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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.
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.