Martiny Lake a hunter's haven and nature lover's paradise
Friday, May 19, 2006 By Howard Meyerson Press Outdoors Editor
BIG RAPIDS -- The rain had stopped for a moment and the water was like glass, but the tree swallows soared endlessly around us.
There were a hundred if not two, gliding inches off the water, doing loop-de-loops, swooping within inches of my kayak, head and paddle.
These petite streaks of iridescent blue-green with their white underbellies were actively feeding on insects.
"This is cool. They are all around you," said my paddling partner, Fritz Hartley, who floated in his own kayak some yards away.
"Hey, that looks like an osprey," he said, pointing to a large bird hovering over the water 100 yards away.
He may well have been right. This, after all, is the Martiny Lake State Game Area, a 6,000-acre parcel managed for wildlife by the Department of Natural Resources. It has eight connected lakes totaling 1,400 or more flooded acres that drain into the west branch of the Chippewa River.
It is a hunter's haven in fall and a nature lover's paradise the rest of the year. At summer's peak it is popular with anglers and the pontoon-boat crowd. There are residential developments along portions of its banks. But in the off-season you can go and feel as though you are all alone.
"It's one of our better areas for wildlife and nature," Jeff Green, the DNR biologist in charge of the area, said. "And there is nothing else like it in my three counties."
That's why this flooding that was created in 1955 has become home for nesting bald eagles, loons, great blue herons, a variety of waterfowl and nesting osprey. It is also home to river otters, beaver, bear, deer and raccoons.
"We have osprey and black terns," said Green. "The terns are a unique species you won't find in a 40-acre marsh. They need a lot of area."
Indeed, Martiny offers paddlers a full day of exploration or just an hour or two if they prefer. It is six to seven miles around without diverting to explore the numerous bays, nooks and crannies.
The 600-acre island in the center is a foot explorer's dream. There is no development on it and camping is permitted there in the fall.
Camping also is allowed during the camping season at two rustic campgrounds found on Tubbs Lake. Both are formerly DNR state forest camps, which are administered by Mecosta County Parks.
The two of us launched our kayaks from the DNR boat launch on the west side of Lower Evans Lake.
We headed south, counterclockwise around the loop.
We left thinking we might paddle a bit and return. It was blustery and cold. The wisdom of our choice was not clear.
But the magic of this marsh seemed to pull us onward, captivating us with every turn, until finally we talked in terms of finishing the route rather than backtracking.
"This place is a gem," said Hartley, a Grand Rapids city magistrate and long-time paddler. "I never knew we had such a nice place to paddle so close to home."
As we nosed in and along the water route, stopping every so often to stretch our legs on the island, we slipped into and out of quiet pools in the cattails. There were places where nest boxes had been built to help the wood duck population, but which seemed to be inhabited mostly by tree swallows.
A chorus of black terns greeted as we slipped into an open area full of lily pads. Two buff-colored giant Canada geese also appeared suddenly overhead. They announced their presence with a steady stream of honks before locking up their wings and legs for a wet and dramatic landing nearby.
Martiny Lake originally was created to be a waterfowl-production and wild-rice-production area, said Green. The Winchester dam was built where Tubbs Lake empties into the Chippewa River, backing up the water by eight feet.
It was expected that water levels would be manipulated to enhance duck and fish production by killing some vegetation and encouraging other types to grow, but homes began to spout up on its shores during the 1960's. A court order soon followed, filed by the new residents, establishing a legal lake level that tied the hands of wildlife managers.
"We still get mallards, geese, swans and wood ducks there," said Green.
It was the swans that gave us momentary pause. They can be territorial during the nesting season. They have been known to inflict pain on jet-ski riders. But various pair we encountered seemed content to give us wide berth.
Finding your way around Martiny Lake can have its challenges, but is not difficult. Open water channels can appear passable only to dead-end. A route that appears obvious up close may not appear at all from out in a lake.
Having a map is helpful. Having a compass is a good idea. Picking a route should account for the time available and the skills and strengths of the paddlers involved -- taking into account the wind strength and direction.
"There are a half dozen places to launch and it offers a lot of seclusion," said Green. "Just don't expect it on the 4th of July."