All those orange traffic barrels can have a second life

Capital News Service

LANSING — A Michigan company is recycling orange traffic barrels into an artificial snow surface that could combat fewer snowfalls in the future and is already turning backyards into ski slopes.

The Plainwell-based company called mSnow hasfound a home in at least two Michigan skiing hotspots – Mount Brighton and Crystal Mountain. Mount Brighton will showcase the product at its inaugural Fall Fest Oct. 21-22.

Whether the surface could address ski slope owners’ concerns over climate change is uncertain. Large-scale implementation of the mSnow surfaces has yet to begin and questions remain over its feasibility, said company co-owner, Luke Schrab.

The barrels, damaged by cars and beyond repair, are transformed into tiles and pieced together to make surface areas to practice skiing and snowboarding. They are used primarily by kids to practice in their backyards, but have begun to attract nationwide attention.

The average backyard setup costs between $200 and $300, Schrab said. To build a setup down a hill would cost a substantial amount. Also the surface isn’t for beginners or intermediate skiers. Larger slopes made of the surface become a bigger safety risk.

Simple falls on the surface can cause scrapes, he said. An entire slope of the surface would require more protection

“Even though a lot of areas are not installing it to be able to ski down a slope, there are little ways they use it,” Schrab said. One is mSnow’s development of tubing lanes to allow inflatable tubes to slide down slopes in the summer. Places that have instituted tubing lanes in the past include Breckenridge in Colorado and Brian Head in Utah.

Climate change could increase the demand for artificial surfaces.

But artificial surfaces are not an option in the foreseeable future as a replacement for snow as the ski industry is still alive, said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association.

Ski areas across the country have installed artificial surfaces for summer training and on a small scale at resorts but they’re not needed to replace a full slope, Berry said. “It’s not all doom and gloom in the industry.”

But large scale artificial surfaces could be useful because they don’t need much snow, Berry said.

The popularity of artificial surfaces has risen as a way to train and to combat less snow, he said.

Orange barrels are manufactured by private companies that rent them to construction companies with state  contracts. Instead of heading to the landfill, damaged barrels are bought by or given to mSnow by the companies that rent them to construction companies, Schrab said.

The barrels are cleaned, molded into tile pieces and an additive is applied to make them slippery, Schrab said.

Schrab and his brother competed across the Midwest in skiing competitions. To compete in inverted aerial events they had to train in the summer. After skiing on an artificial surface in Park City, Utah, they thought about developing their own surfaces.

“Those traffic barrels are a similar plastic to what gets used for ski surfaces,” Schrab said. “Normally, it is a polyethylene. There are other types, but that’s what the barrels are made of.”

Kids who crafted backyard practice setups from mSnow made them popular, Schrab said. Word of mouth at ski resort and trade shows prompted Mount Brighton and Crystal Mountain to pick them up.

Caberfae Peaks Ski and Golf Resort near Cadillac has implemented mSnow surfaces into its resort for liftoffs but has put more money into man-made snow operations, Caberfae general manager Pete Meyer said.

Decline in boat registrations creating a lack of funding for marine patrols

Capital News Service

LANSING — Over the past decade, state funding for the marine divisions of sheriffs’ offices in Michigan has dwindled with the decline in the number of registered boats.

At the same time, the number of unregistered canoes and kayaks has increased, leading to calls for the owners of those craft to also be required to pay the registration fees that support rescues and other boating programs

“We’ve experienced a dramatic decrease in funding,” said Mackinac County Sheriff Scott Strait. “It’s roughly one-third of what it was 10 years ago.”  

Marine divisions offer boater safety classes, patrol waterways and conduct search-and- rescue missions on the water, including areas of the Great Lakes.

The  Department of Natural Resources (DNR) offers Marine Safety grants to county sheriff departments for marine patrol divisions. The grant money comes from boat registration fees.

However, a decline in registered boats has led to a decrease in the grant money vailable, and sheriffs’ offices across the state are feeling the effects, said Blaine Koops, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association.

In 2007, there were 827,869 registered boats in Michigan. By 2012, there were only 800,793. Last year that number dropped to 790,425, according to the DNR.

The amount available for Marine Safety grants is decreasing with the decline in registered boats. In 2007, it  was about $3.5 million. In 2012, it fell to about $2.8 million.  In 2016, it was about $2.2 million, according to the DNR.

