The tornado blew the rowboat across the lake, despite Jim Diana’s furious rowing.
He was relieved when the boat reached shore. The twister had missed. It touched down just southeast of Third Sister Lake, the jewel of U-M’s Saginaw Forest.
“It taught me that nature can be violent as well as calming,” says Diana, now Michigan Sea Grant director. The incident happened in the 1980s, as he was tracking fish implanted with radio transmitters.
The University of Michigan’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens and the Nichols Arboretum are known to offer a satisfying Ann Arbor nature experience. But lesser-known Saginaw Forest, on the city’s west edge, offers a more untamed adventure.
The forest is home to hawks, wild turkeys and coyotes. It offers the unique urban experience of a pastoral woodland, just four miles from campus.
“People say being at Saginaw Forest feels like they’re up in Northern Michigan,” says Bob Grese, director of Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum and a School of Natural Resources and Environment faculty member since 1986.
Former Saginaw Woods caretaker Shaw Lacy recalls the time he spotted a woman sitting in a folding chair reading a book, along a forest trail.
“I normally go to the Arboretum. But there are too many people there and it just doesn’t feel like I’m getting away,” he recalls her saying.
Former students, faculty and the public who’ve experienced the woodland tend to share a bond with the property. “In the hearts of many of the older alumni, there is much sentiment for the old ‘Forestry Farm.’ It was there they struggled with grub hoes and spades to establish the first plantations,” states the early 1960s “A Guide to Saginaw Forest.”
“This forest will always be far more than just a piece of land planted with trees,” it states.
“You just feel good about life when you can get away from the stress, get away from everyday work and get out in nature,” he says.
“A coyote jumped out of the woods and went after my 25-pound dog. He was off leash and a bit ahead of me. I screamed and charged and he ran back into the woods. Be careful and make sure your dog is on a leash — A fellow Saginaw Forest dog walker.”
The hand-written placard is taped to one of two stone pillars, shaded by oak, pine and Norway maples. They flank a gated dirt road leading into the woods. A maize and blue sign set high on thick wood posts proclaims “Saginaw Forest” at this public entrance. It is north of Liberty Road just west of Wagner Road, facing subdivisions to the south.
U-M Regent Arthur Hill of Saginaw, a lumberman, bought the original farmland tract in 1903. He deeded it to the university for use as a forestry demonstration and experimental area. It provided students with opportunities to measure trees, learn how to harvest them, and polish professional practices they would find in the working world of forestry, Grese says.
“The University of Michigan was one of the first universities applying scientific principles to forest management,” Grese says. Saginaw Forest also was used for pharmacy and natural sciences studies.
Forestry students enjoyed the annual weekend-long Field Day in the spring, and the daylong Campfire in the fall. “On the hillside back of the present cabin, they sat and listened to the inspirational talks of (faculty member) ‘Daddy’ Roth and wondered just what the future had in store for forestry and for them,” the guide recalls.
By the 1960s, Saginaw Forest had become a more diverse woodland. Forestry studies also were changing, to meet societal and student needs. Today, SNRE and other schools and units use the forest for a range of research and demonstration uses. They also use 777-acre Stinchfield Woods in Pinckney 18 miles from campus, and other scattered woodlands. Students and researchers study fish, invasive plant species, environmental education and even the connection of woodlands to literature.
Those who hire SNRE graduates include land conservancies, and agencies involved in environmental education such as school districts and park agencies.
Watching the woods
Oak leaves and sunlight like splattered paint grace the dirt road leading from the front gate to the wood and stone caretaker’s cabin, built in 1915. A clearing hosts a few spaces for parking, the campfire pit, and the wood dock to Third Sister Lake.
The cabin has been home since July 2013 to caretaker Jenny Hebert. “I had a very outdoorsy childhood,” says Hebert, from Beverly Hills, Michigan. She spent summers up north with her parents and an older brother and sister.
