Lake Charlevoix. Walloon Lake. The Bear River. The Inland Waterway. Burt Lake. Minnehaha Creek. Maple River. Lake Michigan.

These gleaming bodies of water provide visitors to the Petoskey area with endless hours of fascination and recreation each year. Whether you’re a dedicated swimmer, a fishing fanatic, an expert pontooner, or a Petoskey stone hound, you know how our waters draw people back to visit year after year.

But what do you know about the teeming life just below the surface of our area’s lakes and streams? How do we keep northern Michigan’s watersheds healthy for everyone’s enjoyment? Take a trip to Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council’s newly opened Discovery Center and you can learn more about the waters that draw thousands of visitors to the Petoskey area each year.

The Watershed Council lives near the heart of downtown Petoskey at 426 Bay St., just across the street from the famed Stafford’s Perry Hotel. For over four decades, dedicated staff and volunteers have monitored stream and lake health, educated area children about water quality and wildlife, and advocated for sound policy to protect northern Michigan’s freshwater resources.

The Ruth Tucker Ayers Harris Watershed Discovery Center, named for a beloved Watershed Council supporter who had a passion for youth education, brings freshwater ecology to the downtown area for curious kids and adults alike.

“With The Discovery Center, we want to help people understand that, wherever you are in northern Michigan, you’re in a watershed,” explained Andrea Coronado, the Watershed Council’s communications and development director. “Everyday actions, like throwing away a plastic bottle or draining water from a live well or bilge, have real-life impacts on our waters. Being conscious of our watersheds’ well-being is really important for keeping those waters healthy for future generations.”

Step over the Watershed Council’s threshold and enter The Discovery Center, a bright, colorful, inviting room with windows overlooking the Little Traverse Bay. The first thing you’ll likely notice are the fish tanks on the center’s back wall, teeming with some of our region’s most iconic fish species.

Sturgeon, whitefish, and grayling, some of which will be released as part of the Little Traverse Bay Band’s fish reintroduction programs, swim in The Discovery Center’s tanks. Photo credit: Jen DeMoss


Have you ever seen a lake sturgeon? Lake Sturgeon are long, grey fish with rows of bony scales and whiskery barbels near their mouths that help them sense food. This rare, ancient species is long-lived and can grow to enormous sizes. Past overfishing decimated northern Michigan’s sturgeon populations, but the Watershed Council is collaborating with the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians’ Fisheries Enhancement Facility to raise sturgeon for the tribe’s Nmé (Sturgeon) Celebration to release the fish into the Sturgeon River. The Discovery Center will host new sturgeon each September for release the following fall.

In addition to sturgeon, Discovery Center visitors can find Artic grayling (nmégos in Anishinaabemowin) and lake whitefish (adikameg) in the Watershed Council’s tanks, both important species for Odawa community members. Grayling were once numerous in northern Michigan’s waters, but overfishing, logging, and the introduction of brown trout caused their extinction throughout the state. Now, the Little Traverse Bay Band is working to reintroduce grayling to our region’s waters.

To the left of the Watershed Council’s front door, you’ll run into what looks like an elevated sandbox. “That’s our watershed simulator, an augmented reality experience that demonstrates how water flows across a landscape to create watersheds,” Coronado said.

Watersheds are basically drainage basins, areas where rain and snowmelt are channeled into a common body of water. When you visit the Petoskey area, you might be wandering through the Pickerel-Crooked Lakes Watershed or the Little Traverse Bay Watershed, both of which are within the Lake Michigan Watershed. The simulator offers a bird’s eye view of how landscapes transform water flow as you move the sand to create hills and valleys, something that kids love to do.

Kids and adults get a fish-eye view of wildlife habitat in The Discovery Center’s stream tank. Photo credit: Jen DeMoss

What lurks beneath the debris in our numerous rivers and streams? That’s something The Discovery Center can answer with their stream tank, where guests get a fish-eye view of riverine happenings. In the tank are caddisfly larvae, which build curious homes out of stream debris that encase the delicate larvae, along with mayfly, damselfly, and stonefly larvae. These are all tiny creatures without backbones, also known as macroinvertebrates, that Watershed Council staff and volunteers monitor to measure area water quality. Small fish—sculpins and sticklebacks—dart around the tank, which is at eye-level for children.

“It’s an educational opportunity for families and the school groups we host here,” Coronado said. “The stream tank gives folks the chance to see creatures they might have never noticed under the water’s surface. And kids love seeing the little cases the caddisflies build around their bodies.” There’s an I-Spy challenge for children to search for the different kinds of animals that call the tank home.

Keep an eye out for various fun and educational events at The Discovery Center. Photo credit: Jen DeMoss

The Discovery Center is open from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, and some select Saturdays. For groups who’d like a tour at a specific time, be sure to call ahead. And check the Watershed Council’s calendar for special educational events. Additionally, the nonprofit is looking for volunteers to act as Discovery Center tour guides and fish tank cleaners. You can contact staff at 231-347-1181 or to learn more.

Want to learn more about water protection efforts beyond The Discovery Center? You’re in luck: the Watershed Council recently acquired BeBot, an electric beach-cleaning robot that scoops plastic litter out of sand, as well as a PixieDrone, a floating robot that collects waste materials from water. Members of the Watershed Council and the Petoskey Robotics Team will be on hand during collection events for members of the public to ask questions and watch these two devices collect plastic pollutants from our waters.

The electric beach cleaning robot known as the Bebot will be making appearances all over northern Michigan to clean up plastic detritus and keep our beaches clean and healthy. Photo credit: Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council

Volunteers have been helping the Watershed Council monitor northern Michigan’s waters for years. Even if you’re just visiting our area, you can get involved in local lake or stream monitoring programs. Volunteer stream monitors visit local streams in May and September to sample for macroinvertebrates, which signal stream health, and take other measurements. Volunteer lake monitors head out in their own boats every year to document lake conditions.

At the annual Clean Waters Challenge, visitors and locals alike unite to clean local waterways of trash and win prizes from Bearcub Outfitters, a local outdoor recreation business. The Watershed Council provides cleanup materials, snacks, and lunch.

Since Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council is a nonprofit organization with numerous programs to keep the waters you love clean and healthy, donations are always appreciated to keep their valuable work going. You can make a gift at their donations page.

When you spot the colorful mural depicting river and pollinator habitat, you’ll know you’ve arrived at The Watershed Council’s Discovery Center. The entrance is at the front of the building amidst the organization’s rain garden plants. Photo credit: Jen DeMoss

Next time you’re in the downtown area, find the colorful mural painted and step inside to underwater world of the Discovery Center. As Coronado said, “It’s easy to take our local waters for granted if you see them every day or spend enough time up here as a visitor. But if you make time for curiosity and a deep dive into the water, you’ll find a whole new and interesting world just under the surface.”

About the Author: Jen DeMoss is a newcomer to the Petoskey area and loves northern Michigan. You can catch her paddling a canoe, hiking a trail, or swimming in Lake Michigan as often as the weather cooperates. She’d love to help you make the most of your time in this paradise she now calls home.