Wetland Wonders Challenge explores Muskegon State Game Area

DNR biologist Nick Kalejs speaks to an assembly of paddlers at the Muskegon State Game Area.

Aug. 1, 2013

When Nick Kalejs contemplated a career in wildlife management, he never thought one of his tasks would be serving as a tour guide. But that's where he found himself recently as he led a group of paddlers through the Muskegon State Game Area on the Muskegon River.

"I thought I might show people around, but I certainly never thought I'd be doing it on the river in a kayak," said Kalejs, a Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist who works out of the game area. "It's an interesting area - between the logging history, the wildlife and the habitat, there's always a lot to talk about. The material is there."

Kalejs led a pair of short expeditions through the game area as part of the DNR's Wetland Wonders Challenge II, a program designed to foster appreciation for wetlands and Michigan's managed waterfowl areas. Kalejs' tour showed participants - who range from 12 to 73 years of age - how the habitat changes as the river flows from the uplands to low-lying wetlands areas that provide habitat for waterfowl, shore birds and other critters.

DNR biologist Nick Kalejs"As we go down the river, we leave the river corridor and enter into the delta of the river," Kalejs said. "It's a pretty pronounced change from the river corridor to the wetlands. It certainly showed people how dynamic of a system it is.

"I think some positive things came out of it; maybe people got some appreciation for the quality of these areas. The Muskegon State Game Area is remarkable; we're on the outskirts of Muskegon and Muskegon Heights, but when you get on that river, it's like you're a hundred miles away from civilization."

Although the DNR's managed waterfowl areas are best known for ducks and geese - and the hunting opportunity they afford - the second phase of Wetland Wonders is designed to highlight some of the other values associated with the area.

The Wetland Wonders campaign kicked off last fall, when the DNR Wildlife Division gave waterfowl hunters an opportunity to win a handful of prizes - including new shotguns, donated by Ducks Unlimited - by hunting at four or more managed waterfowl areas. It attracted hunters like Gary VanKirk, who is a regular at Shiawassee River State Game Area. The 63-year-old retired salesman turns up at one of the drawings for waterfowl hunting at the Saginaw County area more days than not. But when the Department of Natural Resources announced its Wetland Wonders Challenge last hunting season, VanKirk decided to change his ways.

Inaugural Wetland Wonders Challenge"I went up to Nayanquing and Fish Point and Muskegon Wastewater," he said. "I hadn't been there in years. I used to go elsewhere early on in waterfowl hunting, but I kind of fell into Shiawassee and I like it a lot. But I decided to go to the others to enter the contest."

It was good thing he did; VanKirk was one of the seven winners of the Wetlands Wonders Challenge.

"It was great to see all the donations - such a wide variety of companies and organizations," Van Kirk said. "I even won a goose call from a guy I know who makes them - I called him up and thanked him for making the donation."

VanKirk said it was interesting to see the different local crowds at the waterfowl areas - the regulars at these areas generally all get to know one another - and he had good hunts at the Saginaw Bay areas, but didn't hit Muskegon Wastewater (where Canada goose hunting is the draw) at the right time. But those hunts may have inspired him to change his ways in the future.

"I'll still do most of my hunting at Shiawassee, but I'll probably go to Nayanquing or Fish Point a time or two and maybe even go down to Harsens Island with a couple of the guys and check that out. This sparked my interest. I think the contest brought some participation to the other areas. I think the DNR wanted to do that and I think they're on the right path."

A sandhill crane ignores the paddlers on the Muskegon River.The second half of the Wetland Wonders Challenge kicked off with some bird-watching events at Point Mouillee State Game Area, Fish Point State Wildlife Area and St. Clair Flats Wildlife Area (Harsens Island) events.

"The idea is to highlight the managed areas for their non-bird-hunting opportunities," explained Barbara Avers, the wetlands and waterfowl specialist with the DNR Wildlife Division.

The DNR partnered with Michigan United Conservation Clubs and enlisted Consumer's Energy as a sponsor to put on Wetland Wonders Challenge II. Participants in the events will be entered in drawings for a variety of prizes, including a Pictured Rocks cruise with two nights' lodging at Tahquamenon Falls, tickets to a Great Lakes shipwreck tour coupled with a family sailing lesson, and a VIP tour of the Detroit Zoo, to name a few. The contest runs through mid-August.

"Just come to one of the events and sign up," Avers said. "That's it. We want people to understand that these places have a lot of value outside of waterfowl hunting. The management work we do benefits a whole host of other species. These are high-quality wetlands with a whole lot of critters who use them."

Throughout the tour, Kalejs pointed out the flora and fauna - everything from common songbirds to water snakes - and the challenges of managing for them. The fading ash trees, for instance - victims of emerald ash borers - opened up the canopy, allowing others species (some of them unwanted invasive plants) to get a foothold in the area.

Participants at Kalejs' tours ranged from veteran river rats to first-time kayakers. Cindy Gibson, a health care worker who brought her 22-year-old daughter Raechel to the event, said it was only her second time in kayak.

Cindy Gibson and daughter Raechel"The birds are remarkable here," she said. "I'm thoroughly enjoying it."

Kalejs said he thought the program had accomplished one of its missions.

"We had a very broad spectrum of people, people who were waterfowl hunters to people who enjoy nature but had never participated in those types of activities, so a lot of it was brand new to them," he said. "They gained a lot of knowledge - and, of course, the knowledge that the sportsmen have preserved these areas for everyone to enjoy."

For information on the Wetland Wonders Challenge or managed waterfowl areas, visit www.michigan.gov/wetlandwonders. Also, check out the Michigan Waterfowl Legacy, a 10-year, cooperative partnership to restore, conserve and celebrate Michigan's waterfowl, wetlands and waterfowl hunting community.

To learn more about how you can contribute to efforts to conserve and manage Michigan's wildlife species, visit www.michigan.gov/nongamewildlife.