Working in the Great White North- By Fred Wooley

The first week of January was certainly “welcome to winter” in northeast Indiana. Single digit temperatures and snow were the daily norm. Our work continues in such conditions. We bundle in layers, crack out the big Mickey boots, pull on the thickest gloves and mitts, and have at it. Those small hand warmers come in handy too.


We add a little antifreeze tot he herbicide to keep things flowing from our daubers and the brush cutters seem undaunted by the cold. It pays to have good equipment.


On January 3, four of us left our Blue Heron Ministries morning meeting at the Chapel of the Lakes home office and headed northwest into Michigan. Temperatures were about 8 degrees and a few inches of snow covered the ground. It seemed to be winter enough. Our worksite was on the Berrien side of the Berrien/Van Buren County line. The natural area is two adjoining nature preserves, the Butternut Creek and the Four Macomb County Ladies Nature Preserves. Both are managed by the Michigan Nature Association. We made our way over, first on Indiana State Road 120, then up to Michigan US 12, and then really wound our way around back roads
until finally turning on to a north-south road lined with trees on both sides. It was clear we entered a new type of winter. Everything was white, the road, the trees, all around us, including the sky filled with falling snow.


There was no such thing as roadside parking, as snow was piled too high on both sides. Fortunately, we found a pull-off of sorts and gunned the 4×4 truck up into a safe notch in the forest.


Getting out was truly stepping into winter wonderland. This is Berrien County, Michigan. Winter skiing, snowmobiling, and snowshoeing enthusiasts know it well. It’s the most southwest county in Michigan and benefits from lake affect snow. We were in it today. We stepped into nearly knee deep snow- that light, fluffy, airy snow.


We gathered our gear, including lunches, because it was a 20 minute walk back to the site from the road and we would not be taking the time to walk back just for lunch. First we walked down the road and then turned west into a deeper forest. In a short distance we came to a planted pine grove which was truly magical. The dark trunks were a deep contrast to the all white surroundings. The trail back to the worksite had been broken a day or so before, but nearly covered now. Occasional orange ribbons tied to trees provided the route. Being fourth in line, I felt like the last deer along a game trail. The trail was now the width of two boots and 12-15 inches deep.


We finally made it to the site, a wet fen, but not before having to cross a narrow creek. It wasn’t easy on a ten-inch diameter, snow-covered fallen log. Peter slipped and would have taken a cold bath, but a thin layer of snow covered ice allowed him to scramble to safety. Josh and Gary stayed back to cut “hand rails” to place in the creek while Peter and I proceeded to the worksite.


It was sort of an open area, but beginning to fill with invasive honeysuckle and autumn olive. The objective was to cut, apply herbicide, and stack the branches, exposing the fen floor to what would be warm sun come the growing season. We set about working and found it to be the most challenging of this winter, not because of the cold, but because of snow depth. It was not easy to get close to the stem and trunk bases to cut and daub herbicide tot he stumps. We plugged away though, working in pairs, one cutting and daubing, the other pulling and piling branches.


There were times we’d laugh as in the process of cutting, we’d nudge a limb above and send down a pillow of snow covering our work. Just coming out of the holiday season when we often played Christmas music, I thought of that old Dean Martin song, “It’s a Marshmallow World.” At least I think that’s the name of it. That’s the main lyric and it perfectly describes the world in which we were now working.


While out there, we were joined by four people from the Michigan Nature Association who were out flagging future work areas. We laughed as we met up, realizing the beautiful, if not peculiar, conditions for two teams of four to be meeting out in a winter wilderness, so far from a road, so far from shovel and plow.

We took each other’s photographs and went back to work. We left at the end of the day and drove as quickly out of the snow as we drove into it. We have not been back to Butternut Creek since. We heard the report for another 10-12 inches of snow the next day. The work conditions would really be difficult at that point. We’ll leave those woods for skiers and snowshoers. There will be other days for fen stewards.. when the snow melts a bit.

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