Michigan's Sylvania Wilderness

Hike up and down oak- and hickory-covered ridgetops, or explore underground.
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Hike up and down oak- and hickory-covered ridgetops, or explore underground.

Little-Known Fact: Sylvania Recreation Area was used for decades as an exclusive hunting and fishing club for wealthy industrialists.

The sound wavers like wind across the top of a bottle; loons hooting mournfully somewhere in the darkness over Mountain Lake. It is late, and the campfire has burned down to a mound of glowing coals. Out beyond the trees, mist hangs low over the water like smoke.

Through the branches of virgin growth white pines ringing the campsite, only a sliver of the night sky is visible. Lying flat on my back against the pine-needle softness, I count 19 stars. I listen again for the loons.

At times like these, Michigan's Sylvania Wilderness seems endless. In the blackness, against the echo of night birds calling, the boundaries begin to blur. You could slide your canoe into Mountain Lake and paddle north for weeks, crossing nothing man-made but your own shadow.

More than a century has passed since lumberjacks razed the forests of Michigan's Upper Peninsula to make way for urban growth and concrete. They did a thorough job, and if it weren't for the Sylvania Tract, it would be hard to know what the region looked like in presettlement days. This 27,000-acre preserve on the Wisconsin-Michigan border is the only spot where the Great Lakes old-growth forests were spared.

While shouts of "tim-ber-r-r-r!" and the sounds of saws buzzed through the Northwoods in the late 1800s, Sylvania remained quiet. From the beginning of the century, it was owned by a group of steel executives who measured its value in silence and beauty, rather than in board feet, and so they kept it a private retreat.

The Forest Service acquired Sylvania in 1966 after it had been used for decades as an exclusive hunting and fishing club. Now fully protected, the Tract, located in Ottawa National Forest, is Michigan's most pristine wilderness area, with one of the last and largest remaining stands of virgin northern hardwood forest and water as clear and cold as the sky of a September morning. The wind whistles through trees that have stood since the days before the writing of the Declaration of Independence.

The best way to navigate the watery interior and experience the cavernlike quality of the forests is to paddle the 35 lakes and portage the connecting footpaths. Although hiking is limited, 27 miles of trails skirt several lakes and hook up with the portages.

Perched on the Mississippi River-Lake Superior divide, Sylvania's lakes are replenished only by precipitation or natural springs, making the water exceedingly clear and tinged with a marvelous blue-green hue. Tests show that its chemical makeup closely resembles that of rainwater.

Paddling along, I've often caught glimpses of a loon fishing 30 feet below, and had staring contests with the zeppelinlike bass that live in the shallows. Twenty feet below us, stones on the lake bottom glisten like autumn leaves.

Around the campfire, the feeling of remoteness flows back in. We go over the names of the lakes we paddled today: Mountain, East Bear, West Bear, Kerr and High Lake. The names skip like stones off our tongues.

Thirty-thousand paddlers a year come here, yet we have seen only two other parties on our trip, passing at a distance with just a wave. The wilderness remains. I roll away from the fire and let my eyes adjust to the darkness. Through the branches overhead, a cluster of stars becomes visible and I begin to count. From across the water, I hear the first loon call of the evening, and then another, closer by and clear.

Contact Information:

Ottawa National Forest

Watersmeet Ranger District Office

P.O. Box 276

Watersmeet, MI 49969

(906) 358-4551 or (906) 575-3441

Watersmeet Visitor Center: (906) 358-4724

Location:

Sylvania is a relatively small place, popular for two- or three-night trips, though longer jaunts are quite possible. Its entire dimensions would sit like a scattering of rain puddles in a corner of the more famous million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area, which lies just to the west in Minnesota. But there is more to wilderness than size; like that chip of the northern sky seen through the trees above our camp, Sylvania is a place that has stars all its own.

Sylvania is the doorstep of the Northwoods, occupying the southeastern corner of Ottawa National Forest on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, near the village of Watersmeet. It's on the Michigan-Wisconsin border, about 500 miles from Detroit, 300 miles north of Chicago, 250 miles from Minneapolis-St. Paul, 150 miles north of Green Bay, and 200 miles northeast of Minneapolis.

Getting There:

Easy access is from U.S. Hwy. 2, the Peninsula's main highway.

