The Once and Future Otter Creek

Author, teacher and bioregionalist, Stephanie Mills offers this essay to Nature Change readers about the long-term restoration of Otter Creek (a tributary to Lake Michigan just south of Empire) and one of its most ardent proponents, river ecologist Brett Fessell.

When your heart wells and you shed tears of joy, the occasion merits serious attention. In my long years of professing bioregionalism, many such moments of pure connection with some true marvel have happened: out back on my patchwork land, elsewhere amid prairie forbs and grasses, at the raging Pacific’s shore; and in doing creative work. Finding myself misty-eyed at last year’s Research Rendezvous lectures by scientists working in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore surprised me, though.

Stephanie Mills & Brett Fessell

I am an aficionado of naturalists and field biologists. In a world preoccupied by all manner of human mischief and melodrama, the natural scientist’s wholehearted attention to the lifeways of other organisms, their primal human immersion in wild lives under open skies is a rare and wonderful thing. Their devotion yields knowledge of place, and realer than that it does not get.

Brett Fessell, a river ecologist with RCA, an environmental planning and design group belonging to the Grand Traverse band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, was the speaker in September. He told of his long-term study of Otter Creek, which meanders leisurely here through marshes, there in cedar, poplar, and alder shade, on out into Lake Michigan. Fessell’s affection for Otter Creek and its population of brook trout was plain. The brookie, a nimble, charismatic native fish, is a prized catch. It’s a versatile creature. Coasters, adfluvial brook trout that swim out of their native streams into the great lake, can bulk right up in its wide open spaces. A coaster caught in Thunder Bay a century ago weighed over fourteen pounds. There have been reports of Otter Creek coasters, for the way to the coast is clear.

Although Fessell’s presentation was easy going, it offered a rich synthesis of his considerable knowledge of the Otter Creek watershed’s geohistory, hydrology, and ecology. As he spoke about the glacial processes that shaped the roughly five square-mile watershed, the ancient forces that deposited the marls that conduced to the springs that cooled the pools where brook trout could spawn and mature, those dynamic earth changes became vivid and comprehensible. It was time travel courtesy of the facts, and imagination.

Marl springs near Otter Creek

Respecting Nature’s own genius for balancing ecosystems and determining carrying capacity, there will be no captive breeding or stocking of fish because, said Fessell, “We don’t always know whether we’re pushing the limits of the habitat.”

The natural continuance of Salvelinus fontinalis is the keynote of the survey and restoration work on Otter Creek, which understands that the wild brook trout, inseparable from its habitat, is one among its community of twenty-five species of fish, only four of them non-native, and countless other critters. To thrive in a stream, the brookies need, among other things, the shelter of large woody debris (also known as fallen trees) and the thermal refuge of clean, cold upwelling groundwater. Pool depth and cover, diversity of bed forms, and undercut banks where they can abide matter, too.

Brook trout

Otter Creek’s picturesque, low-gradient watershed, entirely contained in the national park, was hard used in the past. Historic accounts of the area spoke of many streams so densely shaded by old growth forest and riparian brush that their courses could only be inferred from their flowing waters’ sound. Lovely as the area presently is, the thought of its being cloaked in vegetation so thick and abundant was fairly stunning. Those cedars would have needed centuries to mature, then could die of old age and topple into the rivers, carrying on their life’s work as large woody debris. Logging claimed the trees, log drives scoured the stream beds, wiping out bogs and fens along the way, and the vast conflagrations of slash that followed the cut, said Fessell, “left the landscape pretty raw.”

Beaver Work

The restoration plan, based on intensive study of the watershed’s hydrogeology and geologic history, led to what Fessell called some “very fine grain design.” The Grand Traverse Band’s Mino Ziibi Watersheds Program envisions restoring stream functions, re-establishing as nearly as possible the pre-settlement flows of the watercourses. Because conventional road and stream crossings can harm a watercourse by either damming it outright or, if there are culverts rather than bridges of sufficient span, those pipes can accelerate the flow, making travel upstream difficult, if not impossible, for brookies.

Fessell’s existentially serious attention to this minute but vital portion—a clean, short little capillary—of Lake Michigan’s watershed is something wonderful but not unique. Scores of naturalists in our bioregion are fixing their minds and hearts on wild lives and landscapes. The field scientists among them who brave the elements, discomforts, and all-season rigors of the place to study its biota and who then contribute sturdy data to public questions about how we might coexist better with those multitudes of other beings perform a very real service.

Beaver dam on seep tributary to Otter Creek

For the Tribal Council, the aim of rehabilitating a watershed like Otter Creek and sustaining its population of native fish supports their goals of maintaining treaty rights in the fishery which was once and may again be important as sustenance; and the cultural value of participation in the mortal dance of give and take with the lands and waters of home.

Jurisdictional, political, and regulatory complexity are inescapable working conditions for resource professionals, but it’s surely affection that sustains them through the number crunching, desk work and hazards in the field. Fessell, who’s worked with the Tribe for twenty years, must, I thought, be seasoned in collaborating with a complex welter of public agencies, a tribal government, and feisty anglers. This perseverance and diplomacy also attest a consecrated life. Fessell might not see it that way, but seemed mighty grateful to be doing what he was doing. It suited him right down to his waders.

Natural history is a fine passion: there can be something clear and true of mind and heart in scientific attention paid out of doors. In this story, it contributes to hope of seeing the flourishing of a creek and its ecology attested by a healthy run of brook trout. It even, in its example, offers hope for our kind.

The Otter Creek story’s swirl and flow of creatures, currents, patience, possibility, and commitment stirred my heart with a power of good. Listening to the man, whose good humor and learning were as lively and fluent as some of Otter Creek’s marly springs, I wondered if this meticulous research project, so carefully considered if relatively modest in geographic, but not cultural and metaphysical, scope might not also be a long-term ceremony. It is a way of studying and honoring the land and waters as they were and are. While pledging recollection of their true nature, the purpose is not to make an aquarium or museum diorama, but through long-term, careful work, to repair relationships throughout.

This goal—of healthier relations among streams, fish, and fishers—may, said Fessell, sound “a little Pollyanna…but I’m here to tell you that we’re making progress. That’s important. That’s what we really need to do.”

So cue those tears of joy.

3 thoughts on “The Once and Future Otter Creek

  1. Wow, such a smart combination–Stephanie’s prowess as a writer and her tribute to a fine field biologist, Brett Fessell, for his painstaking work. She should write more of these, don’t you think? Thank you!

  2. I agree with Anne-Marie Oomen’s comment. Stephanie Mills captures the significance of this work, both the micro and the macro of it. We humans often forget that we, ourselves, are a species of Nature. Grateful for the work that’s being done and this article, which honors and describes a consecrated life.

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