From the viewing platform at the Skegemog Swamp

From the viewing platform at the Skegemog Swamp

One of the things I love most about winter is its transformative power – the way it can turn a familiar, easily ignored landscape into something surreal and otherworldly in a matter of hours.

Sometimes the results are enchanting, like those wonderful mornings when you emerge from your burrow into a panorama of soft cottony hills under a cobalt blue sky, and see the Bay sparkling to the horizon like a field of diamonds. Sometimes the experience is an austere paring-down of sensory input: a curtain of fog, a carpet of snow, and the thin song of the wind in bare branches.

And sometimes, it’s just… different.

So there I was, driving through Kalkaska County last week when I passed the trailhead for the Skegemog Lake Pathway, just south of Rapid City. I’d been out on this trail years ago in the summertime, but had never ventured there in winter.

Skegemog Lake is a strange anomaly in the Traverse City area, which has become a pretty civilized place over the last few decades. Just a few minutes from town, it could almost be mistaken for a large bay of nearby Elk Lake and is a familiar part of the landscape along M-72 between Traverse City and Kalkaska. But its southern shore is a swampy wilderness that has stubbornly resisted development and remains a mysterious, primitive place.

Ancient hunting peoples spent a lot of time around Skegemog (they left a generous number of stone tools and weapons behind) but most modern-day travelers have given the place a pass. That may be because it’s such a soggy place most of the year. Or it may be because it’s one of the favorite refuges of the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake, Michigan’s only poisonous snake. They’re cute little guys, and rarely fatal.

Actually, the scariest creatures around Skegemog are underwater. Among the many fish that can be caught here (walleye, brown trout, largemouth bass, northern pike) the most famous is the muskellunge, a voracious fish with the all the instincts of a great white shark. Some years back, a 48-pounder was hooked in this lake, and it’s not uncommon to see 40-lb muskies prowling the shallows looking for prey. I’ve seen them gobble down ducklings like hors d’oeuvres.

Thanks to The Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, most of this southern shore is now the Skegemog Lake Wildlife Area – 3,300 acres of wetlands, forests, grassland and a 7-mile stretch of frontage on the lake and nearby Torch River. It’s perfect habitat for bald eagles, merlins, loons, herons, egrets, mink, otters, beavers, and other wetland wildlife, and it has a small network of trails that can be accessed from four different parking areas.

The old railroad grade: prime snake-basking territory in the summer

The old railroad grade: prime snake-basking territory in the summer

The best part? Raised boardwalks have been built out over the soggiest parts, so you can wander through the swamp without getting your feet wet. It’s an opportunity you shouldn’t pass up – a Michigan cedar swamp is a lush, Jurassic Park sort of place where you can’t see very far and where you almost expect to come face to face with a velociraptor or two.

Of course, on this particular crisp winter day the boardwalk wasn’t necessary. (Heck, it wasn’t even visible.) But the swamp was every bit as beautiful. Cozy, even. And I didn’t have to worry about bumping into any velociraptors – or any rattlesnakes. The trail starts out on an abandoned 19th century railroad grade before plunging into the forest at the side of little Janis Creek. It’s a wonderful thing to hear the soft gurgle of a winter stream as you move through the cedars, listening for birds and trying not to get snow down your collar.

In the cedars, along Janis Creek.

In the cedars, along Janis Creek.

At the end of the forest, everything changes. Here the landscape suddenly opens up dramatically as you approach the lakeshore, where scattered cattails and osiers give way to a wide vista across the labyrinthine swamp toward the hills above Williamsburg. This is prime birding country, and in spring and fall it’s particularly rich in migrating waterfowl; in fact, there’s a small wooden tower at the end of the trail where you can watch for birds.

Even in winter, when the swamp becomes much less swampy, it’s a lovely spot – and there’s none of the less pleasant variety of flying wildlife (mosquitoes and flies) that you find in wet places in summertime. I wasn’t patient enough to wait for any birds, but I certainly enjoyed the scenery.

The best way to find this trail? Head east from Traverse City on M-72 until you reach County Road 597. About three miles after the turnoff, you’ll see the trailhead and parking area. It’s on the left-hand side of the road.