WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
Backwoodsman and legendary folk hero Daniel Boone is alleged to have said, “I can’t say as ever I was lost, but I was bewildered once for three days.” I have new respect for Boone’s words, for during Monday’s wintery mix morning hike in the Holdridge Lakes Mountain Bike Area of Holly State Recreation Area, I reached a point on the trail when I realized I had no idea where I was. Lost? Not quite. I knew I was on a trail, just not the trail I thought I should be on, nor did I know where it would lead. To me the word lost infers hopelessness, and so I, like Daniel Boone, settled on bewilderment to define my predicament. But the bottom line is clear, for as series of events unfolded, some planned, some not, my two-mile hike became an 8.5 mile trek of endless adventure and natural wonders. I’m glad it all happened though, for the adventure reminded me there really is a wilder side of Oakland County.
The glacially sculpted forested hills, wetlands and small lakes of the Holdridge Lakes Mountain Bike Area are nestled away in Holly Township. The trailhead is accessible from Hess Road about one mile north of Grange Hall Road, 1/4 mile west of exit 101 on I-75. During the summer and fall months, it’s a popular and challenging trail system destination for experienced mountain bikers. Once winter arrives, the trail tempts adventuresome hikers that are comfortable on primitive trails with minimal to no signage and no amenities. There are plenty of mountain bike trails to explore, almost 25 miles altogether if one includes the Gruber’s Grinder, a 15.5 mile advanced loop that includes technical single track, rock climbs and log jumps. Unlike last week’s Wilder Side blog that profiled a trail at Independence Oaks County Park where it’s next to impossible to get lost, I will acknowledge it’s very easy to become “bewildered” along the Holdridge Trails. The trails twist and turn, and look like tangled spaghetti on the map – spaghetti that was tossed into the air and landed in no particular pattern on a platter.
My original plan was to hike the two-mile North Loop, a rather easy appearing meander through lowlands and fields, and that’s where I started my trek. It quickly became obvious that much of that trail site is former farmland, including the remnants of the foundation of a moss-covered farm silo. It was fun and mostly flat with a few nice vistas, but not the hills and sense of wildness I hoped for. The din of nearby I-75 was my muffled companion. And so, after that short trek came to an end, with the highlight being a deer that bolted at my approach and slipped as it crossed a small muddy section of a trail, I decided to hike just a few hundred yards up the 4 mile West Loop to see what that terrain held. That trail became love at first site just minutes later, with a totally unexpected wildlife encounter.
I noticed movement next to a small lake and thought at first it was odd to see a raccoon seemingly kneeling next to a log. I regret not making a stealthy approach, for just as I realized it was a beaver, not a raccoon, the beaver noticed me and waddled a few yards back to the water leaving me with only a wake and the trunk of a black cherry tree stripped of its bark to photograph. A bit of “after the fact” research revealed the diet of beavers tends to switch from soft vegetation to more woody flora that’s put in underwater storage. The inner layer of the tree bark of black cherry, the cambium layer, is on their preferred shoreline dining entrée list.
With that encounter leaving me in awe, I decided to hike the entire four mile West Loop. The trail goes over rolling hills, and every high point presented views of a landscape carved by glacial action and fine-tuned by 10,000 years of erosion. With leaves down, it was also easy to view small vernal ponds soon to be capped with ice and take note of trees twisted and broken by storms. The habitat also looked perfect for a sea of spring wildflowers and my calendar is now marked for a late April return trip. Signage is essentially non-existent, but there were mile markers at the mile and half mile marks. Up until Mile Marker Number Three, the hike was effortless when it came to staying on the twisting trail, rich with switchbacks, descents, climbs and nature’s distractions.
I busied myself admiring tiny wonders of nature including frost on leaves, snow-crusted fungi of all imaginable shapes and sizes and snow cradled within the spidery yellow blossoms of witch hazel, a shrub-like native tree that blooms in late autumn. I hiked on relishing in the crisp moist morning air, even though the sky was overcast without a hint of blue. Excluding the brilliant yellow of the witch hazel, and the colors of the trailside fungi, the only other color that drew my attention was red from two invasive species, Japanese Barberry and Oriental Bittersweet. Evidence was clear that birds favored the bittersweet.
And then something happened sometime after passing Mile Marker Number Three. The trail began to get narrower and that little warning bell in my mind said something is wrong. After meandering along for another 45 minutes, in what seemed to be a circle with Mile Marker 3.5 failing to appear, I knew I was no longer on the route I thought I was. I had no idea where I was except near a wetland and there were no recognizable landmarks to head me in the right direction. As for other hikers to ask, there were none. I also recognized it would be foolish to set a compass bearing to hike in a straight line. A compass bearing in Oakland County that keeps one on straight line for a mile will most likely bring you to a road, unless first encountering a lake, a marsh or an impenetrable thicket which is very likely and that’s when the unprepared start aimless wandering. If lost, bushwhacking can be dangerous. For once someone is noticed as missing, a search usually starts at the trailhead where a vehicle is located and searchers initially follow trails. Fortunately, I wasn’t lost. Just bewildered.
When hiking any backcountry trail on a day hike I always carry a small pack with items for an unexpected night out, a habit that became fine-tuned while on seasonal assignments with the National Park Service on South Manitou Island and this hike was no exception. In addition to waterproof matches, a compass, a whistle and signal mirror, a “survival tent” that weighs less than a pound, a parachute cord, knife and some first aid items, my pack also held high energy snack foods. And so I sat down on a trailside log, breathed deeply and watched inquisitive chickadees watch me as I munched dried nuts and berries, sipped coffee from my insulated thermos and reviewed the map. The map trails still looked like sticky spilled spaghetti and so I went to Plan B, which was simply to backtrack to my last known location to reduce my feeling of bewilderment.
Another slow-paced half hour of walking, taking in the seasonal sights of nature along the way, returned me to a trail junction where I quickly determined that the beauty of the blooming witch hazel had distracted me earlier. So much, that instead of following the slightly more trodden trail that was part of the West Loop, I ended up on a spur trail that I think (note my word think) connected me with part of a different loop after by passing part of a technical section of a the trail. Confused? So was I. With my planned journey back under way, it was not long until I encountered Mile Marker 3.5 and knew I was back on course.
The last half mile was pure pleasure, relishing in the solitude of the landscape, the feeling of accomplishment and fully enjoying the hidden beauty of nature’s way on an otherwise dreary day. I’m planning on heading back to the West Loop for a hill-hugging snowshoe or cross-country ski adventure once winter takes hold, but in the interest of caution I just may drag a friend along, trek only to Marker 2.5, have a winter picnic and return the way I came to avoid another case of bewilderment that leaves me feeling geographically challenged. Bottom line: The Holdridge Lakes Mountain Bike Area is truly on the wilder side of Oakland County and not the site for a newbie hiker, but with caution and extreme attention to the map and trails, it’s a site for great adventure. Just don’t forget to pack your situational awareness.
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.