A Wet Prairie Restoration Mystery: The Case of the Missing Creek…

The Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail surrounded by a tree-covered rim of soil, spoils of historical sand and gravel mining.
Text and photos by Cam Mannino

Yes, I’m returning to the Wet Prairie again even though we visited that special habitat in October. The reason is that another amazing restoration effort has been going on there since late November. It’s revealed something I’d heard about but never actually seen – the original, winding bed of Paint Creek that disappeared about 100 years ago.

A Quick Trip Back to the 1870’s

In 1871, the Detroit and Bay City Railroad Company (which later became Michigan Central Railroad) began work on a railroad line between these two cities with a flag station in the village of Goodison. This line carried both passengers and freight, including farm produce and other products back and forth from Detroit. According to former Parks Commissioner, Colleen Barkham, some time around 1920, a local entrepreneur, Mr. Frier, bought the land that is now the Wet Prairie and other areas along the tracks and began mining sand to ship to industries in the big city.

1963 aerial image with the old route of Paint Creek (blue) and one of the rail spurs for sand and gravel mining (yellow) highlighted. The current restoration area is outlined in red. The core wet prairie habitat is labeled in green text. Image a screenshot from the Oakland County Property Gateway (https://gis.oakgov.com/PropertyGateway/Home.mvc).

He called his company Goodison Sand and Gravel, and what made shipping sand feasible then was the handy availability of the train. Colleen, co-chair of the Oakland Township Historical Society, generously shared a photo of the operation from the Society’s archives.

The Goodison Sand and Gravel company loading a freight car with sand somewhere along what is now the Paint Creek Trail, c. 1920. Photo provided from the Oakland Township Historical Society archives

You can see how it worked – the sand coming down the chute from the land above right onto a freight car on the railroad line! Now I had an answer to the first part of the Wet Prairie mystery: Why is the Wet Prairie encircled by a rim of treed hummocks? (See the top photo in the blog.) Apparently, the land in the center of the current Wet Prairie was skimmed off to get at the sand, leaving a bulging rim of soil around the site. Wow. Quite a dramatic change of habitat, eh? Perhaps that explains why the mineral-rich water table that feeds the Wet Prairie’s unusual autumn flowers is so near the surface. The soil above the water table was removed about a hundred years ago!

An Earlier Dramatic Change in the 1870’s

Paint Creek’s current stream bed along the Paint Creek Trail

But there’s more! Back in the late 1800’s, when the railroad track was being laid, a problem arose with Paint Creek which looped and switch-backed across this section of the railroad’s property. No problem, said the engineers of the time; we’ll just move the creek! And that’s exactly what they did. That’s why today Paint Creek runs in a such a neat straight line along big sections of the trail. The narrow bed created for the creek has probably deepened over the years, since the creek now has only a small flood plain to stretch out in after heavy rains or snow melt. So 50 years or so after the railroad’s decision to move Paint Creek, Goodison Sand and Gravel reaped the benefit from an easy means of transporting their sand by rail.

So, where did Paint Creek run before it was moved?

When I learned of the changed path of Paint Creek several years ago, it occurred to me to wonder what happened to the old bed of Paint Creek. Our stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, knew the answer but couldn’t show me; the original stream bed was buried in a monumental tangle of invasive shrubs and vines. But no longer. Ben and his stewardship crew has taken on the task this fall and winter of removing the invasive undergrowth that covered the forest floor where Paint Creek once meandered across a moist forest of Bur Oaks (Quercus macrocarpa). Let me show you the miracle that the crew is performing just north of the Wet Prairie.

Some members of the stewardship crew taking a break from clearing the forest floor west of the trail. From L-R: Grant VanderLaan, Dean Johnson , Jon Reed, Tylor Roberts, and Ben VanderWeide.

Since the 1920’s when the sand was hauled away, the native wildflowers that bloomed on the Wet Prairie had been bathed in sunlight. But over the years, trees began to spread from the forest, providing too much shade for sun-loving species. So restoration required removing some trees that encroached on the Wet Prairie’s sunny expanse. This fall, the stewardship team began an ambitious and arduous effort to clear away that thick layer of aggressive and invasive shrubs beneath the canopy in the woods north of the Wet Prairie. Here’s the type of wild tangles that confronted them – a jungle of privet, common buckthorn, glossy buckthorn, autumn olive, multiflora rose, and oriental bittersweet.

The dense tangle of shrubs and vines that covered the area north of the Wet Prairie and along the Paint Creek Trail

And look what they accomplished just along the edge of the trail!

The area north of the Wet Prairie near the Paint Creek trail cleared of invasive underbrush after restoration began.

What follows that effort is now weeks of hard slogging to remove invasive shrubs deeper into the woods. Because of the moist soil in the woods, small trees, shrubs and vines must be removed without large machinery and then piled carefully into high stacks in clear areas where they can be burned late this winter when the woody material has dried.

A pile of invasive shrubs and vines cut and stacked in preparation for burning .

