A Rattlesnake-Free Hike on the Skegemog Pathway

From the viewing platform at the Skegemog Swamp

From the viewing platform at the Skegemog Swamp

By MIKE NORTON

One of the things I love most about winter is its transformative power – the way it can turn a familiar, easily ignored landscape into something surreal and otherworldly in a matter of hours.

Sometimes the results are enchanting, like those wonderful mornings when you emerge from your burrow into a panorama of soft cottony hills under a cobalt blue sky, and see the Bay sparkling to the horizon like a field of diamonds. Sometimes the experience is an austere paring-down of sensory input: a curtain of fog, a carpet of snow, and the thin song of the wind in bare branches.

And sometimes, it’s just… different.

So there I was, driving through Kalkaska County last week when I passed the trailhead for the Skegemog Lake Pathway, just south of Rapid City. I’d been out on this trail years ago in the summertime, but had never ventured there in winter.

Skegemog Lake is a strange anomaly in the Traverse City area, which has become a pretty civilized place over the last few decades. Just a few minutes from town, it could almost be mistaken for a large bay of nearby Elk Lake and is a familiar part of the landscape along M-72 between Traverse City and Kalkaska. But its southern shore is a swampy wilderness that has stubbornly resisted development and remains a mysterious, primitive place.

Ancient hunting peoples spent a lot of time around Skegemog (they left a generous number of stone tools and weapons behind) but most modern-day travelers have given the place a pass. That may be because it’s such a soggy place most of the year. Or it may be because it’s one of the favorite refuges of the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake, Michigan’s only poisonous snake. They’re cute little guys, and rarely fatal.

Actually, the scariest creatures around Skegemog are underwater. Among the many fish that can be caught here (walleye, brown trout, largemouth bass, northern pike) the most famous is the muskellunge, a voracious fish with the all the instincts of a great white shark. Some years back, a 48-pounder was hooked in this lake, and it’s not uncommon to see 40-lb muskies prowling the shallows looking for prey. I’ve seen them gobble down ducklings like hors d’oeuvres.

Thanks to The Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, most of this southern shore is now the Skegemog Lake Wildlife Area – 3,300 acres of wetlands, forests, grassland and a 7-mile stretch of frontage on the lake and nearby Torch River. It’s perfect habitat for bald eagles, merlins, loons, herons, egrets, mink, otters, beavers, and other wetland wildlife, and it has a small network of trails that can be accessed from four different parking areas.

The old railroad grade: prime snake-basking territory in the summer

The old railroad grade: prime snake-basking territory in the summer

The best part? Raised boardwalks have been built out over the soggiest parts, so you can wander through the swamp without getting your feet wet. It’s an opportunity you shouldn’t pass up – a Michigan cedar swamp is a lush, Jurassic Park sort of place where you can’t see very far and where you almost expect to come face to face with a velociraptor or two.

Of course, on this particular crisp winter day the boardwalk wasn’t necessary. (Heck, it wasn’t even visible.) But the swamp was every bit as beautiful. Cozy, even. And I didn’t have to worry about bumping into any velociraptors – or any rattlesnakes. The trail starts out on an abandoned 19th century railroad grade before plunging into the forest at the side of little Janis Creek. It’s a wonderful thing to hear the soft gurgle of a winter stream as you move through the cedars, listening for birds and trying not to get snow down your collar.

In the cedars, along Janis Creek.

In the cedars, along Janis Creek.

At the end of the forest, everything changes. Here the landscape suddenly opens up dramatically as you approach the lakeshore, where scattered cattails and osiers give way to a wide vista across the labyrinthine swamp toward the hills above Williamsburg. This is prime birding country, and in spring and fall it’s particularly rich in migrating waterfowl; in fact, there’s a small wooden tower at the end of the trail where you can watch for birds.

Even in winter, when the swamp becomes much less swampy, it’s a lovely spot – and there’s none of the less pleasant variety of flying wildlife (mosquitoes and flies) that you find in wet places in summertime. I wasn’t patient enough to wait for any birds, but I certainly enjoyed the scenery.

The best way to find this trail? Head east from Traverse City on M-72 until you reach County Road 597. About three miles after the turnoff, you’ll see the trailhead and parking area. It’s on the left-hand side of the road.

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About mikelovestc

These days, I’m the media relations guy for the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau, but before that I spent 25 years as a reporter and columnist at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, a job that frequently took me out into the most remote backroads, forests, beaches and islands of the beautiful Grand Traverse Region. My strategy was pretty simple — just drive, paddle, ski or walk until you’re certain you’re lost, and then find somebody to talk to. It was a great job! I never intended to live in Traverse City. I grew up in Grand Rapids, spent four years in the Coast Guard in places like Miami Beach, Monterey and San Francisco, and when I finally graduated from college I took a summer job at the Miami Herald. To my surprise, I discovered I didn’t like the tropics nearly as much as I thought I would — and when the Record-Eagle offered me a job I took it, figuring I’d put in a year or two and head off to someplace like Seattle or Portland. What I discovered very quickly is that this place gets to you in a variety of unexpected ways. The beaches here are as lovely as anyplace else I’ve ever been, the weather is mild all year round — warm enough for swimming in September and cold enough for skiing in December — and just about the time you’re getting tired of one season you get another one every bit as pleasant. The people are laid-back and friendly, the music and arts scene is awesome, and the place still hasn’t gotten so sophisticated that a guy like me feels out of place.
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6 Responses to A Rattlesnake-Free Hike on the Skegemog Pathway

  1. Sandi P. says:

    I have a cousin, Aaron Veselenak of Rogers City, who wrote a book on that rattlesnake, “Swamp Rattler, Facts, History and Status of Michigan’s Sole Venomous Serpent”.

  2. Chris P says:

    yes, skegemog is a great place to visit – would be interested in reading about a visit by canoe sometime.

    couple of clarifications however:
    1. the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy preserved Skegemog, not The Nature Conservancy
    2. Michigan’s record muskie was caught in Lake Bellaire last year

  3. I have hiked this many many times and have yet to see a rattlesnake, but it is very interesting to see the remodeling of this area each year due to beaver. There have been some years when the path is underwater. The best time to hike is June to look for the showy lady slipper.

  4. Gretchen V says:

    No rattlesnakes?.Don’t be so sure. Years and years ago there used to be a snake expert from a university in Indian or Illinois who summered in Alden. He had a hard time convincing the hospital that it was a rattlesnake he had been bit by in Skegemog until he established his credentials and that he knew what he was talking about. Some of the old timers may remember him because he brought some very large reptile friends when he came for the summer.

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