“Funding here is roughly half of what it was when I first started,” said Sgt. Eric Decker, from the Marquette County special operations division. “Ten to 15 years ago, grant money was somewhere between $30,000 and $35,000. It’s now down to between $17,000 and $20,000.”

In the past, the Marquette County Sheriff’s Office used funds from the DNR grant to purchase new equipment, but he said the lack of funding is now forcing the county to make some tough decisions.

“We haven’t been able to replace equipment,” Decker said. “We have an aging boat, but we haven’t been able to replace it because grant money has gone down. It’s now looking like the county will purchase the boat and will put off getting a new patrol car for another year.”

An increasing problem counties are seeing is the number of calls they receive from canoers and kayakers in distress.

“We’re seeing major issues with kayaks,” said Kelly Hanson, the Huron County dheriff. “We’ve been called out over 70 times this year for kayak rescues.”

In Michigan, canoes and kayaks do not have to be registered. When users call for help, they are using marine division resources without contributing to the funding, Strait said.

Strait said his office is receiving a growing number of calls from kayakers, especially in the Straits of Mackinac. Deckersaid Marquette County is also getting more calls involving kayakers in trouble.

All three sheriffs say that  requiring canoes and kayaks to be registered would improve the funding situation.

They’re not alone.

“This is something we’ve wanted to see happen for years,” said Mark Miltner, vice president of Michigan Association of Paddlesport Providers and owner of Pine River Paddlesports Center in Wellston, about halfway between Manistee and Cadillac.

“The number of people who own personal crafts is increasing, and they’re not always experienced,” he said. “Sheriff marine divisions are getting called out more and more to do search and rescues.”

Decker said the drop in funding  means fewer deputies on the water.

It’s a concern that Hanson shares.

“At one time we had a marine patrol seven days a week,” he said. “Now we just have a weekend patrol.”

Hikers have a new Michigan favorite: Mount Arvon

Capital News Service

LANSING — You won’t find Mount Arvon listed in many Michigan tour books, despite the peak’s lofty status as the highest point in the state. And until a few decades ago, it wasn’t even recognized as Michigan’s top spot.

But these days, Mount Arvon in the western Upper Peninsula is getting more attention from tourists and the just plain curious willing to climb Michigan’s most prominent peak. It also is attracting a national convention of mountain climbers in 2019.

Tracey Barrett hikes to the summit nearly a dozen times a year.

“It’s a cool place to go,” said Barrett, director of the Baraga County Convention & Visitors Bureau in L’Anse. “There’s a view of Lake Superior and Point Abbaye. It’s really pretty, really remote.”

Mount  Arvon, which is in L’Anse Township, is a 27-mile drive east from the village of L’Anse, Barrett said, and “years ago, there was hardly a road” to the peak.

The road going up the mountain has been improved, she said, and a parking lot near the top was added in 2012. But the road is not plowed in the winter, which can come early in the U.P. So once the snow flies, only visitors on snowshoes or snowmobiles can reach the top, she said.

From the parking lot, it takes just a few minutes to hike to the top of Mount Arvon. Once there, visitors can sign a notebook to verify they reached the summit.

Back in L’Anse, people who have conquered Mount Arvon can pick up a certificate of achievement at the Baraga Visitors & Convention Bureau office, she said.

Barrett says her office also hands out magnets and stickers from the national Highpointers Club, a group that promotes climbing to the highest point in every state.

Each year, the club holds an annual convention in a different part of the country, said Tim Webb,the  president of the Highpointers Club.

The club divided the country into four geographical regions and rotates its annual convention sites through those regions, Webb said.

Club members voted to gather near Mount Arvon in 2019, he said.

“The exact dates are not set for this convention yet. However the traditional timing for our conventions is the third weekend in July,” said Webb, who expects the gathering to draw 200 to 250 attendees.

This year, the Highpointers met in Massachusetts. Next year, the group plans to gather in Arkansas.

Webb said he has climbed Mount Arvon twice, first in the summer of 1997. He returned in 2007, this time with his wife, son and daughter.

Some people who come to climb Mount Arvon  stay at nearby campgrounds or a lodging facility in L’Anse or Baraga, Barrett said.

