Spring Birding Stroll on Mackinac Island

The woods and waters of Mackinac Island are home to a broad diversity of bird life. Join Park Naturalist, Kyle Bagnall, on a search for warblers and other spring migrants along with feathered residents. We’ll look and listen for songbirds in the forest and raptors soaring overhead on this leisurely stroll along the trails.

Participants should meet at the Avenue of Flags behind Fort Mackinac for this free guided hike. For the best experience, bring binoculars and shoes for trail walking. #thisismackinac

Natural Springs of Mackinac Island

Mackinac Island is blessed with a number of natural springs which percolate through limestone bedrock. An 1882 tourist booklet, Mackinac Island, Wave-Washed Tourists’ Paradise of the Unsalted Seas, boasted of “living streams of pure water, cooled down to the temperature of forty-four degrees, gushing from its lime-rock precipices.” A few of these, such as Dwightwood Spring and Croghan Water, are well known by many of today’s visitors. Others, such as Wishing Spring, Wawatam Brook, and La Salle Spring, are less familiar or forgotten. When you do encounter a natural spring, please enjoy the view, but remember untreated water is considered unsafe for drinking.

Sinclair’s map of Mackinac Island, 1779

 A Fine Spring

As the British settled Mackinac Island from 1780-1781, water was viewed as a valuable resource. Lieutenant Governor Patrick Sinclair noted “a fine spring of water” on a map he drew after visiting the island in 1779. He wrote his superiors, “Our Village will be washed on one side by a fine Spring which with some care may be brought to turn a mill at least one day in seven.”

More pressing priorities meant Sinclair never built his water-powered mill on Mackinac Island. The spring he referred to once fed a small trickle of water  named Wawatam Brook for 20th century guidebooks. The brook originated near the Grand Hotel and emptied into a small lake now called Hanks Pond, which serves a water feature on the Jewel Golf Course.

 La Salle Spring

This 1829 survey map shows La Salle Spring

A second natural spring once trickled into Hanks Pond, originating below Fort Mackinac’s West Blockhouse. Eventually christened La Salle Spring, it became a reliable source of water for Island residents and soldiers alike. In his 1895 book, Mackinac, Formerly Michilimackinac, Dr. John R. Bailey noted that log piping was used for feeding water to town, supplying “stores, warehouses, and dwellings of the fur company.”

In 1881, a steam-powered pump was installed which elevated water from the spring through ½ inch lead pipes to a reservoir located in the second story of the North Blockhouse. From this high point, it then flowed through pipes into various fort buildings. In Annals of Fort Mackinac, author Dwight H. Kelton enlightened his readers, “This innovation on the old-time water-wagon was made… in accordance with a plan devised by, and executed under the direction of Lieut. D.H. Kelton, Post Quartermaster. Water was first pumped October 11, 1881.”

 Croghan Water

Croghan Water, 2021

The north-central portion of Mackinac Island once featured the Island’s largest farm. By 1804, Michael Dousman harvested hay, raised cattle, and even built a horse-powered mill and distillery there. In 1814, the Battle of Mackinac Island was fought on Dousman’s hay fields. Today, links of the Wawashkamo Golf Club cover much of the site.

Dousman’s distillery was situated near a flowing spring of cool water. On early maps, it was simply labeled “Cold Spring.”  In 1913, the spring was renamed Croghan Water, in honor Colonel George Croghan, commander of American forces during the 1814 battle.

 Wishing Spring

Wishing Spring, ca. 1910

This spring was the first which became a popular tourist destination. Once located near Devil’s Kitchen, it was also known as Lover’s Rest or Fairy Spring. During her 1872 visit to the site, novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson offered a token knot of ribbon and wished for health during the year.

Rev. Frank O’Brien summarized the site in the 1916 guide, Names and Places of Interest on Mackinac Island, Michigan. He wrote, This Wishing Spring is within a fragrant, fairy grotto. The water, clear as crystal, flows from above, dripping, cool and refreshing. If you drink and wish, and keep the secret for three days, tradition says you will get whatever you wish.”

 Dwightwood Spring

Dwightwood Spring, ca. 1909

This well-known spring is located along Lake Shore Boulevard (M-185), near the southeast corner of Mackinac Island. In 1909, Edwin O. Wood donated funds for a canopy, fountain, and benches in memory of his son, Dwight Hulbert Wood, who perished after his bicycle was struck by a horse-drawn fire engine in Flint, Michigan.

