WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
On sultry summer days the beautiful wooded swamps and protected wetlands of Cranberry Lake Park occasionally transform into short term havens for blood-thirsty mosquitoes and squadrons of dive-bombing deer flies. That is nature’s way all across the Wilder Side of Oakland County. I still remember a hot and humid late summer day when I meandered into that Oakland Township Park on a hunt for a few blackberries. I raced back to my vehicle a few minutes later with my arms flailing after becoming an involuntarily blood donor for what felt like millions of mosquitoes.
Since then, I’ve been back to the woods of Cranberry Lake a half dozen times, sometimes to cross country ski, but mostly in autumn as a guest of the Addison Oaks Trail Riders during their annual October event when they camp and ride at Addison Oaks County Park. We saddled up to ride into Cranberry Lake Park, entering at its northern gateway on Romeo Road. The woods and trails are spectacular all year round and expose many secrets of nature’s way. Now that toads are trilling, and mosquitoes are still absent, I knew it was time for another look. Here’s what I found.
I returned last week on a beautiful blue sky morning and wandered for almost three hours amidst its 213-acres of diverse, but relatively flat landscape. I entered the park from the south entrance at 388 West Predmore Road, immediately west of the 16-acre Historic District that features the restored Axford-Coffen Farmstead, the site of summer concerts and other special events. The entrance to the park is easy to find with its roadside parking lot, small picnic area, and privy just a few hundred feet from an old silo and bright red barn.
The day before my exploration a prescribed fire, also known as an ecological burn was conducted to combat invasive species and aid the natural cycles of nature. These carefully planned and skillfully managed fires in wildlands stimulate the growth of native fire-adapted species, including the remnants of our native prairie plants such as big bluestem. The fires also suppress the growth of non-native plants. The air was freshly scented with the fragrance of wood smoke. A wild turkey trotted through the burned area, stopping momentarily at one of the many large Allegany ant mounds. I suspect it was about to dust bathe on the mound, but my sudden appearance spoiled its plan.
I paused when I reached the big blackberry patches, that were just then developing tiny leaves, before continuing north through large stands of trees on an easy to follow and very wide trail. I made note of fresh coyote scat and the first emergence of blood root, an ephemeral woodland flower. Its odd name refers to the fact that the root seems to bleed if bruised or cut. Trout lily had also begun to emerge near the edge of one of the wooded swamps. That wildflower’s name comes from its speckled green leaves that have a pattern similar to the flanks of trout and its delicate nodding yellow flowers that bear a resemblance to miniature lilies.
A Red-Bellied Woodpecker sounded off near the swamp with its shrill kwirr, kwirr, kwirr call. The abundance of dead ash trees that fell victim to the Emerald Ash Borers now function as excellent “all you can eat cafes” for woodpeckers of all species, including our red-crested forest giant, the Pileated Woodpecker. Some of the fallen ash trees also host fantastic shelf fungi. One of the dead ash trees that was scorched by the prescribed fire and mostly free of its bark, showed the small tunnels made by the emerald ash borers that led to its demise. The shiny metallic-green beetles were first discovered in the United States right here in Oakland County in 2002. Containment failed and they have spread far and wide since then, devastating tens of millions of ash trees across the Midwest and much of the Eastern United States. The adult beetles are about to emerge again from trees infested last year and the females will lay their eggs once again in cracks in the bark. The larvae will then bore into the tree and feed under the bark leaving, tunneling tracks underneath. The feeding disrupts the tree’s ability to transport water and nutrients, resulting in dieback, bark splitting, and the tree’s death.
As the sound of the woodpeckers faded, I crossed a small foot bridge and continued my trek to the northern edge of the park and briefly crossed over into Addison Oaks County Park. A reminder that the trail extension and wetland boardwalks of Addison Oaks make it easy for hikers to explore Cranberry Lake Park in Oakland Township. The increased connectivity also paved the way for an upcoming race, the Three Parks Trail Run to be held on June 9th. Runners will start at Addison Oaks County Park and head to the Bald Mountain State Recreation Area. They will then return to Addison Oaks and enter Cranberry Lake Park before looping around a big tree near the lakeshore and heading back to Addison Oaks for the finish line.
I decided to search for the big tree on the trail loop and I found it just a few dozen yards from the lakeshore. Skunk cabbage lined the marshy, boot-sucking edge of the lake. Just as I leaned forward to photograph the delicate pollen-rich spring blossoms of silver maple trees, I was startled by a large northern water snake that was coiled near my feet in ambush waiting for a frog. The snake slithered off into the water, most likely very disappointed with my intrusion and a lost dinner opportunity.
Upon returning home and checking an online map of the park, I discovered I had hiked just a little more than two and a half miles in nearly three hours I was there. Replicate my journey and you too may find yourself meandering for hours. Toss in a picnic lunch and a spirit of adventure and you certainly will enjoy this easy to navigate, slice of the wilder side of Oakland County. When summer returns I just may have to head back with juicy wild blackberries and mosquitoes on my mind.
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