Latest Reading: “Camera Hunter: George Shiras III and the Birth of Wildlife Photography”

I read Northern Michigan University Professor James H. McCommon’s biography of George Shiras III (1859-1942) with great interest because of his ties to Marquette, Michigan. Shiras was from a wealthy law family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His father was a Supreme Court Justice. The family had a vacation home in Marquette, the largest town in the Upper Peninsula. The city has several areas and a planetarium named after him, so I was interested in learning more about his life.

With air travel today, I don’t see a family like the Shiras family choosing to vacation regularly in the UP. Today, wealthy families travel all over the world. In the late 19th century, it took a long time to get anywhere and so people went on holidays closer to home. Shiras married the daughter of another famous Marquette pioneer, Peter White, so he is kind of UP royalty.

The best part of the book was Shiras’s descriptions of the Upper Peninsula wildlife and topography from 1870 to the turn of the century. Long gone are the massive clouds of Passenger Pigeons migrating to the UP in the spring or five-foot-wide deer trails leading from Lake Superior south so deer and moose can find winter areas with less snow. Before logging, mining, and settlements, the Upper Peninsula was a much different place for the Shiras family than what I experienced 100 years later growing up in Iron County in the 1970s and 1980s. The mature forests mixed hardwoods were better for moose and woodland caribou than what you find today, white-tailed deer. It it tragic the effect of “market hunters” who killed thousands of wildlife game and sold them to towns and cities to the south. Much of the wildlife was wiped out and the mature forests were clear-cut.

The second half of the book describes his love of wildlife photography. Cameras were new back then and he set up rudimentary camera traps and flashes to capture some of the first photos of nocturnal wildlife.

A curious lynx photographed in 1902 by Shiras in Ontario

It is my wish that the UP returns to the same state as Shiras experienced in his youth. 98% of the region is covered with forests and it is recovering slowly. Species such as wolves, bald eagles, and moose are reintroduced. Too many people still build homes in the urban/wilderness interface, but it pales in comparison to the ravages of the early 20th century. I am glad the UP has a low profile and is still isolated today. I would like to try to visit the Dead River, the Laughing Whitefish Lake Preserve and the George Shiras trail this summer. Some other points I took from the book are below:

  • My birthplace, Sault Ste. Marie is the third oldest city in the United States. It was founded by French fur trappers and Native Americans taking advantage of the fishing on the St. Mary’s River, which carries water from Lake Superior to Lake Huron.
  • The “root beer” or “copper-brown” colors of rivers in the UP are from decayed organic matter leached from cedar swamps and the great forests.
  • Earthworms (Lumbricus terrestris) were brought to the UP from the Shiras family. Natural colonization of terrestrial earthworms after the glaciers melted had not reached the Northwoods region of the Great Lakes.
  • Northern Michigan and western Ontario were the last great stands of the Passenger Pigeon. In 1896, market hunters and residents killed the final flock of 250,000 near Petoskey. Shiras wrote, “It was doomed because it was a migrant. The rule in each state was to have an open season when these migrants were present and a closed season, if any, after they had gone.”
  • Shiras predicted in the 1930s that the “UP was destined to a long future as a recreational wilderness area.” The US forest service bought up denuded lands and abandoned farms in lieu of back taxes. These formed the Ottawa and Hiawatha national forests of today.
  • Barnegut boat – a flat boat designed for marshes with shallow water, first used in Barnegut, New Jersey.
  • potamodromous – fish that spend their entire life cycle in freshwater. The speckled trout of Lake Superior were huge and abundant but now have been replaced by European brown and rainbow trout.

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