That July, a dedication ceremony was held to christen Dwightwood Spring. During the ceremony, park superintendent Benjamin Franklin Emery noted the site was dedicated “to preserve the work of nature, to make the spring accessible, to prove a shelter in time of storm, to be a resting place for the weary, long to be remembered after leaving the beautiful Island shores.”

 An Invitation

The springs above represent just a few of Mackinac Island’s “living streams of pure water” which bubble up from its limestone bedrock. During your next visit, you’re invited to seek out these peaceful places, enjoy their quiet beauty, and discover special plants and animals that thrive there. Perhaps, like Ms. Woolson, you’ll feel inspired. “Now I am a sensible, middle-aged woman,” she wrote, “but something in the moonlight bewitched me, and I consented, much to the delight of my niece.”

Maple Sugaring at Mackinac

As winter snow and frigid temperatures finally give way to spring, maple sugaring season begins in northern Michigan. For many centuries, Native American families living at the Straits of Mackinac moved each spring from small winter hunting camps to groves of maple trees. There, they gathered and processed the first plant-based food of the year, harvesting maple sap and boiling it into sweet, calorie-rich maple sugar.

  Early origins of maple sugaring are preserved in oral traditions of Anishinaabeg and other tribes of northeastern North America. When European missionaries and traders became established at Mackinac in the 18th century, local accounts of sugaring also began to appear in letters, journals, and other documents. Several such records offer a glimpse into historical methods and customs of sugar making in northern Michigan.

Sweet Science

  No matter which specific methods are used, the basic science of converting maple sap into syrup or sugar remains the same. As temperatures rise above freezing during the day, liquid sap within trees thaws and starts to flow through sapwood. Sapwood is a living layer of wood within a tree which serves as a pipeline for moving water up to leaves so they can grow. The hard center of a tree, called heartwood, contains dead cells which provide rigidity but lack the ability to transport water.

Maple leaves  While sap is mostly water, it’s not 100%. In trees, sugar maples contain the most sugar, from 2-4%. In a sense, trees plan ahead, as these complex carbohydrates were created last year, when green leaves converted sun’s energy into food through photosynthesis. Stored through winter, this energy flows to tips of branches in spring, stimulating buds to open. In late spring, when temperatures remain above freezing at night, pressure within a tree equalizes and sap stops flowing. If buds start to open, it also turns cloudy and tastes bitter.

  When sap is freely flowing, a hole is made in a tree and a spout or spile inserted, directing drips into a waiting container. Traditionally, these containers were called mokuks, made of birch bark with sealed seams. When enough sap is gathered, it’s boiled over an open fire. Averaging about 2% sugar, sap must be boiled until it concentrates to 66% sugar in order to make syrup, with further boiling required for granular sugar. Generally, it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, which can make about 8 pounds of sugar.

Maple Sugar Making in 1763

  Alexander Henry, a British trader at Fort Michilimackinac, was one of the first to describe the Anishinaabeg method of sugar making in Michigan’s north woods. He recorded the following as he recalled a visit to an Ojibwe encampment near Sault Ste. Marie in March 1763:

“The next day was employed in gathering the bark of white birch-trees, with which to make vessels to catch the wine or sap. The trees were now cut or tapped, and spouts or ducts introduced into the wound. The bark vessels were placed under the ducts; and, as they filled, the liquor was taken out in buckets, and conveyed into the reservoirs or vats of moose-skin, each vat containing a hundred gallons. From these, we supplied the boilers, of which we had twelve, of from twelve to twenty gallons each, with fires constantly under them, day and night. While the women collected the sap, boiled it, and completed the sugar, the men were not less busy in cutting wood, making fires, and in hunting and fishing, in part of our supply of food.

The earlier part of the spring it that best adapted to making maple-sugar. The sap runs only in the day; and it will not run, unless there has been a frost the night before. When, in the morning, there is a clear sun, and the night has left ice of the thickness of a dollar, the greatest quantity is produced.

  Henry noted that work ended on April 25, resulting in 1,600 pounds of maple sugar, 36 gallons of  gallons of syrup, and “…we certainly consumed three hundred weight. Though, as I have said, we hunted and fished, yet sugar was our principal food, during the whole month of April.” If his calculations are correct, this single camp collected about 16,640 gallons of maple sap. With an average of about 15 gallons of sap per tap, this would have required well over 1,000 taps to produce.

