Monday, October 14, 2013

Holliday Nature Preserve - Tonquish Trail

To me, hiking means the landscapes out west, mostly.  I spent time when younger hiking in the Rockies: the San Juans, the Wasatch, the Uintas, and places like Rocky Mountain National Park, Glacier National Park, Coyote Gulch, the Grand Canyon, near Moab, with it's spectacular desert scenery, Big Bend National Park, etc.  I've had a big desire to go even further west and hike lots of Sierra Nevada locations, or in the North Cascades, or the Trinity Alps.

But I also spent time hiking in east Texas, in the Smokies, Hocking Hills, and other places more to the east, where although the views may not be nearly as expansive and dramatic, well, a walk in the woods is nice too.  In fact, given that reaching the western destinations that I aspire to is kinda a big deal most of the time, my day to day hiking, such as it is, is exactly that--a walk in the woods.  Luckily for me, there's a fair bit of trail right here in western suburban Detroit that I can access without too much trouble.  Yeah, I might have to cross some streets here and there while hiking, and I might have to hear traffic for a long stretch of the walk, but it still beats jogging along a sidewalk anyday.  The closest and most familiar to me of these destinations is the Lower Rouge River trail.  I can literally walk from my front porch to the western trailhead (or to feeder trails that join this mid-stream) in 10-15 minutes or so, and then spend time exploring this wide, gravel trail, and the more intimate, narrow and adventerous trails that sprout from it, many maintained by the MMBA--the Michican Mountain Biking Association.  I've also walked a bit in Maybury State Park up in Northville, not far from me as well.

What I hadn't ever really tried was the Holliday Nature Preserve in Westland.  This is perhaps a little odd, since I go to church in a building that literally abuts this park, and occasionally we see people using the back of our church parking lot as a trailhead.  Sure, I've occasionally wandered a bit into the woods from the church building, but I'd never really made any systemic attempt to hike or explore this area.  I almost did a few years ago, when I had to plan a Webelos hike, and thought that meeting at the church (our normal meeting place) and walking right back in the woods behind us would be the easiest approach.  I decided against it, because I didn't really want to be exploring trails that I didn't know with a bunch of 10-year olds, so I had them meet at my house and we did the Lower Rouge River trail systems, which I know quite well.  But I did discover a series of trailmaps of the nature preserve, and logged away a desire to hike them someday.  That day ended up being this last Friday.  I had to take the morning off to do some home repairs, but I decided that since I had vacation I still needed to burn before the end of the year, I'd just take the whole day off and spend the afternoon hiking.  As this link shows, the trails looked pretty straight-forward, and the notion of doing the entire Tonquish Trail, which starts somewhere in the middle of the Koppernick section--near where the church is, actually--and heads all the way to the Nankin Mills area up in Livonia, seemed like a fun afternoon adventure.  From the parking area at the bend in the road of Koppernick itself, I could swing eastward on the so-called Tulip trail, which would then bend back to the west and connect to the Tonquish trail, which more or less paralleled the Tonquish creek all the way up to Nankin Mills.  At least, according to the map.  *sigh*  One of the great lessons of this experience was to get some actual good, up-to-date trail info and not just trust what's on a map.  But I'm getting ahead of myself a bit.

Friday afternoon was perfect for hiking.  Following a week of prolonged sunshine and unseasonably warm weather, I was looking at afternoon temperatures of 70-75° F, firm ground, and not a cloud in the sky.  Perfect weather to be hiking in shady woodland.  I dropped my car off at Nankin Mills (I couldn't get the Hines Park parking area that I wanted to, because for some inexplicable reason, Hines Park was closed!  I parked up on Ann Arbor Trail where the segway rentals and the Nankin Mills building are located, though.)  Julie then drove me from there to Koppernick, where we entered a narrow, tunnel-like entrance to a small parking area.  I had with me my trusty hiking shoes, some regular cotton athletic socks, a pair of cargo shorts, and a nylon t-shirt (as well as a baseball cap, and sunglasses, which I didn't use.)  Some of this will become relevant later.  I also had with my my Camelbak full of two liters of water, and some bags of trail mix that Julie had picked up for free with a coupon from Krogers--although I wasn't really hungry, some snacks along the way sounded good.  And I had with me printouts of the big map as well as the four detailed maps of each section.

