Taming a Wilderness: Dead River Basin

The Dead River Basin is located in the Negaunee, Ishpeming, and Champion Townships of Marquette County, in the Upper Peninsula (more commonly called the U.P.) of Michigan. It is situated on land owned by Longyear Realty Corporation, and contains 16,000 acres of densely wooded pristine countryside. Outcroppings loom 300 feet above the timbered blanket covering the rugged terrain and surrounding the serene reservoir that stretches about 12.5 miles. The reservoir was created in the early 1900s by a dam that flooded the backwater area of the Dead River.


Over the years, individuals have been granted licenses or leases by the Longyear Realty Corporation to use the land, and "camps" were developed for recreation. These camps vary from small timber cabins to luxurious second homes and range in size, generally from one to three acres, with about 200 feet of lake frontage. Wishing to protect their investments, the campers organized in the mid-1990s and set up a corporation, The Dead River Campers, Inc., to negotiate the purchase of the land.

Spalding DeDecker Associates, Inc. (SDA) was contracted by the Dead River Campers, Inc. in 1997 to prepare Assessor's Plats and land surveys, including boundary and mapping, for approximately 7400 acres and to delineate more than 400 parcels of land in the Dead River Basin, deep in the U.P.

When first proposing this endeavor, SDA Survey Department Manager George Platz said to his very experienced field personnel, "None of you have ever done this kind of survey before. This will be ‘real survey'—the art of combining history, research, legal concepts, and local conditions with the science of measurements—a once in a lifetime opportunity."

Historical Perspective
One of the fascinating aspects of this project was the historical perspective, especially to surveyors. In 1844 a U.S. Government survey party was working northward in the original survey of the U.P. South of Teal Lake, as the surveyors were "running their lines," they found the needles of their compasses oscillating wildly to the left and right.

The survey party was asked to look around to see what could be causing the irregularities on their compasses. It turned out that the cause was a highly magnetic area with high-grade iron ore. The Marquette Iron Range was discovered, the first in the Lake Superior region. Thus was born the great iron mining industry of this area. The Jackson Mine was established in 1847 and the area became a leading iron ore producer in the U.S.

William A. Burt was the Deputy Government Surveyor on this original survey. Due to his previous experience in the Wisconsin territory with compasses in a metallic environment, Burt had experimented and developed a solar compass in 1834 and had received a patent for the compass in 1836. This compass was invaluable because it used the sun and not magnetic north as a fixed reference and was therefore not affected by the magnetic fields of the iron ore deposits. The solar compass later became the required surveying instrument for federal land surveys.

The survey party was able to finish the survey in this area using Burt's solar compass. Burt's record of 1,100 miles of measured section lines together with geological, topographic, and weather observations became a forerunner of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Many of the original U.S. Government survey points had been lost through lumbering, forest fires, and flooding. The Cleveland-Cliffs Mining Company had surveyed the area around 1918 (prior to the flooding) and their records, together with an assortment of other field notes, were the basis of the SDA survey project.

Assembling the Pieces
Challenged by the enormity of the site, abundant foliage, severe weather, forbidding terrain and snow, SDA team members used all available technology and utilized the seasons to their advantage. Advanced GPS techniques proved an enormous asset. GPS units were used to help locate the corners in the field using a precalculated theoretical position. The boundary survey was completed using GPS units to tie in section corners, quarter corners, and other relevant property corners, as well to set horizontal and vertical controls. Additional control points were set using conventional survey total station equipment and procedures.

Knowledge of the area was vital to the scheduling of work. Because of excessive vegetation and many meandering creeks, hiking was not always a viable option. However, by using the seasonal conditions, one could mitigate these problems. In the winter, with a five-foot snow base, snowmobiles could navigate over and across these natural features. Of course, this presented other obstacles—for example, an actual point would have to be dug out of the snow—but at least GPS navigation usually led to a close position of th point. A winter snowmobile excursion was more time-efficient than a laborious summer hike, which would have required carrying all of the equipment miles from the nearest road. Marshy areas that swarmed with insects in summer were put on the winter schedule as well. One winter drawback was the shortened daylight hours, in contrast to a 14-hour workday in summer, which was not uncommon.

Inclement weather occasionally played havoc with scheduling. Sometimes a setup had to be abandoned due to electrical or winter storms. Additionally, if the collected data did not meet accuracy criteria, SDA quality control procedures required a recheck and a re-measurement.

Research and Negotiations
The boundary phase of the project included researching documentation for more than 100 section corners and searching for the physical monumentation in the field. This work also included measuring out the line calls (topographical features) of the original government survey notes and then measuring to locate, properly identify, and witness the actual section corners for the "next" surveyor.

The field-locating phase identified the proposed lot lines, arbitrarily established by neighboring "campers" after an agreed upon location. Getting more than 350 individuals to agree on lot lines (where none had previously existed) was sometimes very troublesome. This "negotiation," together with the difficulty of obtaining field measurements in heavy forests, proved very challenging. Aerial photography and field locating helped determine existing utility lines, trail roads, driveways, and camps. Other items incorporated onto the survey drawings were existing and new utility easements, access easements, existing and proposed county road rights-of-way, and adjoining properties. The preliminary drawings were then field checked for accuracy.

The drafting phase of the surveys produced 26 separate Assessor's Plats and more than 50 Certified Surveys (Michigan PA 132) for more than 400 parcels of land. More than 100 section and meander corners were witnessed and recorded (Michigan PA 74) with about one-half of these corners going through the review and acceptance Marquette County Re-monumentation Program. The various government bodies that reviewed, requested revisions, and approved the surveys included the individual townships, the Marquette County Road Commission, and the State of Michigan Subdivision Control Unit. Upon approval, the surveys were finalized on paper. The field monumentation and final phase of the project involved the arduous task of installing more than 1,500 concrete monuments and lot irons.

In Summary
In preliminary planning it was impossible to anticipate all the variables and the issues that this project would encounter. This made it very difficult to estimate a timetable or a budget. The Dead River Campers, Inc. understood this challenge, but a limited budget and a due date imposed by the owner confined them. Working together, the "Campers" and SDA teams were able to agree on a tentative plan that would allow flexibility and in the long run incorporate cost-saving methods.

This successfully completed survey has enabled the members of The Dead River Campers, Inc. to own their individual properties and protect the substantial improvements already invested in them. The "campers" now have a professional survey that identifies individually deeded parcels and allows an accurate legal record with Marquette County and the State of Michigan. Accurate measurements and survey monumentations are now available for use by various governmental agencies and other surveyors in the north central Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

The Dead River Basin survey received an Honorable Conceptor Award for Surveying from the American Council of Engineering Companies of Michigan and the Michigan Society of Professional Engineers and a National Recognition Award from the American Council of Engineering Companies.

George Platz is Vice President and Survey and Mapping Department Manager, and Jay Shah is President and Chairman of the Board of Spalding DeDecker Associates, Inc.

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