2018-06-09 / Columnists

A Look at History

Name of Juniper Trail Is Reminder of Early Mackinac Island Forest
BY FRANK STRAUS

From Sugar Loaf to Crooked Tree Road is a well-used horse pathway, Juniper Trail. The trail skirts the northern border of the Turtle’s Back, the upper plateau close to the center of Mackinac Island. From Juniper Trail westward are a couple of narrow pathways to scramble up from the muddy lower trail to other trails, such as Morning Snack Trail, on the heights.

Juniper Trail covers grounds that were cleared off during the early written years of historic Mackinac Island, largely for firewood and unofficial cow pasture. Early drawings of the Island show large open and brushy spaces throughout Mackinac Island’s interior. During the years after the War of 1812, the U.S. War Department, which was not interested in beauty, owned the land on which Juniper Trail now stands. This section of the Island was part of the security zone around Fort Mackinac and Fort Holmes. The early 1800s were the first decades of what we now call the “Romantic Age,” but as the hub of the Upper Great Lakes fur trade, Mackinac Island was a strategic asset rather than a place of nature. The first record of the War Department’s interest in the Island’s romantic atmosphere did not come until the late 1830s, when Islanders petitioned to Washington for the right to use parcels of land to build cemetery spaces.


Juniper Trail Juniper Trail In 1875, Congress directed the War Department to set aside much of the Fort’s security zone as a public park, called “Mackinac National Park.” The future Juniper Trail was in the Park, but the commander of the Park still controlled the land it was on. A big patch of Island land was cleared, or its clearance maintained, to give the growing crop of Mackinac tourists a series of vantage points from which to look up at Sugar Loaf. (These clearances would be maintained by the State Park to this day.) Two significant strips of land were cleared for use as sharpshooting ranges to maintain the ability of soldiers stationed at the Fort to lay down accurate longrange rifle fire. The northernmost of these two ranges, later miscalled the “Musket Range,” reached up to a rock formation called “Pulpit Rock” close to Juniper Trail.


Juniper Trail is depicted on this 1915 map. The pink arrows point to the distilleries mentioned in the Horse Tales column by Candice Dunnigan. Juniper Trail is depicted on this 1915 map. The pink arrows point to the distilleries mentioned in the Horse Tales column by Candice Dunnigan. This section of Mackinac National Park was, biologically, disturbed ground. Birdwatchers know how big the difference is between sections of woody land that are close to open space on the one hand, and parcels of deep woods on the other. Furthermore, even those parcels of the new National Park that were being allowed to regrow were not mature deep woods any more. Tourists walking or riding around this part of the Park got to see a second-growth ecosystem, a parcel of land that had once been covered by mature trees and which had been cut back to brush. The low juniper bush, Juniperus horizontalis, is a creeping, ground-covering shrub that grows in colder, northern climates. It was at that time a good pioneer plant to cover northern Michigan ground that was being allowed to “go back to nature.”

Many junipers were growing here in 1895 when Congress ceded Fort Mackinac and Mackinac National Park to the state of Michigan. In the 1915 “Morgan Wright” map of Mackinac Island, Juniper Trail is clearly marked. In Wood’s “Historic Mackinac”, published in 1918, Juniper Trail is once again named and described: “This locality abounds in a luxuriant growth of Juniper shrubs.”

Throughout the 20th century, the ground-covering shrub continued to sprout wherever trees were cut down and land cleared. As a very young child, I was taken to what was until 1964 the unpaved “air strip” in the interior of Mackinac Island, and remember that the clearing was filled with prickly bushes. My father was reading “Winnie-the-Pooh” to me at the time, and at one point in the book the teddy bear falls into what the English author calls a “gorse bush.” There are no gorse bushes in eastern North America, so the creeping cedar juniper would have to do.

The 25-cent State Park guidebook first published in the 1960s, once again marked Juniper Trail. By this time, however, the junipers that had once lined the trail were no longer luxuriant and had begun to disappear. Other trees had begun to grow over the ground-hugging bushes. Junipers were a first-generation pioneer species; they could not survive being shaded out by second-generation pioneers such as quaking aspens. Juniper Trail was becoming the woodland trail that it is today.

Even after the junipers began to disappear from the region around Juniper Trail, the shrub could be found in large bunches elsewhere on Mackinac Island. Land parcels that had been used actively as pastureland after the creation of Mackinac National Park, such as Hedgecliff and Wawashkamo Golf Links, had plenty of junipers when I was growing up in the 1970s. I remember wondering why the name “Juniper Trail” was where the junipers weren’t. It took a while to learn about biological successions and changing patterns of land use.

Now, other changes are causing Mackinac Island’s remaining junipers to disappear. A fungus disease causes what is called “twig blight,” and the plant dies back or dies altogether. Horizontal juniper, meanwhile, was always on the southern edge of its range at Mackinac Island. In recent years our summers have gotten hotter and our winters have become a bit warmer, and the horizontal band of North America, representing the land area and climate conditions where the creeping shrub likes to live, may be shifting northward a bit. Mackinac Islanders who want to see juniper may need to go into the colder interior of the Upper Peninsula, or further north into Canada. In any case, the name of Mackinac Island’s “Juniper Trail” may itself be becoming part of Mackinac Island history.

Return to top

Click here for digital edition
2018-06-09 digital edition