WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
An early morning paddle as the sun climbs over the horizon is the perfect way to start a nature-embracing summer day in the wilder side of Oakland County. The morning mist is magical as water drips off paddles and Great Blue Herons stalk the shallows. For the night owls, paddle out into a magical time of day, a few hours before dusk to catch the moon’s shadow shimmering on the water and beavers slapping their broad tails against the water to warn of your stealthy approach. Regardless of your time preference, Oakland County waters await your canoe, kayak, or stand-up paddle board adventures!
I’m hopelessly addicted to slow- speed nature embracing kayaking. I usually paddle alone, or with just one friend, increasing the chances of wildlife encounters like soaring Tree Swallows, Great Egrets, Belted Kingfishers, and Mute Swans, and perhaps even Trumpeter Swans. Paddle quiet waters and you may witness an Osprey dive for a fish, a Bald Eagle soar high overhead, or a deer wading in the shallows as it munches on emergent vegetation. Sunny days bring turtles resting on partially submerged logs, muskrats swimming near the shoreline, and both green frogs and bullfrogs all but hidden admits floating carpets of duckweed while dragonflies zip overhead. Added bonuses, besides the good feeling of just being outside, are the moments of peace and adrenaline that come with paddling. Nature is always rich with surprise, especially when you explore small, partially hidden coves, a common feature in many of our glacially formed lakes.
Remember, safety comes first so make sure to always wear a PFD (personal floatation device). They are not cushions to sit upon. Things happen, so even strong swimmers should wear one. You might tip over and suddenly the kayak is pushed away by the wind. Imagine this scenario that has happened to me within the Bald Mountain State Recreation Area: you misjudge the depth of a narrow channel that connects shallow lakes and suddenly, you are bottomed out struggling to keep the kayak moving without tipping. A totally unexpected medical emergency could even have you tumbling over the side, be it an anaphylactic reaction following a yellow jacket sting of just a serious cramping of muscles. I have even witnessed the sudden wing-beating charge of a Mute Swan that ended with a kayaker in the river.
The list of reasons to wear a PFD is long so it makes common sense to not just bring one, which is the law, but to wear it. Weather can change extremely rapidly, as was the case last Sunday morning for me when severe thunderstorms with high winds raced across the ponds and lakes of northern Oakland County with little warning. Seatbelts go on before a car crash, a reminder that PFDs should go on even if you think you will never need it. Learn more the PFD law and safety tips from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources website.
There are numerous places to paddle in our county, whether on a lake or river. Some launch sites are managed by local municipal park agencies and nature conservancies, but many of the easily accessible lakes are within the Huron-Clinton Metropark System, Oakland County Parks and Recreation, or within areas managed by our Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Keep reading to check out my 10 favorite places to paddle in Oakland County that have easy to find public launch sites. With a bit of search, you will find many more inviting bodies of water. I tend to avoid our numerous large lakes since they are classified as, “all sports lakes,” meaning powerboats and water skiers are likely. However, there is one all sports lake listed where I had an unexpected encounter.
1. Crooked Lake
Crooked Lake, a lake I frequent several times a year, is a very popular destination within Independence Oaks County Park, located in Clarkston, MI. I usually paddle just after the park opens or as the sun dips low on the horizon. If you paddle close to the shoreline, you may get lucky enough to watch the Great Egrets that are perched near the water’s edge waiting for unsuspecting prey to swim by so they can make a lightning fast stab with their long bill.
Boat rentals are not available at the boathouse at Independence Oaks.
2. Buhl Lake
Buhl Lake at Addison Oaks County Park in Leonard, MI, is ideal on a hot summer day and beautiful in autumn when the maples are rich with colors and turtles seemingly pose on partially submerged logs for my camera. Buhl Lake has rentals, but always check first with Oakland County Parks about rental availability.
Paddleboarding is not permitted at Buhl Lake, but guests are welcome to bring their own kayak, canoe, or small boat (electric and trolling motor only) and go fishing.
3. Lake Sixteen
Lake Sixteen at Orion Oaks County Park in Orion, MI, attracts a wider variety of paddlers. It has a small parking area launch site on the west side of Joyslyn Road, just a bit south of Clarkston Road near the dog park entrance. I’ve been on those placid waters at sunrise on solo paddles as well as during busier times. I’m always able to find my nature-embracing moments amidst the lily pads and ducks along the west shore. Some of the ducks are so acclimated to people, you can paddle close to them as they do their typical bottoms-up feeding.
