Autumn Berries of the North Woods

“On the 20th of September [1835] the snow fell one inch, with quite a severe frost. The bushes were still loaded with whortleberries.”   – Benjamin O. Williams

In late September 1835, Lieutenant Benjamin Poole was completing an arduous months-long survey for the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. His crew’s mission was to survey a proposed military road from Saginaw to Mackinac, with a terminus at Dousman’s Saw Mill (now Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park).

Lowbush Blueberry

Poole’s survey crew was guided by brothers Benjamin O. and Alpheus F. Williams on a route “through a trackless wilderness nearly two hundred miles in extent, about which nothing was known, but that it presented obstacles of an unusually formidable character.” In short, the crew encountered long stretches of cedar swamps, shaking bogs, and alder thickets, ran out of provisions, and nearly starved. In his official report, written at Detroit on September 30, 1835, Poole admitted, “The assistants were frequently employed for days, and even weeks, in creeping through thickets and windfalls, where walking was quite out of the question.”

Much of what isn’t included in the official report was later recalled by B.O. Williams in a vivid account read before the Michigan Pioneer Society in February 1878. He wrote, “The density of some portions of the spruce, fir, and cedar lands exceeded any tropical forest I have ever seen…” His account follows their crew as they trek through the wilderness in moccasined feet, enduring swarms of gnats and mosquitoes, suffering illness and injury, and were saved from near starvation after stumbling upon “whortleberries [bilberries or blueberries] in great abundance.” Thankfully, shaking bogs and cedar swamps are excellent places to find many species of wild berries. Yet too much of a good thing caused a different digestive dilemma, as Williams noted, “eating whortleberries had affected some of the men unfavorably.”

As flowering plants bear fruit in early autumn, many species of wild berries ripen, each containing seeds to perpetuate a new generation of plants. While some berries are edible by people, others are inedible or even toxic to humans. Instead, most are best enjoyed with a photograph and left to the birds, squirrels, and other creatures of the north woods as they prepare to migrate south or endure the long, cold months of winter. The berries that follow were all photographed along the trails at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park.

Common Chokecherry

Bluebead Lily

Western Poison Ivy

Starry False Solomon’s Seal

Hawthorn

Staghorn Sumac

Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Riverbank Grape

Wild Rose

Common False Solomon’s Seal

Canada Mayflower

White Baneberry (Doll’s Eyes)

Archaeology at Historic Mill Creek

Archaeology played a key role in the development of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park. After its rediscovery in 1972, excavations happened in 1973-75, 1979, and between 1984-1994. Join Curator of Archaeology Dr. Lynn Evans for a brief history of the site and its excavation, followed by a walking tour of the archaeological sites. Admission by donation. #thisismackinac

 

Sunset at Mill Creek

When the sawmill closes for the day and visitors leave the park, the North Woods of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park come alive with wildlife. Join park naturalist Kyle Bagnall on a quiet evening stroll as we search for animals that become active at night. We’ll be on the lookout for residents such as porcupines, raccoons, owls, and mink along the creek. We may also hear coyotes in the distance and flute-like songs of wood thrushes ringing through the trees. Before sunset, we’ll climb the steps to the top of the Forest Discovery Tower for an amazing view as the sun disappears beneath the horizon.

Participants should meet in the front parking lot, near the flagpoles, where we’ll begin our hike. This is a free event. Participants are encouraged to wear comfortable walking shoes. #thisismackinac

Sunset at Mill Creek

When the sawmill closes for the day and visitors leave the park, the North Woods of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park come alive with wildlife. Join park naturalist Kyle Bagnall on a quiet evening stroll as we search for animals that become active at night. We’ll be on the lookout for residents such as porcupines, raccoons, owls, and mink along the creek. We may also hear coyotes in the distance and flute-like songs of wood thrushes ringing through the trees. Before sunset, we’ll climb the steps to the top of the Forest Discovery Tower for an amazing view as the sun disappears beneath the horizon.

