WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
October heralds the peak beauty of autumn’s colors; that alone makes this month special. We are in the season of crisp morning air, fast-moving clouds, clear night sky and the last blooms of meadow wildflowers. It’s a month of roaming raccoons, woolly bear caterpillar, owls hooting, coyotes yipping, hyper-active squirrels scurrying, restless bucks in rut and osprey departing. October means scarlet sky sunsets, first frost and sudden outbursts of short-lived snowflakes. October is truly the golden month for those that love nature’s way, and perhaps the very best time to hike and explore the wilder side of Oakland County.
Our county has hundreds of miles of trails for every comfort level of exploration in addition to the ever popular miles of adventure awaiting on the Paint Creek Trail, Clinton River Trail, Polly Ann Trail and West Bloomfield Trail. Our Metroparks, Oakland County Parks and dozens of top-notch city and township parks coupled with the expansive wildlands managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources offer endless opportunities to get boots on the ground, blood pumping and faces smiling. Kayakers head for the beautiful Shiawassee, Clinton and Huron Rivers to paddle under cascades of colorful leaves and equestrians saddle up for their favorite trails. There’s even an upcoming end of October equestrian “Camp ‘N Ride” event at Addison Oaks sponsored by the Addison Oaks Trail Riders.
October: it’s a time to find a park to explore or a trail to hike; but every now and then in these golden days of October something totally unexpected happens that gives hikers a “guess what happened to me” story to share. It won’t, however, be like the famous passage from Bill Bryson’s classic book, A Walk in the Woods that brings smiles to Appalachian Trail hikers and armchair adventurers, “Nearly everyone I talked to had some gruesome story involving a guileless acquaintance who had gone off hiking the trail with high hope and new boots and came back two days late with a bobcat attached to his head or dripping blood from an armless sleeve and whispering in a hoarse voice, ‘Bear!’ before sinking into a troubled unconsciousness.” That humorous sentence should serve as a reminder that common sense and situational awareness should also be added to your day pack.
Although seldom seen, Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnakes are very much at home in Oakland County. They too appreciate the golden sun-soaked days of autumn, for that’s when they sometimes bask on warm earth to absorb heat for a few more days before it’s time to slither down moist crayfish burrows where they spend the winter months in a state of “suspended animation.” If you are ever lucky enough see one of these beautiful snakes, the hike will be forever memorable. I’ve been doubly lucky and encountered one sunning on the hike-bike trail of Indian Springs Metropark about five years ago and another one at the edge of trail at Independence Oaks County Park two years ago. Do our rattlesnakes present a danger? Not at all if you leave them alone. There’s more danger “lurking” for unknowing hikers in the form of plants. Plants can be problems! Plants can “get you.”
It’s a myth that poison ivy is harmless in autumn. It’s potent year round. Poison ivy can grow close to the ground, as an erect woody shrub in open fields, or as a vine that may go thirty or more feet high in woodlands. The old adage of “leaflets three, let it be” is not very helpful, for leaves are falling and there is great variation in the shape, size and even the texture of the leaf. If you wish to avoid a post hike trip to an urgent care, it’s best to rash-proof yourself with other identification skills and knowledge. In Oakland County, woodland poison ivy usually grows in its vine form. The vine “clings” tightly to the tree by tiny brownish-orange “hairs” that are in reality aerial roots. Every part of the poison ivy plant, and that includes the seemingly dead vines and roots, contain the chemical urushiol, the active ingredient that causes the rash and blisters and a week or so of misery. Urushiol can even spread from garden tools that were used in fall clean up and the fur of pets. Burning brush that includes any part of poison ivy can be hazardous because urushiol attaches to smoke particles and contact with the smoke may cause skin irritations and in some cases, severe lung irritations. Poison ivy however, is not a reason to stay out of the woods, but it may be a reason to stay on trail and learn to recognize this plant. Their leaves are now turning to shades of red, but it’s their berries (scientifically known as drupes) that are one of the best ways of identification in autumn. They are a whitish-gray color and may be the first clue that a poison ivy vine is hiding in plain sight. I had such an encounter while picking roadside pears just inches from a poison ivy vine. As I departed, birds continued their harvest of the poison ivy berries, a favored food of autumn and winter.
Every autumn ER physicians, and occasionally dermatologists, are puzzled when someone comes in with an itchy rash on their face and arms, and swear they were nowhere near poison ivy. A woodland wise medical professional would inquire if they have been in a wetland or marsh. If the answer is yes, the culprit was most likely poison sumac, a tree-like shrub that may grow twelve feet high. Their side branches are inconveniently located at “face-slapping” height, making unknowing contact easy when trekking about wetland habitat. Their leaves are beautiful in October, perhaps best described as blazing scarlet, but every inch of poison sumac is also host to urushoil and many think it’s even more volatile than poison ivy urushiol. The drupes of poison sumac very much resemble those of poison ivy, while the seeds of staghorn sumac (safe to touch) are upright in fuzzy cluster. Wetlands are fun to explore in October—but scarlet red leaves in a wetland should serve as a warning flag.
It may be great wearing shorts on a warm and sunny day hike in October, that is until unknowingly encountering stinging nettle. Stinging nettle is a very common plant that is rarely noted, but it’s often the source for a quick onset of localized pain followed by slight reddish swelling and then a period of prolonged itching on exposed legs or arms. Stinging nettle thrives in much of our county and grows well in full sun and partial shade if the soil is damp and fertile. Those conducive conditions for growth are often found along the edge of primitive trails and shorelines of shallow lakes. In favorable conditions, stinging nettle may be over six feet tall, but three or four feet is more common. The plant has a distinct square stem with tiny stinging hairs along its surface and part of the leaves. Those very tiny “hairs” act a bit like miniature hypodermic needles that inject toxins, but unlike an injection at a medical facility, the pain and itching for stinging nettle may last for a few days.
Is October a great time to hike? You bet it is and on my next hike, I will look forward to the ever so slim chance of admiring a sunning eastern massasauga rattlesnake; for unlike poison ivy, poison sumac and stinging nettle, our reclusive rattlesnakes practice live and let live, the way things should be on the golden wilder side trails of Oakland County in October.
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