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Restoration and Preservation: Wau-Ke-Na Preserve

By Cindy Murphy


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Imagine 365 acres of land along Lake Michigan’s shoreline, and 1,300 feet of pristine beach frontage.  It’s a developer’s dream!!!  Lakeshore property such as this is being devoured all too quickly; houses and condos are rapidly replacing forest and dune.  Not this property though.  William Erby Smith saw to it that hungry bulldozers would never sink their teeth into this land.  Referred to as an environmental jewel along the lakeshore, this is Wau-Ke-Na Preserve, a name Smith created which means “forest by the water.”

Wau Ke Nau Preserve

Mr. Smith spent a large amount of his time and resources, and worked with Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy (SWMLC) for ten years in an effort to improve wildlife habitats by restoring hardwood forests from pine plantations, and creating wetlands and grasslands.  When he died, at the ripe old age of ninety, he bequeathed the land to the conservancy.  

We arrived a few minutes late.  It was just one of those days.  An argument between my daughters in the morning, resulted in a lecture from me, after which I received “The Look” from my oldest.  Anyone who’s lived with a teenager is familiar with “The Look”:  the eyes roll; the mouth is slightly open in an exaggerated sign of disbelief, and arms are defiantly crossed in front of the chest.  “The Look” this particular morning meant, “I can’t believe you’re taking her side over mine.”  It set the tone between us for the remainder of the morning, and carried over until I got home from work with only minutes to spare to grab a bite to eat before leaving for Wau-Ke-Na.     

When we entered the community building, Nate Fuller, SWMLC’s Conservation and Stewardship Director, and our guide for the evening, was already explaining to this evening’s guests the diversity of eco-systems on the preserve.  Tonight, twenty or so of us would be exploring a small bit of the twenty miles of trails that wind through the maple-beech forest, wetlands, remnants of the lake plains prairie, clay bluffs, duneland, and another forest made up of yellow birch, hemlock, tulip tree, and red oak. 

“Mom?  When are we going to see the birds, Mom?”  I had told my seven year old we’d see birds; over 100 species of birds have been sighted and documented on the preserve.  I knew she was looking forward to seeing something big and impressive such as the blue herons in the wetlands, or something more elusive like the shy barred owls that live deep in the forest on the preserve.  Nate pointed out the little sedge wrens calling from the thick grassy area on the side of the path.  Tiny – smaller than a house wren – they were once quite rare here, but their numbers are increasing since more areas are left unmowed.  Impressive and elusive maybe, but my daughter had in mind something bigger, and with more flash.   

She did find evidence of larger birds when she picked up a wild turkey feather.  There were a lot of turkey feathers, in fact; some animal recently partook of a turkey dinner.  “It was probably a coyote,” I explained.

“Mom?” her eyes lit up with excitement. “When are we going to see the coyotes?”

The answer came in the form of an eye-roll from her sister.  “This is not the zoo, Shannon,” said the Sullen One. 

“I know that, Shelby,” Shannon retorted with matching eye-roll.  Sigh.  My girls look so much alike. 

The trail led us to a special little clearing.  While we listened to our guide explain the geological uniqueness of this eco-system – there are only 26 acres of “hanging fens” in the country, my oldest slipped her arm through mine.  The lingering tension melted; the Sullen One became my sweet daughter again as Nate pointed out the rare plants found only in these types of fens.  Shannon had all her attention mounted on a Monarch butterfly. 

After leaving the fen, we came to a wildflower field of blue vervain, helenium, black-eyed susans, and Joy-Pye weed, all in bloom.  Shannon got the flash she was waiting for in the form of the flamboyant cobalt blue of an Indigo Bunting that flew across the trail. 

They caught toads, handing them off to each other between cupped hands.  And in the highlight of their evening, they fed the fish in one of the ponds.  Cups filled with fish food pellets were passed around, and in a frenzy that reminded me of piranhas devouring a cow like you see on those nature shows, the catfish came to feed.  There were about twenty or thirty of them, as long as my leg, and with mouths, it seemed to me, large enough to swallow a seven year old.  Some of them even seemed to try to come up on land, they were so ravenous.  With unrealistic, nightmarish visions in my head of Shannon falling in, and being eaten piranha-style, the girls laughed together in sisterly camaraderie until their refilled cups were empty.  As we left the pond, the evening became quiet again, except for my daughters’ laughter echoing in my ears.  It’s such a sweet sound. 

