WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
I am an unabashed partisan of nature’s way, even when it is limited to small protected pockets of land surrounded by suburbia. One of those pockets is 211-acre Heritage Park, a multi-use park under management of the City of Farmington Hills Department of Special Services. For those that want to explore easy-to-navigate trails that meander through woods, over hills and through meadows, Heritage Park is just the place. Their park brochure states “Never Stop Exploring” and “Every Day Is an Adventure.” I smiled to myself at those slogans but my biggest smile, before I started my exploration, was the slogan on their trail map, “Let Nature Be Your Teacher.”
I traveled to Heritage Park last Saturday morning on an overcast day that followed earlier days of heavy rain and localized flooding. There was not even a hint of blueness in the sky when I arrived to partake in a special gathering of the Michigan Alliance for Environmental and Outdoor Education (MAEOE). MAEOE’s mission statement is: Promoting environmental literacy through education. It was going to be a good day, but first, before the education gathering got underway, I explored their nature center. It’s an adventuresome and colorful treat for kids of all ages, and includes plenty of “meaty information” for adults to go along with the interpretive displays and realistic life-size wildlife mounts. The spacious center also has native fish aquariums, hands-on touching tables and a viewing window to watch birds at feeders. There is nothing boring about this lively nature center. But as a naturalist, I found a few eye-catching surprises.
Two of the wildlife mounts drew my attention right away. One was a black bear wearing a sheriff’s hat, something I have never seen in the wild. The other was a coyote mount positioned in such a way (by a skilled taxidermist) to present with an aggressive looking, snarling face. I pondered that, for it may perpetuate the myth that coyotes tend to be fearsome beasts. A second wildlife mount of a coyote was in a more realistic pose, without that “I’m coming to get you!” bared teeth snarl. Together they provided the opportunity to spin both into teaching tools, and pose a question, “Which facial expression might be the most real one?” As for the black bear with a Sheriff’s Hat—that answer remains “uncertain,” but it does make people smile. All in all, it’s a great room and the skunk habitat display was so realistic that if it was outside, I am certain visitors would believe it to be a real skunk sheltering in a hollow log. I would too. There is no doubt in my mind that the room is an excellent teaching tool, as well as an introduction to nature for kids and adults before they head out on a trail to “let nature be the teacher.”
Ashlie Smith, the Nature Center Supervisor/Naturalist, introduced the MAEOE gathering to the center and then the very popular and short Nature Discovery Trail. It’s less than a fifth of a mile long and starts almost outside the center’s door. It encourages visitors to use their senses and imagination, and to “get dirty and play.” An interpretive sign, aptly labeled Opossum Trail, made note of their nocturnal behavior and encouraged visitors to close their eyes and feel their way along guided by a rope. The longhouse, although not totally authentic, is a popular feature on this trail and a conversation starter as to the history of the land.
I stayed with the MAEOE group for a while as they explored the seasonal splash pad, picnic area and horseshoe pits and a partially underground tube set up for play and discovery. Then it was time for me to set off on the wilder side of Heritage Park and explore the rest of the 4 miles of trails, all of which are interconnected and popular with local residents and other park visitors.
The heavy rains left some sections of trail muddy while others still held ice—a reminder that the duel between the seasons is still underway. With an absence of leaves, evidence of earlier land usage was easy to find. One monstrously large grape-vine, much thicker than my arm, lay on the ground after its weight apparently collapsed an old tree that once supported its growth. In another location, strands of barbed wire were deeply embedded in tree trunks, a reminder of fencing that once held farm animals in place.
During my trek I encountered other hikers of all ages, drawn to the pleasure of these trails and as always, I stopped often, looked about and listened. Squirrels were everywhere and at each stop, they took notice of my presence. A gray squirrel sat on its haunches barely 20 feet away and nibbled on a walnut watching me closely, while a more skittish red squirrel raced down a fallen log, took one look at me, and quickly retreated.
The River Trail was my final destination. The water level was high in a swamp area where a prominent buck rub was visible just off the pathway, the colorful exposed inner bark of the tree drawing my attention. I went to the River Trail to visit an old friend: a tree I met about six years ago, the last time I was at Heritage. It still clung precariously to the cliff above the river bank, roots hanging on as its tilt toward the water increased. The power of water, the forces of gravity and the natural process of erosion continue to loosen its life-saving grasp on the earth. For me, that tree symbolizes the ways of nature on the wilder side of Oakland County, for the landscape is always changing. In the mudflats of the Rouge River I found very fresh coyote tracks, a reminder that nature always finds a way when given half a chance, even when surrounded by suburbia.
Later that week, Ashlie Smith emailed me details on upcoming events, including a maple sugaring program on two Sundays in March: March 4th and March 18th. Registration is required and you can choose from three 3 sessions: 10:30am, 1pm and 3pm. The program is designed to explore the art of maple sugaring in your backyard—if you have maple trees. She reminds everyone that, “Heritage Park is FREE and open 365 days a year! The Nature Center is also FREE to visit and we are open 7 days a week beginning April 2nd (closed Mondays in winter). The Splash Pad is FREE and open every day, Memorial Day—Labor Day.” What she wrote last is what I liked best, “Heritage Park is truly a hidden gem to those in Southeast Michigan! We hope that those in our community and from surrounding communities take advantage of this beautiful park!” Folks can register for upcoming events online via their website.
Spring’s almost here. Why not head for the rolling hills of Heritage Park and Let Nature Be Your Teacher! Here’s a link to their trail map to get you started.
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.