Pigeon River returning to free-flowing state

The Song of the Morning dam was opened permanently in 2014. The dam structure will come out this year, widening the river channel at the dam site. Photo by Howard Meyerson.

The Song of the Morning dam was opened permanently in 2014. The dam structure will come out this year, widening the river channel at the dam site. Photo by Howard Meyerson.

By Howard Meyerson

VANDERBILT — Anglers who like free­-flowing streams got a chance to celebrate in September 2014 when the Song of the Morning Yoga Retreat dam was permanently opened on the Pigeon River allowing it to return to a free­-flowing state.

It signaled a new era for those popular trout waters.

This year, there is a more to cheer about as phase II of the dam removal project moves forward this month.

Huron Pines, the Gaylord­based conservation organization overseeing the removal, recently announced its fund­raising objectives have
been met.

“We hope to break ground the second week in October, said Lisha Ramsdell, the program director for Huron Pines. “All of the utilities will be disconnected and the downstream sand trap is in place to catch sediments when we remove the dam.”

Deconstruction will cost $365,000, money Huron Pines raised from private donations, a $293,000 state Aquatic Habitat grant and a $5,000 donation from the Mullet Lake Area Preservation Society. The Pigeon River empties into Mullett Lake.

Once under water, Meadows now grow surrounding the river which is cutting its way down to the historic channel. Photo by Howard Meyerson.

Once under water, meadows now grow surrounding the river which is cutting its way down to the historic channel. Photo by Howard Meyerson.

Upstream of the dam site, where river waters were once impounded, terrestrial life is emerging. Last year’s drawdown restored about a mile of the river and its banks.

“The shrubs and grasses are already filling in,” noted Ramsdell. “The trees will be a long time coming. But having it (the area upstream of the dam) stay open is not a bad thing. Those meadows (now appearing) are a highly productive area for trout.”

Dam a longstanding problem

You may recall that Song of the Morning dam was a source of grief for anglers and natural resource managers. Three serious mishaps, most recently in 2008, resulted in massive silt spills that damaged downstream trout populations and habitat. The river runs through the Pigeon River Country State Forest which largely is managed for its wild characteristics.

Dam removal was called for in a settlement negotiated between the state and Golden Lotus Inc. which operates the yoga retreat. Golden Lotus was fined $120,000 to mitigate the effects of the 2008 silt spill that killed 450,000 trout.

The dam had been a source of consternation. It impounded waters that were heated by the sun. When released downstream it was too warm for trout.

“There were weekly and monthly events that killed fish,” explained Tim Cwalinski, senior fisheries biologist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “They would do peaking operations (releasing water). That made things very unstable. It was not just the
catastrophic events.

“The river now has good habitat and is getting better for temperature. The Pigeon had only one limiting factor — the dam. The water temperature is now taking care of itself.”

Trout returning 

Downstream trout populations are improving, according to Cwalinski. And trout now can move upstream, along with steelhead. The result of the steelhead migration and its effect on trout will be assessed, Cwalinski said. Cooler water temperatures should also mean better trout fishing much further downstream.

“The bottom line now is that there is no impact from (higher) water temperatures any more at the site,” Cwalinski explained.

Cwalinski’s technicians did trout surveys this year in an area five miles downstream from the dam. In 2008, there “were barely any fish,” he said. “The numbers were really low. We’re getting back to 1979 and 1980 levels for browns. And brook trout are showing a similar pattern. There were four times as many as in 2008.”

Golden Lotus Inc. is developing a restoration plan, according to Ramsdell. Huron Pines, for now, has opted not do vegetative restoration work on the exposed banks.

“We have the opportunity to let Mother Nature do its work,” Ramsdell said. “We’ll let things take their course and determine what is needed upstream. We’re working with Golden Lotus to put together a management plan for the corridor. A lot will focus on controlling invasive species.

“A lot of wood is being uncovered (in the river bottom). Once the dam is gone, a new bridge will be built (over the river). Right now, the river is constricted by the dam and we still have turbulent water coming through. Once it’s gone, the velocity will slow and it will mimic the natural flow we see upstream.”

The Pigeon River has long been a popular destination for anglers and paddlers. It was designated as a state Wild­Scenic River in 1982. All 42 of its miles will now be unobstructed by manmade barriers. And that is something to celebrate.


Appears in MLive Media Group newspapers and MLive Outdoors.

About Howard Meyerson

After more than 30 years in the outdoor writing business, you would think I'd know better.
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2 Responses to Pigeon River returning to free-flowing state

  1. Margery Guest says:

    I’d love to see what this looks like when they remove the dam. Where is this?

    Liked by 1 person

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