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!

Michilimackinac Archaeology 2021 Mid-Season Update

We have reached the halfway point of the 2021 archaeological field season at Michilimackinac and there is progress to report.

Door latch

  The southeast cellar seems to be showing signs of bottoming out. The soil in the southern portion is becoming very sandy with pebbles, like the glacial beach which lies under all of the fort. Some of the wood wall fragments have disappeared. Part of a door latch was found in this area. The northern part of the cellar is becoming somewhat sandier, but the wood planks continue, and it recently yielded a small, plain pewter button and a musket ball.

Pocketknife

  The east wall of the central cellar has become better defined with the burned tops of eight wood posts now exposed. The most interesting artifact of the summer (so far) came from the north edge of this cellar, an intact pocketknife. We hope that future research will help us date it or at least identify it as French or British in order to better understand the construction sequence of the cellars.

  Excavation of 1781 demolition continues further north. We expect to find remnants of the north wall of the house in this area. We have opened the first quad in what we expect to be the final row of squares for this project.

New Quad Opened Up

  The 2021 field season is sponsored by the Mackinac Associates, and we are grateful for their support. Follow MSHP’s social channels and this blog for updates on the rest of the season, or, better yet, come visit the site. We will be excavating every day, weather permitting, through August 21.

Using Cold Frames at Michilimackinac

 Gardeners, especially at the Straits of Mackinac, have always been interested in helping their plants grow despite sometimes problematic environmental conditions. Building walls or planting hedges can protect plants from the wind, which might break fragile stems and leaves, while changing the soil chemistry with manure or compost can make a poor soil rich enough to grow the sweetest melons. But what about the cold? How would gardeners in the 18th century protect tender plants from the snow and frigid temperatures so common in northern Michigan?

 Cold frames may have been the answer. Our gardeners at Colonial Michilimackinac have recently been generously gifted with a very nice cold frame. Built using 18th century specifications, it is essentially a miniature greenhouse. Pots of plants are set inside the frame, or seeds can be planted directly in the soil to get off to a good start in the small, protected environment. The wooden frame is topped with two glass “lights” or windows that can either be kept closed in cold weather to trap heat, vented to release moisture, or completely removed to allow for air flow on sunny and warm days.

 With a bit of work, a cold frame can even be used to generate heat to keep young plants warm and healthy. Historically, frames were placed over brick-lined pits full of animal manure. As the manure decomposed, it released heat, keeping the inside of the frame warm enough to support lettuces, spinach and other cold season vegetables throughout much of the winter, or at least late fall and early spring. Modern gardeners use electric heat mats to produce similar results.

 If you are interested in see our new cold frame and learning more about the gardens and the people that lived at Colonial Michilimackinac visit mackinacparks.com for tickets and more information.

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 Growing the Garden? Cabbage!

Cabbages are attractive vegetables. They come in a variety of shapes, textures, sizes and colors. Many gardeners in the 18th century, including Michilimackinac resident John Askin, considered cabbages to be an essential vegetable in the garden. They keep well, are versatile in the kitchen and generally low maintenance. They can be placed out in the garden earlier than crops like beans, cucumbers and melons and are quite cold hardy. This winter, we even had one cabbage winter over in our King’s Garden. It was quite a surprise, especially since it was covered in snow for a few months with no protection at all.

The downside to these vegetables is that they are incredibly tasty to slugs. The gray beasts like to get inside the cabbage heads and munch away. Just when it seems like all the slugs have been picked from the leaves, there are five more that pop out. In the 18th century, gardeners had many solutions to deal with slugs, but most come down to manual removal. At Michilimackinac, we have found that encouraging toads in the garden has also proven useful.

Right now, our cabbage seedlings for 2020 are started and doing well. The transplants will be planted out in early to mid-May and when they are big enough, they will find their way to our daily food programs at Colonial Michilimackinac. If you have never grown cabbage, take a cue from history and give this beautiful and useful vegetable a chance. Be sure to visit our website for more updates, and check out Mackinac Associates, a friends group which makes many of our programs and exhibits (including the gardens) possible at all of our historic sites.

What’s Growing in the Garden? Carrots!

Carrots in the ground.

We have begun our spring cleanup of the gardens at Michilimackinac! It Is the best time. Every year we find a few unexpected things, and this week we came across a number of forgotten carrots. We are usually quite meticulous about digging our root vegetables and storing them for use later, but it seems that these escaped our shovel. Surprise!

What will these be used for? Well, 18th century sources abound with recipes and uses for carrots. Some books recommended them as a cure for everything from cancer to asthma. Cooks turned the root vegetable into puddings, added them to soups, and used them in salads. One of our favorite historic ways to use carrots is from a recipe by E. Smith that was published in the Compleat Housewife in 1736:

To make Carrot or Parsnip Puffs

Scrape and boil your carrots or parsnips tender; then scrape or mash them very fine, add to a pint of pulp the crumb of a penny-loaf grated, or some stale biscuit, if you have it, some eggs, but four whites, a nutmeg grated, some orange-flower water, sugar to your taste, a little sack, and mix it up with thick cream. They must be fry’d in rendered suet, the liquor very hot when you put them in; put in a good spoonful in a place.

They end up being sweet and deliciously greasy.

While it is not uncommon for root vegetables to winter over in the gardens at Michilimackinac, it still always seems like something that shouldn’t be possible. Check back later to see what other things are happening this spring at Michilimackinac. If you would like to help support our gardens and other activities at all of our historic sites, consider joining Mackinac Associates, and visit our website for tickets and more information.