The hike started off well in the Koppernick section.  The trails were well maintained (although as there was some leaf-fall already, it was occasionally difficult to tell exactly where it was, since it started to blur into the ground cover a bit due to fallen leaves.)  There were regular trail markers telling me that I was still on the correct trail.  This first part of the hike was quite lovely, other than that it occasionally got extremely close to the back yards of some neighborhoods, including a trailer park.  Luckily, I had sprayed Off on before starting, because the woods were crawling with mosquitos.  I wasn't bothered the entire trip by any, however.

Before long, I finished the eastern section of the Tulip trail, and came to the connection with the Tonquish trail.  There was a trail marker that called it the Black Feather trail, but since the icon on my map matched the one on the marker (a black feather) I figured that wasn't a problem.  Oddly, however, there was another turnoff to a so-called Deer trail, and there was no indication of any such trail on my map.  I actually passed about three crossings to this Deer trail, as well as one to a Snake trail, none of which were labeled on my map.  As you can see from the detailed Koppernick section of the map, there are a lot of trails in the area, but few of them connect to the Tonquish (Black Feather) trail, so I was a little wary of this discrepancy between my map and what I was seeing on the ground, but even without much in the way of visible landmarks (a major handicap of forest walking vs. mountain hiking) I was confident in where I was, even if I wasn't always confidant in where my trail was.  This was especially true after I crossed the bridge marked low on the map and was on the south side of the creek, where there were no other trails.  However... there were no trails, of any kind in this area.  The Tonquish trail was clearly marked on the map, and finding the bridge hadn't been too difficult, but on the ground, there was no trail at all.  For this final part of the Koppernick section, I found myself bushwhacking through heavily overgrown woods.  My clothes--particularly my socks--were soon covered in literally hundreds of stickers and burrs, and I was soon covered with mud and scratches as well.  But, I found the Hix road crossing easily enough--exactly where it was supposed to be, so I knew I wasn't lost.  But the trail was.

Across Hix, the trail started back up again in the Newburgh section.  It was reasonably easy to follow, but extremely narrow, feeling more like a deer run than a hiking trail.  In a few spots, it was blocked by major deadfall that I had to find my way around.  In this section, I felt more confident in the trail's presence--mostly--but still felt like I was essentially bushwhacking.  I crossed the creek again at the marked bridge, and crossed Newburgh road, feeling like the experience had been much more adventurous than I had expected, rather than a more staid walk in the woods.

I wasn't sure what that brown line was on the map, but when I got there, it was clearly a grassy and overgrown remnant of a former road.  I followed that to its end, where, according to the map, there should have been two additional trails--the continuation of the Tonquish trail, and a smaller trail that was un-named.  Since both met up again at the same bridge crossing, I wasn't terribly concerned with which I took, but I only saw one on the ground at the end of the road, wherethere was what was once an old cement platform, now a spot full of litter, including the remnants of an old tent that someone had clearly camped in, probably within the last year or two.  The trail, again, felt more like a deer run than a hiking trail, and wishing that I'd worn long pants, waterproof hiking boots and brought a machete, I headed back into the woods again.

I almost missed the bridge marked on the map.  The approach to it was seriously overgrown, and in fact, technically the bridge was closed.  There were signs indicating that it shouldn't be used, and some aluminum barricades had been bolted to the steel framework.  It was obvious why it was closed, since every single one of the wooden planks was removed, leaving only the steel framework.  I crossed it anyway, since--well, that's where the trail was supposed to be.  According to my map, if I followed the trail on the south side of the creek, I'd soon find myself outside of the nature preserve entirely. 

However, if I thought that the trail was faint and hard to follow south of the creek, it was completely nonexistant north of the creek.  I dived into rushes and tall grasses for a while, but soon came to the inescapable conclusion that I wasn't on any kind of trail at all, and was in fact, simply trying to navigate my way through a bog by stepping on fallen logs instead of in twelve inch mud (yes, I had a few mis-steps.  So now, not only were my unprotected legs completely criss-crossed by a fine lattice of scratches and scrapes, and not only did I have hundreds of prickly seeds embedded deeply in my socks, but I had mud up above the level of my shoes.)

