Urban Gold: The Carpenter Lake Nature Preserve

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

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The City of Southfield website describes the city as “the premier business address in Michigan.” With 27 million square feet of office space, over seven million square feet of retail and industrial space, and the city being home to over 10,000 businesses, including more than 100 “Fortune 500” companies, perhaps they are. However, there’s another fine attraction that adds value to the City of Southfield: the Carpenter Lake Nature Preserve. It’s a pot of urban gold for those with a love of nature.

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It would be a stretch of the imagination to look at the 42-acre preserve as a wilderness area. It is not. But my slow paced, two-hour meandering exploration one week ago revealed an amazing amount of wildness. It’s the kind of place where you can listen to nature and scan the mostly leafless woods to increase your awareness of nature’s way. With those facts in mind, the Carpenter Lake Nature Preserve really is part of the “Wilder Side of Oakland County.”

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The preserve is managed by Southfield Parks and Recreation and located on the south side of busy Ten Mile Road, just a few hundred yards east of Inkster Road. Driving by reveals next to nothing of the appealing natural features, so set aside an hour, bring the nature-hungry little ones, and go exploring. It’s a great outdoor respite from the seasonal hustle and bustle. The preserve is open from dawn to dusk and no fees or parking permits are required. The small trailhead has basic information posted, but for the best experience, print the online map and bring it with you. I was surprised that during my exploration, there was no one there but me. Perhaps it was the overcast sky, or perhaps the preserve’s very presence remains a secret to many.

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The looped trail is just over one mile long from the trailhead to the dam on the lake and back. The surface is very easy to walk, free of obstacles, and paved in a few locations. I started my exploration by sitting on a large decomposing log under the forest canopy. A jet black squirrel scampered a few dozen feet from me, and then paused on a nearby log to crunch away on a nut.   These beautiful black squirrels are actually gray squirrels in disguise, for this common color variation is the result of a genetic mutation that causes excessive pigmentation.

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From there it was on to the edge of a vernal pond, a temporary woodland reservoir that holds water in spring. With the thick carpet of leaves on the ground, I might have missed the now dry natural depression between the trees. Fortunately, a colorful interpretive sign announced its presence to me. I suspect it will be teaming with amphibians and aquatic insects in the spring, and the habitat surrounding it looks ideal for spring woodland wildflowers.

The overlook at the edge of Carpenter Lake gave a bird’s eye view to Mallard Ducks paddling along shoreline, and a lone Great Blue Heron took flight at my arrival. An old bald-faced hornet’s nest dangled from a tree branch over the water and drew the interest of a Black-capped Chickadee that struggled to remove long dead larvae as a tasty treat. The edge of a tall grass meadow revealed another urban surprise, a sapling rubbed by a buck, not what I expected in such a developed area.

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My meander back to the trailhead was dedicated to paying attention to the numerous large trees that thrive in this deciduous woods habitat, classified as a lake plain forest. The preserve is a perfect site to bring children to explore tree bark differences. One of the most notable species was the shagbark hickory with its characteristically shaggy bark. Beech trees are the opposite when it comes to bark, for their bark is smooth as can be. The cavity in the trunk of one of the beech trees would be an ideal home for a raccoon. The bark of the black cherry trees is always fun for children. It looks and feels like potato chips. But perhaps my favorite flora encounter along the trail was a large grape vine as thick as my wrist, evidence of old farm field, turned woodland, on the wilder side of urban Southfield.

Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.

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