Graham Lakes within the Bald Mountain State Recreation Area, near Lake Orion, MI, are a favorite sunrise location for me. They are increasing in popularity and attracts nature-loving kayakers, stand up paddle boarders, and fisherman who paddle after their prey. Several small lakes are interconnected by shallow channels with the DNR boat launch on East Graham Lake. It’s a wonderful place where your wilder side paddling companions are likely to be muskrats, dragonflies, swallows, and the music of nature’s way.
5. Big Seven Lake
Big Seven Lake at Seven Lakes State Park in Holly, MI offers endless opportunity for exploration and nature adventure with its small bays and expansive shoreline. It’s a great place for a few hours of paddling followed by a shoreline picnic, or just to paddle and fish near the shore at the same time. In this 170 acre lake, you will find Bluegill, Largemouth Bass, Walleye, Yellow Perch, and even Northern Water Snakes sunning near the shore.
6. Kent Lake
Kent Lake, a 1,200 acre lake at Kensington Metropark in Milford, MI, is an extremely popular and at times, a busy summer destination. Due to its size, it’s still easy to paddle in peaceful solitude, especially for early morning risers. You may even see Osprey soaring overhead or Sandhill Cranes in the adjacent meadows.
7. Lakeville Lake
Lakeville Lake, in northeastern Addison Township, MI, is a 468 acre all sports lake where its public DNR boat launch on Lakeville Road fills quickly. I’ve only paddled on the lake once in 2018 with Slow Row Lo, a Facebook paddling meet up group, where the lake bustled with powerboats, water skiers, dozens of kayakers, and pleasure boats. I knew that nature’s way is where you find it so I paddled away from the group into a small weedy bay where I encountered a Bald Eagle.
River paddling presents more of a challenge and logistical work than our lakes because you need to find a way to get back to your starting point. You can stage a vehicle at a takeout location or paddle both directions if the water is calm enough. Rivers can also be more dangerous due to factors like high waters, partially submerged logs, and low hanging branches. There is also less of a chance that you will be noticed if you run into difficulty. I would not suggest any river for a first-time paddler unless they are accompanied by experienced companions. The Michigan DNR defines a water trail as “a designated route on a navigable waterway such as a lake, river, canal, or bay that is designed and managed to create a positive outdoor recreation experience for the user.” The Clinton River, Shiawassee River, and Huron River are all designated water trails. MichiganWaterTrails.org has information on all water trails in southeast Michigan.
8. The Clinton River
The Clinton River, where the main branch of the river rises from wetlands in Springfield Township, meanders through both urban and wilder sections of Oakland County. The river’s water conditions can change rapidly depending on rainfall so it’s always a great adventure. It is also the only river where I ended up in the water as my kayak headed downstream without me. That misadventure occurred during a nature-embracing paddle with the Six Rivers Land Conservancy. I was too busy photographing dragonflies on the shoreline to notice near hanging branches and rapids. One thing led to another in rapid sequence and my evasive action was inadequate to say the least. The above photo is the final photo I captured just seconds before that camera took its last ever photo and I ended up in the water, with the camera.
9. The Shiawassee River
The Shiawassee River, which is predominately in Livingston County, is my favorite local river to paddle. I always launch at Waterworks Park at 690 S. Broad Street in Holly and then paddle the seven-mile section to Strom Park on East Street in Fenton. Paddling this river always involves a second person with a car staged at the takeout location due to its rather strong currents. It’s a grand adventure that takes about three hours for folks like me that like to dawdle to take in nature’s sights and wonders along the way. In October, it’s truly spectacular as trees turn fiery red and golden. There are always twists and turns in this river, like the one time I had to slide my kayak over a small beaver dam. Some exciting news is that Headwaters Trail is building a launch site between Holly and Fenton along the east side of Fish Lake Road.
10. The Huron River
The Huron River, where a part is in Springfield Township in northern Oakland County, always brings a smile to my face. It’s a slower moving river with numerous access points, especially within the Proud Lake State Recreation Area. It’s the only river where in previous years, I would occasionally partake in group moonlight paddles sponsored by Heavener Canoe and Kayak Rental. You can bring your own kayak or canoe, or rent one of theirs and paddle towards the setting sun and Milford Central Park. In 2016, the group and I walked into town for dinner and then paddled back under the light of the moon and wrapped up the adventure with a bonfire back at the starting point.
Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.