An increasing number of visitors to the Baraga Lakeside Inn are using it as their base camp for their climb to the top of the mountain, said Lori Thomas, who works at the front desk of the 68-room hotel on the shore of Lake Superior.

The visitors are from all over the country, including California, and many stay for a few days, said Thomas, who said she has climbed Mount Arvon several times.

Although the peak is open to the public, it is on private land owned by the Weyerhaeuser Co., with headquarters in the state of Washington, said Kristine Rice, the L’Anse Township’s treasurer.

There is no way to count exactly how many people climb Mount Arvon each year, said Tom Nemacheck, executive director of the Upper Peninsula Travel and Recreation Association in Iron Mountain.

“But traffic is definitely up. There’s a lot more people asking about going up there,” Nemacheck said.

He said he also is seeing more interest in another Michigan peak, the 1,400-foot Mount Zion near Ironwood.

From the top of Mount Zion, Nemacheck said, there is a “terrific view” that includes Lake Superior and the Black River valley, with its multiple waterfalls.

According to the state’s Pure Michigan website, Mount Arvon rises 1,979 feet above sea level and is part of the Huron Mountains range.

“When you reach the parking lot you are within 300 feet from the top,” the website says. “After you sign in at the register, to the north of the top there is a short walk to a panoramic view of Lake Superior.”

For many years, nearby Mount Curwood, named for author and Owosso native James Oliver Curwood, was considered the highest point in the state. But a new survey in 1982 determined that Mt. Arvon was taller — by 1 foot.

What happened to my little lake? Invasive species moved in

Capital News Service

LANSING — In 1941, my grandparents built a small cottage on a small lake in northern Michigan. The cottage remains in the family today.

But while the ownership hasn’t changed, the lake has. Like many other inland lakes in Michigan, alien species have invaded ours.

A few years ago, we started spotting clusters of zebra mussels, originally from Russia, clinging to rocks and submerged logs in the lake.

Purple loosestrife, another foreign invader, started popping up along the edges of the water.

More recently, we noticed long, feathery plants rapidly filling in parts of the lake. Eurasian watermilfoil, we were told.

Then we saw a new kind of reed growing along the shoreline of our little lake — a type of phragmites originally from Europe.

Concerned about these unwelcome new residents to the lake, our lake property owners association hired a lake management company to survey it and recommend possible treatment options.
In the course of its survey, the company discovered another recent arrival, tiny freshwater jellyfish. They’re originally from China.

That’s at least five invasive species that have moved into our lake.

The lake management company recommended chemical treatments that knocked back the milfoil and phragmites. Property owners can pull up the purple loosestrife.

We have to cope with the mussels. And we were told the little jellyfish are harmless.

Our lake’s problems with foreign invaders are minor compared to the plight of the Great Lakes.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that more than 180 invasive and non-native species have severely damaged the Great Lakes’ ecosystem — so far.

Although it’s less well-known, many of those invaders also have found their way into Michigan’s 11,000 inland lakes. Many rivers, streams and ponds also are affected.

“Invasive species in inland lakes are a major concern in Michigan. From zebra and quagga mussels to Eurasian watermilfoil to European frogbit, each introduction changes ecosystems and affects recreational opportunities,” said Joanne Foreman, a communications coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) invasive species program.
The state is heavily involved in spreading the “Clean, Drain, Dry” and “Don’t Dump Your Bait” messages to encourage boaters and anglers to reduce the spread of invasive species to inland waters, Foreman said.

Such efforts may slow the spread of invasives but can’t turn back the clock.
Curly-leaf pondweed, originally from Europe and Asia, came to Michigan’s inland waters about a century ago, said Scott Brown, executive director of the nonprofit Michigan Lake and Stream Association based in Stanton.

Eurasian watermilfoil has been in the state since the late 1940s, Brown said, adding, “It’s had a major effect on the (inland) lakes in the Lower Peninsula.”

And when it comes to battling watermilfoil and other invasives, property owners around the affected inland lakes discover they’re often on their own, Brown said.

So it’s usually up to the local property owners to come up with the money, through voluntary collections or special tax districts, to fight the invaders.

Brown said more has been spent combatting milfoil than any other invasive aquatic species in Michigan.

“It probably presents the greatest threat,” he said.

