Chapter 9

Tapping Mud Creek (excerpt)

GAZING AT A MICHIGAN MAP, it doesn’t take long to recognize that the outline of the state’s lower peninsula resembles a mitten. Michiganders are very familiar with this unique attribute of course. One of the most geographically recognizable parts of the state is an area that locals refer to as the “Thumb”—a broad peninsula due north of Detroit, bordered by Lake Huron to the east and the shallows of Saginaw Bay to the west. Long ago, Huron County laid claim to the tip of this peninsula—the thumbnail, if you will—and today the area is sparsely populated and highly agrarian, with a town named Bad Axe as its county seat.

Prior to European settlement, this area likely held some of the most impressive old-growth forests in all of the Great Lakes. David Cleland, a landscape ecologist with the U. S. Forest Service, says that the soil conditions and hydrology of the area made it particularly well-suited for growing large, stout white pine and hemlock, many of which could have reached five hundred years of age. During the last ice age, the northern Thumb region was scraped pooltable- flat, and the land drained very poorly, leaving the forest floor dented with wetlands and water-filled potholes. The result was classic old-growth Great Lakes forest that only exists in small remnants today. “In that area, white pine would have been as large, old, and as high quality as anywhere,” Mr. Cleland says. “This was the perfect white pine/hemlock system.”

Nineteenth-century lumber barons dreamed about these kinds of forests. The prized white pines were likely the first trees to be cut. The hemlocks would have been the next to go—their bark being an integral ingredient in tanning leather at the time. Once the hemlocks were gone, lumberjacks would have clear-cut whatever hardwoods were left. The shaded, damp old-growth forests of the Great Lakes were some of the most fire-resistant timber stands in the world. But by removing the old-growth canopy, and leaving behind slash and kindling to dry in the hot sun, the lumber barons of the 1800s created an unnatural tinderbox that would bake and bake, until a lightning strike, or some other source, set off a conflagration. Two such ground-clearing wildfires swept through the Thumb in the late nineteenth century, the first in the early 1870s and the second a decade later.

With the landscape cleared and torched, a new wave of settlers moved in—the farmers. But before any serious agriculture could get underway, the hydrology of the region had to be altered. The flat, poorly draining land needed to be ditched and/or tiled to dry out the soil for spring planting. Long ago, most farmers in Michigan’s Thumb laid drainage tiles three feet underneath the surface of their fields to help gently send water to ditches at the field’s edge. “This area was swampland and woods and if it’s not tiled, it can’t produce. That’s the bottom line,” proclaims Jim LeCureux, who worked as an agricultural extension agent in Huron County for more than twenty years. Slowly, as farmers laid more and more subsurface tile, the Thumb’s wetlands—like the forests before them—disappeared as the hydrology of the entire area was reworked to maximize the land for agriculture.

While farmers did everything they could to dewater their fields in the spring, the land was often left wanting during the peak growing season, when the Thumb becomes one of the most arid spots in the region. “Historically, there’s a four- to six-week window in the summer that if we could have some rain, it would make a tremendous difference to the crops,” Mr. LeCureux says. The right rain at the right time could help the yields of crops like corn and soybeans, and the well-timed water was precious to high-value cash crops like sugar beets and navy beans. Many farmers made do with what the clouds provided; others irrigated with water from the ground or nearby streams. But in the Thumb many streams were small and intermittent, making them an unreliable water source. And groundwater was spotty—new wells often came up dry or produced water that was too salty for crops or drinking. With the Thumb jutting out into the seemingly endless waters of Lake Huron, it was only a matter of time before local farmers started looking to the Great Lakes for irrigation....