Located near Saginaw, Michigan, the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge (SNWR) was established in 1953 for use as an inviolate sanctuary for migratory birds, thanks to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and then authorized by the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission. Located at the confluence of four rivers, it is one of the largest wetland ecosystems in Michigan, entailing 10,000 acres that feature undeveloped floodplain forests, marshes, ponds, rivers, canals and the associated habitat. What is truly unique about the SNWR is that it is located within an urban and agricultural landscape, allowing it to be readily available for the public to enjoy. A sad part about this scene is that a lot of folks know about the SNWR but tend to take its presence for granted and never make an effort to savor what an opportunity it has to offer.

Well, folks, I guess I am as guilty as anyone in that regard because although I knew the refuge was there, I had never taken the time to thoroughly check it out. My first experience in the refuge was in 2018 when other folks and I paddled down the Cass River from Cass City to Saginaw to commemorate the new Cass River Water Trail (we were quite the flotilla with a colorful mix of kayaks and canoes). The last leg of the trip was through the SNWR, where the Cass River emptied into the Shiawassee River, and a short way downstream, the Tittabawassee River also emptied into matters, thus creating the Saginaw River from there on downstream to Saginaw Bay.

The beauty of the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge. Copyright photo By Patrick Bevier

When first paddling into the refuge, I was completely mesmerized by the sights, sounds and pleasant smells of the genuine wetland atmosphere surrounding me. Egrets, great blue herons, green herons, eagles, ospreys, various waterfowl and a myriad of songbirds were abundant everywhere, not to mention deer were a common sight along the riverbanks. Turtles were also in evidence, including the biggest snapping turtle I have ever seen, sunning itself on a boulder at the water’s edge. The lush vegetation all around reminded me of the atmosphere I had experienced in the Everglades of Florida. I guess you might say I found myself paddling through my version of the Garden of Eden!

Naturalist Myles Willard, who is a nature photographer and book author, had been asking me on occasion to go with him to the SNWR and check out the 6.5-mile scenic “Wildlife Drive,” which is a one-way road that meanders through the SNWR. I always had something else to do, but I recently took Myles up on the offer after first contacting Don Konuszewski, who is a board member of the Friends of SNWR, and we arranged to meet with him and Refuge Wildlife Biologist Eric Dunton at the main office. When we arrived, Interpretive Park Ranger Andrea Martinson was hard at work showing a map to visitors, which is a great way to start an adventure there because it is a big area.

Formed in 1990, the Friends of the SNWR are volunteers who have partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and assist with the mission to preserve, manage and enhance the refuge. They also assist in obtaining grants and generating funding to go directly to specified projects, as well as volunteer for various programs and events. A key goal of this dedicated group is to introduce folks to all the natural wonders of the SNWR and offer guided tours. According to Don Konuszewski, it is the perfect place to take school children for a field trip.

Eric Dunton has been a Wildlife Biologist at the SNWR for some time now and readily remembers when the heavy rainfall in May 2020 caused the Edenville and Sanford dams to fail, creating what was called a record “500-year Flood,” even affecting surrounding areas, not on the floodplain. Realizing the enormity of what was headed their way, SNWR officials quickly decided to open the gates on the dikes and divert water into the refuge, flooding most of it with a water level as much as 12 feet deep. This would help prevent damage to landowners and homes, not to mention the positive response to an inevitable emergency saved Saginaw from a whole lot of extra distress!

The beauty of a wetland area such as the SNWR is it’s a literal sponge in the ability to absorb and filter water. Unlike the unchecked torrent, which carried and deposited tremendous amounts of sediment down the rivers and eventually into Saginaw Bay, the waters in the refuge were returned very cleanly.

The SNWR offers and promotes a wide range of outdoor recreational opportunities, including hiking (on multiple trails), bird watching, canoe/kayaking, boating, fishing and hunting. Hunting for small game, predators, deer and waterfowl are all on the agenda. During the 1980s, the refuge literally became overrun with whitetail deer and efforts have been made since to keep the deer numbers in check with the habitat. Deer hunting opportunities are done through an application and drawing process only, and getting a permit is a coveted opportunity because the refuge is well-known for having some spectacular bucks!

The waterfowl hunting (during the regular seasons only) in the refuge is, of course, outstanding. Originally, hunters would show up in person and hope to be drawn for a set hunting location, but since previous covid restrictions prevented such, the process had to be done online, which continues to this day, because it was found to be a more copacetic way to handle manners. There are no waterfowl blinds located on the refuge, and most of the hunting is done by watercraft from the many accessible sites.

Recent efforts have been made to create large grasslands entailing native prairie grasses and wildflowers, to which the resident wild ringneck pheasants have readily responded and are making their presence known. If you provide the proper habitat, I have personally discovered “they will come.”

Myles Willard and I would accompany Don Konuszewski for a very picturesque experience along the 6.5-mile Wildlife Drive, which features the unique and amazing wetland diversity of the SNWR. I highly recommend first-time visitors to at least sample this, and we also encountered hikers, including kids, enjoying the easy walking provided in a truly back-to-nature setting.

Yep, folks, I believe it is unfortunate when folks have a beautiful jewel such as the SNWR not far from home and never take the time to truly appreciate it. I am certainly glad I finally saw the light myself!