Mud Lake Bog: Berrien County’s hidden gemPublished 12:49pm Monday, April 26, 2010
By TERRI GORDON
Off the Water
On Elm Valley Road, between Wells and Clear Lake roads, lies a rare and unique geographic feature known as Mud Lake Bog.
When the last glaciers left this area, they left chunks of ice buried in earth and debris. As the climate warmed, the ice melted creating deep lakes called kettle lakes. When a kettle lake has no way of draining – no streams flowing in or out – acidity builds in the water.
Plants cannot grow on the bottom, so they begin to grow on top, creating a mat of plants and the unique bog habitat.
Mud Lake Bog is considered a “textbook” bog because it displays all the stages, or successions, of a bog.
Wendy Jones, head naturalist at Fernwood Botanical Garden and Nature Preserve, calls it a “bulls eye” pattern with “rings of vegetation” around open water in the middle. Cattails and water lilies are found in the open water.
Sphagnum mosses, whose roots intertwine, catch soil and debris, forming a mat over the surface of the lake.
Found in the sphagnum mat are insect-eating pitcher plants and sundew.
In the next ring, leather leaf and sedges grow and cranberries float. “A little bit farther back from that,” says Jones, “you get the trees.”
When the glaciers first retreated, the climate remained cool enough for spruce, fir and tamarack to grow. It eventually got too warm for the spruce and fir and they died away, but tamarack still flourishes at the edges of the bog.
The tamarack is unique in that it is a cone-bearing tree, like a pine tree, but it is not an evergreen. Instead, it drops its needles in the fall.
Beavers have lived in the bog in the past. One was spotted on the mat in the early 1990s, and visitors can see a lodge from the observation tower.
Sandhill Cranes migrate through the bog, stopping to eat of the abundant supply of frogs that make the bog their home. The cranes have occasionally nested there.
Mud Lake Bog wasn’t always as loved as it is now. Until the 1970s, the area was used as a dump, officially at some points, unofficially at others.
“A lot of cleanup was done when the property was acquired in the early (19)80s,” says Jones. “A lot of trash was removed – whole cars, refrigerators.”
The bog has survived flood and fire too. In 1935, the area flooded, and during the late 1940s, an underground fire, probably of buried garbage, burned for a whole season.
In 1976, the dump was officially closed and interest in preserving the bog picked up. Botanists and university professors had been using the bog for scientific study all along. The local nature centers, Fernwood, Sarett and Love Creek, all used the bog for programs.
On April 29, 1980, with financial assistance from the Highcliffe Terrace Garden Club, the Berrien County Parks and Recreation Service and the Sauk Trails Resource Conservation and Development Project, Buchanan Township purchased the 68-acre parcel of land that contains Mud Lake Bog.
The place was cleaned up as best as could be done without further disturbing the fragile ecosystem. Wooden boardwalks, with an observation tower, seen as the least disruptive option for public viewing of the bog, were installed.
The public can visit the preserve at any time from dawn until dusk. Parking is limited, with people needing to park in front of the gate, or even along the side of the road.
“Go there expecting to see something really unusual,” says Love Creek Nature Preserve naturalist Pat Underwood. He warns that the sun can get pretty hot, though.
“Once you’re on the boardwalk, there’re no trees,” he says. He recommends visitors use sunscreen and insect repellent like they would in any outdoor activity. Mosquitoes can’t breed in the acidic conditions of the bog itself, but they do breed in surrounding wetlands.
While late spring or early summer are good times to catch things in bloom, Underwood says he also likes the bog in late summer or early fall, when bog plants turn colors.
“Fall is really beautiful,” he says, “because you get the tamaracks turning gold and you get the red maples, cranberries and other bog plants turning bright red. So, you get this beautiful bright red along with the golden needles of the tamarack.” He reminds people that fall comes to the bog just a bit earlier than the rest of the area.