Participants should meet in the front parking lot, near the flagpoles, where we’ll begin our hike. This is a free event. Participants are encouraged to wear comfortable walking shoes. #thisismackinac

3 ways to explore the ‘wild side’ of Mackinac

As the name suggests, the Mackinac State Historic Parks are full of history. Glimpses of the past are preserved through original structures such as the 240-year-old Officer’s Stone Quarters at Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island and artifacts such as the original Fresnel lens at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse in Mackinaw City.

  But really, the human history on exhibit at Mackinac State Historic Parks is all recent history. The attractions in Mackinaw City and on Mackinac Island also represent eons of natural history that go back much, much farther in time.

  Some of the iconic rock formations in Mackinac Island State Park, for example, are estimated to have been shaped many thousands of years ago. And the forest of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, as well as the Straits of Mackinac itself, are even older than that.

  In fact, the region’s natural history is the reason there’s any human history to explore in the first place. After all, it was the narrow Great Lakes passage that brought people to the area and it was the forests that provided for them – lumber for homes, animals for food and pelts for the once-lucrative fur trade, for example.

  Mackinac State Historic Parks attractions showcase that mix of natural history and human history. It’s fascinating to tour Colonial Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City and learn about 18th-century life on the fort or step inside the old American Fur Company Store on Mackinac Island and discover what it was like to be a 19th-century trapper or trader. It’s also enlightening to get the backstory of those human experiences by stepping way back into the natural “wild side” of Mackinac.

  Here are three of the best ways to get an understanding of the incredible natural history within Mackinac State Historic Parks:

  •  – Did you know that more than 80% of Mackinac Island is state parkland? It was even once a national park! While many visitors rent bikes and pedal all the way around Mackinac Island on M-185, that scenic loop is partially closed in 2021 due to ongoing erosion repairs. All the more reason to pedal up into the middle of Mackinac Island instead and find more than 70 miles of roads and trails through forest that looks much like it did millennia ago. (Get the latest updates on M-185 repairs and detours on Mackinac Island.)

Another popular ride is Mackinac Island’s Arch Rock Bicycle Trail, which takes you out to the iconic Arch Rock overlooking the southeast corner of the island. Arch Rock is a bucket-list natural history destination on its own. But along the way you can make stops on the Mackinac Island Botanical Trail, too. There are several trailside turnouts with interpretive areas where you can learn about the flowers and plants of Mackinac Island.

  •  – If hiking is more your style of exploration, then lace up your boots and take on the trails of Mackinac Island by foot. Many miles of trail aren’t even passable by bike, in fact. Roots and rocks combined with big changes in elevation make some trails within Mackinac Island State Park ideal for a strenuous hike, while the paved roads through the island’s interior offer a more leisurely option for immersing yourself in the ancient forest. Birdwatching on Mackinac Island is another great option for experiencing the wild side of Mackinac.

In Mackinaw City, you can enjoy a stroll along the Straits of Mackinac at the foot of the Mackinac Bridge at Colonial Michilimackinac or walk for miles through the woods of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park. Just as many visitors to Mackinac Island only scratch the surface of all there is to see, so do most people only see a fraction of Mill Creek. Many of the trails into the wilds of Mill Creek are even accessible, and there also are guided hikes scheduled each day.

  •  – Speaking of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, the one-of-a-kind Adventure Tour is a fun way for all ages to experience some of the region’s natural history. The high-flying excursion takes visitors not only into the forest, but up to the top of it for a walk over the Forest Canopy Bridge some 50 feet above the creek below. Your tour guide points out natural features along the way, then you zoom back down to ground level on the exhilarating Eagles’ Flight Zip Line.

Before or after your tour, be sure to take the 71 steps up to the viewing platform atop the park’s Treetop Discovery Tower. The panoramic vista from up there offers a spectacular view of the whole region, and a great perspective on the natural features that attracted people to the Straits of Mackinac.

There’s lot of history to experience at Mackinac State Historic Parks, including the wilderness where not many visitors venture. Come explore Mackinac’s wild side!

