Along the Trail
As you walk along the “street of a natural community”, think of the various organisms and groups of organisms which make up the community. What do they do? Where do they go and for what? How far do they move, if they do? With whom or what do they associate? Who makes the food for this community? Do you think it is a static community?
Upland Oak—Pine Community link to its fact sheet
1. Representative of the dominant trees are white oak (Quercus alba, link to its fact sheet), with its lighter bark and black oak (Quercus veluntina, link to its fact sheet), red oak (Quercus rubra, link to its fact sheet) with their darker bark. White oak has leaves that have rounded lobes and the bark of a mature tree is a light grey. The fruit, an acorn which ripens in the fall, provides food for animals, such as chipmunks, red squirrels, birds, and deer. Red and black oak have leaves with lobes which are sharply pointed and bristle-tipped. Our state tree, white pine (Pinus strobus, link to its fact sheet) is intermingled with the oaks and can be identified from its bundle of five needles. White pine is susceptible to a fungus disease, white pine blister rust. The fungus requires two hosts, the pine and wild currant or gooseberry. Where the disease is prevalent, currants or gooseberries, the alternate hosts, are eradicated. Between trail post #1 and #2, there is a shortcut trail to the left or south that leads to the end of the trail.
2. Between trail post #1 and #2, you may notice a smaller tree with black flakey bark; Prunus serotina, black cherry, doesn’t grow tall in this area. It can be identified by looking for orange hairs which are along the mid-rib vein on the underside of the leaves. This species attains a much greater size in the creekbed habitat. Amelanchier, juneberry, can be seen in a few places near the trail. It is a tall shrub which has white blossoms in late April or early May and bears fruit near the end of June. The fruit is excellent food for wildlife and even for jam/jellies. Easily recognizable is sassafras (Sassafras albidum) by its three different shaped leaves. It is a member of the laurel family and here it does not attain tree size due to limiting factors. The fruit, dark berries, and roots furnish food for animals and humans. Rub the bark off of a small twig and smell it. The spicy “root beer” flavor and aromatic odor is very pleasing to most people.
3. The small bushes are huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata) and blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) and make up much of the shrub cover in the oak-pine habitat. Huckleberry has orange resin spots on the backside of its leaves and blueberry has smaller darker green leaves. Both of these plants furnish edible fruit for birds and small mammals. Do not be surprised if you see some chipmunks, red squirrels or fox squirrels scampering across the trail. Also common before frost is bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) which is the only species of fern in the oak-pine habitat. This fern with its long underground rhizomes sending up three-parted fronds is commonly found in partially open wooded uplands. Do you know of some yard where it also grows? Many old wives’ tales exist about the bracken fern: it protects one from goblins and witches and drives away serpents, gnats, no see ums (fly midges), and other creatures.
4. Look around. Do you see the largest white pine trees, most likely a remnant of the past lumbering years 150-200 years ago when it was too little and young to have been cut. No doubt they are the mother seed trees for all younger white pine trees around it. Since some are larger than the oaks, the pines also probably preceded the oaks in the natural plant succession. White pine might be said to be the species that built Muskegon, since millions of feet of lumber came down the Muskegon River to the sawmills lining the shores of Muskegon Lake. The heart-shaped leafed aster (Aster macrophyllus) blooms in the fall with a lovely blue purple flower. Also blooming in the fall is the blue stemmed goldenrod (Solidago caesia) which you may have noticed as you walked along the trail. As you proceed along the trail, notice the oak on the right hand side that has been infected with a shelf fungus (Phellinus) which obtains its nutrients by sending growing threads (mycelia) into the decomposing wood.
"Wilderness is the raw material out of which man has hammered the artifact called civilization."
5. Take a short spur off to the left to find this trail post at the flowering dogwood tree (Cornus florida). This is one of Michigan’s loveliest trees with it large white blossoms before leafing out in the spring. In the fall, the leaves turn red and add much to the color and beauty of the woods. Listen! You may hear the cardinal singing. Turn back to where you previously were (if you continue downhill you will join the trail loop near its end). If you are with a guide, be certain to dig the soil probe down into the ground so that you can see, feel, and smell the upland soil. This soil type is Grayling-Rubicon sands, which is an excessively drained soil formed from the sandy deposition of glacial outwash 10,000s years ago.
6. Have you heard or seen any animals yet? Be careful around the bend, the sharp spines along the stems of greenbrier (Smilax) which are along the trail may snag you. On the rotting logs lying on the ground, you may see wood that appears to be colored with a green marker which is really a fungus called Chlorosplenium or also known as Chlorociboria.
7. Can you recall the names of the trees in this location? Which tree is white pine? Which is white oak? During the 1970s this area was more open than it is now due to lumbering and fires. Previously the area was dry and mostly barren except for mosses and lichens which are pioneer species in the natural plant succession. As time progressed so does succession. After the mosses and lichens, small shrubs such as blueberry and huckleberry were able to survive and later larger shrubs and trees. If you are willing to be quiet, observant, and also lucky, you may see some small mammals in this area. See if you can find “runways” of the white footed deer mouse which is often near or in the path.
8. Here is a place to ponder about some of the things that humans do to our environment and see some of our anthropogenic effects. Look down the slope to the north. Some time prior to 1970s about 600 tons of soil eroded from this slope and formed a delta pushing into the creek bed. Then unfortunately in 2004, a new sewer system greatly disturbed the ravine, but it is proposed to be planted as a Michigan prairie with hopes of seeing the flowers of lupines and bird’s foot violet again on this campus. Presently some trail users have been using this eroding trail furthering its damage. Fox tracks have been observed during the winter in this area even though the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) hasn’t been observed. This bold beautiful animal is a predator on insects, mice, and may feed occasionally on a cottontail rabbit.
"Predation is part of the equation of life."
9. Rest for awhile on the bench at The Point under the arching branches of witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) and listen to the sounds and calls of birds, frogs, toads, insects, squirrels and other animals. Below you is a low wet area with many wetland plants. This is where Four Mile Creek and an intermittent stream meet to flow as one into the Muskegon River. The low puddled areas formed in the spring in the wetland area make good breeding places for frogs and toads. Listen for the beep, beep of the little spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer crucifer). You may also hear the trilling of the male American toad (Bufo americanus americanus) or the deep throated call of male green frogs (Rana clamitans melanota) as they try to attract the females to this breeding area. Blue jays, flickers, orioles, cardinals, chickadees, as well as other birds may be heard at all times of the year. As you continue down the trail and stairway, be careful especially when they are wet with dew or other forms of precipitation.
10. At the bottom of the steps, you may take the short spur to the right on an old roadway to see the proposed prairie area and then return.
11. Have you noticed a change in the temperature and humidity as you walk in the wetland area and approach Four Mile Creek? You should also be aware of distinct changes in the vegetation. Some of the surrounding plants may be also found in dry areas, but many are only obligate wetland species. Near the path are blackberries (Rubus spp.) and horsetail(Equisetum). Do you see the miniature “Christmas trees” about 10 centimeters tall to the right of the trail? These are not pine trees at all, but Lycopodium – common name is clubmoss, but it is not a moss either! These are simple plants more closely related to ferns than flowering plants. Do not pick these plants even though they have been used for decorative purposes; they are now protected in Michigan. Maturing in about 25 years, a clubmoss plant may only become eight inches tall! Another plant in this area is Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum). Its red berry-like fruit form under the hood of its leaf during the summer. Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) grows along the trail here as a small shrub. Look for the small dots on its bark and its early spring yellow flowers. Try rubbing and smelling a small piece of its bark; most people find the smell very pleasant and spicy.
12. Four Mile Creek begins near Sheridan Road, is about three miles long with its watershed as mostly residential land use with some industry. The immediate habitat supports many wetland plants such as skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) and cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea). The creek at this place is quite clear and shallow. There is, however, evidence of disturbance (fresh sand load on the bottom of the creek) due to scouring and erosion.
In the spring, skunk cabbage is one of the first flowers to appear, sometimes even before the snow is gone. If you smell the flower or its large leaves, you will soon know how the plant received its common name. The cinnamon fern is an interesting fern since it bears separate sterile and fertile fronds. The central portion or heart of all Osmunda spp. is tender, crisp and edible, tasting much like raw cabbage. It is easily obtained by pulling up a clump of half developed fronds. Do NOT try this delicacy since pulling up the clump of fronds will destroy the whole plant and there are other similar looking ferns that may cause gastric illnesses.
Do another soil probe digging to observe the wetland soils. How does its smell, texture, and color compare to the upland soil? Two types of wetland soil types exist in this floodplain area: Saranac loam and Tawas/Carlisle mucks. Both of these soil types are very deep and poorly drained organic soils.
In early May, this area is also covered with large patches of mayapple or mandrake (Podophyllum peltatum). The mayapple bears an unpleasant smelling white flower in the fork between the pair of large umbrella shaped leaves. The mature edible fruit of this plant is a fleshy, yellowish, egg-shaped, many seeded “apple” about two inches long. Some people find it a pleasant food item but beware it may give intestinal illness if it is not ripe. The root has been used medicinally for many years, but may also cause gastric illnesses. Other small plants are Canada mayflower or false lily of the valley (Maianthemum canadense) and goldthread (Coptis trifolia) giving the appearance of a miniature forest. Goldthread gets its name from its orange-colored roots and is a small evergreen plant with three-lobed leaves. Its tiny star-shaped flower appears in early spring.
As you cross the bridge, pause to look into the water. You may see frogs, tadpoles, fish, or water striders. Do you see little twigs moving on the bottom of the creek? These are probably the larva of caddis flies which build homes of twigs, sand and other available materials in which they live until they mature. Water striders are insects that skim over the surface of the water. You may see a few small fish in the pools. Growing on the logs near the stream are mosses and liverworts which are very simple plants with no true roots or stems.
“When my path crosses a stream, I wade over the stream with my bare feet.”
13. Do you see the two small plants that form red berries in the autumn? Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) is larger than the creeping partridgeberry (Mitchella repens). Wintergreen is a low creeping evergreen shrub and makes up much of the ground cover in this area. It is usually abundant in rich coniferous woods and is a good indicator of the fact that soil conditions at the present time are not much different than when white pine was the dominant tree in the area. Partridgeberry is also a low trailing plant with paired fragrant flowers developing into small red fruits if they are not eaten by animals.
14. As you climb the stairway, notice that you are moving into another type of habitat. Red maple or swamp maple (Acer rubrum) and witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) dominate the slope with a smaller percentage of white pine and oaks. The soil is becoming drier as you climb and the bracken fern has become common again. Rest for a moment at the bench and admire the lovely view. This is a wonderful place to reflect on what you have seen and heard. In the spring, scarlet tanagers, cedar waxwings, myrtle warblers, song sparrows, and brown thrashers are often heard. All through the year, you may hear or catch a glimpse of a tufted titmouse, a nuthatch, or a bluejay. A short Arbutus trail loop joins the trail at the top of the stairway if you so desire an additional ½ mile of hiking. Trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) is found in many places along the loop trail and the plant blooms fragrant pink-tinged white flowers in the spring time.
15. Overlook Four Mile Creek and its meandering curves. Early in the spring, marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) will be blooming a bright yellow along the water’s edge. Listen for the frogs and observe how the stream meanders through its floodplain area. Along the trail you may find a few of the following: Hepatica, Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum pubescens), sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis), and lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis). Hepatica plants have three-lobed leaves; hence, its Latin name refers to its similarity to our liver. Their flowers may be white, pink or blue and are among the first to bloom in the spring. The flowers of the true Solomon’s seal look like tiny whitish green bells growing under its stalk which later mature into small fruits.
16. Witch-hazel arches over the trail and blooms in the autumn. If you are out for a walk in October or November, look for its yellow narrow leaved flowers along its branches. Little star flowers (Trientalis borealis) bloom white “stars” in the spring. Along the trail in the autumn, look for some coral-shaped fungi (Clavaria) that are either bright reddish orange or tan. If the fungi are greenish or purplish, it may be one of the many variaties of Russula. Fungi are NOT plants and cannot produce their own food as plants, but instead must obtain carbohydrates by decomposing organic substances with their mycelia. Also in this area, look for a small plant that has two triers of whorled leaves. Its name is Indian cucumber root (Medeola virginiana).
“…sweet wind did gently kiss the trees and they did make no noise.”
17. If you are hiking in the spring, what is the name of the plant with the large umbrella-like leaves on the wetland side of the trail? The mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum). Look along the edge of the creek. Do you notice some overturned trees that fell during some powerful straight line winds? This disturbed site is now a new microhabitat for organisms. Look up in the large trees—perhaps you will see a large bundle of leaves near the top of one. This may be either an old fox or gray squirrel nest.
18. Other ferns that may be found in the wetland area besides cinnamon fern are interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana), royal fern (Osmunda regalis var. spectabilis), and sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis). Many of the ferns can become at least three feet tall. Beware of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) along the trail, especially along the creekside. Poison ivy is three leaved and slightly lobed and can be differentiated with other leaves of three, such as the blackberry – in that that blackberry has much more jagged or toothed edges on its leaves. To the left and before crossing the bridge, you may see clubmoss, skunk cabbage, elderberry, and Trillium.
“The face and character of our country are determined by what we do with our resources.”
19. In the very moist microhabitat along the creek, a liverwort (Marchantia) grows and looks like a green flat leaf-like plant. Liverworts usually grow in the wet habitats. Do you see the ferns, witch-hazel, and maples? Ducks, muskrats, and raccoons have been seen in or near the creek. Do you see any tracks in the sand along the creek?
20. Red maples abound and so does poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) near the current access road ahead. Behind you is an old roadbed between the creek and the upland habitat. This area had been cut over, bulldozed and burned during the early 1960s when the college was built. Assuming disturbance will not continue, this is an excellent chance to observe natural succession. This is nature’s process of change. Such sun tolerant plants as chickweed, goldernrod, Canada thistle, dandelions were common in the 1970s, but as the habitat became less suited to them and more suited to shade-tolerant plants, shade tolerant plants such as ferns slowly replace the sun-tolerant plants. Animals associated with the succession of plants will also change. The Eastern mole (Scalopus aquaticus) has been seen and some years ago were live trapped along the banks of the old road bed. This mole, with broad feet and sharp claws is well adapted to capturing insects in the ground. At times, the Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) may be seen as you approach the upland area.
If you want to take the shortcut to the beginning of the trail continue on the dirt trail on the left. Or proceed to the right on the current path toward the college building and turn left on the access road to go to the parking lot. We hope you have enjoyed your walk and will return for another visit!
“It is our task in our time and in our generation, to hand down undiminished to those who come after us, as was handed down to us by those who went before, the natural wealth and beauty which is ours.”
John F. Kennedy