The Maple Sugar Trade

  By the turn of the 19th century, maple sugar had become a regular item of trade at Mackinac, frequently appearing on manifests of trading vessels. In 1803, records from the U.S. Customs House on Mackinac Island included many dozens of kegs and mokuks of maple sugar transported by schooner and canoe. Traders such as George Schindler, Michael Dousman, Joseph Bailly, Jean Baptiste La Borde, Pierre Pyant, and many others appear time and again on such records. On July 19, 1810, for example, 489 “makaks” of sugar left Mackinac Island on the schooner Mary, bound for Detroit. There, advertisements for the newly arrived resource were published in newspapers, including the following example at the “Commission Store,” printed in issues of the Detroit Gazette throughout the winter of 1817-1818.

Bois Blanc Sugar Camp

  A lengthy account of a maple sugar camp at the Straits of Mackinac was recorded by Elizabeth Therese (Fisher) Baird. Born in 1810, to parents of Scottish, French and Odawa ancestry, Elizabeth spent much of her youth on Mackinac Island. Fond childhood recollections of her family’s maple sugar camp were first published in the Green Bay Press-Gazette, on December 29, 1886. In part, she wrote,

Indian Sugar Camp by Seth Eastman, 1853.

“A visit to the sugar camp was a great treat to the young folks as well as to the old… All who were able, possessed a sugar camp. My grand-mother had a sugar camp on Bois Blanc Island, about five miles east of Mackinac.

About the first of March nearly half of the inhabitants of our town, as well as many from the garrison, would move to Bois Blanc to prepare for the work. Would that I could describe the lovely spot! Our camp was delightfully situated in the midst of a forest of maple, or a maple grove. One  thousand or more trees claimed our care, and three men and two women were employed to do the work

  After describing methods and materials for making maple syrup, Elizabeth recalled the process of sugar making. In part, she described,

The modus operandi thus: a very bright, brass kettle, was placed over a slow fire…containing about three gallons of syrup, if it was to be made into cakes; if… granulated sugar, two gallons of syrup were used. For the sugar cakes, a board of bass-wood about five or six inches wide, with moulds set in, in form of bears, diamonds, crosses, rabbits, turtles, spheres, etc. When the sugar was cooked to a certain degree it was poured into these moulds. For the granulated sugar, the stirring is continued for a longer time; this being done with a long paddle which looks like a mush stick. This sugar had to be put into the mokok while warm as it was not pack well if cold…”

  Today, many Michiganders still enjoy the smell and taste of pure maple products each spring. Though methods have changed, we can all give thanks for trees which produce such sweet sap (with extra to spare), and for many generations of Native Americans whose skills in making maple products were passed down for thousands of years, ensuring we can still share these sweet gifts of the North Woods during this special time of year.

Fairy Arch by Henry Chapman Ford 1874

Mackinac Island’s Other Arches

Arch Rock is Mackinac Island’s most famous and spectacular limestone formation. A century ago, curious visitors could find two additional arches, also celebrated for their natural beauty and rich traditions. Today, Sanilac Arch exists as a remnant of its former self, while Fairy Arch only remains in artwork, photos, and written accounts. Their stories highlight the importance of preservation and serve as reminders of nature’s continual process of change.

1. Fairy Arch from Picturesque America or The Land We Live In (1872)

For many years, a small boat was the easiest way to access Fairy Arch (1872)

 Fairy Arch

 Fairy Arch was first described in 1802 by Dr. Francis LeBarron as one of Mackinac Island’s two “natural arches of the Gothic order.” Over the following decades, a thick undergrowth of young trees blanketed the island landscape, which had been previously cleared for firewood. For most of the 19th century, Mackinac’s eastern shoreline was difficult to explore, covered by huge boulders and thick vegetation.

 In 1866, Fort Mackinac surgeon Dr. John R. Bailey rediscovered the 40-foot formation and coined the name Fairy Arch. Despite challenging access, the lovely arch appeared on 19th century maps and in guidebooks. In 1872, Constance Fenimore Cooper wrote, “Fairy Arch is of similar formation to Arched Rock, and lifts from the sands with a grace and beauty that justify the name bestowed upon it.”

 In an 1875 guidebook for visitors of the newly created Mackinac National Park, publisher John Disturnell noted Fairy Arch was about ¼ mile from Arch Rock. He wrote:

 “A little north and beyond [Robinson’s Folly] a high pinnacle of rude rock crops out from the mountain side, near the base of which is a very picturesque arch, known as the ‘Fairy Arch,’ or Arch of the ‘Giant’s Stairway.’ This spot is rather difficult of access owing to the presence of huge rocks and an entangled forest.”