Sunset at Mill Creek

When the sawmill closes for the day and visitors leave the park, the North Woods of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park come alive with wildlife. Join park naturalist Kyle Bagnall on a quiet evening stroll as we search for animals that become active at night. We’ll be on the lookout for residents such as porcupines, raccoons, owls, and mink along the creek. We may also hear coyotes in the distance and flute-like songs of wood thrushes ringing through the trees. Before sunset, we’ll climb the steps to the top of the Forest Discovery Tower for an amazing view as the sun disappears beneath the horizon.

Participants should meet in the front parking lot, near the flagpoles, where we’ll begin our hike. This is a free event. Participants are encouraged to wear comfortable walking shoes. #thisismackinac

Sunset at Mill Creek

When the sawmill closes for the day and visitors leave the park, the North Woods of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park come alive with wildlife. Join park naturalist Kyle Bagnall on a quiet evening stroll as we search for animals that become active at night. We’ll be on the lookout for residents such as porcupines, raccoons, owls, and mink along the creek. We may also hear coyotes in the distance and flute-like songs of wood thrushes ringing through the trees. Before sunset, we’ll climb the steps to the top of the Forest Discovery Tower for an amazing view as the sun disappears beneath the horizon.

Participants should meet in the front parking lot, near the flagpoles, where we’ll begin our hike. This is a free event. Participants are encouraged to wear comfortable walking shoes. #thisismackinac

Summer Birds of Mill Creek

Blackburnian Warbler, Alexander Wilson (1808)

  As spring turns to summer, the woods of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park are alive with birdsong. By mid-June, year-round residents of the park, such as black-capped chickadees, nuthatches, and tufted titmice, have been singing since winter snow gave way to spring wildflowers. Summer residents, many which migrated north for thousands of miles, arrive “finely tuned” and ready to put on a show as they attract mates and defend nesting territories.

  The official wildlife checklist of Mill Creek includes about 130 species of birds, while the list for Mackinac Island contains 190 varieties. Both parks consist of varied habitats, including Lake Huron shoreline, creeks and streams, swamps, open meadows, and forests of conifers and hardwoods.

Robert Ridgeway (1875)

  Finding birds at Mill Creek begins as soon as you step out of your car. Although the tree canopy is filled with green, listen closely for musical notes floating in the breeze. In the pines growing near the visitor’s center, you may hear a “shrill, thin song, which runs up the scale to end in a high z.” If so, pause and search for a blackburnian warbler hunting for insects among the branches. Catching a glimpse of a male’s flame-orange throat may just take your breath away! As they prefer evergreens for nesting, this species was once known as the “hemlock warbler.”

Ernest Thompson Seton (1901)

  Stop for a trail map as you make your way into the park. Next, follow the sound of rushing water and you’ll soon discover Mill Creek. Sitting near the mill pond, patient watchers may enjoy a visit from a belted kingfisher as it scans for brook trout. Kingfishers are memorable birds, with a dry, rattling call that announces their presence long before they fly into view. Occasionally, they even perch on the zip line, as if teasing participants while they glide over the creek. Unlike most birds, female kingfishers are more colorful than males, as they wear a chestnut-brown “necklace” while their mate sports a simple bluish band across their chest.

Thomas G. Gentry (1882)

  As you head into the woods, it’s nearly impossible to avoid an encounter with an American redstart. In 1893, Mackinac Island resident and researcher, Stewart E. White, wrote this was “the most characteristic bird of the island. It occurs in such amazing abundance that it seems as if every tree contained one of these birds.” Thankfully, such words still ring true today as this flashy black, orange and white warbler is still one of our most common summer residents. Plumage of females and immature males consists of light brown tones with yellow highlights.

  Relentlessly persistent, a restart’s repetitive, mellow song begins as soon as they arrive in May and lasts through August. This woodland songster sings for weeks on end, seemingly, as one early 20th century author noted, “to the accompaniment of his own echo.”

