Michigan Tech Alumni Come Together to Protect the Pilgrim River

Written by Dana Richter, June 2011

The Pilgrim River flows under the last bridge on Highway 41 just before coming into Houghton from the long trip north. Being the closest trout stream to Michigan Tech and within walking distance of campus, the stream has been fished by innumerable students who came to this remote part of Michigan to begin their education and fulfill their dreams. Looking for a break from their rigorous classes, whenever time allowed, students would grab their fly-fishing gear and insect repellent and make the thirty-minute trek to the banks of the Pilgrim River to try their luck. Perhaps the most memorable thing for many was the swarms of black flies in early spring. But if luck was with them they could land a beautiful speckled trout of keeper-size, to plop in the fry pan for a heavenly dinner that evening with friends.

The Pilgrim River is still the largest unspoiled wooded trout stream closest to Michigan Tech. The Tech ski trails and adjoining newly-established Nara hiking trails come up to its banks, as the river winds through the woods and approaches Portage Lake. Now a group of conservation- minded Tech Alumni are working together to protect 1,360 acres of the Pilgrim River watershed so that Michigan Tech students and others can have the experience of fly-fishing, bird watching, skiing, hiking and enjoying the river and its surrounding forests far into the future.

Bill Leder (BS, Civil Engineering 1968), representing the local chapter of Trout Unlimited is one of the leaders in the campaign to protect the Pilgrim River. "A recent change in ownership in the Pilgrim River watershed has created the opportunity to protect the land for fishing and recreation, sustainable forestry, and nature education in perpetuity. The property includes over two miles of the river, including a good portion of the river's headwaters. Trout Unlimited is working with the Keweenaw Land Trust and several partners to establish a "conservation easement" on the property. This is a type of legal device that will protect the property for recreation purposes but allow sustainable forestry to be practiced as has been done in the past."

Bill Deephouse (BS Chemical Engineering 1964, MS Biological Sciences 1971) is also part of the campaign to protect the river. He recalls excellent steelhead fishing in the late 1960s -- so good that they would take their catch to have them smoked, getting back half of what they provided -- all parties were happy! Bill recalls, "Many wonderful fishing trips were had on all sections of this river. One memorable occasion resulted in my first ever 20-inch brown trout taken with a new ultra light rod within sight of the US-41 bridge." Bill ended up working for the Michigan DNR Fisheries Division; the Pilgrim River was considered one of the best, if not the best, trout stream in the Western UP for brook, brown and rainbow trout. "We took kids enrolled in the Summer Youth Program out to the river to learn about aquatic invertebrates in the 70s, and more recently in 2001 introduced a new bunch of SYP students to the stream showing them how the DNR assesses a stream for quality. Several large steelhead were captured along with many brook trout up to 12 inches." Michigan videographer Justin Plickta got some wonderful footage of this survey. Tech professors who have used the Pilgrim River over the years for field classes include Ken Kraft (Biology, Forestry), Casey Huckins (Biology), and Brian Barkdoll, Dave Watkins and Alex Mayer (all from Civil and Environmental Engineering), who study wide-scale watershed management to maintain ecosystem water quality.

Bob Page (BS, MS, Mechanical Engineering 1990) is currently the Laboratory Facilities Manager for the MEEM Department. Bob and wife, Charlene, fell in love with the Copper Country while earning their degrees and vowed eventually to return. While it took 18 years to fulfill that promise, they now call Houghton their home. Both were introduced to the Pilgrim River while taking a fly fishing PE class at Tech. The river and its surroundings now figure into many family activities, including fishing, hiking, snowshoeing, and the occasional berry-picking. Bob says, "I grew up in a family of sportsmen and have hunted and fished all over northern Michigan. The Pilgrim River valley has more to offer than any other area I have seen. The beauty and diversity of this tract of land is astounding, and is made even more special by its close proximity to Houghton. In mere minutes, we can be out of the house and hiking down the trail. My children and I spend a lot of time in the woods and I hope that it will be preserved so that I can introduce it to my grandchildren someday."

John Ollila (BS, Biology 1969), is also part of the Pilgrim River Watershed Project. His family farmed where the river crosses the South Superior Road. He is generously donating part of that farm with the river running through as a significant contribution to the campaign. He relates, "Not long ago sewers from the nearby towns of South Range, Painesdale, and Trimountain flowed through feeder streams into the river, but now these communities have municipal sewage treatment. And this summer, construction will likely begin on a municipal system for the small community of Baltic, the final untreated source. The point I wish to stress is this: less than four miles from Houghton/Hancock/Michigan Tech, we have a solidly wooded, undeveloped, 1500+ acre tract containing a fertile, pristine trout stream. The property I will donate contains a half mile of river and one of the most scenic hilltop vistas on the entire river system. There will never be a house on that hilltop, only a bench where passersby can watch, listen, and contemplate."

Dana Richter (Ph.D., Biology 1989), now in the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, as president of Copper Country Audubon, has brought on board the birdwatchers to help protect the river and adjacent woodlands for birds and other wildlife. He says, "We are glad to be a partner in this project. This is the largest block of unbroken forest next to Houghton. Numerous song birds are dependent on these woods for nesting and habitat. In spring one can hear the melodies of thrushes, warblers and vireos announcing their territories high in the trees. In addition, this is one of the most wonderful places to find baskets full of edible mushrooms every summer and fall!" Dana is also a founding member of the Keweenaw Land Trust, whose aim is in part to protect forests and wildlife habitat close to population centers for the nature experiences and wholesome family opportunities they provide.

Another Tech alum working on the Pilgrim River Watershed project is Shawn Hagan, (Forestry BS 1985, MS 1988), a past president of the Copper Country Chapter of Trout Unlimited; he works tirelessly to protect the Pilgrim River for trout habitat and to maintain the pristine nature of the river. Shawn is a professional forester who understands the intricate compatibility of good forest management and stream fish habitat. Trout Unlimited conducted stream improvement projects on the river downstream from Superior Road bridge in 1998 and 2002; erosion control, habitat improvement, a sediment trap and fish covers were constructed.

Bill Marlor (Civil Engineering 1979) is also working on the Pilgrim River Watershed committee on behalf of the Keweenaw Trails Alliance, a partnership fostering a network of sustainable trails for recreation, health, transportation, economic and environmental stewardship throughout the Keweenaw.

These Tech Alum, as part of a larger coalition of conservationists, have banded together with fond memories of the Pilgrim River and a shared vision for the future. Their aim is to protect the river and its surrounding forests so that others that attend Michigan Tech can have the same opportunity and experience they had when they were earning their degrees here. The peace and beauty of nature surrounding the river has instilled in them a deep respect for the land and a desire to care for it throughout their lives. Those who have had the privilege of being near the bubbling clear water of the flowing river in spring when the trout were fat and plentiful often return to its banks and close their eyes and remember their days of youth in the halls of Michigan Tech!