Porcupines of the North Woods

Porcupine quillwork on a birch bark container, depicting a beaver.

  For thousands of years, Native Americans of the Great Lakes region spent the cold, dark months of winter engaged in hunting and trapping, ice fishing, mending snowshoes, and making things around the hearth fire. Before glass trade beads became available, women perfected the art of decorating clothing, baskets, bags, and other items with dyed porcupine quills. Quillwork takes patience, skill and practice, and has been taught by parents to their children for many generations.

A porcupine curls into a ball before taking a nap at the tip of a branch, high up in a tree.

  Winter is also a traditional season for storytelling. In the Ojibwe culture, certain stories are only meant to be shared when there is snow on the ground. One of these tells the tale of how a clever porcupine, originally covered by just a coat of thick fur, outsmarted a hungry black bear. After placing hawthorn branches with sharp thorns on his back, porcupine rolled into a ball just as bear sprang upon him, offering a spiky surprise. When Nanabozho learned of this clever trick, he took some branches from a hawthorn tree and peeled off the bark until their spines were white. After putting clay all over porcupine’s back, Nanabozho stuck in the thorns, one by one, until it was completely covered. He then made this a permanent part of porcupine’s skin so he and his descendants would always be protected from their enemies.

  Most visitors to Mackinac State Historic Parks learn a great deal about beavers. Beaver pelts fueled the fur trade for centuries, providing jobs for Native Americans, voyageurs, merchants, soldiers and civilians. Guests at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park can even hike the trails to search for fresh signs of beaver activity and look for their dam built across Mill Creek. Only humans alter the landscape more dramatically than this industrious mammal, the largest rodent of North America.

Porcupines usually rest during the day. Activity is mostly nocturnal (at night) or crepuscular (during twilight hours).

  Few people realize that Mill Creek is also home to the second largest rodent on the continent, the North American Porcupine. Growing up to 30 pounds and more than two feet long, a porcupine can live up to 10 years. Porcupines are slow, secretive, and solitary, usually seen sleeping at the top of a tree or walking warily across a road.

  A porcupine is truly amazing in many ways, particularly due to its needle-sharp, barbed quills, which are actually modified hairs. A fully-grown porcupine has more than 30,000 quills, which are loosely attached to muscles just beneath the skin. Despite a popular myth, porcupines cannot throw or shoot their quills. When threatened, they turn their back to an attacker and quickly flick their tail, driving quills into the toughest flesh. As quill tips are barbed like a fishhook, they are very painful and difficult to remove.

  Porcupines can be found many places in the woods of Michigan. As you hike, watch for signs such as chewed tree trunks or branches, as inner bark is especially sought after in the winter months as a source of food. Porcupines even chew on buildings and trail signs looking for salt, glue or paint, and will even seek out sweat residue left on wooden tool handles. Because they are rodents, a porcupine’s teeth continually grow, just like a mouse or beaver’s do. With binoculars or a camera, look closely to see if you can spot the orange coating on their teeth, which is an iron-rich coating of enamel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  Visitors to Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park can learn about porcupines and other animals of the north woods during naturalist programs throughout the season, which begins on May 7. To get a treetop view, also join us on an Adventure Tour and climb the steps of the Treetop Discovery Tower. Who knows, you might even see eye-to-eye with a porcupine! Tickets can be purchased here.

What’s New for 2021?

  Opening day for Mackinac State Historic Parks’ sites is a little more than two months away, and MSHP staff have been busy readying new tours, exhibits, publications, and more.

  The most exciting opening for the season is the Biddle House, featuring the Mackinac Island Native American Museum. It had been slated to open for the 2020 season. However, construction progress was derailed during at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing MSHP to only open the site for a weekend at the very end of the 2020 season. It will open on May 1 with the rest of the MSHP island sites.

  Up at Fort Mackinac, the beloved Kids’ Quarters will receive an update, the third to the exhibit in its history, helping to fulfill MSHP’s mission in presenting the history of the Straits of Mackinac. Housed in the oldest public building in Michigan, the Kids’ Quarters will allow guests to experience how soldiers and civilians lived at Fort Mackinac in the 19th century. Here you’ll be able to play various musical instruments used by the military, try on clothes, or design your very own fort, among many other activities.