 Fairy Arch became more accessible about 1900, when a boulevard completely encircling Mackinac Island was completed. From the shore, visitors were encouraged to climb huge limestone ledges, like giant steps, to explore this natural wonder. A 1918 guidebook noted, “To visit Mackinac Island and fail to climb the Giant’s Stairway and view this beautiful handiwork of nature, is to miss one of the leading features of the “Fairy Isle.”

Fairy Arch Postcard by Detroit Publishing Co. 1906
Fairy Arch by Detroit Publishing Co. with seated woman inset ca.1910

Views of Fairy Arch were sold as souvenir prints and postcards. The Detroit Publishing Company offered these two images in the first decade of the 20th century.

 To improve travel around Mackinac Island’s lakeshore, state highway M-185 was completed in 1933. In a misguided erosion control effort, Fairy Arch was destroyed in the late 1940s. Today, this unique formation only remain accessible through artwork, photographs, and written reminisces.

Fairy Arch by Henry Chapman Ford 1874

Fairy Arch by Henry Chapman Ford (1874)

 Visitors to The Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum may enjoy a lovely and somewhat idealized view of Fairy Arch painted in 1874 by landscape artist Henry Chapman Ford. This oil on canvas painting is an example of luminism, a type of landscape painting popular from the 1850s through the 1870s. Click Here for museum hours and information.

 The Little Arch

Lower Arch to Natural Bridge by J.A. Jenney 1874

Men explore the “Lower Arch” in this view by photographer James A. Jenney (1874)

 One half of Arch Rock rests on a large pinnacle of Mackinac breccia limestone that towers 130 feet above Lake Huron. Near the base of this cliff is a small, tunnel like arch, which is now nearly filled with rocky debris. Once much larger, this small arch has been known through the years as the Lower Arch, Little Arch, Maiden Arch and Sannillac Arch.

 In 1874, photographer James A. Jenney, of Flint, Michigan printed a series of Picturesque –  Mackinaw stereoview cards. His view, entitled, “Lower Arch to Natural Bridge” is one of the earliest known photos of this formation. A similar view was published by Mackinac Island photographer Edward P. Foley in 1887, entitled “Maiden Arch, Under Arch Rock.” For many visitors, this smaller formation was easier to explore from the lakeshore rather than risking a steep hillside climb to view Arch Rock from above.

 When Mackinac National Park was dissolved in 1895, the island’s arches became part of the newly created Mackinac Island State Park. That year, a visitor named “M.A.” described Maiden Arch in a small volume entitled, Eight Days Out.

Maiden Arch from Views of Mackinac Island (1886)

Maiden Arch (cropped) from A Lake Tour to Picturesque Mackinac on the D and C (1890)

Victorian era tourists explore Maiden Arch.
1886 (left) & 1890 (above)

 “From [Robertson’s Folly] we followed the beach north to the foot of Arch Rock… There we discovered an interesting arch, which is not on the program, but is more wonderful, and will exist for ages after the renowned arch has crumbled and gone. It is directly under the high cliff, or promenade which extends out into the lake, that tourists walk out upon while viewing the Arch Rock… Two hundred dollars would pay the expense of a winding stairway, down through the principal arch, then under the lower one, and extending to the lake, which would be the most picturesque scene on the island.”

 Maiden Arch was renamed Sannillac Arch in 1916, by author Frank O’Brien, in his booklet Names of Places of Interest on Mackinac Island, Michigan. Sannillac, a Wyandot leader, was the subject of an 1831 narrative poem by Henry Whiting. Written in the style of Native American legend, the popular work contained notes by Henry R. Schoolcraft, Indian Agent on Mackinac Island from 1833-1841. According to local lore, this small arch was a gate through which fairy children entered Mackinac Island, while giant fairies entered through the larger portal, Arch Rock. Over the years, its name was shortened to Sanilac Arch.

Boy under Sannillac Arch ca. 1910-1920

A boy explores Sannillac Arch (ca. 1910-1920)

 Before 1950, tourist literature encouraged visitors to climb through Sanilac Arch. In 1948, an article in The Island News noted, “Mackinac Island [State Park] does not point it out with an official marker and it can only be reached by scrambling up the bluff. The little limestone rocks crumble underfoot and make ascent a tricky accomplishment. The alpenstock is proper equipment.”

