The Nels Kimball Preserve is a true jewel of Oakland County. After exploring the preserve’s trails recently, I discovered that even some of my most ardent nature-embracing friends are unaware of its existence.
The preserve is a primitive site just minutes from downtown Clarkston. It’s a pleasure to explore in any season; perhaps with one exception. Don’t go there in shorts and t-shirts on a very humid August day as I did last year. If you do, the mosquitos will be thankful for your presence.
I’ve trekked the trails in all seasons and as to be expected, trail conditions vary greatly depending on the weather, but any trek at that preserve is a great experience for those who appreciate the wonders of nature and practice situational awareness. Kimball Preserve is also a great location to practice what I call a ‘habit of seeing.’
The ‘habit of seeing’ is easy to do. Simply walk slowly, stop often, look and listen and you will discover far more than just briskly walking along. A word of caution before rushing off to practice the habit of seeing at the preserve: The trails are primitive, signage is minimal, and the banks above the headwaters of the Clinton River can be very slippery.
I’ve hiked the primitive trails of the preserve perhaps a half dozen times over the past four years in all sorts of weather and it’s always an eye-opening pleasure. My most recent trek was on a beautiful blue sky day after a fresh snowfall. It’s the kind of weather I like to reboot, relax, and refresh. And of course explore nature.
The preserve is rather hidden, but is easy to find if you know where to look. It’s located east of M-15 just a bit south of the I-75 crossover. Follow Northview Drive which is on the east side of M-15 to Perry Lake Road, turn left and it’s almost immediately on your left. Look for a small entrance sign to the parking area in a small field. Do not park on the roadside.
Adventure starts quickly if you walk slowly and look about. Within a few minutes of starting down the narrow trail, a buck broke cover, bolted in front of me but was gone before I could raise my camera. Skunk cabbage was more cooperative for photos and was already pushing up through frozen soil. As I walked slowly across some slippery planks near the trailhead, I was excited to hear the distinctive call of a Pileated Woodpecker in the distance and would like to think a breeding pair may take up residence. There are numerous dead trees both standing and fallen in the preserve, and that bodes well for woodpeckers, and numerous other creatures. The fallen trees provide winter hibernation sites for salamanders and wood frogs and add healthy habitat diversity to the preserve.
It’s a very short walk to a small footbridge that crosses the headwaters of the Clinton River and takes visitors to the main section of the 40-acre preserve. Blue sky, blue waters and brilliant ice made conditions perfect for a short video at the bridge crossing — watch it above. After crossing the bridge, I meandered about trying to ignore the not so distant sound of traffic on I-75. With leaves down, the din of traffic is audible, but the distractions of nature’s way won out. I watched chickadees flitting about, saw a red-tailed hawk take flight from a tree limb and watched a red squirrel perched on a tree limb flicking its tail to warn of approaching danger; which I presumed to be me.
Much to my pleasure, I had an unplanned encounter on the trail with Todd Rosner, a gentleman I did not know. We chatted for a few minutes after he crossed the solid ice on the shallow section of the headwaters of the Clinton River. We quickly discovered we were on the same dual mission: wandering about to see how things were doing at this hidden gem of a wildland. I told him I write about nature and wildlife for Oakland County and he shared that he is a board member of The Blue Heron Headwaters Conservancy, the managing agency and promised to send me more information on the preserve.
We hiked together for a while and admired the handiwork of beavers that are active in the area. The evidence of their work was easy to find, including dozens of small trees that fell last season and one very large tree that had been partially girdled before the beavers probably recognized the tree was beyond their engineering skills. Although I would not have looked at this landscape as good beaver habitat had I noticed their workings, the river also gave them access to a small marsh near the preserve’s north end. Before heading our separate ways, Todd promised to send me his thoughts on the preserve and he did the next day.
Here’s what Todd wrote. “Kimball Preserve offers over 40 acres of forest, wetland and a beautiful stream as part of the headwaters of the Clinton River. It includes walking trails, educational signage, and a picturesque bridge across the river where people can enjoy the sights and sounds of nature undisturbed and learn about the plants, animals and unique natural features the property holds. Blue Heron Headwaters Conservancy is currently raising money for and discussing ways to make this wonderful property more known and visible to the community, including additional signage and other projects to improve the visitor experience. This would provide more options for the many walkers and nature lovers in Clarkston. It also advances our mission to protect the land, water, and wildlife in the headwater’s region of the Clinton, Shiawassee, Huron, and Flint rivers through preservation, stewardship, and education.”
After striking out on my own, I looped back along the small trail network to read more of the colorful interpretive signs that share information on the flora and fauna of the preserve. They are strategically placed at points of interest and add to the experience. One of my favorites describes the Emerald ash borer invasion of about three decades ago that had a significant impact on Oakland County woodlands, but benefited woodpeckers and other species that use dead trees. I wandered for a while longer just breathing in the crisp woodland air, listening to birds and the crunching sounds my feet made as I walked over frost heaves.
It was a very good nature-embracing day for me in this hidden corner of the wilder side of Oakland County with a river running through it.
Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.