once again, they shut off the flow of water almost completely. Once again, they tried to deny that they were responsible for the resulting fish-kill. Once again, the denials from Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning didn’t hold up.

I was up there for the 4th of July weekend in 2008, and there was no one camping at the Pigeon Bridge State Forest Campground. No one could stand to camp there, it is just over a mile downstream of the Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning dam, and the stench of rotting fish and the organic silt released from behind the dam were overwhelming. Even as far downstream as the Pigeon River State Forest Campground, several more miles downstream, the smell was more than people could stand.

Maybe I should explain what the organic silt is. Some of it comes from the normal life functions of aquatic animals, some of it is the decomposing bodies of animals that have died in the river, but the majority of it is plant matter. Either aquatic plants that die, or the leaves, trees, and grasses that fall into the river. In a normal, free-flowing river, it is transported downstream and only accumulates in a few places in slow sections of a river.

 When a river is dammed, that plant matter begins to build up behind the dam and rot slowly over time, producing methane gas as it does. The methane builds up in the silt until there is enough of it to break free and bubble up to the surface. Go to almost any lake and watch the surface, you’ll occasionally see bubbles coming up from the lake bottom, that’s methane gas rising to the surface. Methane gas smells like rotten eggs, not at all a pleasant odor.

The rotting fish were gone in a few weeks, but the silt remains in the river, and the stench lingers on. There are once again, large pockets of the silt deposited in the slower waters of the river, it will take years for the river to flush itself clean again. Every time one of those pockets is disturbed, more of the methane escapes to offend the nose.

If it were just the smell, it would be bad enough, but the smell is just a small part of the problem. The silt is clogging up the gravel that fish need to be able to spawn successfully. Trout and other fish drop their eggs in gravel, the eggs fall down in between the rocks that make up the gravel, and water flowing through the gravel transports oxygen to the eggs. With silt clogging up the flow of water through the gravel, the fish eggs die.

The silt also clogs the gills of the insects that live in the river, so there isn’t the food available that the young fish would feed on even if the eggs did manage to hatch. It will take years for the river to flush itself clean and for it to return to a healthy state once again, that is if there are no more “mistakes” by Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning before that happens.

I was still a teenager when Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning bought the Lansing club, it was no big deal to me. I didn’t agree with their ideas as far as them being vegans or their religious views, but I wasn’t going to walk into their retreat and tell them how wrong they were, to each their own is my motto. Too bad it didn’t work the other way.

Over the years I have had a few run ins with some of the guests from Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning , they are opposed to fishing, and don’t mind telling you what a horrible person you are if you do fish. Back in the early years, I would just let them vent and ignore them, but after the fish-kill of 1984, I would tell them to ask the management of Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning how many fish they had killed, just to shut up the people accosting me. If you don’t want to fish, fine, don’t fish. Don’t lecture me about fish and fishing when you know nothing about the environment, or what the company you are a client of has done to the environment.

I guess that’s what really irks me, the air of moral superiority that these people come at me with. They don’t know me, or anything about me, other than I have a fish pole in my hands, and therefore I need to be taught the error of my ways. I’ve tried to hold a civil conversation with them, but that never works. It doesn’t take long for me to figure out that they have no clue as to how the environment actually functions, they just think its pretty and that they want to commune with nature. They don’t know a may fly from a caddis fly from a stone fly, and if I point one to them, all they want to know is if it will bite them or not. (Insert maniacal laugh here) I can appreciate that they love nature and think that it is beautiful, I do too, it’s just that I commune best with nature with a fly rod in my hand, standing in the river, learning as much as I can about the way nature works, as I catch a fish or two.

I would cut Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning some slack, if the fish-kills hadn’t been deliberate. Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning claims they were accidents, BS!