  As you continue down the trail, the species of birds you may encounter numbers in the dozens. Almost assuredly, you’ll hear the insistent, rambling song of the red-eyed vireo, the plaintive “peee-weee” call of the eastern wood peewee, and the rapid staccato of “teacher-teacher-TEACHER” from the tiny ovenbird, ringing through the forest. Venture out in the morning or evening for a chance to hear the ethereal, flute-like call of a wood thrush, perhaps the most magical song of the North Woods.

Mark Catesby (1754)

  If you don’t encounter one of our six resident woodpecker species, you’re almost certain to find evidence of their handiwork, hammering trees for insects beneath the bark. Especially watch for huge, rectangular cavities excavated by the crow-sized pileated woodpecker and small, regular rows of “sap wells” chiseled by yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Sapsuckers maintain wells to drink sap that drips out, but more importantly to capture insects that become trapped in sweet liquid that seeps from the tree. Sap wells in dead wood are evidence of a previous season’s efforts.

  No matter where you wander, watch and listen for birds all around you, each of which varies in color, shape, song, size, habits and habitats. Ancestors of many special species found homes in the forest of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park long before people arrived on the scene. While some are suited to the creek or frequent the shore of a beaver pond, others prefer poking through leaf-litter on the forest floor. Some nearly never leave the tree canopy high above, while others may zip past you on their way to pick a sunflower seed from a bird feeder.

  During your visit, be sure to sit and scan the summer sky. Every day, someone spots a bald eagle floating effortlessly on the wind, high above the forest canopy. As you watch an eagle soar, consider it may also be watching you, with eyesight sharper than its talons. As it finally leaves your view, let your imagination follow into the unknown. At Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, the feathered residents of Mackinac’s North Woods are waiting. Here you’ll discover ducks on the mill pond, friendly chickadees at the feeder, tiny hummingbirds sipping nectar, and the majestic symbol of our nation soaring over the Great Lakes. We all hope to see you soon.

Mackinac’s Wildflowers

May is the month for wildflowers in forests of northern Michigan. At Mackinac State Historic Parks, both Mackinac Island State Park and Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park are perfect places to wander miles of trails and find yourself amidst blankets of colorful blossoms. Spring woodland wildflowers are ephemeral, or short-lived, with their plants working hard to use energy from the sun before leaves of the tree canopy, high above, cast deep shadows across the forest floor.

  The photos that follow are just a few examples of many wildflower species you can discover each May at Mackinac. Although disagreement occurs about which flowering plants should officially be considered “wildflowers” the MSHP checklist includes 270 species. Scientists have identified, cataloged, and studied Mackinac Island’s plant life for more than 200 years, starting with English botanist Thomas Nuttall in 1810. Our current checklist is based on a 1995 study by Mackinac Island resident and botanist Patricia Martin. For trail maps and information, visit www.mackinacparks.com.

  Whether you dig deep into taxonomy or simply enjoy their subtle shapes and colors, the blossoms of Mackinac’s forests put on a show to be cherished during this special season. Miles of footpaths invite you to slow your pace, pay attention, and let nature’s beauty refresh your mind and spirit.

  Welcome to the North Woods. This is Mackinac.

Yellow trout lily

  A flower named after a fish? Thankfully, the trout lily was named after the speckled pattern of its leaves rather than a fishy smell. Small, yellow and rust-orange blossoms nod downward before maturing. When open, they feature backward-curving petals which reveal six reddish brown anthers, containing pollen. Growing in large colonies, many plants are sterile, consisting of leaves without a blossom.

Large-flowered trillium

  Named for their sets of three leaves and three petals, blankets of trillium are hard to miss in Mackinac’s forests. This slow-growing plant has large white blossoms which bloom before leaves of nearby maple and beech trees emerge. As they take two years to fully germinate, trillium populations can be endangered by illegal wildflower collecting. All species of trillium are protected by law in Michigan.

Marsh Marigold

  Growing in colonies along the shore of Mill Creek, marsh marigold has shiny and smooth heart-shaped leaves, nearly as large as a person’s hand. Stout, hollow stems support bright yellow blossoms. What look like petals are actually yellow “sepals” a part of flowering plants that often support delicate petals.

