2013-09-06 / Columnists


Mackinac Island Late Summer Flora and Fauna Viewed from Horseback

One of the best things about riding a horse on Mackinac Island is riding on trails. There is a “go as you please” sense once you’re on a wooded path. No matter how many years one may have spent here, wonder and awe still abound. For many riders, certain trails bring a happy peace. Mackinac Island has interior treasures, in addition to vistas on the bluffs, the plants, and animal wildlife.

Travel around the Island at a quick pace, whether by bicycle, on foot, or on a horse, and you may miss out on many wonderful little surprises. Now that we’re in the later weeks of summer, the annual search for the plant called Indian pipe has been a game of “who sees it first.” The only prize you get is bragging rights for the year. Who is involved in the quest? Not the horses, but their owners. It’s always special to find this shy, odd, and rather rare plant on a trail.

Enjoying a quiet afternoon in the woods, along a meandering trail. The horse’s name is Toby. Enjoying a quiet afternoon in the woods, along a meandering trail. The horse’s name is Toby. The other plants with annual “search appeal” are squawroot, pine drop, and thimbleberry. I don’t think anyone has found wood lilies in bloom in the usual places in 2013. If you’re not familiar with any of these, then I suggest you check the old “Nature Notes” columns in back issues of the Mackinac Island Town Crier (www.mackinacislandnews.com). This is the season for these, as well as all kinds of fascinating looking fungi in shades of deep oranges and yellows. Seen from atop a horse, they look like small jewels in the leafy strewn paths. September is a magical month to ride on Mackinac Island; still summer, but the horses know the season is changing, and they are, too, as they start to shed their sleek coats.

Horses that have been trail horses here have a very good sense of the Island. We have a varied topography, from dark, cedar swamp groves, to beech and white pine woods, a few deep gullies, and myriad rock formations. A horse without shoes here has tough going, for even if some parts of the trails are strewn with pine needles, they’re still not for the tenderfoot.

Like early spring, this time of year is also a time one may see animals or their nesting places via horseback. The vantage point is always a higher one from a horse and the angle of looking at things is much different. Also, if you’re paying attention to your partner, his telegraphic ears can communicate much to you, without a word.

One recent morning, as I was bringing the horse back to the corral from the barn, I thought he shied for no reason. A dark shadow went over our heads and the other two horses in the corral darted. In looking up, I saw that we had been under the wings of a golden eagle flying on the northeast shore. When I’ve been on horseback, I’ve been lucky to see barred owls, as well as many pileated woodpeckers, all within the past month.

Then this week, while riding a little past dawn, my horse abruptly stopped on the trail and lifted his head high. The reason? The distinctive odor of a fox, which has a slight sulfuric and musky smell. I smelled it, too, and it seemed that simultaneously we both glimpsed a small, dark red fox dart a few yards ahead of us and run across the trail and then shoot down the wooded cover over the bluff. Now, horses have a flight mentality and on a narrow trail, there is not much room for maneuvers, but fortunately, a wonderful breeze blew in. As if on command, we sallied forth. Tally ho. That was pretty exciting!

While I’ve not seen a raccoon on Mackinac Island for several seasons, I did have a face-to-face surprise with another wild animal while riding just yesterday. This time I was out in the late afternoon and with our “new” horse, one spending his first season here. (Prior to living on the Island, the most wildlife this horse had seen was possibly a herd of dairy cows by the racetrack at a fairground.) As it turns out, we were sharing the road with a medium sized coyote. It came upon the junction the same time we did. The coyote was faster than the pair of us, and ran away first.

All of these sights are simple joys. Perhaps the most wondrous time was about 10 years ago, in September, with my husband and the late Lornie Porter. The three of us happened upon several thousands of monarch butterflies hanging from the trees like bejeweled leaves and fluttering all around us. It felt as if we were in a Disney movie. The butterflies were gathering for their autumnal migration, but only then were we a part of it, and never to see that since. The experiences are heightened for me now because our horses are making the journey across the lakes on the ferryboat, and another summer with them here comes to an end. Back to southern Michigan they travel. Of course, there is the fall to look forward to with them downstate. These days, even the smallest things take on special meaning and become little wonders.

In keeping horses on Mackinac Island for a season, the work is hard, physical labor, with worry and money involved, as well as distance, weather, and flies. They are all key factors to contend with. But, being able to truly enjoy your or passion, and making the best of times and opportunities to enjoy riding, does bring a sense of satisfaction. I am very fortunate. These last weeks, the late summer flora and fauna have been the icing on the cake.

Candice Dunnigan is a resident, writer, and equestrian on Mackinac Island. She belongs to various national and local eequine organizations.

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Thank you for that story -

Thank you for that story - wonderful!

I enjoyed reading your

I enjoyed reading your article from South Hadley, MA. Glad we had another season with the horses! :)
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