Saving Waterfalls and Forest on the Upper Peninsula’s Yellow Dog River

Up by Big Bay, locals succeed in a four-year effort to protect one of Michigan’s most cherished stretches of water and the rich lands around it—the Yellow Dog River in the Upper Peninsula.

This article is featured in the May 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
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I still have vivid memories of my first experience visiting the waterfalls along the Yellow Dog River. During my freshman year at Northern Michigan University, a group of friends led me off the beaten track to a place on a river, with natural beauty like I had never seen. I had no clue where I was, but I remember how the powerful cascades captivated me. Little did I know that 16 years later, I would help coordinate an effort to create a protected area known as the Yellow Dog River Community Forest at that very spot, so that others might have the same experience.

Located in the Upper Peninsula, the Yellow Dog River flows from a chain of lakes in the remote McCormick Wilderness Area and eventually empties into Lake Superior. There is an area about midway down the length of the river that has always been a draw for locals and visitors. This location contains several Class I-V waterfalls, miles of trout stream, the river’s main public access spot, and a network of important natural communities, including some that are considered imperiled. Habitat abounds for rare, threatened, and endangered species among the granite hills of the Huron Mountains, along the Yellow Dog’s riparian corridor, and in the palustrine wetlands.

A timber company owned this spot and decided they wanted to sell it. They called the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve and said they would give us an opportunity to purchase the property, but if we couldn’t raise the funds, their next move would be to divide it into small parcels and sell them off to private buyers. Once large parcels of land get divided, there is increased chance of development. Protecting public access was of strong importance as well. The total price tag was $1.1 million, which was bigger than what our group was accustomed to, but this opportunity was too good and this place was too important to let pass.

We jumped right in, and fundraising was a long process. When I am asked how we came up with the money, I tease people and tell them it ranged from a large federal grant to picking up pop cans off the side of the road. We didn’t really pick up pop cans. But we just want to illustrate that funding came from a wide variety of sources. Getting our grant from the U.S. Forest Service’s Community Forest and Open Spaces Program for $400,000 was a huge boost. We also had a donation of 20 acres of real estate from Max and Mary Putters of Petoskey, who had owned “their little slice of wilderness” for roughly 50 years.

A few weeks before our fundraising deadline, we were still $160,000 short of the purchase price. Fortunately, we then received word from The Carls Foundation that they had approved our request for funds. We made a final sprint to the finish line by contacting Michigan Public Radio and telling them about our story, which they featured throughout the state and directed listeners to our Crowdrise webpage. The public donated so quickly and generously, that the day after airing the story we met our goal.

Closing happened on September 30, 2016, roughly four years after that first phone call. We had preserved 688 acres and 5.28 miles of stream and tributary, had guaranteed public access and involved 200 people, each now more devoted than ever to this place. We will see you at the falls! Visit yellowdogwatershed.org for more information.

Visit the falls: 6 miles southwest of Big Bay, park where CR510 crosses the Yellow Dog River. Follow the river trail east (downriver).


More to Explore in the Upper Peninsula: 

Autumn Wander: An Upper Peninsula Fall Color Tour

10 Stunning Northern Michigan Summer Vacation Ideas

A Route Carved by River: Explore These Upper Peninsula Waterfalls

Michigan Bike Trails Offer Many Ways to Get Outside and Explore ‘The Trails State’

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