  New programs at Fort Mackinac for the 2021 season include “The Changing Face of Fort Mackinac,” “The Army of the 1880s,” a deeper look into Mackinac National Park, a tour showcasing the women who called Fort Mackinac home, a Signal Drill Activity, and a program dedicated to what happened at Fort Mackinac after the army left in 1895. The Tea Room at Fort Mackinac, operated by Grand Hotel, will feature new menu items for the 2021 season, and, as always, will feature one of the most stunning views in Michigan. As always, the classic cannon and rifle firings will take place throughout the day, and guests can purchase the opportunity to fire the very first cannon salute of the day.

  At The Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum, located in front of Fort Mackinac in Marquette Park, a new juried art exhibition will debut on the second floor – “The Seasons of Mackinac.”  While Mackinac has always been known as a “summer gathering place,” its beauty is unparalleled in all seasons. Mackinac Island resident and award-winning artist Bill Murcko will serve as juror for the show. It will be on display at the art museum from May 1 through October 10. Additionally, seven artists-in-residence will stay on Mackinac Island throughout the summer. Each artist will host a special, free workshop on the second Wednesday of their residency.

  Special events at Fort Mackinac and Mackinac Island include the annual Vintage Base Ball game, on July 24, special activities for July 4, and Movies in the Fort throughout the summer. New evenings events exploring Historic Downtown Mackinac and a look at Fort Mackinac then versus now will debut, as well as a new natural history event later in the summer.

  As guests enter Colonial Michilimackinac, in Mackinaw City, they will be stepping back in time to 1778, when rumors of war and peace swirled around Michilimackinac. Guests will see and hear how soldiers, civilians, and Native people responded to threats real and imagined as they attempted to maintain their livelihood, the fur trade. Two new programs at the fort will provide guests an opportunity to get more hands-on with history, where you’ll unpack a trade bale and another where you’ll explore an artilleryman’s arsenal. Other programs at the site will talk about women’s roles at the fort, the enslaved community, the 5,500 square feet of gardens, as well as musket and artillery demonstrations.

  An exciting new program at Colonial Michilimackinac allows guests the opportunity to fire all four black-powder weapons at Michilimackinac: the Short Land Musket, Wall Gun (a BIG musket), Coehorn Mortar, and, as the finale, the cannon. This program is available every evening after the fort closes for regular business June 5-October 8.

  The Mackinac State Historic Parks’ archaeology program will enter its 63rd season in 2021. Work will continue in House E of the Southeast Rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac. Archaeologists will be out daily (weather permitting) during the summer months.

  Special events at Colonial Michilimackinac include an exhilarating “Fire at Night” program, informative history talks on topics such as gardening, archaeology, laundry and more, a celebration of the King’s Birth-day on June 4, Movies by the Bridge, the ever-popular Fort Fright, A Colonial Christmas, a weekend exploring John Askin’s Michilimackinac, and others.

  The last few years have seen several gallery openings at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse – the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum, the Science and Technology Exhibit, and the Marshall Gallery on the extensively renovated second floor. All galleries will be fully open for the 2021 season. Throughout the day, historic interpreters will sound the Fog Signal Whistle.

  Over at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, the Adventure Tour will return to operation for the 2021 season. A more robust daily events schedule will showcase the sawpit and sawmill, an extensive tour looking at what else happened historically at Historic Mill Creek, and guided nature hikes through the three miles of groomed hiking trails. A special evening program discussing archaeology at Historic Mill Creek and a closing weekend celebration mark the special events for Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park this summer. Click here for the complete list of special events.

  Two new publications will hit bookshelves in 2021. The first, Preservation at Mackinac – The History of the Mackinac Island State Park Commission, 1895-2020, is an update to 100 Years at Mackinac, originally published in 1995 as part of the centennial celebration of Mackinac Island State Park. This updated version fills in the past 25 years and adds additional details to other events. The other publication, Pipes and Bottles or Bacchanalian Revels? The Truth About Robinson’s Folly, is a new vignette by Todd E. Harburn and Brian Leigh Dunnigan. Both books will be available at museum stores this summer.

  Road work will continue along M-185. The road, which has been heavily damaged by high water levels the last few years, will be fully paved throughout the summer. While this may cause annoyances for the 2021 season, the completed road will allow visitors to explore the beautiful shoreline in peace for many years in the future.

  The Mackinac Island State Park Visitor’s Center, located on Main Street across from Marquette Park, will become home to the Official Mackinac Island State Park Store. Souvenirs, clothing and merchandise inspired by the natural and historical elements of Mackinac Island State Park will be available. Additionally, the six other museum stores will feature new and exciting items for the 2021 season.

  Most major projects were funded, in part, by Mackinac Associates. Visit mackinacparks.com for a complete listing of updates and projects at Mackinac State Historic Parks. The season begins at Fort Mackinac, The Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum, and Biddle House on May 1. Tickets can be purchased here.