Finally, I had to admit defeat and accept that without at least some good wading or tall waterproof hunting boots, there was no way I was going to find a route through this section of the preserve.  Again; I wasn't lost--the preserve here was really narrow and I didn't have any way of really coming out of it without it being immediately obvious--there simply wasn't a trail here.  Up near the edge of the Newburgh section, where the Tonquish creek makes a sharp turn to the west, I climbed up a bank into the parking lot of a condo complex, and walked through it for a quarter mile or so until I found myself on Newburgh road. 

Despirited by this failure, I took the sidewalk along the road all the way up to Joy, where I turned again to the west.  Joy was worse for walking than Newburgh, since there is no sidewalk for much of the way, and cars were zipping past me with great frequency, but if you look at the Cowan/Central City section of the preserve, you'll see that there was another parking area and trailhead on Joy where I could rejoin the Tonquish trail.  I would have missed most of the Cowan section, but given that I couldn't figure out how to get to the Cowan section from the Newburgh section without crossing through territory that I simply wasn't equipped to cross through, I had to write off that section and hope for the best. 

For a while I was able to enjoy this next part of the walk (although my squelching shoes and now itchy socks were not exactly what I was anticipating) as well-marked and lovely section of trail followed the creek from this northern trailhead to the Wayne Road crossing.  I was impressed by how quickly after crossing under the trees the road noise from Joy Road, which had been considerable, simply disappeared.  However, at Wayne Road, I came across another issue.  The map clearly shows the trail crossing a bridge before the road crossing, and lo-and-behold, there was a pedestrian bridge on the trail below the Wayne Road bridge itself for traffic.  I dutifully crossed it.  While doing so, I noticed that there were a few guys--who I didn't look at closely, but who looked like either hobos, or folks who didn't want to be seen, sitting under the Wayne Road bridge drinking out of brown paper bags.  They gave me a funny look when they saw me, but hey--I was on a trail busy doing my thing, and live and let live, I suppose.  However, it quickly became apparent that the map was incorrect, and that the trail didn't cross the creek here after all, since it took me up to Wayne Road nearly at the Joy crossing again, so way too far north.  From the traffic bridge, I looked down on the west side of the creek and could see some kind of trail.  But it was a good 15-20 feet below me, and there didn't appear to be any way to reach it from this side.  Instead, I'd have to backtrack, re-cross the pedestrian bridge again, go under the traffic bridge, say hello to the hobos (and hope that they were hobos, and not something worse) and also hope that there was a way to cross the creek down there, so I could continue on the trail.

Now, if you're really in the wilderness and you have to do a stream or river crossing, or the trail is poorly marked, or whatever, that's both understandable and OK.  If you're in a suburban park and you're bushwhacking through thickly overgrown nettles, through sticky bogs, and past stereotypical hobos drinking something unidentifiable under a bridge, that's probably not what you were hoping for.  By now, thoroughly disgusted with the way the hike had turned out, I gave up on the Ellsworth section of the trail, and walked up to Ann Arbor Trail, which I followed to my car, which was parked exactly where the big gold star is on the map.  Once there, I took my shoes and socks off, and drove home.  My legs and shoes were immediately hosed off.  My socks, I ended up throwing away--I'd be picking prickly seeds out of them for weeks, if not months.  They were never going to really be useable again.

The Tonquish trail has the potential to be a nice, good five to five and a half mile hike (when combined with the sections that take you from the trail head to the actual Tonquish trail) that could be a great walk through the woods, equal to Maybury State Park or the Lower Rouge River trail, but the trail itself is in a state of complete and total disrepair and suffers from--apparently--having been largely abandoned by either the county or the city--whomever's supposed to maintain it.  Maybe theres an Eagle Project in the making here (more likely half a dozen, given the extent of work needed to reclaim that trail) and the hike could be doable again, but for now, avoid at all costs, unless you are equipped with high, waterproof hunting boots, thick pants and shirt, a machete, and the desire to really make your own way through a clogged and overgrown thicket of thick brush.  And if that's what you crave, why would you do that in Westland, of all places?

I could go back to the Koppernick section and hike some of the other trails, which were quite pleasant, and I could try to see what the other trails in the Cowan section are like, but the Newburgh section of trail is a complete loss, and the Tonquish trail itself is a disaster.

The attached map has been modified by me; I marked my route in red, with a few question marks where my exact position was a bit unclear.  I actually think I went a little further north than shown in the Newburgh section before bailing out and getting on the road, but not by much.

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