by Joan Chadde
Some of us have a favorite song, a favorite rock, a favorite book, or perhaps a favorite place. The Keweenaw Shore Nature Sanctuary in Keweenaw County, (owned by the Michigan Nature Association), is one of my favorite places in the Upper Peninsula.
The Keweenaw Shore Nature Sanctuary straddles M-26 adjacent to the Esrey Park roadside picnic area, about 8 miles east of Eagle Harbor and 6 miles west of Copper Harbor. A short three-quarter mile trail begins across from Esrey Park, passing through four distinct plant communities and over several rocky ridges of Copper Harbor conglomerate—a sedimentary rock formation consisting of individual rock fragments within a finer-grained matrix that have become cemented together.
At the start of the trail, the hiker enters a northern boreal forest of white spruce, balsam fir, aspen, and white birch. Look for heart-leaved arnica growing on the rocky, dry soil, and Usnea lichen, (Old Man’s Beard), draped over the balsam fir and white spruce trees, creating an eerie atmosphere. Light green Usnea covers tree bark and branches with a profuse, beardlike growth that can reach a foot in length! Many bird species, including ruby-throated hummingbirds, boreal chickadees, American redstarts, and white-winged crossbills pad their nests with these soft lichens.
The Usnea lichen is particularly effective at absorbing minerals from the air, making it sensitive to airborne pollutants, especially sulfur dioxide, so it’s a useful bio-indicator of air quality. Under poor air quality conditions, Usnea lichens may grow no larger than a few millimeters, if they survive at all. Where the air is not polluted, Usnea lichens can grow ten to twenty centimeters long.
The second plant community along the trail is a cedar swamp. Look for white cedar, balsam fir, alder and a dense ground cover of sedges.
Next, the hiker enters a small sampler of a northern conifer bog, complete with sphagnum moss as ground cover, along with bog laurel, pitcher plants, leatherleaf shrubs, black spruce, and Labrador tea.
Lastly, the trail climbs over a rocky ridge and enters a dry hardwood-conifer forest before descending to Brockway Mountain Drive. Plants common to this forest plant community are white pine, arnica, bracken fern, aster and thimbleberry. White pine needles carpet the dry rocky soil.
The geology is special here, too. Some of the rocks are more than one billion years old! The trail traverses a series of rocky ridges interspersed with low-lying wet areas. Look for the rounded gravel deposited along one of many shorelines associated with periods of glacial retreat, which occurred only a few thousand years ago.
From Eagle Harbor, follow M-26 northeast about six miles, (or follow M-26 eight miles west of Copper Harbor), to the Esrey Park roadside picnic area along Lake Superior, less than a mile from Brockway Mountain Drive’s west entrance. Visitors may park at Esrey Park or along the south side of M-26 near the Michigan Nature Association sanctuary trailhead sign.
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Terrain: Flat to rolling
Distance: 0.75 mile trail from M-26 to Brockway Mountain Drive; 1.5 miles roundtrip
Size: 36 acres
Ownership: Michigan Nature Association
Contact: (517) 655-5655, www.michigannature.org
Joan Chadde has 25+ years of environmental education experience. She authored Michigan Water Quality Curriculum (2006), Design Guidelines to Enhance Community Appearance & Protect Natural Resources (2004), and most recently compiled Walking Paths & Protected Areas of the Keweenaw (2009), from which this article is adapted.
The Michigan Nature Association, established in 1952, is a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting Michigan’s exceptional natural habitats and extraordinary and endangered plants and animals. Our members have made it possible for us to preserve 165 nature sanctuaries in 56 counties throughout the state today and forever. MNA published Walking Paths & Protected Areas of the Keweenaw (2009). Copies may be purchased on their website, http://www.michigannature.org, in Marquette bookstores and twenty-two Keweenaw Peninsula locations.