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Michigan’s Sylvania Wilderness

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.

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