A 1954 law allows local communities to create special assessment districts. Among other things, these districts authorize communities to raise tax dollars to fight aquatic invaders.

In recent years, the Department of Environmental Quality has been issuing about 4,000 permits annually to combat aquatic nuisances, Brown said. Most of those efforts have been paid for through special assessment districts.

Each year, $30 million to $35 million is spent in Michigan on chemical treatments to control aquatic invaders, he said.

“It’s very sad. These species are irrevocably altering our lakes,” Brown said. “And hundreds of these lakes are going untreated.”

Eurasian watermilfoil was detected in Wexford County’s Lake Mitchell in the 1940s, Brown said. In the mid-1950s, the lake was among the first in the state to get a special tax district to control milfoil and other invasives, he said.

Mark Tonello, a DNR fisheries biologist, surveyed Lake Mitchell and issued a report on it in 2012.

“Lake Mitchell has had a Eurasian milfoil infestation for many years, requiring treatment on an annual basis,” Tonello wrote.

Zebra mussels were found in nearby Lake Cadillac in 2010, he said. They were then documented for the first time in Lake Mitchell in 2011, near the outlet canal that connects the two lakes.

So what should property owners do about their own lakes?

“One thought is to try and keep invasive species out in the first place. The second would be to jump on any invasions early in the process,” Tonello said.

“For example, if Eurasian milfoil shows up in a new lake, you might be able to eradicate it early on. Some exotics you can’t really do anything about — zebra mussels for example. So prevention is pretty important.”

Aquatic invasive species “are as much of a threat to inland lakes as they are in the Great Lakes,” said Andrew Tucker, a scientist who works on invasive species issues with the Nature Conservancy’s Great Lakes Project, which operates from the nonprofit’s Lansing office.

Tucker said Michigan property owners on inland lakes aren’t entirely on their own when it comes to dealing with aquatic invaders.

The state’s Invasive Species Grant Program funds various inland lakes projects, including projects that the Nature Conservancy also is working on to control invasive plants, he said.

“Michigan spends as much as $25 million annually on control of just one species, Eurasian watermilfoil, and much of that is spent on inland lakes,” Tucker said.

He said detection of new invaders in the state’s inland waters, including red swamp crayfish and New Zealand mudsnails, will continue to draw attention and probably resources to Michigan and other Great Lakes states.

TABLE: Michigan counties with the most dairy cows.
1. Huron
2. Calhoun
3. Saginaw
4. Gratiot
5. Ingham
6. Missaukee
7. Ottawa
8. Newaygo
9. Lenawee
10. Eaton

Order Up: The Bear Claw Cafe has bears everywhere but the menu

Capital News Service

LANSING — The Bear Claw Cafe in Copemish is full of bears. Don’t worry — they’re only decorative. But they are part of a unique diner whose owner wants you to look at the animal differently.

The Bear Claw Cafe sits right off a highway not too far from Manistee in the village of Copemish, population 191.

The cafe is hard to miss. Just follow the bear paws painted on the sidewalk — they’ll lead you right to the front door.

The dining room is small — only 10 tables or so — but it has a lot of bears. Teddy bears hang from the banisters, carved wooden bears sit on tables and Polaroids of bears cover walls.

Scott Grant, the café’s owner and operator, describes some of the bear-themed decorations.
“These here are local sightings here in the area of bear that people have gotten to take pictures of,” Grant said. “This guy right here, he’s probably pushing 600 pounds.”

Grant’s not picky when it comes to decorations.

“It’s not hard, anything black bear,” he says. “There’s a story behind most of them.”

Looking around, you might expect a live bear to be flipping your pancakes. In fact, the only thing without bears is the menu, unless you count the burger named after one. “In the fall and in the spring we do a Kodiak Bear Challenge here, which is a 6½-pound burger. You have an hour to eat it. If you eat it, it’s yours. If not, it’s 23 bucks.”

Grant’s passion for bears goes back to when he was a kid, hunting with his family, but he hasn’t gone lately. That’s because in Northwest Michigan, it can take more than a decade to get a bear hunting license. Because of that challenge, a lot of other hunters are eager to shoot a bear, but not him.

The last time he went bear hunting, more than 20 years ago, Grant had a chance to shoot a bear but he says he didn’t want to.