At U-M, she minored in Program in the Environment, and eventually pursued a master’s degree in landscape architecture. Hebert enjoyed the science of the field, and creating beautiful art. It was only after entering graduate school that she discovered Saginaw Forest. “I could hear the coyotes yelping. It would start right around bedtime,” she recalls. She found a trail from her apartment ended at the forest.
Hebert learned the caretaker job was coming open, applied and got it.
The first nights sleeping in the cabin were unnerving. “Coming out here was so much more quiet and so much darker. I was used to all that ambient noise,” she says.
Hebert this year earned her master’s and has taken a job at InSite Design Studio in town. She performs most caretaker duties in the early morning with Leto, her 4-year-old husky.
Hebert wears a faded red and brown flannel shirt over a light-brown T-shirt, jeans and L.L. Bean boots. Her brown hair falls in front of her face as she kneels to pull an invasive Dame’s Rocket plant from the soil. She explains that invasives choke off other plants, reducing diversity and benefits to wildlife.
Along the trail circling the lake, Hebert spots abandoned fishhooks. She picks them up, along with some litter. She suspects a youth who kept fishing, even after she warned him that the lake is a research area, and contaminated. The contamination, from an industry-related dioxane spill discovered in the 1980s, is regularly monitored by U-M’s Department of Occupational Safety and Environmental Health to record the lake’s continuing recovery.
Hebert makes nature presentations to Girl Scouts and others, and chats with people who visit the woods. Some later send emails about wildlife they’ve spotted. “It helps me keep a record,” she says.
“I love seeing coyotes. I’ve only seen them twice; once crossing the ice. They’re curious but not aggressive. They want to look at you to see what you’re about. They ran off when we got closer. They probably saw Leto,” she says.
Coyotes also star in former caretaker Lacy’s favorite Saginaw Forest moments: “You could see coyotes crossing across the frozen lake, and hear as well the crack of ice as it was forming up on the lake and breaking up in the spring. The layer of snow made the woods so quiet.”
“Being able to be on the dock watching the bass make a nest, those sorts of things are part of the joy of living out in Saginaw Forest,” Lacy says.
Since she has graduated and is working in her field, Hebert will leave the caretaker’s cabin this month. “It’s going to be hard not to live in a forest anymore — that very secure solitude and to be able to reflect and relax and just enjoy the outdoors,” she says.
Studies and research
Matthew Bertrand, an SNRE graduate student seeking a Master of Landscape Architecture degree, is walking Saginaw Forest this summer for Grese. The goal is to update a master plan produced by Johnson-Hill Land Ethics Studio. Bertrand also is reviewing options to build a new caretaker residence, improve trails and signage, and address storm water runoff from adjacent properties.
His boots damp with dew, Bertrand walks a boardwalk extending the looped trail north of the cabin through wetlands. On either side, brown cattails rise. Blue irises with yellow centers also grow in the wet prairie.
Ben Lee, an SNRE student seeking a doctorate in resource ecology and management, conducts research at Saginaw Forest to support a study of forest communities at different elevations and latitudes tied to climate change. It is led by Ines Ibanez, associate professor of natural resources and environment, SNRE, and ecology and evolutionary biology, LSA.
A key task is to study the phenology, or timing of leaf expansion in trees planted at various sites in Michigan including Saginaw Forest, Stinchfield Woods and in the Upper Peninsula. Lee measures leaf length and keeps tabs on permanent sensors at the sites.
Don Scavia, director of the Graham Sustainability Institute and an SNRE professor, is pursuing a joint boat project on Three Sisters Lake with Branko Kerkez, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Laura Balzano, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science.
“We are developing tools that leverage autonomous unmanned vehicles to adaptively sample dissolved oxygen concentrations across the Great Lakes,” he says.
Outputs of a coupled hydrodynamic and limnological model will be used to derive a preliminary sampling path for the autonomous boat to optimize.
“The path of the vehicle is adjusted in real time based on onboard oxygen measurements to create a more accurate and cost-efficient map of low-oxygen regions. We’re starting on small lakes in Michigan, but plan to scale up to the Great Lakes in the near future,” he says.