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.”
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.