Save the Pilgrim!
by Dennis Walikainen '92 '09
That’s the battle cry of alumni, faculty, students, and community members fighting to keep the Pilgrim River pristine. If they are successful, future generations will still be able to explore, fish, hike, and savor this slice of heaven so close to town.
"Just look at this," says Dana Richter ’89, a research scientist in the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science and president of Copper Country Audubon, as we drive along on Pilgrim Road, just minutes from campus. "The river runs along the fault from the Traprock Valley to Mass City, and it’s a beauty," he says.
As we walk down through the wet grass, we have a clear view of the green-and-gold hillsides flanking the water on this early autumn day. The river works its magic, riffling over rocks, pausing in pools. It’s not that hard to get here; there are hiking trails nearby, and a short venture has us down to a spot where a fallen tree crosses the river with promises of deep trout ponds there and around a bend.
For decades, Michigan Tech students and alumni have been able to bring rod and reel or just their own adventuresome selves down to this wild place only a couple miles southeast of campus. They have been welcome thanks to the good graces of the owners—nearly all of the land on either side of the Pilgrim River is in private hands. Now, however, the river valley is attracting the eye of developers. For those who cherish a ramble here, the time for preservation is now. Houses and new roads are springing up, and there’s nothing to abate future growth.
The Pilgrim River Watershed Project hopes to change that. A coalition of seven local organizations—the Copper Country chapters of Trout Unlimited and the Audubon Society, the Northwood Alliance, the Houghton Keweenaw Conservation District, the Keweenaw Land Trust, the Keweenaw Trails Alliance, and Partners in Forestry—is working together to guarantee public access to 1,382 acres surrounding three miles of some of the most scenic forestland in the Pilgrim River valley.
The property is owned by Joe and Mary Hovel, members of the Northwood Alliance. The couple purchased two parcels adjoining the Pilgrim with the aim of sustainably managing the forest and keeping the land open for compatible recreation, including activities ranging from hunting and fishing to berry picking and bird watching.
The Pilgrim River Watershed Project has been working to secure conservation easements from the Hovels, assuring public access in perpetuity.
It's a big effort, says Bill Leder ’68, an adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering and a board member of Trout Unlimited. "But for outdoor recreation enthusiasts, the effort is more than worth it."
For Casey Huckins, a member of Trout Unlimited and an associate professor in biological sciences, the Pilgrim is both a pristine trout stream and a living laboratory. He has been taking students to the Pilgrim for a decade, focusing on trout and stream ecology. In addition to brook trout, he’s seen coho salmon, sculpin, steelhead, and many other species here.
"It’s such a great resource to have for teaching," he says. Recently, Huckins brought students there to conduct a fish survey using electrofishing, which briefly stuns the fish so they float to the water’s surface, where they can be captured and then released alive. The class looked at size, species, and age of the fish, while also analyzing the condition of the habitat.
The river is also a resource—and a passion—for students in other disciplines. Civil engineering master’s student Casey Fritsch has been assessing the riverbed to better understand the watershed and identify potential stream restoration projects. Andrew Orthober, a master’s student in environmental policy and member of Trout Unlimited, just appreciates what the river offers so close to campus.
"It’s an important ecosystem for fish and a corridor that supports a lot of wildlife," he says. "There’s even a pair of eagles near the mouth." He’s caught brook trout and rainbow, but exactly where will remain a mystery.
Michigan Tech students have probably been fishing the Pilgrim as long as there has been a Michigan Tech. Among them is Bill Deephouse ’64 ’71, a member of Trout Unlimited, the Audubon Society, and the Keweenaw Land Trust.
"In the 1960s, when I was a student, I caught a twenty-inch brown trout within sight of the US-41 bridge," he remembers. Later, he passed on the tradition to youngsters from Michigan Tech’s Summer Youth Program. "And we caught several large steelhead and brook trout."
Deephouse’s love of the river begins with fishing but also involves projects like "pushing rocks around" to stop bank erosion. "The goal, ultimately, is to protect the whole watershed," he says. "All of us involved in the project have a strong allegiance to it."
Probably no one has a greater allegiance to the river than local landowner John Ollila ’69. He is offering his 250 acres to the project through outright donation and through easements, "because it is the right thing to do," he said. "I’ve been looking for a group to be the conservator for twenty-five-plus years."
Ollila’s grandparents ran a dairy farm on the land, and his parents operated a strawberry farm. Today, one of the Pilgrim’s best access points is on his property, giving everyone a chance to enjoy the land he has loved since childhood.
It’s from one of those access points that Richter, president of the local Audubon Society, guides our steps down to the river. For him, the allure of the Pilgrim is its birdlife.
"Songbirds are dependent on these woods for nesting and habitat," he says. "In spring, you can hear the melodies of thrushes, warblers, and vireos high in the trees."
And if the Pilgrim River Watershed Project is successful, future generations of Tech students will continue to hear those melodies as they cast their lines hopefully into the Pilgrim’s pools of dark, fishy water.