WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
“Live in each season as it passes, breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.” – Henry David Thoreau. Those timeless words set the mood perfectly for my “First Day Hike.” January 1st has come and gone, but I still smile about a hike under a spectacular crisp blue sky on the first day of 2020.
First Day Hikes are part of a nationwide initiative led by America’s State Parks to encourage people to get outdoors. That creative program began in Massachusetts in 1992 and went nationwide in 2012 under the leadership of the America’s State Parks alliance, a strategic alliance formed in 2010 that includes state park systems in all 50 states. They tend to be large gatherings on easily accessible trails that are billed as a healthful and fun way to connect with families, friends and communities, and that they are. The hikes are led by park staff and nature knowledgeable volunteers from supporting agencies. The closest official Michigan Department of Natural Resources First Day Hike for 2020 was at nearby Island Lake Recreation Area, but this year I opted out and instead headed to one of my very favorite places of solitude, peace and beauty to welcome the New Year on the Wilder Side of Oakland County. A swamp.
It was not just any swamp, but one I visit several times a year, the Lakeville Swamp Nature Sanctuary managed by the Michigan Nature Association. The Michigan Nature Association describes the sanctuary with these words,
“Lakeville Swamp Nature Sanctuary is one of the remaining high quality wetland complexes in Oakland County, which are shrinking in number. Many of these areas are the last strongholds of native plants and animals remaining. Lucky for northeastern Oakland County residents, this natural area exists right in their backyards. Lakeville Swamp contains several distinct natural communities including a dense white cedar swamp, prairie fen, southern wet meadow, southern shrub carr, and oak barrens. Lakeville Swamp protects many rare species in Michigan. Past surveys determined that it is an extremely species-rich natural area for Oakland County, and southern Michigan, containing over 400 species of native plants.”
Lakeville swamp is a magical and mysterious place where both the silence and music of nature is very real and a winter walk gives life to the words of John Muir: “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.” I arrived in the early afternoon and was delighted to see not a single human footprint leading into the sanctuary. My first day hiking companion and I crossed a small wooden footbridge that takes trekkers over a hidden branch of Stony Creek and it was there that we noticed an abundance of watercress, one of my favorite wild edibles. Watercress grows well in fast flowing creeks and maintains its eye-catching green color all winter.
We quickly discovered we would not be hiking alone. The forest floor was crisscrossed with squirrel tracks, a few sets of deer tracks and mysterious tracks at the edge of the water that I believe belonged to mink, an elusive predator that would be very much at home in this habitat. Bird song was almost absent except for a few boisterous black-capped chickadees flitting about as they feasted on the seeds of tamarack trees, an abundant swamp-loving species of conifer tree that sheds all its needles in winter. We followed my mantra of walk slowly, stop often, look and listen, and as we did, nature rewarded us with sights, sounds and signature swamp smells, especially the rich aroma of northern white cedar.
Cedar swamp habitat is ideal for Barred Owls and I secretly hoped for a sighting, for they are sometimes active in the day. As we explored the primitive trail at a snail’s pace to enjoy the sunlight filtering through the tree canopy we wondered what creatures might have seen us but remained unnoticed. High up on the list were Barred Owls, followed closely by Cooper’s Hawks and perhaps a red fox or eastern coyote curled up in near impenetrable tangles of tree roots and windthrows.
The Michigan Nature Association website warns hiking off-trail can be very difficult due to wet uneven terrain, sedge hummocks, and tangles of exposed roots; it also warns of the presence of poison sumac. But as the curious naturalist I am, I was lured a few hundred feet off the primitive trail to inspect a very large upturned root mass of a tree felled by high winds. I am certain the large water filled depression created by the forceful uplifting of the tree’s root mass created ideal habitat for tiny creatures and perhaps will be an excellent place for frogs to gather in spring.
Fungi was abundant on decomposing logs that nourish the forest floor. Those logs are critical for many small species of the swamp that hibernate underneath them including the red-backed salamander, wood frog and the eastern massasauga rattlesnake, our state’s only venomous reptile. A highly attractive fungus which I could not positively identify seemed to be climbing to reach the blue sky as hundreds of specimens grew from the side of a long dead white birch tree. Some of them cradled remnants of snow, adding to the natural beauty of the scene.
The sanctuary is truly a pristine example of what some sections of Oakland County looked like to early settlers: a wild and free landscape where situational awareness is a must. The feeling, and at time the sounds, of wildness were everywhere and we noted where a Pileated Woodpecker had just started to blast away at a cedar for hibernating insects. But what really drew our attention was not the occasional restless winds that rippled the surface of the icy creek, the deep vibrant green colors of the cedars against the clear blue sky, nor was it the thought that we had stepped back about 150 years in time with the only hint of the modern-day being the trail and the not so distant muffled din of traffic on Rochester Road, it was trees of different species seemingly locked in a deep embrace with the tree roots and trunks of some cedar and birch trees appearing to be fused together.
A bit of after the encounter research solved the mystery of the “embracing trees” which as it turned out were physically joined by a process known as inosculation, a new and totally fascinating discovery for me. It has been said that science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and reinvigorate it. Literature on the inosculation process is technical and varies, but the bottom line is that when the young trees or exposed roots (roots are often exposed in a swamp environment) rub together from swaying movement caused by heavy winds, the outer layer of the bark is scraped away exposing the critical life sustaining cambium layer below. When the cells of the exposed cambium layers from the two different trees remain in contact they sometimes fuse together and the trees continue to grow and new bark forms covering the wound and the trees become physically connected. Some naturalists jokingly refer to the process of two trees or two root systems combining as a forced marriage of trees. This natural phenomenon at the swamp is biologically rather similar to the process of grafting.
When shadows grew long, it was time to leave our “First Day” exploration of nature’s way to the owls and night breezes with thoughts of returning in spring when everything becomes vibrantly alive in this protected wildland on the wilder side of Oakland County. Visit the Michigan Nature Association website to learn more about them and the sanctuaries they protect.
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.