WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
“Nothing exists for itself alone, but only in relation to other forms of life.” – Charles Darwin.
The Huron Swamp slowly awakened in the dawn’s early light. An unseen Barred Owl hooted as the sky lightened. Although these swamp-loving owls with “soulful brown eyes” wing silently between the swamp’s white oaks, red maples, and tamaracks, their distinctive melody of “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” confirmed their presence. Ten minutes passed. A sudden splash in the shallows was the signature of a raccoon, or perhaps a mink. Fresh muddy tracks on the wooden boardwalk told me it could have been either. Suddenly a Pileated Woodpecker’s resonating wuk-wuk-wuk alarm call indicated an intruder. Perhaps it was me. But my intrusion was in search of swamp magic.
That’s how my morning started last week at the edge of the swampland wilderness we know as the Huron Swamp, the watery gem of 2,454-acre Indian Springs Metropark. However, today’s trail tale actually began some 12,000 years earlier as the last great ice age was coming to an earth altering end. Glaciers that would have dwarfed the 727-foot tall Detroit Renaissance Center were melting, creating a landscape with water everywhere. Rivers formed fueled by the power of icy rock-strewn melt waters. Great blocks of ice broke free of the retreating glaciers and compressed the land further, creating ‘kettle lakes’ and Oakland County was gifted with thousands of lakes and as years slipped by, woodland swamps rich with vegetation emerged. It was a time when mastodons walked our landscape and giant bear-sized beavers swam in the shallows. Those creatures are gone. The lakes, and some of the swamps, remain.
One of those lakes, Big Lake, is near the northwest corner of Indians Springs Metropark. The Huron River rises out of the Huron Swamp and the waters of Big Lake and then meanders for 120 miles to the marshlands of Pointe Mouillee on Lake Erie. The Huron Swamp, Huron River, and Huron Watershed are all valuable resources of southeast Michigan and are part of the story of Indian Springs. The Huron watershed contains two-thirds of all southeast Michigan’s public recreational lands and part of the Huron River is designated as a “Country Scenic River” under Michigan’s Natural Rivers Act.
Indian Springs Metropark was established in 1982 in part to protect this critical swamp habitat, and the waters of our county. Early spring is the perfect time to gain a glimpse of this natural treasure before leaves obscure its hauntingly beautiful views. It’s easy to do by following the 3.5 mile Woodland Trail that starts at the old nature center building that now serves as the park office and a Metropark police station. Maps are available inside the building.
The trail is level, easy to follow, and meanders through the Huron Swamp, one of the last great natural areas in Southeast Michigan. Walk slowly and quietly. Being attentive to one’s steps and all the surroundings will bring discoveries and create a most memorable experience.
The delicate flowers of red maple trees added a vivid contrast of color to the thousands of fallen trees capped with rich green moss. Small moist hummocks provide habitat for the spring wildflowers that will soon emerge and join the already present flowers of skunk cabbage.
During my hike, a single chorus frog and a few spring peepers sung from the edge of a marsh area; soon thousands will join them in the ritual of spring. The meandering trail embraced the edges of vernal ponds that still held traces of ice, some of which are ideal breeding grounds for salamanders and wood frogs.
Adding to the pleasure of my walk were high-quality, well-worded interpretive signs along the Woodland Trail. They share easy to understand facts about the natural history, flora, and fauna of the land. One of my favorites was a strategically placed sign that told the story of large burl, an abnormal growth on a tree trunk. It’s not wise to wander off trail in this protected habitat and every official trail crossing and designated short cut along the looped Woodland Trail had a small map showing options of travel and the junction location. I paused at the “sugar bush” – a seasonal component of their educational offerings – and captured a single drip of sap on my tongue from one of the spiles used to funnel maple sap into a collecting container.
Although the day was sunny, the ground temperature was still too cold for our native “swamp rattlers”, the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnakes, to be on the move. Seldom seen, these non-aggressive venomous snakes that are now federally protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act are very much at home in the prairie uplands and trailside meadows near the swamp. Signs along most of the park’s trail make users aware of their presence.
I found pitcher plants, my favorite botanical death-traps, just a few feet from the boardwalk on the south side of Timberland Lake. Pitcher plants are exotic looking plants that thrive amidst the sphagnum moss in some swamp habitats. They eat meat, but not in the sense of jaw or teeth. They are an insect-trapping plant with a modified leaf that resembles a tube with a lip on top. The lip looks like a resting platform for a fly, but it leads to a deadly trap for insects lured with sweet-smelling nectar. When the insects arrive to feast, they slide into the pitcher’s liquid pool of what could be considered digestive juices, the plant’s version of a stomach. They are unable to climb back out and soon drown and decompose with their tissue being converted into nitrogen and other nutrients that are then absorbed by the plant.
Sandhill cranes interrupted my visitation with the pitcher plants. Their rattling and resonating call – music to my ears – drew my attention and the attention of a pair of Canada Geese. Two crimson capped sandhills proclaimed their territory with song and motion at the edge of a small peninsula, the perfect music to bring to mind one of my favorite quotes of Charles Darwin, “Nothing exists for itself alone, but only in relation to other forms of life.” A walk on the Wilder Side of Oakland County in the great Huron Swamp confirms the words of Darwin.
Visit www.metroparks.com for detailed information on Indian Springs Metropark, including trails, activities, nature programs, environmental discovery center, adventure play area, and the other 12 regional Metroparks managed by the Huron-Clinton Metroparks.
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.