Forget-me-not

  Native to Europe, several species of forget-me-not have been common additions to gardens for centuries. These tiny sky-blue blossoms can be found blooming with early native wildlflowers of Mackinac Island. The hardy plants readily self-seed, often spreading far from their original plantings. Look for them along trails adjacent to Mackinac Island cemeteries.

Spring Beauty

  One of the earliest flowers to bloom in the North Woods, spring beauty deserve the reputation their name implies. Light pink or white flowers are veined with darker pink, inviting insects to stop and pollinate. With narrow, grass-like leaves these small plants seemingly disappear after their short-lived blossoms fall to the forest floor.

When historic Mackinaw City, Mackinac Island sites open in 2021

Fort Mackinac endured a hostile takeover by the British. Held captives during the Civil War. Survived a seamless transition from national park to state park. And its 14 original buildings have been repaired and restored all along the way.

  Now, one of the most popular Mackinac State Historic Parks attractions has weathered the COVID-19 pandemic, too.

  After a year of uncertainty when the opening of historic sites was delayed or even cancelled, Fort Mackinac is open for tours in 2021. So are The Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum, Biddle House, featuring the Mackinac Island Native American Museum, Colonial Michilimackinac, Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park and most other Mackinac State Historic Parks sites.

  With COVID-19 health precautions at Mackinac State Historic Parks, you can safely visit and enjoy any or all of the sites in Mackinaw City and on Mackinac Island this year.

  Here’s a rundown of when each Mackinac State Historic Parks attraction opened or will open

May 1, Historic Fort Mackinac
May 1, The Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum
May 1, Biddle House, featuring the Mackinac Island Native American Museum
May 1, Benjamin Blacksmith Shop
May 5, Colonial Michilimackinac
May 6, Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse
May 7, Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park
June 5, American Fur Company Store & Dr. Beaumont Museum

Things to keep in mind as you plan your 2021 visit to Mackinac State Historic Parks

  One Mackinac State Historic Parks site, the 200-year-old McGulpin House, is not scheduled to open this year due to ongoing challenges posed by the pandemic. A few other attractions have activities or areas that are not expected to open in 2021 including the Kids’ Art Studio at The Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum, the tower tour at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse and the Treetops Discovery climbing wall at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park.

  With the exception of the climbing wall, the Adventure Tour at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park will be open this year including the thrilling Forest Canopy Bridge and the Eagle’s Flight Zip Line. And even though you can’t climb the tower, you can take the stairs to the top and enjoy a stunning view of both Mackinac Island and the Mackinac Bridge.

  While the tower tour is closed this year, you can experience several new exhibits that have opened at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse. The second floor of the lighthouse has been restored to how it looked in 1910 and gives a great sense of what life was like for George Marshall and his family when he was the first lightkeeper. The lighthouse also is the site of the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum and features a new exhibit devoted to lighthouse optics and lenses as well as sound and fog signals. In fact, you can hear a demonstration of the lighthouse’s Fog Signal Whistle several times each day.

  The new historic tours and demonstrations at Colonial Michilimackinac this season will focus on the year 1778, when rumors swirled about whether the Revolutionary War would reach the Upper Great Lakes. Demonstrations and tours led by costumed interpreters take place throughout the day, with several programs being moved outdoors to provide more opportunity for social distancing.

A new Mackinac State Historic Parks experience for 2021

  Starting June 5 and continuing daily through Sept. 5, one lucky visitor will be able to fire all of the black powder weapons at Colonial Michilimackinac as the fort closes. That includes the Short Land Musket, Wall Gun, Coehorn Mortar and cannon. “Guns Across the Straits” is available to one Colonial Michilimackinac guest each day for an extra fee, and reservations are now being taken for this first-time-ever opportunity.

  Colonial Michilimackinac also will host a special “Fire at Night” exhibition on July 7, welcoming guests to visit at dusk and watch the fireworks of the fort’s black powder weapons being shot.

  Tickets to all Mackinac State Historic Parks sites for the 2021 season are now on sale, with money-saving combo packages available when visiting more than one attraction.