September Gilds the Fenlands

Upton Road Fen in northern Barry County, Michigan.

Upton Road Fen in northern Barry County, Michigan.

Three miles south of Middleville, Michigan, lies Upton Road Fen. That is the name I have given the place for convenience to provide some sense of location. In reality, the fen is nameless. Rarely do wetlands in Michigan have an actual place name, and in the case of this wetland, that is just as well, because the name "Upton Road" hardly does justice to either the magnificent sweep and diversity of the fen or the loveliness of the sandy forest trail that winds through archways of hardwood past the fen's northern border.
A feather tamarack stands sentinel at the fen's northern border.

A feather tamarack stands sentinel at the fen's northern border.

Prairie fens are a rare and unusual kind of alkaline wetland, rich in plant life, and Barry County is a bastion for these beautiful and fascinating ecosystems. Upton Road Fen may well be the largest of its kind in this part of the state. If not, it is certainly one of the larger ones, stretching three-quarters of a mile from corner to corner and encompassing a wide palette of fen habitats, from drier cinquefoil fields, to sedge meadows, to a wet, reedy seep, to a floating mat on the lowest, southeast end.  Pitcher plants grow here, and wild orchids, and blazing star, and deep blue fringed and bottle gentians. Tamaracks rub shoulders with red cedars, and here at the end of September, poison sumac shrubs dot the periphery of the fen, glowing incandescently like fiery rubies strung across a vast necklace where the wetland meets the woods.
Unidentified seed pod. Any guesses?

Unidentified seed pod. Any guesses?

I have come here on this bright, late afternoon in search of gentians, and I am not disappointed. They are here, fully open, batting their fetching blue lashes at the slanting September sun. Little coquettes! Gentle, sweet wildflowers, flirty yet shy, like teenage girls just discovering their charms. I have intended to get photographs, but my camera's battery is lower than I realized, and it dies on me after just a few landscape shots plus some odds-and-ends closeups. The latter include this old seed pod with one tufted seed still clinging gallantly to it. I don't know what the plant is--it's actually a shrub of some kind, and far be it from me to venture a guess as to its identity. I'm just not much of a shrub man. I walk cautiously, keeping an eye out for massasaugas. In the many times I have visited this fen, I have never seen one, but I am told they are here and actually plentiful. I would love to see one, but not today--I left my heavy boots at home, and I wouldn't care to have my first encounter with Michigan's only rattlesnake result from my stepping on one with these old, threadbare athletic shoes I'm wearing.
Looking south across the long reaches of the fen.

Looking south across the long reaches of the fen.

Fortunately, my snakeless record remains pristine as I head back to the car. It has been an all-too-short visit on this radiant afternoon, but I have things to do and it is time to go. I am grateful, though, for these few minutes here, beyond the grasp of the frenzied world, where time slows down and invites me to do likewise long enough to see the smile of my Father. He is a loving Creator who has much reason to look upon these works of his hands--these golden fields, this sun-gilded fen stretching luminously beneath the September sky--and call all of it good. Yes, very good indeed.

Along the Long Lake Trail

This has been the quietest May I can recall weatherwise. The peak month that I and hundreds of other storm chasers have spent the better part of a year anticipating has turned out to be a dud. Maybe around the latter part of the month things will improve, but there's nothing to look forward to for at least the next week. If the weather isn't going to offer anything chaseworthy, then the way it has been is exactly the way I want it to be: blue, crisp, and beautiful, warm but not hot, with the sun smiling down on a landscape that's getting on with the business of spring. A couple days ago, I took a walk down the Long Lake Trail just north of Gun Lake State Park in northern Barry County's Yankee Springs Recreational Area. It had been a while since I had hiked the trail, and this time of year is perfect for the venture, so off I went. The first mile or so of the trail winds through hardwood forest, skirting a small bog and a tract of red pine, then sets you on a quarter-mile stretch of boardwalk through part of the swamp that surrounds Long Lake. It's a lovely hike that offers plenty to see if you know your native plants and their habitats. Here are a few of the highlights. The odd little plant to your right, which somewhat resembles miniature corncobs, is called squawroot (Orobanche americana). It is a common woodland plant, parasitic on oak trees. Click on the image to enlarge it. The trail winds through some particularly pretty territory. The photo below gives you an idea. There are a number of other images at the bottom of this page to keep it company. Ferns were in the process of unrolling their fronds. They never look more dramatic or more artistic than this time of year, when they're in their "fiddlehead" stage. Farther down the trail, where the boardwalk commences, marsh marigolds scattered Pointillistic fragments of butter-yellow across the swamp floor. Picking up on the golden theme, the first few flowers of small yellow ladyslipper orchids (Cypripedium calceolus var. parviflorum) peeked out shyly from among lush skunk cabbage leaves. The swamp is full of poison sumac, a small tree with which I've had considerable experience recognizing and avoiding. It is related to the cashew and also, of course, to poison ivy. Eating poison ivy at age six was not one of my intellectual zeniths, and it's not an experiment one should undertake casually. Long after the initial bitter burst of flavor has faded, the experience lingers in a way a body is not apt to forget. Word has it that poison sumac is even more virulent than poison ivy. That's not something I care to put to the test. Interestingly, the sap of its equally toxic cousin, the Japanese lacquer tree, is used as a varnish which produces some beautiful objets d'art, though how a body works with a medium like that is beyond me. But enough of the swamp and its sumac. Stepping off the far end of the boardwalk and farther into the woods, I encountered an elegant young beech tree standing sentinel on a mossy bank. I walked a bit farther, then turned back. The slanting sun rays were filtering long through the leaves, the temperature was cooling, and it was time for me to go practice my horn--which, by the way, I've been doing pretty consistently. But that's material for another post. Right now, check out the rest of my photos in the gallery below.