Six years ago Steve convinced me to step out of the familiarity of an established campground and venture out into the wilderness to pick a spot and set up camp. The place I picked to do that was Pigeon River State Forest. One night there and I never looked back.
With a massive 105,000 acres, Pigeon River is the largest state forest in Michigan as well as the home to the biggest free-roaming elk herd east of the Mississippi. The elk population was established in 1918, after Michigan’s native elk had died out. Seven elk were released near Wolverine, Michigan in the hopes of repopulating the area. Despite poaching and habitat quality issues in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the population is holding steady in the preferred range. The last elk survey in January of 2014 counted approximately 668 elk.
We didn’t see any elk this trip but heard one bulging late at night. In our experience, it can be difficult to find them. We’ve seen a dozen or two over the last six years. The best option for finding elk is to visit Pigeon River’s elk viewings in September and October at sunrise or sunset.
When we arrived at our usual dispersed camping spot we noticed something very different about it. The last time we were there a beaver had begun to build a dam on the Black River, a couple hundred feet away. This time the forested area between Black River and our campsite was a pond. The beaver had flooded the area. It was an amazing experience to be able to see the transformation of the environment occur from a single beaver.
Also during this visit we heard the familiar “who who cooks for you” call of the Barred Owl and the helicopter sounds of the Ruffed Grouse. We noticed an increase in woodpecker activity and the deer sightings were a lot more frequent. One of my past favorite experiences was sitting by the fire listening to the whippoorwills sing. Other wildlife we’ve encountered are coyotes, foxes, a variety of turtles, hognosed snake, and porcupines.
With an abundance of wildlife comes diverse habitats. There are a few different rivers, several creeks, miles and miles of forest, fields, prairies, and a ton of small lakes that make up the Pigeon River ecosystem. This trip brought us to Grass Lake, Round Lake, Little Pigeon River Mud Lake, Pickerel Lake, Lost Lake, and Cornwall Lake Flooding.
Since that first night at Pigeon River, I’ve never looked at camping the same. To us, staying in a campground doesn’t bring you closer to nature, it simply brings you outside. Spend a night in the middle of a forest where the only sounds are the bulging of an elk, the hooting of owls, and the crickets and frogs chirping and you’ll understand exactly what I mean.
Pigeon River is what brought us to nature.