Wilder Side of Oakland County
“I enter the swamp as a sacred place”— Henry David Thoreau.
Cedar swamp habitat takes on a special beauty that is mysterious, captivating and full of wonder in winter. It’s also a vital place of survival for rare species of flora and fauna, functions as a water storage location, and often as an aquifer recharging site. The Lakeville Swamp Nature Sanctuary, managed by the Michigan Nature Association, is one the highest quality wetland complexes found on the Wilder Side of Oakland County. One week has passed since I trekked into that swamp under a light drizzle laced with wet snow flakes. I emerged with mud caking my boots, ankles, knees and backside. I was a bit bruised and slightly scratched, rather wet and tired, yet exceedingly happy and eager to return on a day when the sun shines.
A northern white cedar swamp is a nature-lover’s dream, no matter the season. The scent of cedar on a moist wintery day is exquisite. However if you want to hike on a well-marked paved trail, or if you worry about hiking over extremely slippery planks and boardwalks, this swamp trail is not the place for you. Lakeville Swamp Sanctuary is also an excellent eastern massasauga rattlesnake habitat, but a few more months will slip by before these reclusive reptiles, our only venomous snake, will emerge from the moist crayfish burrows where they now hibernate. Poison sumac is present and remains volatile in winter.
The trail is a narrow and primitive twisting footpath. Colorful and slippery exposed roots of cedar and birch trees grow across the trail – seemingly waiting to trip the unwary. Small diamond-shaped trail markers can be found along the route, but it’s easy to make a wrong turn. I did, but another hiker, the only other hiker I encountered, quickly “turned me around” and my exploration continued. Off-trail hiking at this sanctuary is difficult to say the least, especially when entering thickets of white cedar, some standing, some bent low from storms, and others in their final resting places after succumbing to storms. Stepping around the blowdowns brings another challenge, mucky soil that struggles to suck hiking boots off feet. It also brings discoveries.
I hiked slowly, stopping often to look and listen. The rewards were endless. Turkey tail fungus edged many of the fallen trees. Lichens clung to the trunks of standing trees along the banks of a tributary of Stony Creek. Owl pellets, most likely from the swamp loving barred owl, were under one tree, and another tree was the obvious roost for wild turkeys. How do I know that? A mat of turkey poo covered decaying leaves confirmed their night roost. Soft, green, moisture-holding sphagnum moss grew on sedge hummocks, and I suspect wood frogs and salamanders hibernated underneath the adjacent decaying trees.
Exposed tree roots were a special attraction. The presence of the sphagnum moss facilities, the formation of adventitious roots and “branch layering.” When a cedar tree falls, the lateral branches often take over and grow upright as new trees. The result gives the impression of cedar trees locked in romantic trailside embraces, sometimes being joined by nearby yellow birch trees.
It’s a site worthy of being protected, and it is. The Michigan Nature Association, established in 1952, is a nonprofit conservation organization working to protect Michigan’s rare, threatened and endangered species by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive. The Lakeville Swamp Sanctuary is one of their sanctuaries, and is located on Rochester Road just south of Lakeville Road in Addison Township. The pamphlet at the small kiosk at the Rochester Road trailhead states, “MNA’s members, donors, and volunteers have built a remarkable network of more than 170 nature sanctuaries across the state – the largest network of natural areas established and maintained by a nonprofit conservation organization in Michigan.”
The section I explored is on the west side of Rochester Road, and has a very small roadside parking area. A flatter, more open swampy area with no trails is on the east side of Rochester Road. In addition to the cedar swamp, a magical wild kingdom for those that appreciate its wonder, the 76 acre preserve, one of the most biologically diverse sanctuaries in Oakland County, also has prairie fen, southern wet meadow habitat, and a small area of oak barrens.
The sanctuary is open to the public without fees or vehicle permits. The trailhead and informational kiosk is located on the west side of Rochester Road. No facilities are present. Stewardship and maintenance at the site is supported in part by REI Outfitters. For information on all Michigan Nature Association Sanctuaries, including six in Oakland County visit michigannature.org.
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.