by Bill Herd
Seeing wildlife on your vacation to a national park makes the trip extra special. It makes no difference if your primary objective was to see mountains, canyons, swamps or beaches; seeing the park’s wildlife is always a welcome addition to your visit. Viewing wildlife in its natural habitat requires knowledge, patience and lots of time. Most of us, including national park staff, do not have all three of these requirements, especially time. Professional wildlife photographers know that seeing wildlife may take weeks of quietly waiting in just the right spot and still there is no guarantee that they will get a good picture.
However, with just a little information and planning you have a better chance of seeing animals on your next visit to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
For most of us, seeing wildlife in the National Lakeshore is just a matter of chance – of just being lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. A surprising number of times, wildlife is seen not while hiking a backcountry trail but while riding in the car. Park Rangers know that when these lucky occurrences happen, you need to be prepared to take full advantage of them, so keep your camera, binoculars and field guide handy. You never know if you will get another chance to see the animals again on your visit. If you see a mother deer and her fawn soon after entering the park, stop and enjoy the sight. Do not hurry on to the beach and assume you will have another chance later. Inside the park don’t be too destination-focused but be ready to respond to these unexpected opportunities. If you discuss the matter and take a vote you will be too far down the road and the opportunity gone. Stop slowly and safely pull as far off to the side as possible. Stay in the car. The local wildlife are very used to the sight and sound of cars and are not frightened by them. But when you get out to get a picture or a better view they are often scared away. Because animals are use to them, vehicles make an excellent blind and they have much more comfortable seats than the traditional hunter’s blind. See as much as you can from your present location. If conditions permit, safely and slowly move the car for a better view. If you sit quietly and move around slowly inside the vehicle, the animals will return to their normal activity and more animals may come into view.
You do not need to just depend on chance or luck to see wildlife during your visit to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Knowing how to be in the right place at the right time can greatly increase your success.
For many years my seasonal naturalists had good success helping groups of visitors to see beaver. First, find out from park staff where beavers have been recently active. Right now one location is on Bass and Deer Lake at Trails End. They have dammed the creek between Bass Lake and Otter Lake with a lodge at the outlet of Bass Lake into this creek. Another dam is between Bass and Deer Lake with the lodge at the far side of Deer Lake. When looking for the lodges in this area be aware that our local beaver do not build their lodges out in the lake like we are use to seeing in books, but along the bank. So look for a big pile of chewed sticks, and packed mud. Another area of beaver activity this year on Tucker Lake just north of Glen Arbor on Westman Road. Get to either site in early evening and check out the lodge, dam and fallen trees. Even if you do not see a beaver just seeing their work is always impressive. No other animal manipulates the environment more than the beaver. Around sunset find a comfortable spot where you can see the lake in front of the beaver lodge. Sit quietly, enjoy a snack, don’t forget the insect repellent and maybe a quiet game or book to keep the younger ones from getting antsy. Beavers are active at night and just around sunset they will leave the lodge through its underwater entrance and swim across the lake. You will see a V shaped wake and at the point of the V a dark head. Kids may be disappointed if they thought they were going to see a beaver up close and doing tricks like the Otters at the zoo. It is important to let them know ahead what to reasonably expect from their efforts.
Likewise, deer are most active just after sunset and just before dawn. Deer like to eat a variety of plants and when they venture into the open fields they can be easily seen, especially at the beginning or end of the day. Try driving slowly along the back roads of the Port Oneida Historic District or along Norconk Road, which parallels M-22 just south of Empire. Or you can hike the Bayview Trail up to the overlook, but you must be very quiet if you want to see deer. For a few years, my summer naturalists gave a deer viewing hike at sunset on this trail with great success even with large groups of 50 hikers and more. They had to really work to keep that many people quiet. The very best time to see deer in these fields is in the winter when we have had enough of a thaw to melt the snow in the open fields but it is still deep in the woods. Then all day, but especially at sunset and sunrise, deer can be seen in the fields as numerous a cattle feasting on the grass. Imagine a hillside with 65 grazing deer.
The Platte River can get crazy during the afternoons in July and August with canoes crashing into each other, kayakers having water fights and tubers towing ice chests of beer down the river, but come early or late and it’s a different place. Vacationers don’t get on the river very early by the time they have made all the preparations and got the car positioned near the end of the trip. If you can get started down the river by 10 or even 10:30 most days you will be one of the first and a variety of wildlife will be waiting along the banks. Turtles will be sunning themselves on logs, kingfishers will be skimming over the surface hunting, duck will be feeding near the bank and herons flying overhead. You may spot deer, a raccoon or even a weasel. You never know what you may see. One day I told a group of school kids that just ahead we will see the remains of an old beaver lodge but we would not see any beavers because the lodge had not been used for many years. Just then all of us saw a beaver swimming just ahead of the group. If you do not make it early, late is OK too. An evening paddle is an excellent time to see wildlife along the river and a special treat. If you have your own canoe, a moonlight trip is a special adventure but if you do not have your own, 6:00 PM is the latest time you can rent a canoe. Still, I am always amazed at how quickly after the craziness of the afternoon ends, wildlife returns to the river to hunt, fish and drink. An early evening canoe trip is almost as good as early morning. If you are not into paddling, plan on being the first on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. The drive officially opens at nine but often the gate is open much earlier. You are likely to see deer, raccoons or other woodland creatures.
The porcupine is an icon of the north woods, but few visitors have ever seen one. Winter is the best time to find its home. Any of the thousands of folks who have been on one of my snowshoe hikes know that I like to leave the trail to follow animal tracks in the snow. The porky is active all winter but with its short legs its track is more like a trench as its whole body pushes through the snow. Look for its tracks in a forest of big hardwood trees and follow them. Getting around in the snow is hard on the little fellows so they do not travel far. Shortly, the tracks will lead to a tree with no tracks leaving it. If it’s hollow, the porky is likely inside, if it is not hollow, look up. Somewhere up there the porcupine is chewing on the tender bark or sleeping on a limb. If it’s a hollow tree, tap hard on the trunk and you will hear the critter scuttering about inside. Winter hiking is also the time to find the den trees of raccoons and old nests of your favorite birds so you will know where to look come spring.
Unfortunately, wildlife is too common in campgrounds. Chipmunks, raccoons, skunks and opossums are fun to see but in the campground they have lost their natural fear of people and can be hazardous. They are still wild animals; not only can they bite and claw but they may also carry rabies. Watch them from a distance and keep them out of your campsite by keeping food stored in the car and chasing them away if necessary. You are not doing them any favors by giving them food. As the signs in the campground say, “A Fed Raccoon is a Dead Raccoon.” A few years ago, there were so many raccoons in the D. H. Day campground that professional exterminators had to be hired. They captured and removed about 3 dozen animals, which were then put to sleep.
An early summer wildlife viewing opportunity is to stop and see the nesting Piping Plover. The most reliable place to stop is at the mouth of the Platte River. The nesting area is closed and a fenced enclosure is set up around each nest to protect the parents and chicks from predators. Piping Plover are so rare that a ranger, intern or volunteer watches each nest from a distance with a telescope. The “plover patrol” folks are happy to answer your questions and give you a chance to view the birds through the telescope. You can ask at the Visitor Center for other locations around the Lakeshore where you can view the rare Piping Plover.
Enjoy your Lakeshore vacation, keep your eyes open, and add some wildlife viewing to your activity list.