The story maybe isn’t true, just local lore, but some people say there are a couple of horse teams buried in the mud in Skegemog Swamp, working horses that perhaps went down while hauling logs during the early 1900’s. Stepped in the wrong spot and just disappeared.

Of course, that’s not documented or anything, so nobody knows if it happened or not, but it is the kind of story that gets re-told and sticks, because it’s plausible, believable, when people are talking about a swamp as expansive and knotted and bug-swarming and soft-bottomed as Skegemog. And the horse story is especially believable after hearing June Janis, a Skegemog advocate, tell of a guided nature walk she once took. She stepped on a lily pad and was suddenly, instantly, up to her neck.

Skegemog Swamp is a standoffish place—the Massasauga rattlesnakes, bobcats and black bears don’t soften the reputation. And so it’s especially remarkable that people back in the 1970’s saw the tangled morass along the eastern rim of Lake Skegemog not as something scary to eradicate with bulldozers and fill-dirt, and transform into fertilized lawn, but as something beautiful and rich to preserve forevermore. And when they did—along with lots of help from The Nature Conservancy—Skegemog Wildlife Area became one of Northern Michigan’s first big land conservancy deals, a 3,300-acre preserve with 7 miles of shoreline that helped kick-start a land conservancy movement here that has since saved thousands of acres and is considered one of the strongest such movements in the United States.

But for all of its prickly reputation as a place to explore off the marked trails and boardwalk, Skegemog Swamp is easy and fascinating to explore with shallow-bottomed boats. And so when Dave Hauser, chairman of the Skegemog Wildlife Area Stewardship Committee, invited photographer Todd Zawistowski and me out for a day paddling kayaks along the marshy, labyrinthine fringe, our only question was when? And I’ll be forever glad we did, because our half-day outing became a truly remarkable nature show, something so good, that in the retelling it sounds made-up.

June 1 arrives, and we meet Hauser, his wife Butch, and Dale and Gini Claudepierre for an 8 a.m. launch. Lake Skegemog stretches out with a light ripple in the still morning as we float east into the sun rising over the swamp. We paddle just a few minutes when we are treated to our first iconic animal display. To the south, right on shore, the 6-foot-diameter nest of a bald eagle swells from the trunk of a white pine. In various trees nearby, the residents—two adults and an immature—sit scoping our progress out on the lake.

Eagles vanished from the area during the DDT pesticide-caused population collapse of the mid-1900’s, but they returned in 1981, an event heralded with the words, “There’s good news tonight! The eagles have landed!” in the November 18, 1981, edition of the Elk Rapids Town Meeting. The nest has contributed mightily to the resurgence of eagles across the region, hatching one or two birds nearly every year—nourished, no doubt, from fish that cruise the rich habitat of the Skegemog Swamp shore.

Skegemog Lake kayak

Skegemog Lake kayak

We paddle on, veering south when we come to a broad, marshy inlet that pushes about a third-mile into the shore and marks the entrance of Barker Creek. Today we can paddle easily through here, “but by midsummer, this is so thick with lily pads it’s almost impassable,” Dale says.

As he talks, frogs provide the background sound, deep, sloppy, belchy croaks, one behind us, another in front, a croak about every 10 seconds. At the top of a dead tree, no bark and nothing left but trunk, a kingfisher surveys its turf. It flies from its perch to snatch an insect and returns. A few minutes later, living up to its name, the bird plunges into the water and emerges with a fish. Dale points to shore, and we watch deer navigating along the forest edge. Beyond a row of vegetation, we see the necks and heads of two swans swimming through the marsh. All of this nature action is just plain normal, here for anybody to see any day they want to paddle on out, our guides assure us.

The Skegemog Swamp has been here since the glaciers receded and water levels dropped. But the swamp flooded significantly when settlers built a dam with a head of water 7.5 feet high at Elk Rapids in the mid-1800’s. The level of the Lake Skegemog did not rise that much, but it rose enough to inundate the extensive backwater slough where we now float and take in the animal show, a prime example of what rich habitat can create. But in addition to creating habitat by holding something in—H2O—the dam also shelters habitat by keeping things out, namely invasive species like sea lamprey and the round gobies that have taken over East and West Grand Traverse Bays, which this water connects to.

