Sunday, November 8, 2015

Wandering with Chris Walker

Bill Collins, Executive Director, Thumb Land Conservancy

On July 16, TLC Board Member, Chris Walker and I journeyed to Tuscola County for the day with the aim of photographing natural features and points of interest for future TLC guides and presentations. Home for the summer with his mother near Lexington, Chris and I agreed we should meet up for an excursion before he headed back to Minnesota State University, Moorhead, where he teaches photography as an Assistant Professor in the School of Communications and Journalism.

Chris Walker's faculty listing on the Minnesota State University web site. That must be his faculty face because the Chris I know looks more mischievous, and cynical perhaps.

Without a specific plan, other than a few spots I wanted Chris to photograph, we basically covered northwestern Tuscola County, looping from the Caro area, north to Saginaw Bay at Bay Park, and back down. We decided on Tuscola County because we don’t get up there as much as we’d like, and with impressive features like the Cass River, glacial moraines, extensive forest, and the Saginaw Bay, I hadn’t given Tuscola County due attention. I’ve often passed through on M-46 on my way to and from northern Michigan. Occasionally, I’ve worked near Caro, Vassar, and up on the Saginaw Bay, and have done some exploring, but there’s never enough time. Since moving to the Brown City - Marlette area in 2004, I’ve discovered the Vassar and Tuscola State Game Areas, Juniata, Wahjamega, Indianfields, Cork Pine, and lakeplain prairie remnants near Quanicassee, just to name a few.

Our approximate route.

Chris Walker and I first met in July of 1978 while working on Boy Scout summer camp staff at Silver Trails Scout Reservation near Jeddo. I had my choice of working on the rifle and archery range, or with Chris as his assistant teaching nature. As a kid growing up in the woods around my parents’ home in Fort Gratiot, I was fascinated by nature, but had little formal education and knew next to nothing. My enthusiasm was my greatest strength. So there I was, at the age of 15, working at Silver Trails for the summer, helping Chris teach merit badge courses in environmental science, bird study, botany, forestry, and soil and water conservation. In our spare time, Chris taught me almost every tree, shrub, and wildflower on the camp, and several forest birds by call. I remember the specific plants he taught me, and even where they were located on the camp – American Beech, Sugar Maple, Yellow Birch, American Basswood, Black Cherry, Eastern Hemlock, Tuliptree, American Hornbeam, Witch-hazel, Spicebush, Poison Ivy, Virginia Creeper, Spotted Jewelweed, Blue Cohosh, Solomon’s-seal, Wild Leek, Hepatica, Bloodroot … at least I already knew White Trillium, Red Trillium, Mayapple, and Yellow Trout-lily from the woods back home but probably not the actual names. The bird calls – Ovenbird, Eastern Wood Pewee, Eastern Phoebe, Barred Owl, and more. Chris was so encouraging, I picked up on everything quickly. We worked together again in 1979, Chris the Nature Director and me the Assistant. In the summer of 1980, I was the Nature Director and received my famous nickname, “Yoda”. Except for two years, I continued working on summer camp staff through 1986.

In the off-season, Chris and I often wandered southern Sanilac and northern Saint Clair Counties. He always had an itinerary with somewhere, something, or someone to visit and photograph, and I was always an eager tag-along for the day. Usually, it was birds. Sometimes a particular wildflower in full bloom, or special tree, a mushroom, an old barn, an old Chickadee lady, and so on. I remember sitting with his parents in the living room of their home near Lexington, watching slide shows of Chris’s latest finds. His parents made me feel like an adopted member of the Walker family.

As I recall, it was in 1979 that Chris introduced me to the Blue Water Audubon and then BWA President, Bob “Bio Bob” Collins, who would be my teacher at Saint Clair County Community College a few years later, my first formal education in biology. Bob was not related, but had the same name as my father and occasionally we would receive a phone call at our house from someone looking for Professor Bob Collins. My mother was quite surprised when one day, Chris and the other Bob Collins showed up at our house. Blue Water Audubon opened a whole new world of birds and people I had no idea existed. At the first meeting I attended, BWA voted on a resolution regarding proposed oil drilling in the Pigeon River State Forest. This felt like a very important group. There I was introduced to Bill and Harriet Davidson, who traveled the world, sometimes just to see one species of bird.  

