Stony Creek’s Habitat Trail: A Winter Wonderland

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

We only had three hours to hike and Stony Creek Metropark offers 27 miles of tempting trails. That made for the most pleasant dilemma on a bright, blue sky day on the wilder side of Oakland County. With those thoughts in mind, a fellow nature enthusiast and I headed to the 2.5-mile-long Habitat Trail in the northwest corner of the park, for a slow-paced journey into nature’s way in winter.

Stony Creek is one of the 13 Metroparks managed by the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority, our regional park system that was created in 1940 by the citizens of Southeast Michigan. There is something for everyone, in every season at Stony Creek, a 4,461-acre park that straddles the Oakland-Macomb County line. The park’s expansive, glacially sculpted landscape offers trails for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and fat tire mountain biking, as well as popular sites for ice fishing, sledding and snowboarding. Cross-country skis may be rented on weekends at the golf center, and snowshoes at the nature center during normal business hours. This link has excellent details on winter activities at Stony Creek, and will help plan a great and safe winter adventure. For full details on our entire Metroparks system, visit: www.Metroparks.com.

However, last week my attention was focused exclusively on the Habitat Trail, a beautiful, nature-embracing primitive trail that can be shared with others in an equilibrium of perfect silence, except perhaps for the crackle of creekside ice and chatter of chickadees, or with quiet conversation about the ways of nature on a winter’s day. It’s the kind of trail where one of the most often quoted passages of John Muir may come to mind:

“Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares drop off like autumn leaves.”

Gary Hopp, the Stony Creek Park Manager, described the trail to me this way, “The Habitat Trail is the perfect place to snowshoe in winter. The beauty is in every step you take, through the fields and forest, and you cross a stream on a beautiful wooden bridge. Not to mention there is always a chance to see abundant wildlife.” He was right on all accounts, but to fully appreciate its winter wonders, it’s best to walk slowly, stop often, look and listen, and disconnect from the distraction of technology. You will not need GPS on your phone to follow this well-marked trail. All you’ll need is a bit of situational awareness on weather conditions and attention to trail junctions and signs. Of course, you should also be sure to stay off the ice that caps sections of the creek.

One of the most overlooked aspects of the Habitat Trail is the glacial footprint of the landscape. As glaciers retreated some 10,000 years ago, enormous quantities of rocky debris and sands known as glacial till carried from the far north were deposited across the region. Part of the trail takes adventurers over weathered moraines: serpentine-like hills that were formed when the glacier was nearly stationary and slowly melting, freeing its grasp on the transported materials.

Time slowed as we trudged off into nature’s majestic artistry of the creek’s flood plain. Colorful, well-placed interpretive signs shared snippets of the natural and human history of the land. They remind hikers that the arrival of man in Michigan corresponds with the melting of the glaciers and departure of large Ice Age mammals, including the mastodon, and giant beavers that were as big as black bears.

The Habitat Trail is prime habit for rattlesnakes. A trailside sign informs visitors of the presence of eastern massasauga rattlesnakes, a seldom seen venomous species that favors wetland habitat. Massasaugas will never be encountered in winter. Soon after the first frost, they slithered down crayfish burrows where they remain submerged in a state of “suspended animation” (brumation), awaiting for the return of spring. Eastern massasauga rattlesnakes are listed as Threatened Species by the US Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act, making the trail habitat and surrounding area all the more important. Want to know more about our reclusive “swamp rattlers”? Visit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service online.

Skunks are very much at home in the fields and woods of the Habitat Trail. Contrary to the belief of some, they do not hibernate, although they will stay in their dens and “snooze” during frigid spells. On our sunny day hike with the mercury hovering in the low 30s, we discovered the meandering trail of a skunk that was wandering the night before. The snow was deep enough that the skunk’s belly created a “depression pathway” that was easy to spot where it crossed a meadow above the creek.

Turkey tracks were abundant. In some locations they followed firmly packed deer trails, making movement much easier than having to high-step through deep snow. A pause in our hike led to a brief encounter with a flock of turkeys scratching at snow to expose acorns. That encounter ended quickly when our presence was noted, and they trotted rapidly into the safety of thick shrubs. White-tailed deer are well accustomed to trail-trekkers, and watched our slow-paced, peaceful sojourn from between the trees. I wondered how many other creatures of the winter woods saw our passage, and remained hidden.

Dead trees do tell tales, with a bit of help from trailside interpretation. Many had succumbed to powerful windstorms, others met their demise from insect disease, and some were felled by park personal as hazards to hikers after dying from attacks of the emerald ash borer. The snow-covered dead trees however, are now islands of hidden life and provide winter habitat for salamanders and frogs that wiggled under them to await spring. Many of those fallen trees, especially the ash trees, are close to vernal ponds that provide fish-free breeding water for blue-spotted salamanders, wood frogs and spring peepers at the dawn of spring.

As our hike neared its end, I watched a lone red-tailed hawk soar high overhead as my trail companion stopped to hug a large white oak tree that is over two centuries old. Its gnarly, outstretched limbs would serve as perfect launch pads for Great Horned Owls to wait and watch for rabbits to hop across the field—a journey in the dead of winter that for some rabbits would be a one way journey.

Looking for an easy, yet exhilarating winter adventure? Don’t just read about this trail, explore it! The trailhead is just a few hundred feet from the nature center which has excellent displays that share secrets of the ways of nature and wild creatures that live in the wintry world we call Stony Creek Metropark.

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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