One of the joys of living in the Great Lakes region is a springtime walk in the woods. After a cold winter and a wet spring, sunshine calls us out to explore and reconnect with the living world, and nothing celebrates rebirth more than colorful wildflowers poking through brown leaves and the sound of spring peepers. On Easter Sunday, April 24, my family made an outing to TNC’s Nan Weston Preserve at Sharon Hollow near Manchester, and we were rewarded with an early showing (including the hepatica shown here). The floral display is just beginning and should be good for several weeks to come.
The Nan Weston Preserve reminds us of what Michigan once looked like, and contains some important lessons for what we can do to preserve and restore the ecology of the Great Lakes. Historically, much of lower Michigan, Indiana and Ohio contained mature beech-maple forests interspersed with wetlands and prairie openings. Now, the landscape is reversed, and most of the land is opened up by agricultural practices and the woods remain in smaller, too-isolated patches. Today, the preserve is 249 acres of mostly woods with several streams and pools scattered across the site along with a few open fields.
The topography of the south central Great Lakes region was shaped by the glaciers which left large moraines and small hillocks of dry soil with lowland wet areas in between, and one can readily see this landscape in the spring at Nan Weston Preserve. Before the trees leaf in, skunk cabbage and a few small wildflowers provide the only green. Pools of water and streams are dark on the landscape, and the bare grey trunks of trees provide vertical definition. Up above, warblers and other songbirds flit about.
Vernal pools are an important part of this place. In amongst the trees, small low spots collect the snowmelt and abundant spring rain. While some of these areas feed into streams, the smaller pools slowly drain into the soil, feeding Michigan’s abundant groundwater table. Before the summer dry-up, these ponds provide an important breeding ground for amphibians that need water to reproduce. Salamanders, newts, toads, and frogs depend on these ephemeral wetlands, and in spring the chorus of spring peepers looking to attract a mate fills the woods. Sadly, the conversion of woods to farmland and residential sites often results in the filling in or drying up of these unique vernal pools. Fortunately, the sturdy boardwalks of the Preserve trail make it possible to view the plant and animal communities in these pools close up.
Water Quality of the pools and streams on site are important to breeding amphibians, but the Preserve and the surrounding landscape also influence the water quality of a much larger area. The River Raisin is found on the southern boundary of the Nan Weston Preserve and it is fed by waters from the area. The slow streams and undisturbed wetlands allow for filtration of water, the well established plant communities retain soil, and the deciduous forest shades the water and keeps it cool. Several research and data collection efforts show that this is among the healthiest and cleanest stretches of the River Raisin. To quote from a 2002 study of the area by The Nature Conservancy, “The forest also serves to buffer the river from surrounding land uses, and undoubtedly is an important factor in the maintenance of the high quality nature of the aquatic system in the mainstem.” (A link to this and other reports can be found at the website of the hard-working River Raisin Watershed Council).
The River Raisin is a major tributary into western Lake Erie, and to protect and restore this portion of the Great Lakes we need to pay attention to the water that flows into it. And to ensure the cleanest water in streams and rivers, we need to pay attention to the land. Over time, the watershed of the River Raisin, like many watersheds in Michigan, has been converted from forests to farmlands, and this has increased the sediments, fertilizers, and pollutants flowing into our Great Lakes. To the degree we can preserve, or restore, wetlands and woodlands along our waterways, then we will be working to protect our great freshwater resources as well.
Thus, while we enjoy Nan Weston Preserve for the color of its woodland flowers and the sound of it amphibian inhabitants, it serves an important role in the larger effort to restore the Great Lakes. The family and friends of Nan Weston who made this preserve possible with their donations to The Nature Conservancy preserved a place, and it remains a special place to the many people who have explored it on their owns, with their families, or as part of a class. We recognize and photograph the plants and animals that live on the site, but just as important in the larger picture is the role that healthy landscapes play in creating healthy rivers and lakes.
Directions. To get to the site, head south on M-52 from Chelsea for 7.4 miles and turn right (west) on Pleasant Lake Road. Go 3.2 miles and turn right on Sharon Hollow Road and then turn left at Easudes Road. In less than one mile, the preserve will be on your left; park on the south side of the road. Here is a link to google maps.
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Great slideshow now available online at http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/michigan/placesweprotect/sharon-hollow-slideshow.xml