When they received the permit from the Michigan DNR to draw down the impoundment and repair the floodgates, they were warned what the consequences would be if the opened the floodgates too far, too fast, but they did it anyway. Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning decided to put expediency over the safety and health of the river, and they wiped out 10 years of river life. When Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning ignored the alarm system for the dam, they once again put expediency over the safety and health of the river, and killed another 10 years of river life. Those are not the actions of a group that promotes itself as a friend to the environment. Or a friend to people.

Each time that Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning has caused these fish-kills, they have also impacted the local economy in a negative way. Vanderbilt is a poor area to begin with, and many of the locals depend on the tourist industry to make a living. When the fish have been killed, the fishermen don’t come, business suffers, and the people of Vanderbilt suffer. But then there’s that moral superiority thing again. The people at Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning don’t like the town folk, most of them are hunters and fishermen, and therefore the people at Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning don’t want to associate with the townspeople, and don’t really care what happens to them.

That air of moral superiority comes in handy when dealing with the media as well. When Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning does these things and is caught, they always fall back on the story that they are a non-profit group of Vegan yoga enthusiasts who just want to live in harmony with nature. That plays well with the media, who run a story or two about the events, then lets the story drop out of sight. If it was a for profit business that was ignoring DNR orders, sidestepping Federal Regulation, failing to maintain a dam, and killing thousands of fish, do you really believe the media would let the story drop?

Another thing that Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning does every time they are caught is to plead poverty. They can’t afford to pay the fines levied by the DNR, or afford to maintain the dam in good condition, or to remove the dam, according to them. Yogacharya Black, who founded Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning, was a multimillionaire who made his fortune in the auto industry. I don’t know what happened to those millions of dollars, but I have often wondered about a few things. Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning owns 800 acres of land, yet the yoga retreat only occupies a few acres very close to the dam and pond, the rest is all undeveloped. I have thought to myself, why don’t they sell off some of the land they aren’t using if they can’t afford to continue to own it. Well, that’s kind of tricky subject.

You see, Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning still owns the land, but control of the land is now in the hands of the Clear Light Community Management Company. That’s a for profit subsidiary of Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning that is acting as a real estate developer for the undeveloped portions of the 800 acres that Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning owns. The vision is for a stand alone community, complete with housing and business owned by members of Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning. Not too long ago, they announced that they were getting close to a ground breaking ceremony to build their own fire station. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

Carol Armour, the current head of Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning shares many of the same notions as her mentor, Yogacharya Black. She claims any study done that calls for the Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning dam to be removed is biased, and that the dam doesn’t harm the ecosystem of the river. OK, I guess she’s entitled to her opinion, even if it does fly in the face of science.

All I have to say is that the stench lingers on.

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6 responses

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  3. Steve

    Right on! i’ve been going to the Pigeon since the late 90’s. Found it despicable that GL is trying to avoid their responsibility. I myself have ran into a few people from the retreat and I must say they were way out there on another planet. I hope they end up doing the right thing or at least get forced to do the right thing and get rid of the damn once and for all before it happens again and they act like no big deal.

    May 16, 2013 at 3:02 pm

    • Thanks Steve! Hope to meet you up there one of these times. To say that the people from the retreat are way out there is an understatement.

      May 16, 2013 at 3:18 pm

      • Steve

        I agree, I actually have a crazy story about my run, maybe another day. I wish more people were vocal for the Pigeon. I hope this doesn’t drag out for more years to come. I’ll be up there memorial day weekend, camping, fishing grass lake and cornwall. maybe i’ll see you around. i’d like to fish south blue lake, i’ve read its good bass fishing

        May 16, 2013 at 3:26 pm

      • Thanks again. I’ve never done much bass fishing up there, people who do tell me it is excellent. I may pass through this Memorial Day weekend, as much as I love it there, it’s about the only place I’ve been up north for the last five years, so it’s time for me to return to some other places. I believe I read that Golden Lotus caved, and agreed to remove the dam, but that’s the last I heard.

        May 17, 2013 at 2:33 am