WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” Aldo Leopold
If Leopold was still living I believe I would have greatly enjoyed his company on my “Walk to Big Valley.” It was my first introduction to an eye-opening, nature-embracing 157-acre Michigan Nature Association sanctuary, hidden away amidst the glacially sculpted rolling hills of Rose Township, one of Oakland County’s most rural townships, a township with 25 lakes and just under 6,500 residents. Had Leopold reached the bluff that serves as a natural overlook of the sanctuary I am rather certain he would have smiled and thanked those who worked so diligently for the Big Valley’s acquisition and protection.
The Michigan Nature Association (MNA) is a conservation organization that works to protect Michigan’s rare, threatened and endangered species by acquiring and then protecting the lands, streams and wetlands they need to survive. The MNA, founded in 1952, has the largest network of natural areas established and maintained by a nonprofit conservation organization in Michigan. Eight of their 176 sanctuaries across our state are located in Oakland County. Two of them, Timberland Swamp Sanctuary, located adjacent to Indian Springs Metropark, and Lakeville Swamp Sanctuary on Rochester Road, just south of Lakeville, are fairly well-known by nature lovers and have small parking areas and primitive trail systems. The Big Valley Nature Sanctuary however, is an extremely sensitive limited access sanctuary and is classified as “Class C,” meaning that the sanctuary can only be visited with the assistance of MNA (visits can be arranged by calling the MNA office at 866-223-2231).
That very special “Walk to Big Valley” was organized by the Rose Township Heritage Committee, a “small but mighty group of residents” in the words of Dianne Scheib-Snider, the Rose Township Supervisor, who accompanied me on my exploration. The Heritage Committee works to preserve historic documents, photograph historic homes and share an understanding of the historic, cultural, and natural aspects of Rose Township that make it so special and a true representative of the wilder side of our highly urbanized county. She shared more thoughts with me a few days after the hike. Here’s some of what she wrote.
“Rose is a very unique township in Oakland County. We don’t have big box stores or even many small stores but we are rich with wetlands, lakes and ponds. We have large open spaces and rolling landscapes and large parcels for our homes. We have many rare Fens that are both geologically and biologically unique. Big Valley is one of those rare places.”
Our hike, which was open to the public and cosponsored by the Michigan Nature Association, was preceded by a short presentation at Rose Township Hall that touched on natural and historic aspects of the sanctuary landscape and the protected flora and fauna within, including Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnakes, the endangered Tamarack Tree Cricket and the critically endangered thumb-nail size Poweshiek skipperling butterfly that flutters at the very brink of extinction. To reach the bluff that would serve as our sanctuary overlook, we hiked for about one mile along Water Road, an abandoned county road that fades into a two-track shaded by massive oaks and hickory trees. Within a few minutes of the hike’s start, the wildland encounters along the way reminded me of proverb attributed to Confucius, “Roads were made for journeys, not destinations.”
We paused at a historic home along Waters Road on the way to Big Valley. I was so engrossed with the lively discussion and history of that house I failed to take notes at that site and so afterwards Supervisor Scheib-Snider sent me a paragraph of notes from a recent bus tour coupled with information from their history books. It’s such a fascinating part of Oakland County’s wilder side hidden history that I share it here in its entirety.
“Daisy Northcross*, M.D. (born Daisy Hill, 1881) was among the first of many African-American families to purchase land in Rose Township. Dr. Northcross made this home a resort which was known as Medicine Acres and offered a variety of outdoor summer activities such as horseback riding, speed boating, fishing, swimming, softball, badminton, and golf. A “run-about” (small car) was provided for guests to enjoy a sight-seeing tour. For those who wanted to prepare their own meals, there were open-air pits. The general store was walking distance away. A spacious and cool dining room provided the setting in the main house for guests to eat a wholesome prepared meal. The resort had 160 acres along Buckhorn Lake. Modern cabins with electricity were built around 1950. Dr. Northcross used to allow the Rose Center Baptist Church to hold their baptisms on the dock at Buckhorn Lake. Dr. Daisy Northcross died January 10, 1956. Medicine Acres was listed in a Green Book. Green Books were used during segregation to help African-Americans find towns, hotels, restaurants, and service stations where they were welcomed and would be served. —- *Dr. Daisy Northcross and her husband Dr. David Northcross came to Detroit after leaving Montgomery, Alabama. They formed the Allied Medical Society, precursor to the Detroit Medical Society, and eventually they opened Detroit’s first African American hospital in 1917 (Detroit Mercy General Hospital).”
Thirty more minutes of leisurely walking over and around glacial features, including deep kettles (depressions made by enormous blocks of glacial ice), brought us to a privately owned meadow just before the overlook. The meadow, which we had permission to cross, was rich with Butterfly Milkweed, the showiest of our native milkweeds, and it’s a species that holds its fiery-orange blossoms well into summer. A few Tiger Swallowtail butterflies flitted about the field, and high above, Turkey Vultures rode the thermals. A lone oak at the edge of the mowed field served as a perch for a Red-tailed Hawk that took flight at our approach and I suspect the oak is also a perfect hunting perch for Great Horned Owls at night.
Our group fell silent for a moment at the overlook, perhaps it was the beauty of the Big Valley Nature Sanctuary on the other side of the railroad tracks, or perhaps it just felt like the right thing to do. For the next 20 minutes or so we chatted about the protected fen and the flora and fauna of the sanctuary with a degree of reverence and depth unlike the more common boisterous “sightseeing of nature” chatter when hiking briskly down a trail.
After returning home I leafed through literature that was passed out to hike participants. A few sentences from Garret Johnson, the Executive Director of MNA that appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of the Michigan Nature Association Magazine caught my eye.
“The current political climate underscores the foresight of MNA’s founders. 65 years ago, a small group of spirited individuals took matters into their own hands and established and organized to do what they felt government was ignoring. How many more endangered species listings would there be without groups like MNA?”
I wonder what the natural landscape of Oakland County would be like today if the MNA and numerous other nature-related organizations, both public and private did not have the foresight to acquire and then protect public lands and the trails and waterways that connect them. Perhaps whether we see our future as hopeful or bleak depends on whether we continue to see land as a commodity to which we belong and act accordingly, or treat the land as commodity that belongs to us. I prefer the former. To become a part of the Michigan Nature Association, visit: www.MichiganNature.org. For more information on Rose Township, visit: www.rosetownship.com.
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.