 For thousands of years, erosion has naturally carved out the hillside beneath Arch Rock. Today, the space under Sanilac Arch has nearly filled in with small rocks and other debris. Protected behind a fence and stone wall, the little arch may only be enjoyed from a distance to protect this unique formation and preserve visitor safety.

Sanilac Arch by Kyle Bagnall, October 2021

Today, the opening of Sanilac Arch has nearly filled in with stones and other natural debris. (October 2021)

Sanilac Arch by Kyle Bagnall, October 2021

What’s new for ’22?

As the calendar flips to the new year, Mackinac State Historic Parks staff are busy readying new tours, exhibits, publications, and more.

 2022 marks an important anniversary on Mackinac Island: 200 years since the accident that led to Dr. William Beaumont’s famous experiments. It was in 1822 that a young man named Alexis St. Martin was shot. Dr. Beaumont, the post surgeon at Fort Mackinac, saved his life. This terrible accident set Beaumont and St. Martin on a course of experimentation and discovery that remains crucial to medical science today. At the cost of St. Martin’s permanent injury, Beaumont unlocked the secrets of human digestion. To celebrate this anniversary, the Dr. Beaumont Museum inside the American Fur Co. Store has been completely remodeled, with a new exhibit detailing Beaumont’s experiments and the scientific process.

 “We are excited to update this exhibit as part of our bicentennial celebration of this important event in medical history,” said Steve Brisson, Mackinac State Historic Parks Director.

 As part of the bicentennial, the American Fur Co. Store & Dr. Beaumont Museum will receive an updated logo, and a special event will be held to thank those who helped support the new exhibit, especially Mackinac Associates. The American Fur Co. Store & Dr. Beaumont Museum will open for the 2022 season on June 4.

Up at Fort Mackinac, the Schoolhouse will be completely remodeled and reimagined into the Reading Room, as it would have been known in the 1880s. This immersive space will allow you to explore popular titles of the 1880s, read the latest newspaper or periodical, and get a better understanding of what it was like to be a soldier in the 1880s and why the U.S. Army felt it was a good idea to have reading rooms within its forts. The Reading Room is scheduled to open with the rest of Fort Mackinac, May 3. This exhibit has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom.

 “This exhibit will introduce our visitors to the immigrant experience in the U.S. Army of the late 19th century, army reforms, and education at Fort Mackinac,” Brisson said.

 Additionally at Fort Mackinac, daily programs and tours will highlight the changing face of Fort Mackinac, the role women played at the fort, Mackinac’s time as a national park, and a look at who exactly made up the army of the 1880s. The popular drill and rifle firing program, which has been removed from the schedule due to Covid concerns the past two years, will return, and guests can expect rifle and cannon firing demonstrations throughout the day. The Tea Room at Fort Mackinac, operated by Grand Hotel, will feature new menu items for the 2022 season, and, as always, will feature one of the most stunning views in Michigan. One way to make a visit to Fort Mackinac the most memorable is to fire the opening cannon salute.

 Elsewhere on Mackinac Island, the McGulpin House, which has been shuttered the past two seasons due to the Covid-19 pandemic, will reopen for the 2022 season from June 4-August 21. The McGulpin House is one of the oldest residential structures on the island, and an excellent and rare example of early French Canadian domestic architecture. Admission is included with a Fort Mackinac or Historic Downtown Mackinac ticket.

 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 – “Mackinac Journeys.” Every Mackinac journey is unique. From lifelong residents to the novice first-timer, the journey to, around, and from Mackinac is always memorable. The gallery will be on display from May 3 – October 9. 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. Finally, the Kids’ Art Studio at The Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum is scheduled to return for 2022.

 Special events at Fort Mackinac and Mackinac Island include the Fort2Fort Five Mile Challenge May 14, the annual Vintage Base Ball game July 23, special activities for July 4, special history evening programs including a guided tour of Historic Downtown Mackinac, a “Then and Now” program at Fort Mackinac, an evening exploring Fort Mackinac archaeological history, special nature and birdwatching tours, and meteor and full moon evenings at Fort Holmes. More information can be found at mackinacparks.com/events.

 Every year at Colonial Michilimackinac, in Mackinaw City, we take a deeper look into a year of the American Revolution. For 2022 we’re looking at 1779, as the revolution continued on. Special tours and programs will take place throughout the summer highlighting the year.