Mackinac Parks: 125

Mackinac State Historic Parks turns 125 years old in 2020. Established in 1895 when the federal government shuttered the country’s second national park, Mackinac National Park, the Mackinac Island State Park Commission has pursued the important mission of protecting, preserving and presenting Mackinac’s natural and historic wonders. Today, Mackinac State Historic Parks is a family of living history museums and nature parks located in Mackinaw City and on Mackinac Island. (more…)

The Changing Seasons at the Straits

The sawmill at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park in winter.

There always seems to be changes this time of year – for the parks, the locals and the wildlife.

After another exciting and busy season, we have closed our historic sites on Mackinac Island and in and around Mackinaw City for the winter. The end of the season doesn’t mean things stop at the Mackinac State Historic Parks. We continue our mission by shifting our focus to new projects and the off-season work of preparing for the next year.

As the local human population levels drop for the upcoming winter, the resident wildlife undertake a variety of changes in order to survive the cold and snow that will soon arrive. Migration, hibernation and seasonal adaptations are important tools that wildlife use to help them get through the winter months. (more…)

Support Mackinac Associates on Giving Tuesday

Mackinac Associates’ mission is simple and encompassing: Friends Preserving and Sharing Mackinac’s Heritage.

Mackinac Associates is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that supports programs at Mackinac State Historic Parks through membership dues and other gifts. Mackinac Associates has supported needed projects in every area of museum operation, and make possible interpretive programs, publications, exhibits, natural history education, park improvements and more. (more…)

The Extreme Cold of Winter

The Extreme Cold of Winter

A stream at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park.

Here on the shores of the Straits of Mackinac we usually are protected from the really hot summer temperatures and the very cold winter temperatures that are recorded in those parts of Michigan that are more than a few miles from the deep waters of the Great Lakes. (more…)

2018 Collections Acquisitions

2018 Collections Acquisitions

Weidenaar etching of ‘Big Mac.’

In 2018, the Mackinac Island State Park Commission accessioned 120 gifts and 82 purchases to the historic object and archival collection. Among the objects acquired was an 1891 register from the New Mackinac Hotel, a walking stick that belonged to park commissioner James Dunnigan, a plastic viewfinder with slide images of Mackinac Island and several photograph albums. During the year, the park purchased two miniature etchings by Reynold Weidenaar, a black and white photograph showing early transportation in the park and accepted a donation of images showing a prominent Mackinac Island family.

Weidenaar etching ‘At Mackinac Straits’.

In 2017, the park commission purchased the mezzotint Bridge Builders by Michigan artist Reynold Weidenaar. This was the last of three large etchings showing the Mackinac Bridge being built that the park needed to complete its collection. This year, staff were made aware of two miniature etchings of the bridge also done by the artist. At Mackinac Straits and Big Mac were purchased and will complete the collection which will be on display in The Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum. (more…)

Wild Game at French Michilimackinac

Wild Game at French Michilimackinac

Photo courtesy LeeAnn Ewer.

Hunters across the state will take to the woods for opening day of Michigan’s firearm deer season today. Some will bring home the big buck and venison to add variety to mealtimes. It’s easy to imagine the 18th century French Canadian residents of Michilimackinac doing much the same thing, relying upon hunting and fishing to load their tables with a wealth of wild game. However, like many so many other things, Michilimackinac’s historic food culture is considerably more complex. (more…)

Gibraltar Craig

Gibraltar Craig

Stereoview of Gibraltar Craig, ca. 1880s

Gibraltar Craig from near Anne’s Tablet, August 2018.

Many striking limestone formations are scattered around Mackinac Island – Arch Rock, Sugar Loaf, and Devil’s Kitchen, to name a few. One of the most seen, yet probably not considered as a formation, lies in front of Fort Mackinac as one looks towards the cannon firing. Gibraltar Craig is the rocky outcropping of limestone just below the upper gun platform of the fort. (more…)

What’s Blooming at Historic Mill Creek?

What’s Blooming at Historic Mill Creek?

Yellow Lady Slipper

Yes, spring has arrived in the north woods, where an abundance of beautiful wildflowers are now covering the forest floor. At Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, the Yellow Trout-lily are at their peak. The Marsh Marigold are in full bloom along the edge of the stream, while the Large-flowered Trillium and the smaller Nodding Trillium are starting to bloom. Even the beautiful Jack-in-the -Pulpit are making their appearance. (more…)