WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
If you aren’t a hiker, you may hold unanswered questions as to why your friends seem excited about meandering through the woods for an hour or two on a chilly and overcast day, or look forward to spending a week trekking backcountry trails with a backpack tugging at their shoulders. Perhaps it’s the words of T.S. Eliot that drives the latter group, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.” Today’s nature ramble however will focus on those that want to get started in the nearly cost-free, extremely healthful and lifelong, often nature-embracing, activity of hiking.
There are many reasons to hike, and even more rewards from hiking, but if the very word “hiking” creates heart palpitations, just substitute the more calming noun “walker” for the anxiety producing word, “hiking.” I’ll define a walker as someone who walks for pleasure or for easy exercise. With those thoughts in mind, it’s time to start looking forward to great new adventures. For hiking is a year round activity that just about anyone old enough to walk can enjoy, even as winter looms. And yes, it’s easy and fun to hike in December if properly attired. But where?
“Where can I hike? I’ve never done it before.” I’ve heard many forms of that question over the past few months and so today I am sharing the location and facts on the ground for one trail, a favorite of mine, that’s easy to find, easy to access and is gaining increasing popularity with walkers, hikers, and even joggers with leashed dogs. It should be noted however that dogs must be leashed at all times and any “deposits” must be removed.
Independence Oaks County Park is the largest park managed by Oakland County Parks and has more than 12 miles of trails crisscrossing its 1,286 acres. Some of those trails such as the Ted Gray Loop have steep elevation changes and may be challenging for a novice, but for a newbie or someone who just wants a trail that’s easy to access and impossible to get lost on, consider Independence Oak’s Lakeshore Loop. I meander along that trail frequently, including last Sunday morning. On that most recent overcast day trek, a friend joined me in the dawn’s early light and that’s where this last blog post of November actually began, about 16 hours before the first snowstorm of the season closed many schools in northern Oakland County. As the name Lakeshore Loop indicates, it’s a loop trail that follows the shoreline of Crooked Lake and is just 2.4 miles long. The website of Oakland County Parks has an online map guide for Independence Oaks that shows the locations and junctions of all their trails, including the Lakeshore Loop.
Lakeshore Loop is described as “packed dirt, even terrain, slight to moderate elevation changes.” That’s accurate information, but it’s also wide and very easy to navigate; a sign post map occurs at every junction where a hiker can see their location and decide if they want to trek on another hillier trail or continue on the loop. Hikers and cross-country skiers should note that once there is a sufficient snow for cross-country skiing, the Lakeshore Loop is dedicated to cross-country skiers, but until then, it’s a great place to get started in the world of hiking.
We started our hike at the boat house minutes after the park opened; that’s 8:00 a.m. this time of the year. The boat house parking lot is great place to access the trail, for many reasons, heated restrooms notwithstanding (and once winter really arrives, it’s a cross-country ski rental location). On this trek we went clockwise, starting with a very short looped diversion, a .3 mile paved and totally flat ADA compliant trail: the All Visitors Loop. All visitors certainly means all, including four-legged year round wild residents. For just a few hundred yards down the trail, we encountered fresh work from beavers that had ambled up from the water to the trail’s edge. Beavers are well adapted for their semi-aquatic lifestyle and their short, but critical, expeditions onto land. Their flattened tail acts like a rudder in the water and a brace when felling trees. Hike the entire Lakeshore Loop, as we did after merging back onto the trail, and keen-eyed viewers will spot more trees downed by beavers, and a beaver lodge hidden at the base of a bluff.
The Lakeshore Loop crosses over a stream that flows from Crooked Lake and feeds the headwaters of the Clinton River, a great spot to just stop and listen to the gurgle of water. We also followed the very short Bay Point spur trail that leads to wooden – and often very slippery – steps and a dock that juts into Crooked Lake. It’s a great vantage point for late season waterfowl viewing and the path leading to the dock was edged with spectacular witch hazel, a shrub like tree that had just reached full bloom. There is something magical about a tree that flowers in the weeks before winter’s icy grip takes hold, but that’s the way of the witch hazel. It’s delicate looking, but rather hardy, spidery flowers of yellow are a spectacular stand out in woodlands devoid of autumn colors. A factoid is in order here, for European settlers in the “New World” often used the branches of witch hazel trees as divining rods for dowsing. This is believed to be the basis for one of the explanations behind the “witch” part of the name. The name apparently derives from the Anglo-Saxon word wych, meaning “bend” and that’s what a divining rod is supposed to do when it detects water.
A Pileated Woodpecker drew our attention but avoided staying in place long enough for me to capture a clear photo, and the same held true for a muskrat we noted munching on shoreline vegetation. A moss-covered glacial erratic on the edge of the trail proved to be a far more willing target for my camera’s eye, a clear reminder that glaciers shaped the landscape of this park, and the rest of Oakland County. Fantastic fungi still appears along the trail’s edge on downed logs, one of the most eye-catching being the aptly named Turkey Tail.
Squirrels scurried about the rich forest floor carpet of dry leaves that also provide critical habitat for hibernating salamanders, tree frogs and wood frogs. The leafy forest floor is an often overlooked, but critical component of a healthy environment. We watched squirrels hunting for fallen nuts amidst logs and leaves; a few of them seemed more than willing to pose for my camera. One red squirrel caught my eye as it scurried back and forth, adding to its winter cache of nuts in a hollow section of a trailside tree about twenty feet above ground; perhaps a luxury home with its view of the woods and lake.
At the trails end, our starting point, the question of “Why Hike?” resurfaced in my mind. The answer is rather easy, for everyone we passed seemed to smile and so perhaps the best answer is a three-part answer: Hiking is fun, it’s healthful and it’s easy to do. The Lakeshore Trail is a great place to get started on this rather tame section of the Wilder Side of Oakland County. NOTE: Park permits are required and 2019 just became available. For additional information on all parks managed by Oakland County Parks including park permits and winter trail maps, visit their website.
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