 One guest, every day, has the opportunity to fire all four black powder weapon Colonial 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 May 4 -October 6.

Archaeology at Colonial Michilimackinac Mackinac State Historic Parks’ archaeology program will enter its 64th season in 2022. Work will continue in House E of the Southeast Rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac. Archaeologists will be out daily (weather permitting) during the summer months. Guests will have the opportunity to see the most recent finds at Colonial Michilimackinac with a new “Recent Excavations” display inside the Colonial Michilimackinac Visitor’s Center.

 Special events at Colonial Michilimackinac include exhilarating “Fire at Night” programs, deep dives into Michilimackinac’s maritime history, a look at the unreconstructed buildings of Michilimackinac, a celebration of the King’s Birth-day on June 4, Movies by the Bridge, the ever-popular Fort Fright, and A Colonial Christmas.

 The ongoing restoration of Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse continues in 2022, as an oil house will be reconstructed on the property. 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. Throughout the day guides will sound the Fog Signal Whistle and provide tours of the lighthouse tower.

 Over at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, the Adventure Tour will return to full operation for the 2022 season, including the climbing wall. Demonstrations of the sawpit and sawmill will take place throughout the day, in addition to a new “Farming at Mill Creek” program. This new program will explore 19th century farming at Mill Creek. Sowing, flailing, and grinding grain, cutting firewood, growing gardens, and tending livestock are just some of the activities that took place there from 1790-1840. Guests are encouraged to roll up their sleeves and take part in life beyond the sawmill at Mill Creek.

 New nature programs will also be added to the daily schedule, allowing guests to meet a naturalist at the picnic area for a 30-minute program that will feature something for all ages. Topics will vary and may include a guided nature walk, stories, and fun activities focused on plants and animals living at Historic Mill Creek.

 Four new publications will be released in 2022. A new souvenir book about Arch Rock, by park naturalist Kyle Bagnall, will be released to coincide with a new nature center slated to be constructed at Arch Rock. An addition to the Archaeological Completion Report Series, by James Dunnigan concerning the Michilimackinac suburbs, will be available later in 2022. Two new vignettes will also be published: one focusing on the Grenadiers’ Mutiny of 1780, by Chief Curator Craig Wilson; and the other on Mackinac Island’s historic base ball team, the Never Sweats, by former director Phil Porter.

 “We are grateful to be able to move forward with numerous new initiatives and upgrades this year,” Brisson said.

 Every museum store will feature new items inspired by the site they represent. The Official Mackinac Island State Park Store, inside the Mackinac Island State Park Visitor’s Center, will continue to have new items inspired by the historic and natural elements of Mackinac Island.

 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. Fort Mackinac, the Biddle House, featuring the Mackinac Island Native American Museum, Benjamin Blacksmith Shop, and The Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum open May 3, Colonial Michilimackinac May 4, Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse May 5, and Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park May 6.

For the Reading Room exhibit at Fort Mackinac: “Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibit, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.”

Winter Arrives at Mackinac

Winter views of Mackinac Island: the Father Marquette statue and stone ramparts of Fort Mackinac.

Winter on Mackinac Island is a special time of year. The sun sets early, temperatures fall, and a crust of ice forms along the lakeshore. By late January or February, perhaps an “ice bridge” will form between the island and Saint Ignace. In the meantime, on a visit to Marquette Park, you’ll find that lilac blooms and bugle calls have been replaced by a bright, snowy stillness. On especially frigid days, your imagination may conjure Father Marquette stepping right off his pedestal, if he could just find a way to thaw out a little.

Seeds inside white spruce cones are an important food source for winter wildlife.

Red crossbills by
Bruce Horsfall (1908).

 Leaving downtown, the winter woods invite you to explore. Some years, the island is visited by flocks of red or white-winged crossbills. As its name implies, this unusual songbird has a highly specialized beak which crosses at the tip. This adaptation equips a crossbill with a perfect tool for slipping between hard, woody scales of spruce and pine cones. Under each scale, the bird finds a single, tiny seed which is quickly removed with a flick of the tongue. Standing under a spruce tree while a flock of crossbills feeds high above is a unique experience. Discarded bits of seed drift to the ground like softly-falling spruce snow.

Snowshoe hare tracks near the airport.

A cottontail rabbit sits alert in the snow.