If William Erby Smith was alive today, I’d like to meet him.  I’d thank him for all the effort he put into restoring and preserving what he called “a sanctuary for wildlife and a peaceful place for visitors to enjoy.”  I might also add a word of thanks for restoring a peaceful, if not sometimes tenuous harmony between two sisters, and preserving a mother’s sanity … even if it only lasts a brief time.

cindy murphy
8/26/2008 7:18:52 PM

Hi, Joan. I'm sorry for your stressful couple of weeks, but glad you got your Calgon "Ahhhhh..." moment; glad I could be part of it in a small way. And though my daughters and I did find a peaceful harmony in both nature, and in ourselves in those sometimes less than harmonous mother/daughter/sibling relationships, during the evening's beginning, I'm sure somewhere in the back of my mind I was thinking, "Calgon, take me away".


joan wendland
8/26/2008 10:41:30 AM

Cindy, the past two weeks have been particularly stressful and your piece reminded me of the peace I receive from nature. I didn't even have to take the walk, though I did later. Your piece took me there, smoothed out the bumpy places in side and I felt it was like that old Calgon bath commercial where I just said "AAHH" and I got taken away. You write with a natural poetry and obvious love of your subjects. Many thanks for the word "bath." Joan Wendland


cindy murphy
8/7/2008 5:27:04 AM

Four children, Lacy! It sounds like they'll be busy having fun berry picking, playing in the creek, camping, and doing all the simple things every kid ought to have the opportunity to experience; things that seem so simple and natural, but those that many children never do. I recently watched my youngest "play" with a tiger swallowtail butterfly, holding her out-stretched finger to the milkweed flower it was drinking from so that it crawled onto her hand, and sat there a moment before fluttering off to another flower on the same plant. Over and over she did this, for nearly twenty minutes. I sat watching this exchange from the porch; all her attention was on the butterfly, and she didn't even realize I was there. Such a simple and neat experience for her; such a totally cool thing for me, as a parent, to watch. I'll never forget the joy on her face each time the butterfly landed on her finger. Don't forget to catch and release fireflies with your children. Remember doing that as a kid? It's become one of our favorite family activities this summer - there seems to be so many of them this year in the yard. Simple things such as this build lasting memories; my husband and I both recall childhood adventures as we run through the yard catching fireflies with our children. Best wishes to you.


razor family farms
8/6/2008 7:39:22 PM

I am really looking forward to taking the four children that we are hoping to adopt (ages 2, 4, 6, and 8) berry picking, stick fighting, playing in the creek, camping, on nature walks, and all of the neat things that country life has to offer. My husband and I hope that the beauty and simplicity of this life will be the soothing balm that will transition them from foster homes to their real home. Harmony is a rare commodity with siblings and I'm hoping to see similar results. Excellent post! Blessings! Lacy NEWS at Razor Family Farms (GRIT.com) RazorFamilyFarms.com


cindy murphy
8/5/2008 5:39:27 AM

Lori - I love your description of the catfish feeding frenzy; "it looks like the water is boiling with them." It's so accurate! I imagine too that you could fill your camera with pictures at a place like Wau-Ke-Na. I read on your page that you're a photographer; I enjoyed the photos of your chickens, and look forward to seeing, (and reading), more. I'm not a photographer by any means; I point, click, and if strands of my hair don't get in the way of the lens, I consider it a good shot. I take a lot of pictures anyway, but feel as if the photos never do the subject matter justice, especially at a place as beautiful as Wau-Ke-Na. Your children are older than mine....and since you're writing now, I'm assuming you survived their teenage years. Yes? Lori? Speak to me. No, no - I'm just kidding; I know my daughters will get along better as they get older. If my story of our evening at the preserve seems a bit melodramic, well then, it's to be expected, I suppose. I've said it before - if I am the Queen of Melodrama, than my daughters are coveting my crown. As frustrating as it is sometimes, we also have fun with it; we laugh a lot together. I do sometimes feel a twinge of pity for my husband, who grew up with one brother; no sisters. In a house full of constant female chatter, I think there are times he may feel just a bit challenged. We all plan to make a family visit to the preserve, and I know the girls will point out things to Dad, (who was unable to attend the first time), like they are experts on the area. Their constant chatter won't be a challenging matter, because you're right - nature has a way of melting away all but the good.


lori
8/4/2008 12:14:26 PM

Cindy, Wau-Ke-Na Preserve sounds like a place that I could easily fill every card I own for my digital camera and then some! I love to visit places like this and hike the trails. We have a place here in PA that has catfish just like you described. They are at Raystown Lake in Huntingdon County. They are HUGE, and they stick their heads out of the water to get the food being offered to them. You can literally dump it into their mouth. The water looks like it is boiling with them. I also have two children, Ashten-21 and Cody-19. I well remember the type of interaction you're speaking of. It's amazing how some quality time in nature can melt away all other thoughts, and the little conflicts that seem huge at the time are forgotten!