The wind kicks up a smidge as we head back out to the main lake and continue on, arcing north and east along the shore. We take another break, pausing to eat Cliff Bars and wasabi-coated soy beans in the slough that marks where Desmond Creek enters the lake, and then we paddle on. Where another marshy lobe opens toward shore, Gini spies two ruddy-colored animals through the cattails. We think they are deer at first, because the color is a dead-match for the auburn coats of June whitetails. But as we paddle closer we see they are two sandhill cranes, with two baby cranes weaving in and around those improbably long, comically mechanical legs.

Even more interesting, though, the adults are involved in a pitched battle with a flock of about 10 redwing blackbirds that shriek and dive-bomb the cranes, pecking at their heads and sides and backs. Unable to resist the drama, we paddle to within 30 feet. The red splotches on the cranes’ heads glow under the morning sun as they move through the attacking redwings. Now and again, the big birds flap a wing to drive the redwings away, but the attackers just hover in the air a moment and dive again.

For the most part, the cranes are undeterred in their quest, which might be babies in a redwing blackbird nest. Babies that will become food for the crane babies? Sandhill cranes are largely carnivores, so even when you see them in cornfields, they are probably hunting mice. Soon, the redwing blackbird attack abates, and only one or two birds persist. Perhaps they are the parents. But even they soon quit.

We paddle on.

We are heading to a marshy inlet where the overlook platform is visible on shore, and we are floating in about a foot of water when I see a long, slender spotted fish about as long as my arm sweep through below my boat. Against the coffee-bean brown lake bottom, and with the sun illuminating the fish’s white dots through the invisible water, the fish is radiant.

And now two more of the same fish swim just inches under the boat, a beautiful, snaking, fluid, glowing motion as they head into the lily pads. They are gar pike, considered junk fish by fishermen, but I can’t help but admire their grace and that crazy long snout, as now two more and then three sweep between my boat and the shallow lake bottom. Gini recalls one spring day when she paddled in here, and the water was roiling with gar pike as they immersed themselves in the frenzied rite of spawning.

In addition to wanting to show off the viewing platform, our guides also chose this little inlet to prove how the swamp can push back against man’s meager efforts to control it. Here at a creek outlet, beavers built a dam a couple of summers ago that then flooded the boardwalk that leads to the viewing platform. Dave and Dale spent days on the arduous task of ripping out the dam by hand.

Five days after they were done, they came back to check the site. The beavers had already re-built the dam using all new material—beavers won’t reuse a log. Dave and Dale ripped it out again. They point to two piles of logs and sticks nearby that rise 15 feet as proof of their efforts. The beavers rebuilt. This final dam isn’t as high, they point out, as we nudge our way through the watery muck to check it out.

As we get close, we see a snapping turtle sunning himself on the dam. Our presence convinces him to move, but he only goes a few feet then stops in some weeds. The lower dam doesn’t flood as much ground, and the boardwalk to the viewing platform is now dry. Proof: three people are standing on it, and they wave to us.

Our next stop is not very nature-fabulous, but is central to the Skegemog tale. We beach our boats where the effort to save Skegemog began. Back about 1970, on a point on the northeast shore, a landowner hauled in more than a thousand truckloads of fill to build an access road and two building sites near the shore. On one site he set up a white mobile home.

Harry and June Janis, who lived nearby, saw this as the first of what might become a whole string of fill-and-build projects that would damage the water-filtering power of the swamp and diminish the environment along that long, unbroken shore. As with any conservation effort this large, many people became involved, but by all accounts, Harry and June led the charge and saved what is considered today one of the Northern Lower Peninsula’s most stellar intact wetlands.

We launch again and begin the final piece of our little journey, pushing across the stump-studded waterway where the Torch River enters Lake Skegemog. The stumps, whose exposed roots spool like octopus arms across the lake bottom, were submerged when the dam was built in Elk Rapids. They have done their own part to protect this wild place: boaters must creep through the treacherous stretch or risk a busted prop, and that slow speed prevents damage from wave action on the shoreline.

The final nature show comes after we’ve tied our boats on the cars and driven to the overlook at the north end of the wildlife area. We head into the forest on the trail and see that a 3-inch-thick glowing gauze lies over the forest floor. It’s cottonwood seed, drifting down by the millions and piling up like translucent snow, luminous in the sun of a June afternoon.

We gather at the Claudepierres’ home for lunch. We saw so much, what a lucky day, I say.

Dave looks at me. “That’s just a normal day out there,” he says.

Check out our interview with Dave Mahan, an instrumental member of those who saved the swamp.

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski