Earth Day Weekend in “The Boonies”

Boonies Hike

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

On Earth Day weekend almost 300 Boy Scouts gathered for two nights of camping near Big Fish Lake in the Ortonville State Recreation Area for the 10th annual Boonies Hike. None of the young participants or many of the leaders were alive for that first Earth Day, held on April 22nd, 1970. It was an era when Americans were slowly becoming aware of environmental concerns and the need to take action. It was a time when rivers were so thick with oils that some burned. Massive V8 engines swallowed enormous amounts of leaded gasoline. Factories spewed rivers of chemicals and sludge without fear of much in the way of environmental or legal consequences. Scouting was a welcoming gateway to a changing outdoor world.

The need for environmental awareness accelerates again today as the world of scouting continues to move forward. This wilder side tale really starts with Boy Scout Troop 139 based in Ortonville. Scoutmaster Jeff Hafnt explained to his troop that he always liked hiking and exploring the 5,430 acres of Ortonville State Recreation Area. He explained this troop is the most northerly located troop of the Pontiac-Manito District of the Great Lakes Field Service Council. Ten years have passed since Hafnt invited more southerly located troops to join them “in the boonies” for a big day hike and the title stuck. The annual hiking event soon turned into a weekend long nature-embracing camping event. Michigan Department of Natural Resources gave the nod to allow the scouts to tent at Big Fish Lake. I was invited to hike with them for their grand 10th anniversary hike.

Continue reading

Eastern Gray Squirrels: Tree Planters and Survivalists

Eastern Gray Squirrel

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

Eastern Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) ignored last week’s icy duel between the seasons and continued full speed ahead with their spring home improvement projects. Gray squirrels don’t just survive in the midst of intense human activity and predation, they thrive thanks to their ability to adapt rapidly to changing situations while maintaining a healthy degree of wariness. It’s been that way for hundreds of years, going back to a time when gray squirrels migrated through tree tops in the vast unbroken hardwood forests of eastern North America. Gray squirrels greeted early settlers before they carved their open space niches into the landscape.

Eastern Gray Squirrel

Continue reading

Season of the Sandhills

Sandhill Crane

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

Sandhill Cranes are dancing and singing their courtship songs all across Oakland County. Their leaping, wing-flapping dance moves are one of the finest and perhaps most astonishing shows of nature for those that are lucky enough to witness their exuberance for life. The spectacular performance takes one’s breath away. An early morning solo hike near the entrance of Rose Oaks County Park presented me with an opportunity to watch that ritual from a crouched position among dry cattails with Red-Winged Blackbirds as my companions.

Sandhill Crane

Continue reading

Searching For Timberdoodles

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

A strange creature is appearing in our meadows and small clearings at dusk and at times it’s seen strutting about rural muddy roads on the wilder side of Oakland County. The American Woodcock (Scolopax minor), also commonly known by the affectionate name of Timberdoodle, is underway and much of Oakland County is prime breeding habitat. Although they are related to Sandpipers, Timberdoodles prefer a totally different habitat than the Sandpiper’s shoreline. The Timberdoodle is a ground-dwelling, short-legged, rather rotund little bird with a very long straight bill that is very much at home amidst the woods in early stages of succession. They are strange looking birds with big eyes set far back on the head, apparently an adaptation that evolved for predator detection as they probe for earthworms.

Continue reading

Hiking The Highlands

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

If your life feels like it’s becoming too fast-paced and distracted, perhaps it’s time to relax and refresh with an early spring nature embracing hike. The 5,900 acres of Highland State Recreation Area (HSRA), nestled away on the south side of M-59 in Highland and White Lake Township, might just be what the doctor ordered, and no prescription is needed. Find a hilly trail – that won’t be hard to do there – then walk slowly, stop often, be attentive to the sounds and your trail surroundings, and then the ways and wonders of nature will come alive. Such was the case last Sunday morning when I tagged along with the Crossroads Group of Sierra Club as they set out for a two-hour meander over and around the glacial features that dominate the park’s alluring landscape.

The Sierra adventurers and I met at the parking area adjacent to the old Edsel Ford Barn, a magnificent 15,000 square foot structure that was built in the early 1930s, but was severely damaged in a 2008 windstorm. Restoration work continues, thanks in part to the dedication and work of the Friends of Highland Recreation Area (FOHRA). A brief note on the history of the area is in order, for many hikers and visitors that come to Highland are unaware of the human history of the land, especially in the Haven Hills Natural Area section of the HSRA. Edsel Ford, the son of Henry Ford, began purchased hilly property with lakes in northwest Oakland County in 1923 and later built an estate on the land in the section of HSRA known today as Haven Hill. Local history buffs are proud of the fact that in 1976 Haven Hill was registered as a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service. Before the morning was over I realized the combination of natural and human history makes Haven Hill and the rest of the HSRA one of the most exciting, yet for many, lesser known destinations on the Wilder Side of Oakland County. Continue reading