Kids’ hike and colors at Sturgeon River Preserve

Posted on September 20th, 2017

Out See Go
By Chris Engle, contributor

I’ve written about the Sturgeon River Preserve before but it’s always worth revisiting this time of year, when fall colors stretch all the way from the dense canopy to the musty forest floor there.

It’s the vividly colored fungi that get most of my attention because the damp and insanely fertile, black soil makes the perfect backdrop for mushroom spotting and photography.

HeadWaters Land Conservancy’s Sturgeon River Preserve, on Whitmarsh Road northeast of Gaylord, pays homage to the late Rusty Gates of AuSable River fame. Photo by Chris Engle

I didn’t have my “good” camera with me when I stopped by for a short hike earlier this week, but I did have a smartphone. It’s really all you need if you’re willing to get your knees dirty and lean in close for a shot at the incredible detail each mushroom exhibits.

This last week, I’ve been helping a local forester mark trees for logging operations on private land. Ivan’s constantly scanning the forest as he walks, looking for mature trees crowding younger ones, damaged or dying trees that should be removed, and any other areas where the forest — not just the landowner — would benefit from a bit of logging. I follow behind and mark the trees he points out.

This is what Ivan Witt calls “caviar” fungus for its uncanny resemblance to fish roe. Photo by Chris Engle

As he walks and looks, Ivan’s also eyeballing the ground for interesting or edible fungi. When he finds something, which is about every 10 minutes or so, he pulls out his smartphone. With a flick of his finger through a hole cut in his glove, he snaps a picture or two, crouching and kneeling to get just the right angle. He must have thousands of mushroom photos on his phone by now, and he likes uploading them to a Facebook group of mushroom enthusiasts who identify the genus and species in his photos.

Sometimes we carry a sack and have collected enough chanterelles for a meal or two, and enough orange and black chaga fungus for a lifetime of tea.

Back at the Sturgeon River Preserve, my 5-year-old daughter skipped ahead and pointed out mushrooms, insisting I take pictures of them. I’d stop and snap a couple shots, and those momentary pauses with our faces close to the ground would open up whole new micro-worlds rich in life. That’s what I really like about mushroom photography.

A cluster of unidentified mushrooms sprout from the earth. To us, they’re tiny, but when you sink down to their level, other features once invisible appear and intrigue. Photo by Chris Engle

Along the way we found a salamander, kicked up a 6-point buck bedded in the bracken ferns, and practiced our map-interpretation skills. Paige proudly led us back to the car by her own navigation.

A red-back salamander pauses briefly enough for a picture. Photo by Chris Engle

Kids Outdoors Otsego, an awesome grassroots group of active outdoorspeople, is holding their next family hike at the Sturgeon River Preserve this coming Saturday, Sept. 23. It’s a great way to enjoy some time outdoors with your kiddo, and a gateway to whole new worlds if you’re willing to crouch down to find them. Bring your camera! Details are in the flyer below.

Chris Engle is an outdoorsman and proud dad in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at

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