Thoughts from a Trail Less Traveled

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

The footpath in the woods of the Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park is truly a trail less traveled. It’s the kind of place where one does not need to seek out solitude, for they will feel blessed with its presence and soothed by the sound of restless winds and flowing water.

15,000 years have slipped by since a great sheet of ice that would have dwarfed the mighty Renaissance Center of Detroit began to melt and carve its way into the raw landscape on its ravine forming mission. About 9,000 years have gone by since one of the last great titans of the Ice Age, the wooly mammoth, died not far from the ravine. Exactly one week has raced by since I walked that footpath for the very first time. If I was to describe the experience with just a word or two it might be “awe-inspiring,” for it’s the kind of place where nature will embrace you if you walk slowly, stop often and let Mother Nature tell her story.

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park is a 60-acre park managed by Oakland Township Parks and Recreation. It’s one of the lesser known wildlands in Oakland County and almost half of the property is protected by a Six Rivers Land Conservancy conservation easement. For more on the value of conservation easements and how they protect our natural areas for generations to come, visit: www.sixriversrlc.org/protected-land.

The Oakland Township website states “These 60-acres encompass some of the most desirable natural areas protected as a Township park.” I wanted to see for myself, so late last Friday afternoon I decided it was time to stop just hearing tidbits about the park and pay it a visit. The park entrance is hidden away in a neighborhood of palatial homes. It’s important to know there is only pedestrian access at this time and parking is just about nil. However a car, perhaps two, can park at the dead-end of Knob Creek Drive, which is located off of East Buell Road. You know you have arrived when the road ends and park signs greet you from a small bluff.

It’s not easy to walk so slowly to cover only a half mile in about two hours, but that’s what I did, for as an unabashed partisan of ways of the wild, there was so much to take in along the way. A walk along the easy to follow primitive trail almost automatically cultivates a degree of environmental awareness and lays bare the signatures of earlier land actions and uses.

My trek started by meandering through open spaces before entering the oak forest where gentle gusts of wind sent last year’s dried leaves dancing across the forest floor. In another two weeks, I expect the forest floor will erupt with woodland wildflowers, fantastic spring fungi and the melodies of newly arrived songbirds. Ten minutes of very slow-paced wandering brought me to a glacial moraine ridge top, capped with a row of sizable glacial erratics, evidence of fields once cleared for farming. With the leaves still down, it was easy to “read” that post-glacial landscape. Glaciers delivered hundreds of thousands of large glacial erratics to our county, but as the great sheet of ice melted, they were never lined up in neat rows. For those new to glacial terminology, it’s worth noting that glacial erratics are large boulders and smaller rocks that were pushed and carried here by glaciers and then left behind after the glacier melted. To discover more about glacial erratics, visit the National Snow and Ice Data Center website.

The mixed hardwood forest was dominated by oak trees, some of which had hollows that would be ideal habitat for many creatures, including Great Horned and Screech Owls. I noticed a pair of Turkey Vultures circling low above the ridge and wondered if perhaps they had set up housekeeping somewhere in or near the ravine. Turkey Vultures do not build traditional nests, but rather lay their eggs in dark recesses of hollow logs or hidden crevices.

Several signs along the forested ridge top trail make note of habitat restoration projects, with one of the more significant ones being “forestry mowing” to remove dense thickets of invasive shrubs, including autumn olive, oriental bittersweet and buckthorn. After native plants are re-established, prescribed fire will be one of the management tools used to restore and maintain the native wildflowers and grasses that were once common in Oakland Township and much of the county. The online map is not really needed to find your way; the .4 mile trail leads from the parking lot to the bluff overlook above the ravine and back again. While hiking, I noticed pink ribbons tied to trees marking a small side trail (on the west side of the trail) leading down the side of the steep ravine to the creek’s edge. I followed that narrow trail down the side of the ravine and was glad I did, for it took me to a landscape that embraced the west branch of Stony Creek.

There, the creek babbled along, flowing freely over rock sand logs and reminded me why the park is aptly named Stony Creek Ravine Park. Yellow birch trees like moist soil conditions, and some of them characteristically “hugged” the banks of the creek. Their easily identifiable, naturally peeling bark made them visible from a distance. From my bottom of the ravine vantage point, it was pleasurable to look up at still leafless trees swaying slightly in the increasing wind and make note of their variety. The smooth bark of the beech trees were easy to spot as the sun sank behind me.

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I sat by a bend in the creek and listened to the music of the water and the cawing of crows that may have noticed my intrusion as the sun began to settle. There’s a quote that comes from Paul Gruchow, written in his book of essays “Grass Roots,” where he meditates on living with the land. “Children want to touch everything, to smell the flowers, taste the leaves, dangle their feet in the water, pick apart the scat and carry home the bones.” Those words spoke to me as I knelt to look at fresh leaves of skunk cabbage, examine chewed acorns, feel fresh moss, and smell the richness of spring, but with darkness approaching, it was time to head back from the trail less traveled that truly embraces this protected gem of the wilder side of Oakland County.

NOTE: After returning home I did additional research that revealed some exciting facts I was unaware of, most significantly that the Oakland Township Parks Commission has been awarded a matching grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund that will eventually add 208 acres that abut the north side of Snell Road. There are also plans underway for possible connector trails to nearby 4,461-acre Stony Creek Metropark, which is already connected to the current 60-acre Stony Creek Ravine Park by the west branch of Stony Creek. This publicly available link of maps puts it all in perspective as plans for park and trail connectivity surges ahead in Oakland County.


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