ONE THING I’VE NOTICED ABOUT US CITY DWELLERS who try to lead outdoorsy lives is that not every foray into the outdoors has to be wonderful if you go often enough. A barrage of bullets deafening you from a shooting range 200 yards away doesn’t have to create a major disappointment if you hiked last week or know you will next. Things seem to even out when you stick with them. In the same vein, a single long hike will contain many moments of hassle or boredom or even pain, but if you pay attention, probably there’s a similar number of “Wow!” and “I love this. I just LOVE this” moments.
I like guidebooks. I like using them to dream and plan, when I’m feeling stifled in this city and feel like life is one big dense mistake. I like marking off hikes like badges of honor. I like keeping track of them because we used to sometimes find ourselves walking a “new” trail with a rising sense of déjà vu, then some unforgettable landmark, like an old chimney, popped up around some bend. I like having evidence of what I’ve done, and that I’m getting to know my region better. I like guidebooks the way I like gear, although I buy much less of that. Gear and guidebooks are signs of a life built around possibilities.
So, my new copy of The Best Hikes Near Detroit & Ann Arbor led us on a recent Sunday to a place southwest of Metro Airport called Crosswinds Marsh. The reason for the name is obvious as soon as you step out of your car and try to remain upright: You brace yourself, and gaze about at flatness, ponds, boardwalks, some welcome port-a-potties. No matter what Jeff Goldblum’s character said in The Big Chill, to the female of the species, the outdoors is not one big bathroom.
The guidebook’s map showed two big loops making a figure 8, with small loops in the center, easy to remember, impossible to get lost in, or so we assumed. We forgot about an equestrian trail shown circling the perimeter, but it didn’t seem like it could cause any problems anyway. So off we went, sans book. And were sorry in a pretty short time. Unexpected intersections were everywhere. Trails were named, but with no accompanying maps or even signs back to parking, the names were useless.
The afternoon was overcast, so with no sun to help us, often with houses in sight, with airplanes constantly overheard (in other words, not a wilderness) we got out compasses and finally, alas, Phil’s phone. If there was a prize for being as far as possible from where we thought we were, we’d have won.
Surprisingly, although it seemed to take only maybe 30 minutes, it ended up being two hours of nonstop walking, through third-growth forest, walls of invasive phragmites, glimpses of cornfields. It wasn’t necessarily a bust; we did see much beaver activity (lots of downed trees, two dams, and channels here and there). We saw waterfowl and an eagle’s nest in the distance that we never could manage to reach. But we were plagued by a sense of, well, falseness. Something didn’t exactly feel right in this place. Odd dumps of old, torn-up pavement, ponds with bottoms too even: There was something we couldn’t put our fingers on.
UNTIL WE GOT HOME and I hit the googles. In 1979, Michigan passed the Geomare-Anderson Wetlands Protection Act. This prohibits any destruction of wetlands unless 1.5 acres of new wetland is constructed for every acre destroyed. As all of Southeast Michigan was once swamp, maybe creating a new wetland can be merely a matter of no longer continuing to drain a previous one.
In 1993, runways were expanded at Metro Airport. The land needed for the expansion was wetlands which, by law, would need replaced. According to mLive, Michigan has lost 4.2 million acres of wetlands, mostly before the Wetlands Protection Act was passed, with the rate of loss now much slowed (but still a problem). In fact, also according to mLive, our state did such a good job protecting our waters and the wetlands that naturally filter them that Obama’s 2015 Clean Water Rule (hotly debated elsewhere) made little difference here. From an mLive article of that year: “’Most of Michigan is not affected by the federal Clean Water rule because we’re already administering those programs under state law,’ said Kim Fish, assistant Water Resources Division chief for the Department of Environmental Quality.” Good for us. What was built at Metro Airport was called Crosswinds Runway Expansion. The replacement for what was destroyed there was named Crosswinds Marsh.
Humans can destroy or replace a wetland, but animals will decide if a new one is “real” or not. The purpose of Crosswinds Marsh has been fulfilled. If beavers and bald eagles find it acceptable, I certainly should, although that is neither here nor there. Two urbanites thinking that as a hike goes it’s not the be-all and end-all has no effect on the ecosystem or what thrives there.
Recently neighbor Dick Towell told me, in a discussion of the environment, “In the end, there’s really only one issue.” It doesn’t matter if human visitors think a wetland seems worth a revisit, just as it doesn’t matter if we prioritize other issues over land and water and air and then assume that they’re actually more important. We’re not the deciders we think we are, and that maybe should be a relief: To be part of everything, no less and no more important than a beaver dragging downed trees through phragmites.
Find for online about the building of Crosswinds Marsh.
Becky Hammond knits socks and makes oboe reeds in Ferndale, as she’s done since 1986. Socks are more fun, and probably more useful.