Along the Wild Fringe of Skegemog Swamp

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.

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

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