By Paul Beachnau
Congratulations are in order for a group of hardworking people that recently completed yet another project that celebrates, educates and honors a major asset that makes up the rich diversity we have here in Gaylord and Otsego County.
The Gaylord area is widely recognized for a diverse mix of tourism assets and our notable Alpine Village theme. However, one of our greatest and most historical assets is one of our least recognized. Dating back nearly 100 years, the Pigeon River Country State Forest is an invaluable part of our community.
For those not aware, the Pigeon River Country Discovery Center was recently honored by the American Association for State and Local History for its award of excellence. This is the most prestigious award presented by the Association.
Over the years, the forest has grown to encompass over 106,000 acres of wild, natural beauty. It contains rustic campgrounds, sinkhole lakes, hiking and biking trails that meander along the Pigeon River, plentiful foraging opportunities and literally a place to get away from it all. The “Pigeon,” as it is lovingly known, is not intersected by any major highways or freeways and borders parts of three counties. Hunting and fishing opportunities are endless and in many conservation circles it is known as the “Big Wild.”
Of course, many of us know the Pigeon’s greatest asset is the free-ranging elk herd, one of the largest in the Midwest, that has grown in size to over 1,000 animals. Elk were native to the forest, went through a period of extinction and were reintroduced in 1918.
Some of the foremost conservationists of the early 1900s visited the Pigeon and advocated for keeping a pristine forest as an escape from the daily toils of man. As a young man, Ernest Hemingway wrote passionately and enthusiastically about the Pigeon River Forest and spent many a day and night there hiking, fishing and camping. Former president Jimmy Carter at one time visited the forest as well.
For years, the Pigeon’s headquarters contained living quarters for the staff, forest manager and his family in a log cabin made with logs straight from the forest. The structure was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935. However, the building has remained vacant for a number of years.
The Pigeon River Discovery Center was established in this building to preserve a historical gem, celebrate the rich history of the forest and educate visitors on the importance of the forest to our state and the conservation effort. The center will create a new group of stewards and advocates in order to keep the forest a vibrant, special place for all future generations.