In 1979 and 1980, I helped Chris with PBb – Project Bluebird, maintaining a few hundred Bluebird nest boxes across southeastern Sanilac and northeastern Saint Clair Counties. You get an idea of Chris’ warped sense of humor if you consider that, only a few years before, Michigan experienced a widely publicized environmental catastrophe caused by the accidental contamination of livestock feed, and subsequently most of us in Michigan, with PBB – Polybrominated Biphenyl, a fire-retardant and potential carcinogen. Everyone in Michigan knew about PBB. I guess the Michigan United Conservation Clubs of Michigan didn't mind the name, because they awarded him the Youth Conservationist of the Year award in 1980 for his PBb work.

Chris turned his lens toward me a few times, and thankfully so. In May of 1983, Chris had me, my sister Pam, and my brother Dan, pose together in the Port Huron State Game Area during the annual Blue Water Audubon spring bird banding. This is the absolute best photo of the three of us together.

Me, Pam, and Dan in the Port Huron State Game Area for the Blue Water Audubon spring bird banding, May 1983. Photo by Chris Walker.
Future wetland ecologist and consultant, me, circa 1983-84. On an oxbow pond along the east side of Black River, just south of Jeddo Road, near Silver Trails Scout Reservation. Photo by Chris Walker.
Forward to our July 16 trip to Tuscola County. Chris and I hadn’t cut loose like this since the early 1980’s. We’ve both kept ourselves extremely busy, but we set aside this day for a Walker and Collins Ride Again reunion. I’d rather not be 35 years older, but otherwise, not much has changed. He still has an expensive camera and I still have a cheap one. I trust that I will get Chris’ photos when his university schedule slows down, maybe around Christmas. You can view some of his long-term projects on his web site at or, if he’ll friend you on Facebook, you can see his very latest work there.

In the meantime, here’s a few that I took with my cell phone:

To the owners of Pennywick Tree Farm: If you are still wondering who those strange individuals were hanging around your Santa, it was us.
Chris started by sitting down on the job.
OK. Chris was sitting to photograph my favorite hand pump water fountain at the Cass River Roadside Park along M-46.
The Cass River at the Cass River Roadside Park along M-46.
The Cass River at the Cass River Roadside Park along M-46.
The Cass River with almost-blooming Joe-pye-weed at the Cass River Roadside Park along M-46.
Chris Walker on the banks of the Cass River at the Cass River Roadside Park along M-46.
On a moraine ridge top at Lobdell Road and Hunt Road in Fremont Township, Tuscola County.
Chris shooting a Red-winged Blackbird.
Chris shooting near the bottom of a moraine ridge on Lobdell Road in Fremont Township.
To the Dietz family, owners of these roughly 100-year old farm buildings along the north side of Blackmore Road: You have a ready-made museum and minor tourist attraction waiting to happen here with some very interesting structures and artifacts.
Some of the structures are rough, but just need a little TLC.
Blackmore Road heading up a moraine ridge.
The mid-afternoon heat apparently got to Chris, revealing an inner jerky-smoking boss man persona I had not encountered before. I had no choice but to become his wiseguy sidekick yes-man. Strangely, he still retained an extensive knowledge and appreciation of the natural world.
The Cass River at Caro.
Saginaw Bay at Bay Park.
Chris shooting on Saginaw Bay at Bay Park.
Saginaw Bay at Bay Park. Industrial structures in Bay City are visible on the horizon.
Chris shooting frogs at Bay Park.
Saginaw Bay at Bay Park. The sign is a reminder that all road ends along the Great Lakes are public access points. Improving access is an issue that the TLC would like to work on in the future.
The Cass River just northeast of Vassar.
Chris shooting Wild Bergamot near the Cass River.