 While the North Woods are quiet this time of year, lucky explorers may enjoy other animal encounters. Both cottontail rabbits and snowshoe hares live year-round on Mackinac Island. While the fur coat of a cottontail grows a bit thicker, it remains a tawny brown. The winter coat of a larger snowshoe hare, however, turns white to blend with the snow. While they both take shelter in the thickest underbrush, these crafty creatures may flush and scurry past as you glide by on cross-country skis or snowshoes. Look for hares and rabbits along field edges, especially near the Mackinac Island airport. Even if they remain undercover, you still may discover their tracks in the snow.

Staghorn sumac berries add color
to the muted winter landscape.

Cave-of-the-Woods has provided shelter from winter storms for 10,000 years.

 Exploring fields near the airport might leave you wondering if the word “windchill” was invented on Mackinac Island! Return to the trees by following nearby trails and enjoy a visit to Cave-of-the-Woods, one of the island’s oldest limestone formations. Persistent wave action formed this low opening about 10,000 years ago when this rocky outcrop rested on a prehistoric beach of ancient Lake Algonquin. The rounded cave floor was sculpted as the erosive power of water cut through softer material in the limestone mass. Today, this spot lies 140 feet above modern Lake Huron, providing shelter as you watch snowflakes fall and experience the quiet beauty of winter on Mackinac Island.

Michigan’s Wild Turkeys

As Michiganders prepare for Thanksgiving, sooner or later, thoughts turn to turkey. No matter where they are raised (or what color their feathers are), all turkeys around the world descend from wild turkeys found in North and South America. Today, after a long and sometimes perilous history, the eastern wild turkey is a familiar sight to many Michigan residents.

  For indigenous peoples throughout the Americas, these large woodland birds have been an important source of food, fat, bones and feathers for thousands of years. When Europeans first set foot in Michigan, there were overawed by the abundance of wild animals they encountered. An early account by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, founder of Detroit, provides an excellent picture. On September 25, 1702, he wrote, “Game is very common – wild turkeys, swans, wild ducks, quails, woodcocks, pheasants and rabbits. There are so many wild turkeys that twenty or thirty could be killed at one shot every time they are met with.”

  While he may be guilty of exaggeration, Cadillac described populations of mammals, fish, and birds that must have seemed inexhaustible. As settlements grew, hunters proliferated, and hunting methods became increasingly efficient, this sadly proved to be anything but true.

  By most accounts, turkeys were common in many areas of Michigan’s lower peninsula until about 1875, becoming increasingly rare thereafter. While several species of grouse were found at the Straits of Mackinac, turkeys were nearly unknown in this northern latitude, preferring the oak, beech and hickory forests in the southern part of the state. Throughout Michigan, habitat loss and indiscriminate hunting resulted in a perilous state of decline for the state’s wildlife by the turn of the 20th century.

  Ironically, Michigan’s first conservation law had passed in 1859, with several others to follow through the 1880s. What derailed most early efforts was a near complete lack of enforcement. In an attempt to save what was left, an “Act for the Protection of Game” passed in 1897 which included,

  “No person or persons shall injure, kill or destroy any wild turkey by any means whatever until the year nineteen hundred and five, and then save only from the first day of November to the thirtieth day of November…”

  In short, these restrictions proved too little, too late. By 1900, wild turkeys were completely extirpated from Michigan (being “extinct” in this state, but still existing elsewhere). Through the first half of the 20th century, several unsuccessful attempts were made to reintroduce wild turkeys to Michigan, including a 1905 effort on Grand Island in Lake Superior.

  In the mid-1950s, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources purchased wild turkeys from Pennsylvania, starting a successful reintroduction program in southwestern Michigan, followed by the northern lower and upper peninsulas. Over the past 60 years, turkey populations have expanded (and in some areas exploded), as a result of habitat restoration, sound hunting regulations, and feeding programs in northern Michigan.

  Today, even Cadillac might be impressed by some of the large flocks of wild turkeys that exist throughout the state. As you sit down for a Thanksgiving dinner, remember to give thanks for generations of dedicated conservationists who brought back this iconic bird from the brink, to inhabit Michigan’s fields and forests once again.

Early Accounts of Arch Rock

On an island known for awe-inspiring natural wonders, Arch Rock is Mackinac’s most iconic. This seemingly delicate natural bridge “excites the wonder of all beholders” as it defies gravity, rising more than 140 feet above the waters of Lake Huron. Whether you gaze up from the lakeshore or peer down from the adjacent cliffside, the views that your breath away have been enjoyed by visitors for centuries.

