Nature's megaphone helps bring northern Michigan woods alive

John L. Russell
Special to The Detroit News

Afton — The oddly shaped wooden mega-sized megaphone appears ghost-like through the trees.

Anne Fleming walks a little faster, drawn to the structure.

“This is an amazing place,” said Fleming, 51, a spokeswoman for the Little Traverse Conservancy. “It is out in the woods away from everything and very special.”

Completed and installed on a ridge on conservancy property along the Pigeon River in late May, this 10-foot-long audio device nestled among trees in northern Michigan allows the curious to listen to nature and all its splendor. 

Anne Fleming, Director of Communications for the Little Traverse Conservancy, sits in a huge 10-foot wood megaphone in the Boyd B. Barnwell Family Preserve near Afton, Mich. Monday, July 22, 2019. The megphone amplifies the sounds of the surrounding forest and allows visitors to sit, relax and enjoy the unique device, believed to be the only one in the United States.

The megaphone, which is just being discovered by hikers and outdoor enthusiasts, is believed to be the only of its kind in the United States.

The huge structure is on the 400-acre Boyd B. Barnwell Family Nature Preserve where it adjoins the Andreae Nature Preserve and the Pigeon River.

“It’s not an easy destination to get to,” Fleming said. “We wanted to place it where it would enhance the wilderness experience. It’s low-tech, it’s made of wood and enhances your senses without electronics. It brings you down to a simple pleasure. It’s very special.”

While sitting in the structure, outdoor sounds become amplified. The chirping of songbirds, unheard while outside, are easily recognized when inside the megaphone. The rustling of light wind in the trees becomes a white noise background.

The reason behind this creation is a simple discovery from the internet.

Charles Dawley, 39, a stewardship and technology coordinator with the Little Traverse Conservancy in Harbor Springs, read about massive wooden megaphones placed in a forest in Estonia from a nature blog he read five or six years ago.

“I follow several blogs and read about these devices in Estonia. I thought one would be a great addition to the conservancy,” Dawley said. “Why not put one in northern Michigan’s pristine wilderness?”

Dawley emailed a professor at the Estonia Academy of Arts who led the construction of the devices by interior architect students in the Baltic Sea country, a former part of the Soviet Union. Dawley received no response. So he worked on a simple design and made his idea known around the office.

 A casual mention to his boss provided a positive response: Find people to donate time and materials and build one, he was told.

Fleming places a plaque honoring the contributors that built a huge wooden megaphone that has been placed on a ridge in the Boyd B. Barnwell Family Preserve.

Larry Liebler, a construction trades teacher at Petoskey High School, works on conservancy projects and heard about the idea of a megaphone.

“It was quite unusual,” said Liebler, 68. “That was what drew me to it.”

Liebler tries to get his students involved in community projects, and the uniqueness of this idea intrigued Liebler. The students rose to the challenge.

The complicated structure features a tapered shape, making the number of cuts for each board a great learning experience for the students. 

Fifteen students put more than 250 work hours into the project, Liebler said. They used 15 pages of computer drawings and had to determine compound angles and how to cut the tapered boards.

"We got the kids involved in critical thinking. It was all very unique,” he said.

The megaphone has 130 treated boards on interior and exterior rings, each tapered to fit.

“We had quite a pile of lumber when it was delivered,” Liebler said.

All materials and labor were donated. A local Home Depot donated treated pine lumber and materials.

“The only cost the conservancy had was the time to place the megaphone on the ridge where it now sits,” Fleming said.

The Little Traverse Conservancy in Harbor Springs has placed a huge megaphone in a forest preserve north of Afton.

To find the structure, head east from Indian River about six miles, turn north onto Quarry Road in Afton. About a half-mile turn west onto Dunn Road, go another one-half mile to the preserve entrance, a gated two-track just beyond where Dunn Road turns to the north. It’s about a mile hike to the megaphone.

John L. Russell is a writer and photojournalist from Traverse City.