WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
Winter never really took hold at the Orchard Lake Nature Sanctuary, and what remains of the season that never really was, is rapidly waning.
The Orchard Lake Nature Sanctuary is owned by the City of Orchard Lake Village and managed by the Orchard Lake Nature Sanctuary Advisory Board. According to the website of the City of Orchard Lake Village, the sanctuary is “maintained” by the Department of Public Works. I beg to differ. Last week, a few hours after (perhaps) the last snowflakes of the season fell, I set out to explore this 50-acre, mostly forested sanctuary that is encircled by palatial homes, paved roads, and a lakeshore. The Department of Public Works maintains the pleasing and easy to access trails, but this 50-acre sanctuary is in reality maintained by the ways of nature. With a bit of help from her friends and neighbors, Mother Nature is doing a very good job and that’s the way it should be.
Fifty-acres is just a speck in the grand scheme of wildlands, but the diverse habitats found at the sanctuary are far from insignificant to the creatures that live there. Nor are they insignificant to the local residents that are fond of its amazingly large trees, meandering trail system, and come spring, the incredible array of wild and naturalized flowers, and songs of warblers and vireos.
One of those residents is Martha Campbell. She accompanied me last week on a slow-paced exploration of a partially frozen vernal pond, a tiny stream that flows from a wetland into Upper Straits Lake, a grove of hemlock trees, through stately oaks and the remnants of a prairie. There is not a hint of true ‘wilderness’ at this popular and well-traversed site that is surrounded by homes. In fact, to call it part of the “wilder side” of Oakland County is something of a stretch of reality. However, the contrast with the surrounding land is sharp, and critical to the survival of species. Suburban lawns with manicured landscapes dominate much of the neighboring landscape of West Bloomfield Township and the City of Orchard Lake Village. They are not conducive to supporting the ways of wild nature or local wildlife, ways in which add to the real and psychological value of this sanctuary.
I asked Martha why she so enjoyed this sanctuary. “Winter hiking at the sanctuary is especially beautiful with occasional animal tracks on the snow covered trails. I look forward to visiting when the wildflowers, especially the blue scilla, bloom near the trails, and the purple coneflowers spring up in the meadows.” She paused, adding, “I love the terrain” and then walked over to examine some fantastic fungi on a low hanging tree branch.
We explored the bends, nooks, and crannies of the natural surface, interconnected, looped trails that total just over one and a half miles. Here’s just some of what we found.
- Solitude: Only one other person had recently been in the sanctuary, footprints in the dusting of snow testified to that.
- Turkey tail fungus: This colorful fungi, shaped like the fanned tail feathers of turkeys, grew from the trunks of dead trees.
- Pileated Woodpecker: We did not see or hear one, but the freshly carved hole in a dead tree testified to its presence.
- Witch Hazel: This small tree species rich with lore and medicinal properties was common, and a few faded blossoms remained.
- Giant Oaks: I would guess some are over 250 years old, one served as the perch for a Red-tailed Hawk that took flight at our approach.
- The Upper Straits Lake Overlook: The perfect place to reflect on the glacial history of our landscape.
- Harold and Mary Ward Stone: Without a doubt, the most memorable part of the walk was a trailside stone not far from a hillside view of Orchard Lake. The carved inscription made me pause, and reflect on the importance of this tiny protected wildland amidst a sea of surrounding suburbia. “A nature sanctuary for children yet unborn.”
When you need a respite from the daily suburban grind, take advantage of this wildlife gem and plan a visit. You’ll find the entrance at 4700 Pontiac Trail Road between Old Orchard Trail and Arlene Drive. Take a look at the parking lot’s trail map before you set off and note that there is a Porta-John in the parking lot as well. Dogs and bikes are not allowed at the sanctuary. I hope you’ll enjoy the diverse wildlife and solitude that can only be found in nature, as I did.
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.