Along the Wild Fringe of Skegemog Swamp

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.