By Ron Bergin
Sylvania Wilderness in Michigan’s western Upper Peninsula is one of those places that keeps calling me back. Just about every year, I say to my wife and skiing buddies that, this winter, “we have to get back to Sylvania.” Fortunately, last March we were able to answer that call.
Sylvania is not a high-profile destination area, nor is it even a sophisticated, well-appointed Nordic center. In its 18,000 acres there aren’t even any groomed trails. And for me, that holds considerable appeal.
Like many “wilderness” areas in the Midwest, Sylvania is miniscule by comparison to the vast “true” wilderness areas of the western U.S. and Alaska. Perhaps wilderness preserve would be a better designation, but I am appreciative, nonetheless, of the protection and preservation afforded this wild gem.
With regard to Sylvania, preservation is indeed the operative word. The Sylvania Wilderness exists today, in part, thanks to the foresight of Wisconsin lumberman A.D. Johnston. Instead of cutting the 80 acres of virgin timber near the south end of Clark Lake that he purchased in 1895, he found the property too beautiful and invited some friends to visit and fish the lakes. The friends ended up purchasing the adjacent lands and thus was formed the Sylvania Club. Fishing and hunting became the primary focus rather than logging. Lodges, cabins and boathouses were built on the largest lakes and connected by a road system that today functions as Sylvania’s hiking trails and ski routes.
Over the years, ownership of the Sylvania Club changed hands until the U.S. Forest Service purchased the land in 1967, under the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, and it was opened to the public. All buildings were removed from the property and it was managed as a special recreation area for 20 years. In 1987 it was designated a federal wilderness area.
Located on the Michigan-Wisconsin border, Sylvania Wilderness is a part of the Ottawa National Forest. It has long been a popular summer destination thanks to its 34 lakes and interconnected system of portage and hiking trails, and outstanding canoeing and kayaking. A healthy and cooperative population of smallmouth bass is an added attraction.
But in the winter, these same portage and hiking trails become easily-followed overland ski and snowshoe routes, providing access to the interior of the wilderness and easy backcountry touring for skiers from advanced beginner on up. As in any backcountry situation, trail conditions do not resemble those found at a groomed Nordic center. My Sylvania skiing experiences have included everything from a train of people breaking trail in a foot of fresh snow, to clumped klister travails, to spring corn and crust. So a modicum of preparation and skill is required. But heavy-duty gear is not; light touring or anything wider than racing skis will suffice.
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