Seasonal Information:

The best months to visit are May to November. Some of the best trips are done at the peak of fall color in late September.

Summer days are warm and pleasant, although nights are cool and thunderstorms can be sudden. Autumn comes early, and spring comes late.

Winters are long, with an average of 150 inches of snow. Warm clothing is vital if you want to enjoy Ottawa in winter because the temperature is often around zero. Snow stays until late April, and ice stays on the lakes until May.

Despite its relatively small size and easy access, Sylvania Tract is seldom crowded except during holiday weekends. Since many visitors only take day trips to easy-to-reach lakes, a determined canoeist can paddle far from the crowd.

Wildlife:

While exploring the Sylvania Tract, you'll probably spot bald eagles sailing through the air or perched high on a branch of a towering white pine. Several pair nest here. The sheer number of dead standing trees and the amount of aquatic habitat create excellent conditions for wildlife, especially cavity-nesting animals. There are pileated woodpeckers, otters, deer, blue herons, beavers, ospreys, foxes, raccoons, porcupines, and many species of ducks. At night, you'll hear owls and coyotes singing. Be sure to hang your food since black bears are common.

Perhaps most enchanting are the common loons that nest among the white cedars and grasses of the more isolated shorelines and islands. Upper Michigan's loon population has declined because of human disturbances, but there is no such shortage in the Sylvania Tract.

Sylvania's fishery is almost as untouched as the trees in its forest. The fish in these pristine waters are a virgin population the Forest Service protects through catch-and-release programs. Thirty-inch trout and 20-inch bass are not uncommon. Since the area has been open to the public for little more than two decades, the fishing for bass, lake trout, walleye, northern pike, perch and sunfish has changed little from what the first explorers of the region must have found.

Insects:

No information available.

Plant Life:

Considering Sylvania's abundant wildlife, perhaps the most impressive living things here are the trees. They are truly gigantic. Outsized sugar maples tower 100 feet into the sky. White pines, so massive that two paddlers can hardly link their arms around one trunk, stand in silent cathedral groves. The bark of the big yellow birch wrinkles like old skin. This forest has an ancient feeling, different than anywhere else in the Northwoods. The reason is simple: the place has never been logged.

Facilities:

Ottawa National Forest regulates backcountry use with a reservation system, accepting January 15 through May 15 annually. In the Sylvania area, there are 50 primitive campsites with fire rings and toilets.

There's a large, developed drive-in campsite with 48 units off the highway between Clark Lake and Katherine Lake for the night before and/or after day trips. Sites provide water, fire rings, tables, and toilets. Showers are also available. Campgrounds generally open in the middle of May and shut down in December.

The District Forest Ranger Office and visitor center are in Watersmeet, five miles from Sylvania.

Parking:

No information available.

Permits:

Camping permits are required May 15 to September 30. Validated permits are not required October 1 to May 14, but wilderness users can self-register at the main entrance station or other trailheads during that time. For permits call the Sylvania Visitor Center at 906/358-4724.

Primitive camping is $5 per night.

Policies:

  • Fires are allowed only in fire rings or grills at designated sites.
  • Firewood may be collected from dead or downed trees, and from the forest floor.
  • There is a 14-day time limit on trips and a five-person limit per unit.
  • To help protect nesting loons and increase their chance of successful reproduction, landing on islands is prohibited from "ice-off" to July 15. It is also advisable to remain at least 150 feet away from island shorelines since any disturbance could harm reproductive success.
  • If canoeing, each person is required to have a life vest.

Hazards:

  • The rangers recommend storing all food in suspended caches as a bear-proofing measure.
  • There is no potable water, so bring your own, boil lake water, or carry a filter.

Leave No Trace:

All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps:

Maps and special fishing regulations are available from the Forest Service.

Other Trip Options:

  • Venture into other parts of Ottawa National Forest or head south to the bordering Nicolet National Forest, where you can access the Brule River.
  • About 118 miles of the North Country National Scenic Trail crossed the Ottawa National Forest. When completed, the trail will extend about 3,200 miles from the Lewis and Clark trail in North Dakota to New York, where it will meet the Appalachian Trail system. Three parts of the trail, the Black River, Bergland, and Sturgeon River Gorge segments, have been completed and are open for use.