This week in History of Wilderness Exploration, students switched focus from westward expansion to local history by taking a look at the story of the Sylvania Wilderness, Conserve School’s neighbor to the North. History teacher Michael Salat began the class period with a brief history of the area. The beautiful lakes and hills found on the Conserve School campus and in the Sylvania Wilderness were formed as glaciers receded around 10,000 years ago. Recessional moraines, kettles, eskers, and drumlins were left upon the land, creating the landscape we see today.
The earliest inhabitants of the Sylvania area were members of the Chippewa tribe, who were documented in the area as early as 1661 by French fur traders, the next people to arrive. In 1787, the first “Americans” arrived in the area, surveying the land as part of the Northwest Ordinance. Thousands of acres were obtained by individuals during the Homestead Act of 1862 and much of the area was clear-cut in the late 1800s. How did Sylvania survive? It won over the heart of a visitor, just as it still does today.
In 1895, a man named A. D. Johnston purchased two forty acre parcels of land at the South end of Clark Lake, a lake that is now part of the Sylvania Wilderness Area. Johnston bought the land with the intent of logging it, but found it too beautiful to destroy. He convinced a few friends to buy adjacent parcels of land and together they formed the Sylvania Club, turning the area into a place to privately hunt and fish. In 1965, the property was bought by the government to be used as a recreation area that would be covered in roads, campgrounds, boat launches, and trails. These plans were stopped, however, when the Sierra Club determined the soils were too fragile and needed to be protected. In 1987, the area was officially designated as the Sylvania Wilderness.
To learn more about Sylvania, students were assigned to read local author Bonnie Peacock’s book entitled Sylvania. The class took a walk to the shore of Big Donahue Lake to do their reading, stopping first at a bog to learn a bit about tamaracks and their ties to glaciation. With the help of Sigurd Olson’s Singing Wilderness chapter entitled “Smoky Gold,” which refers to the color tamarack needles turn in the fall, students considered how the landscape can change over time. A brisk pre-winter wind greeted the group as they arrived at Big Donahue Lake, but they were able to quickly make a fire and soon settled warmly into their reading.
– Graduate Fellow Maria Kopecky