Yoga retreat & trout fishermen at odds over dam removal

Nov 22, 2011

A small but notorious dam on one of northern Michigan's prettiest trout streams might soon come down. But what fishermen value about the Pigeon River is at odds with how the owners of the dam view it.

Owners at Golden Lotus yoga retreat have twice made big mistakes operating their dam over the last quarter century. And each time, muck from the pond behind the dam surged downstream. It smothered river life, and killed tens of thousands of trout.

Dave Smethurst has been fishing, hunting and hiking in the Pigeon River State Forest for the last 40 years. And both times the dam failed, he was there to witness the destruction.

"To see my river, and for trout fishermen rivers are very personal, to see my river devoid of life for several miles, it just wrenches your gut.”

Smethurst is on the board of the Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited. T.U. is party to a lawsuit by the state of Michigan against Golden Lotus. The organization has been pushing for the entire dam to come out.

And when it's gone, Smethurst expects to see a better river. For one thing, he says, the 50 acre pond behind the dam eventually will go away. The shallow pond releases water too warm for trout to live in.

Not only that, Smethurst says, but it acts as a choke point piling up sand and sediment for miles upstream.

"Today, that fishing up there is a shadow of its former self because all the holes are filled in and there's sand everywhere."

But fishing is not a high priority for the owners of the Golden Lotus yoga retreat.

Carol Armour is chair of the board of the non-profit group. She says the retreat was founded several decades ago by a wealthy Detroit businessman.

"It was traditional to take your disciples to the forest to teach them wisdom and understanding. And the quiet, the beauty, the contact with nature, the still, you know you're just a little bit closer to God, it's just a little easier."

Armour says the dam and the pond have been here for more than a hundred years. And she says the setting has become a spiritual home for those who return to get in touch with the deeper aspects of yoga.

Dave Smethurst with Trout Unlimited also feels the Pigeon River is the kind of place that restores the soul.

But he says the Golden Lotus property doesn't fit his idea of a natural place.

"There's a dam with boulders that are obviously placed by man, not by God. There's buildings. And there's this muck hole of a pond."

Ordinarily the Department of Natural Resources would agree. It's agency policy to completely remove dams whenever possible.

But in an unusual twist, DNR officials sided with Golden Lotus to allow part of the structure to remain.

The yoga group says it needs to keep concrete walls along the sides of the dam and a concrete pad on the bottom to support a small bridge across the top.

That's the main way to reach their office, lodging and classrooms.

Tim Cwalinski is a DNR fisheries biologist. He says it's a big win to get an agreement just to remove guts of the dam. With that gone, he says, the possibility of another failure and more fish kills disappears.

"I don't think in my career we'd ever see a structure removal at the Golden Lotus site. And I can say now, we will. So how can you not feel good about that?"

But members of Trout Unlimited don't feel good about it. They say leaving concrete on the bottom of the river will speed up the flow of water so much that most fish will not be able pass upstream.

State officials think mostly smaller fish will be blocked.

The question of how much of Golden Lotus Dam will have to be removed is headed to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

-Bob Allen for The Environment Report