  The first known description of Mackinac Island’s geological formations was penned by Dr. Francis LeBaron on October 30, 1802. The doctor recently arrived at Fort Mackinac to assume the duties of post surgeon. In a letter to the editor of Boston’s Columbian Centinel & Massachusetts Federalist, he wrote:

A black and white photo of Dr. Francis LeBaron

Dr. Francis LeBaron

 “The island of Michilimackinac is about three miles long and two wide, situated in the straights that join lake Huron to lake Michigan
The curiosities of this place consist of two natural caves, one of them is formed in the side of a hill, the other in a pyramidical rock of eighty feet in height, and thirty-five feet in diameter at its base, which is situated on a plain and totally detached from any rock or precipice… There are also two natural arches of the Gothic order which appear to have been formed by some convulsions in nature, one is eighty feet in height, the other is forty.”

  Arch Rock received even broader attention in 1812, when a short description appeared in the sixth edition of Reverend Jedidah Morse’s American Universal Geography. Known as the “father of American geography” (also father of Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph) his books influenced the educational system of the United States, being widely used in classrooms for decades. In part, his description of Michigan Territory reads:

A color image of Rev. Jedidah Morse

Rev. Jedidiah Morse

An issue of The American Universal Geography from 1812

The American Universal Geography, 1812

 “Islands. The island Michilimackinac lies between Michigan and Huron, and is 7 miles in circumference….The fort is neatly built, and exhibits a beautiful appearance from the water… On the N.E. side of the island, near the shore, and 80 feet above the lake, is an arched rock. The arch is 20 feet in diameter, at the top, and 30 at the base… The island is one mass of limestone, and the soil is very rich. The climate is cold but healthy. The winter lasts for 5 months with unabated rigor.”

A map of the island of Michilimackinac from 1817

Map of the Island of Michilimackinac [Arch Rock Detail], W.S. Eveleth, 1817

  After the War of 1812, American military surveys and inspections produced a flurry of descriptions, sketches, and maps of Mackinac Island. During an 1817 survey, Lieutenant William Sanford Eveleth, U.S. Corps of Engineers, composed a highly detailed map, including miniature drawings of Arch Rock, Sugar Loaf and Skull Cave. One can imagine curious visitors strolling each dotted pathway through the woods, in search of geological wonders.

  While sharing his reflections on the arch, Captain David Bates Douglass later revealed, “Several officers have walked over it, among which are Lieutenant Curtis and Pierce and my lamented friend Evelyth, at the dizzy height of 147 feet. However, I should think it a rash enterprise.” [In October 1818, Lieut. Evelyth tragically drowned in a violent Lake Michigan gale during the wreck of the schooner Hercules with all hands lost.]

The Arched rock, Michillimackina, F.S. Belton, Sep. 1817

  Major Francis Smith Belton completed the first known artistic rendering of Arch Rock in September 1817. Also on a military inspection tour, his view is shown from a boat offshore, rendered wild, exaggerated and fantastical.

Detail of The Arched rock, Michilimackina by F.S. Belton, Sep. 1817

  One of the two tiny figures drawn at the top of Belton’s image may be Judge Advocate Samuel A. Storrow, who was also on the Island that September. His written description of Mackinac Island and Arch Rock was published as a pamphlet entitled, The North-West in 1817: A Contemporary Letter. In part, it reads:

 “On the eastern side, I found one of the most interesting natural curiosities I have ever witnessed. On the edge of the island, where as elsewhere, the banks are perpendicular, you creep cautiously toward the margin, expecting to overlook a precipice; instead of which you find a cavity of about 75 degrees descent, hollowed from the direct line of the banks; and across it on the edge of the precipice… an immense and perfect arch. Its height is 140 feet from the water, which is seen through it… Looking from the interior, the excavation resembles a crater; but, instead of an opposite side, presents an opening, which is surmounted by this magnificent arch… When on the beach below, you see this mighty arch 140 feet above you, half hid in trees, and seemingly suspended in the air… From the Lake it appears like a work of art, and might give birth to a thousand wild and fanciful conjectures.”

  From these early, enthusiastic descriptions it’s clear that Arch Rock has cast a spell upon Mackinac Island visitors for centuries. To learn more about Arch Rock and the Island’s other natural wonders, watch for future blog posts, exhibits and publications and visit mackinacparks.com.

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)

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!