That work has already begun to unveil the original wandering path of Paint Creek. In December, I finally got a chance to see where the creek once ran. The crew has spent weeks clearing the banks of the former stream bed. Water fills its ancient path through the woods, but not running water. Rising ground water, snow melt and rainfall settle in the old bed, so it’s clear where the creek used to flow.

A section of the original path of Paint Creek winding through the forest

What an amazing sight! I was looking at the remains of the path nature chose for Paint Creek until about 150 years ago! Since the photo above was taken on December 23, a huge amount of work before and after the holiday break made impressive progress. Look below at the piles of vines and shrubs removed and stacked as of Friday, January 8.

Piles of invasive plants will be burned once the woody material dries

A lot of work remains to be done to restore this special, fragile space – more cutting and removal. As shrubs are removed, the crew carefully dabs each trunk with a stained herbicide to prevent it from re-sprouting.

Stumps of invasive shrubs are dabbed with a sponge containing a stained treatment which will keep them from re-sprouting.

Then Ben will wait to see which native plants emerge after the removal of the invasive shrubs that have smothered them for all these years, benefiting now from more sun, more rain or simply more space to grow and propagate. Ben tells me that while pulling garlic mustard in the spring, he saw a large patch of delicate Starry False Solomon Seal (Maianthemum stellatum) beyond the area currently cleared, some Yellow Lady Slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum) and huge spreads of Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) in the wet areas. I hope I’ll be able to visit here with him in the spring or summer to see what else bursts forth after the restoration!

Ben showed me an old tip-up where a huge two-trunked Bur Oak had fallen in two directions – one into the forest and the other across the old creek bed, making a bridge of sorts to an island once surrounded by flowing water in the original Paint Creek channel. The tip-up left a deep hole where the roots were ripped out. Ben tells me that tip-ups can create two habitats – a watery one in the hole below, and a green one above with mosses, ferns, grasses or shrubs eventually growing over the root ball. He’s seen forested wetlands in which tree trunks had decomposed completely, leaving only a hollow in the earth beneath a mossy hillock to indicate the presence of an ancient tip-up.

In early winter the only green I could spot in this woods were stretches of Scouring Rush (Equisetum hyemale), a kind of horsetail with enough silica in it to make it useful long ago as a scrubbing tool. The bright orange disk of a crustose lichen (a composite organism of algae and fungi) caught my eye in winter’s gray light as well as a log sporting a nice collection of Turkey Tail mushrooms (Trametes versicolor). Ben pointed out the fertile fronds of Ostrich Ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) which carry the spores which may germinate to grow new ostrich ferns.

Ben also introduced me to the largest Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) that I’ve ever seen. Cottonwoods can be aggressive trees, spreading like crazy with multiple seeds attached to cottony strands. So they’re not always welcome in areas where Ben is trying to restore an area’s natural diversity. This tree though was impressive. According to Wikipedia, cottonwoods grow quickly to 65 -195 feet, but in most habitats live only 70-100 years, not long in the world of trees. Ben can’t help admiring this one, so it will be left to prosper. Here’s my husband Reg standing next to it to give you a sense of its girth and height.

My husband Reg testing out the girth of a large Cottonwood with one of its sizable offspring in the distance on the right.

A Janus Moment: Imagining the Past and the Future at the Same Time

A section of Paint Creek’s former stream bed

Janus is the Roman god after which January is thought to have been named. He is usually depicted with a double face looking back to the past and forward to the future. How appropriate, then, that this January, during a transitional time at the Wet Prairie, I was lucky enough to imitate him. Standing at the edge of Paint Creek’s original stream bed, camera in hand, I happily immersed myself in imagining the past: the glint of the water wending its way through some large, widely dispersed Bur Oaks with wetland flowers and ancient sedges painting the dappled shade with color. I could picture native Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis), their stippled scales flashing, as they navigated their slender bodies around the island in the creek. Iridescent Ebony Jewelwing damsel flies (Calopteryx maculata) may have darted above the surface, delicately landing like dancers on surrounding greenery. I wondered about the indigenous people who may have picked their muddy way among these trees and what they might have noticed and enjoyed along the creek.

Today as the stewardship crew gradually clears away the smothering snarl of invasive shrubs, it feels to me as if the oaks and the huge cottonwood can breathe more easily, bathed in more sun and rain. I let my thoughts turn to the spring, when the Lady Slippers and that patch of Starry Solomon Seal bloom again unhindered by overhanging vines and shrubs. And I can’t help hoping that seeds that have waited for decades will wake in the warming earth once more and begin their cycle of growth. Today Paint Creek may be bustling its way beyond the busy trail to the east, but its ancient bed will still gather water from the sky and earth when it can. Moistening its surroundings, it will now have a chance to once again nurture the diverse community of native plants that shared its habitat for centuries. What a gift that will be to all the native grasses, sedges, wildflowers and wildlife – and us as well! And what a pleasure to have the “Mystery of the Missing Creek” solved during this ambitious restoration project.

One thought on “A Wet Prairie Restoration Mystery: The Case of the Missing Creek…

  1. Pingback: Fire on the Snow: A Quick Stewardship Update | Natural Areas Notebook

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