“It just wasn’t what I wanted. I knew that bear was in good shape, and it would probably live for a lot of years, and it was just too small for me,” he said. “It wouldn’t even have made a throw rug. I’m looking for something that will cover my dining room.”

Grant’s other passion is food. After working as a chef in Grand Rapids for more than 25 years, he retired and moved to Copemish. But he couldn’t stay away from the kitchen, so he bought some property and opened the Bear Claw Cafe.

Everything he serves is made from scratch, from the gravy to the bear claws themselves.
“Hanging above my door is my philosophy — ‘simple foods cooked right are delicious’ — and that’s what we do here. Everything is homemade,” Grant said.

Customers may come in for the food, but he wants them to leave with some knowledge.
“People ask me about bear all the time, and I tell them the same thing I’m telling you –you really don’t have to fear bear,” Grant said.

This story was produced under a partnership with Interlochen Public Radio and Great Lakes Echo.

Another legal lap ahead in horse pulling doping dispute?


Capital News Service

LANSING — It has taken five years, four judges and three rounds in a lawsuit to decide a doping scandal between a state horse pulling association and one of its members.

And it’s still not over. A fourth round is possible.

Many thought it was over after a three-judge Michigan Court of Appeals panel ruled in favor of a Chippewa County man accused of breaking competition rules.

The case started in 2012 when a horse owned by David Esslin of Goetzville, then a member of the Bear Lake-based Michigan Horse Pulling Association, tested positive for an illegal substance. Esslin was fined and suspended from the association.

Esslin fought the drugging allegations by suing the association, successfully, for thousands of dollars.

The association banned Esslin after the lawsuit. Esslin wanted back in, so he took the group to court, where a Clare County Circuit Court judge ordered his reinstatement. The group appealed the reinstatement but lost that battle as well, according to court documents. Continue reading

Porcupine Mountains drilling raises environmental concern


Capital News Service

LANSING — Fierce public reaction greeted the news that a copper company had a use permit to drill at the west edge of one of Michigan’s most remote state parks.

Orvana Resources U.S. Corp.—a subsidiary of Highland Copper—is doing exploratory drilling near Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in the western Upper Peninsula. It’s not producing copper, but many members of the public aren’t happy with what it may mean.

“It’s a wild state park to begin with, and having industrial activity there is a shame,” said Steve Garske, a board member of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition Mining Action Group. “It seems like mining companies keep targeting areas that are important to the state.” Continue reading

Behind that romantic stand of pines, a history of abuse


Capital News Service

LANSING — Long before “Pure Michigan” lured tourists and vacationers Up North, images of pristine forests and sparkling streams were doing the same thing — even if what tourists would see was neither pure nor pristine.

While the state’s slick tourism campaigns of the recent decades are familiar, people might not know that they hark back to post-Civil War advertising that romanticized the state’s nature “and gave it the transcendent qualities that remain in tourists’ imaginations today,” according to a recent study.

The study by Camden Burd, who grew up in Grand Rapids and spent summer vacations on Green Lake in Interlochen, dates the current “Pure Michigan” theme to a 2008 rebranding of the state’s tourism industry. Continue reading

Judge rejects challenge to Leelanau trail


Capital News Service

LANSING — Opponents of a segment of the 27-mile non-motorized Leelanau Scenic Heritage Route Trailway have lost a court challenge to the planned route.

U.S. District Judge Gordon Quist rejected a suit by the Little Traverse Lake Property Owners Association, which claimed the National Park Service failed to fully disclose and analyze environmental impacts of the segment along the north side of Traverse Lake Road in Cleveland and Centerville townships.

The challengers, who own land on the south side of the road, also claim the National Park Service didn’t adequately analyze alternative routes and used incomplete or misleading data. Continue reading

Winter camping — in the cold and snow — more popular every year


Capital News Service

LANSING — On any given weekend this winter, a half dozen hearty souls will venture into the backcountry of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore near Munising, pitch a tent and go camping.

They are joining an increasing number of winter campers at state, national and private campgrounds around Michigan. Some go off the grid in small backpacking tents while others brave the elements in fully equipped RVs plugged into the internet and cable TV.

Winter camping has “taken a while to gain some traction,” said Jason Fleming, chief of resource protection and promotion for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Parks and Recreation Division. Continue reading