by BETH ALTENA
When you have over 200 beautiful white tailed deer fenced adjacent to a major road, people will stop and want to see them. That’s the experience of the Powell family, who opened their working deer farm in 2003. Located at 7850 14 Mile Road (M-57), their 80-acre business has received a lot of attention from passersby. They tried to accommodate curious visitors to the best of their ability, but the farm wasn’t really set up for tours. Now it is.
Deer Tracks Junction is now open for business as a family destination with hands-on live animal interaction, a stage coach ride through the pens of hundreds of live and spectacular deer, a chance for kids to touch a real reindeer or baby yak, a play train with cars for climbing, crawling and exploring a three-level maze car, plus an indoor facility featuring spectacular mounts of caribou, Musk ox, wolves and an auditorium for live education shows featuring actors in costume.
“Once you buy your ticket, you can just enjoy the day here,” said owner Kelly Powell, who operates Deer Tracks Junction with his wife Hilary and 16-year-old son Tyler. At just $10 a ticket, from the play train, the Stage Coach Ride, live shows, and life sized animal mounts to the different old-fashioned, Wild West stations within the Deer Tracks Junction building, the price is a great buy.
He said he wants his working deer farm shows and tours to be affordable for families and believes visitors will support his vision. Other business people in the area believe the farm will add to the reasons people come to the area.
The family made the decision to expand into what is called Agricultural tourism because it made sense to them on many levels. They hope to bring something unique, exciting and valuable to the area as a legacy and as a living.
“It’s hard in Michigan right now,” said Powell. “I don’t want my son to have to leave the state to find a job.” Deer Tracks not only will be the future livelihood for Tyler, but offered the family the chance to hire others who help in the business. The work is seasonal, but at a recent job fair at the ranch hundreds of people showed up hoping for a job.
Deer Tracks Junction features a large indoor old-west themed facility with an old timey bank where robbers can hold up the tellers and kids can divvy up the loot of gold (candy coins). A show in the auditorium features live actors, is educational, and “just plain funny,” according to Kelly. “They learn lessons about nature, but the lessons will apply to our lives now, and they get the message in a fun way.” The shows are about 30 minutes long and held about every 45 minutes.
Upstairs in the elaborately decked-out building are “hotel rooms” where a sheriff may roust a “criminal” out of the rooms and during the stage coach tour there may be a robbery along the way. Inside kids and adults may find themselves locked up in the old time jail or mosey on over to the bakery for fresh goodies and a beverage.
On site are many different varieties of animal mounts, great for photos. Visitors get the chance to see up close what a wild wolf or mountain lion look like, or a life sized brown bear and even a Musk Ox.
Although the mounts are better appreciated by simply viewing them, almost everything else is hands-on, from the many kid-friendly animal shaped furniture, to the extremely kid friendly live reindeer who are just as happy to lick you as get a scratch behind the ear.
The guided coach ride through the pens of live bucks, does, yaks, baby yaks, and reindeer are all planned with an educational theme that is part of a growing business in Michigan. “As of 2009, Agri-tourism was a $23 million dollar industry in the state,” said Kelly. “I think it is important. Lots of kids nowadays don’t know where milk comes from. They don’t know where food comes from. They think it just comes from a store.”
With a soft opening this past weekend, September 29 and 30, the Powells don’t know yet how quickly or if the tourism portion of their business will grow. They do plan on adding “Billy Goat’s Gorge” to the front of the property where visitors can see goat herds happily climbing structures and playing. They plan to add teepees and information about Native Americans as part of the educational experience and bronze sculptures of life-sized bison and horses.
They also know that each tour may bring the unexpected to customers: in the spring a live deer birth may happen during a coach ride, and the bucks often fight and spar for dominance in the fall when mating season takes place. Although the Powells have witnessed such activity countless times, these are sights most people can spend a lifetime and never be fortunate enough to witness.
“Who else gets to spend every day with their family and around animals like this,” said Powell, who some may remember from his earlier career as co-owner of Sable Developing, Inc. He said his past experience in the industry helped make it possible for them to build much of this magical property themselves. “This has always been a family run business, and we could never have done all of this without the help of our family. My mom, sisters, and brother-in-law have worked right alongside us all summer.”
He and Hilary and Tyler also love the daily interaction with the odd collection of creatures. The Tibetan yaks, although not tame enough for the general public to pet, certainly adore the Powells. “The girls will come up and put their horns around you and just love on you,” describes Hilary.
Powell said he encourages people to purchase tickets for the shows and stage coach tour online at deertracksjunction.com to ensure a spot is open upon arrival to the Cedar Springs farm. Walk-ins are welcome as well, and if the show or rides are booked, there is plenty to do until the next one. Call 616-863-DEER (3337) or visit the farm conveniently located five miles east of US 131 on M-57. Hours of Operation, starting October 5, will be Friday and Saturday evenings, since the deer are more active towards the evening. Last tour departs approximately an hour before dark.