The Face of Northern Michigan Begins Beneath Your Feet

My late uncle used to say that Kalkaska sand was only good for growing jack pine and trout. As a boy, I struggled to see a problem with such a characterization.  As I grew older, however, I came to realize that despite this significant over-simplification, my uncle’s intent was not to disparage these soils, but to merely make the point that they were ill-suited to most forms of agriculture.  This fact has been well-documented since the plow unsuccessfully followed the axe during the early years of the 20th century.  JackPinePlains

In this instance, the reference to Kalkaska sand is intended to mean the broader spectrum of sands and sandy-loam soils which not only comprise much of the north-central and northwestern lower peninsula, but much of the eastern half of the upper peninsula, as well.

The impact this soil series has had on our state’s history was not lost on Michigan’s State legislature who designated Kalkaska sand as the official State Soil in 1990. Much of what defines the many unique physical features of our region is directly related to this family of soils –  its vast areas of public land and forests, its cold, clear trout streams, rivers and lakes, and the dunes and beaches along our Great Lakes’ shorelines.

Much of what we see as northern Michigan today has its origins with the conversion of two major events – the turn-of-the-century logging era and the dreams made possible by the Homestead Acts.  Many came to learn that free land and a strong back were not enough to turn these excessively-drained soils into productive farm lands.  As farms failed and were ultimately surrendered through tax forfeiture, these lands became the foundation for the inventory of our public lands which exist today.

As the call came to return these soils to productivity, it came with the recognition that these were not places which could be conquered with steel and effort alone; the only long term solution was to make peace with the land.  In his 2001 book, Planning a Wilderness, James Kates discusses those who shared the idea of returning these northern Great Lakes lands to productivity through the combined commodities of forestry and wilderness.

“By the early 1930’s, American outdoor life had been domesticated. What formerly had been private passions were now conducted under the guidance of the state, of commercial interests, and a new class of managerial experts.  Camping, hunting, and fishing were deemed too important to be left to the wishes of the individual…Under the dream of continuous production, the landscape was managed to produce an annual crop of service to human beings, much as farm acreage produced corn or wheat. The task, as Aldo Leopold so acutely recognized, was to tame the forest while at the same time preserving at least the illusion of its wild past.” (page 112)

Those areas of sandy soil which reestablished themselves as jack pine barrens and forests did so as a community of relationships.  Perhaps the most unique and well known among these relationships is that of young jack pine and the Kirtland’s Warbler. Although it remains classified as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the considerable habitat restoration efforts which have been in place since the 1970’s may soon result in the bird’s removal from that list.

Although the drainage characteristics of these sandy soils may have been the death knell for those chasing the dream of a family farm, these same physical properties make them one of the world’s best natural water filtration systems.  It is no coincidence that the lakes and streams of the area are not only beautiful to the eye, but also home to one of the world’s best cold-water fisheries.

While it may be obvious to those who may have grown up on a family farm or otherwise readily recognize the relationship between soils and land use, for most others, it is far more subtle.  The lessons which were learned from those early failed homesteads gave rise to the science of soils – without which, there never would have been the name, “Kalkaska sand.”

P.A.R.

About Northern Michigan Conservation Network

The mission of the Northern Michigan Conservation Network is to "connect conservation-minded hunters, anglers, and outdoor enthusiasts to those issues affecting Michigan's forests, waters, and wildlife."

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