Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 1, 2012

The Boardman, shaped by glaciers, dams

Created by glaciers, river was changed by logs and dams


Editor's Note: First of a three-part series.

TRAVERSE CITY — If Grand Traverse Bay is Traverse City's front door, then the Boardman River Valley must be its backyard.

Bay and river share a long history, one that started about 16,000 years ago when the fourth and final ice-age glacier slid over what today is Michigan.

A mile thick in some areas, the glacier cut deep into the shale and limestone bedrock, then left behind steep hills, ravines and valleys as it retreated 10,000 years ago.

It created the Great Lakes. It dug out northern Michigan's inland lakes and its cold and clear groundwater-fed rivers and streams: the Boardman, Manistee, Au Sable, Betsie, Jordan and others.

The Boardman, once a tributary to the Manistee River, today flows through a 6- to 14-mile-wide rolling outwash plain located between two moraine ridges.

The ice sheet also dropped glacial till — gravel, sand, silt and clay sediment — that ranges from 100 to 1,200 feet deep.

A sandy soil, today called "Kalkaska soil," formed in the glacier deposits. It is so prevalent in the Upper and northern Lower Peninsulas that the Legislature declared it the state soil in 1990. It is found in 29 of the state's 83 counties.

Steve Largent, Boardman River program coordinator for the Grand Traverse County Soil Conservation District, calls Kalkaska soil "both a blessing and curse."

It's a blessing because it is porous and drains quickly. It filters and purifies runoff water before it enters the groundwater, the reason why northern Michigan rivers are so cold and clear.

It helps the river keep from flooding during heavy rains. It is why the Boardman River often is called a "stable" river.

The curse? It erodes easily, Largent said.

Kalkaska soil is one key to understanding the Boardman River's past, present and future. It sheds light on how logging and then hydropower devastated the Boardman.

It clarifies why the remnant population of Arctic grayling thrived thousands of years in the Boardman and other groundwater-fed streams, only to become extinct within a century after logging began in Michigan, its only Midwestern home.

Before logging

No pictures exist of the river before lumbering began in the mid-1800s, but the area's earliest historian, Morgan Leach, offered a vivid description of the Boardman and what happened to it after lumber barons Perry Hannah and A. Tracy Lay started Hannah, Lay & Co. along the West Bay waterfront in 1851.

First, lumber crews cleared 10 miles of river upstream, "so that logs could be floated downstream from the immense tracts of pine on the upper waters," Leach wrote in his 1883 "History of the Grand Traverse Region."

"It was not merely here and there a fallen tree had to be removed," Leach said. "In some places, no water could be seen because fallen trees completely covered and hid the Boardman under a mass of fallen trees blanketed with vegetation that had taken root on their decaying trunks."      Upstream, timber scouts identified rollaway locations along the top of steep ravines and cleared large swaths of trees and vegetation down to the river. Log slides were the most efficient way to move the logs into the river in the 1800s.

Work crews built roads and logways so that teams of oxen and later horses and small-gauge railroads could haul heavy virgin pine through the upland forest to the edge.

Temporary dams, constructed to create log holding ponds until the spring drives started, often were dynamited.

All of this had drastic effects on the river, land and the grayling, which spawned in the spring about the same time as the log drives.

Lumberjacks also removed woody debris from the Boardman to ease log floats downstream. That took out fish habitat, Largent said.

Cutting trees and other vegetation along river banks weakened root structures that held soil in place along the banks and helped transfer water within forest watersheds. Roots also contained organic matter that protected soil from rain and encouraged infiltration.

Deforestation allowed more sunlight along the river and warmed the water. Railroads made grayling streams more accessible to anglers and overfishing that has been described as outright slaughter.

Hydro harm

Hydro dams were an economic boon for Traverse City, but they added to the Boardman River's injuries by disconnecting it from its floodplains, Largent said.

Floodplains and wetlands are crucial to healthy river systems and nature's hydrologic cycle — the constant movement of water above, on, and below the earth's surface that replenishes groundwater supplies.

Wetlands preserve high water quality of rivers and lakes. They trap nutrients, sediment and poisonous substances before releasing cleansed water back to the river or lake. They serve as flood storage areas that slowly release water back into the river system. They reduce flood damage.

"Logging decimated the river and then came hydropower," Largent said.

MONDAY: The dam building era.