One need not travel far to embrace nature’s way and come home with a smile. That’s what I did this morning to beat the heat and possible storms expected later in the afternoon. As for the words “this morning,” I am referring back to Wednesday, August 9 – a day when the afternoon temperatures flirted with the 90-degree mark. With those thoughts in mind, I armed myself with a mug of iced coffee, my camera, and a notepad and headed off to the 2.2-mile-long River Loop Trail of Independence Oaks County Park expecting to be the only trail user. I could not have been more wrong. I probably encountered two dozen people on my intentionally slow-paced trek and suspect they had the same idea to hike early to beat the afternoon heat.
The River Loop Trail is a user-friendly trail good for all ages and abilities. It’s almost flat except for a few slight inclines that can be easily managed by walkers and wheelchair users. If you are looking for an easy hike as summer sizzles, this just might be the place. Here’s my summary of that nature-embracing trek that in reality fits the phrase, “It’s just a walk in the park.”
I parked near the Crooked Lake boat house, a location that is very easy to find if you watch for signage. After exchanging pleasantries with a very vocal goose that was grazing on the lakeshore, I headed clockwise on the paved trail that was adjacent to the boat house. It’s just a few minutes of slow-paced walking to reach the junction for the River Loop Trail that is well-signed. That’s where my adventure really began, and where I had a great disappointment.
My lens cap was still on my camera when a doe and her large fawn passed almost right in front of me, with just a glance my way. I know, and you know, deer are very common, but it still would have been a fun picture. However, my consolation wildlife prize posed for a few seconds of video with audio. Look and listen here to see it.
A boisterous cardinal landed on a branch just above me and sang to his heart’s content. I suspect the message was clearly defining his territory to any other cardinals in the area.
A cyclist peddled passed me slowly warning me of his approach with a bell ringing. He passed on my left, proper trail etiquette. We met again a few minutes later where we both paused on a bridge to revel in the morning music of nature’s way and see what we could see from that location. The view included a Great Blue Heron on the shoreline that took flight at our presence, a Cooper’s Hawk zipping past the trees and a muskrat that slipped back into the water from a shoreline log. I wondered what other creatures might be near the bridge that remained unseen to me. On a trek last month, I watched a northern water snake sunning on a log protruding from the water and about a half dozen tree swallows zipping about in pursuit of flying insects. No tree swallows were in view this time, which disappointed me, but I was also very pleased that I had no encounters with mosquitos during my trek that embraced the creek, vernal ponds and small wetlands.
After perhaps a 15-minute observation on the bridge, I hiked on taking note of dew sparkling in the sunlight on clusters of Jewelweed, a rather delicate wetland plant also known as a spotted touch-me-not. If the seed pods are touched once they are fully ripened, they pop open and seeds will fly out with surprising force, thus the name touch-me-not.
Nearly dry vernal ponds were along my route, adding habitat diversity to the landscape. Come next spring, they will be alive with the songs of courting toads and frogs. I walked along the edge of one of them and noted raccoon tracks. Most likely the raccoon was shopping for an easy meal on its late-night or early-morning meander.
American boneset and Joe-Pye weed both flowered along the trail. Boneset is easily recognized by stalkless leaves that are fused together across the stem, making it almost appear that the leaf was pierced by a stem.
My early morning trek added a visual treat as sunlight filtered through the woods as gentle puffs of wind created shadows from swaying branches along the trail.
Black raspberries were slowly ripening in sunny areas and songbirds were already feasting on fire cherries, aptly also known as bird cherries. Stained fingers gave proof to my trailside sampling.
A cluster of Staghorn sumacs, also known as Red Sumac, appeared in abundance in sunny sections of my route, a reminder that summer wanes quickly and the time for summer hikes and adventures is now.
Just as I paused to watch a garter snake slither across the trail, I noticed a songbird perched overhead. It took a bit of detective work to identify it. After returning home, my avid birder friends assured me it was just an immature Eastern Bluebird, and its distinctive colors won’t appear until later.
A well-marked crossing takes hikers and cyclists across the park’s entry road and then on a pathway that crosses the headwaters of the Clinton River. I stopped there for a while to take in the scenery and noted that poison sumac leaves are already turning scarlet, a reminder that summer is waning.
I wrapped up my ultra-slow-paced trek of nature embracing along the shoreline of Crooked Lake by just sitting on a bench and doing nothing but reveling in the serenity of a peaceful morning in this rather “tame” section of the wilder side of Oakland County. If you’re looking for an easy trek, most likely shared by others, the River Loop Trail just might be the answer.
Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.