9 things to know about Oakland County's lakes

Start counting the lakes in Oakland County, and you’ll quickly run out of fingers and toes. In fact, you’ll need hundreds (if not thousands) of digits to get the job done.

That’s because the county is home to more lakes than any other county in Michigan. Exactly how many lakes dot the landscape depends on who you ask.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources claims Oakland County has 358 lakes, while the website Images of Michigan, quoting the 1912 book History of Oakland County Michigan by Thaddeus DeWitt Seeley, counts 450. Oakland County Parks says the number is 1,468.

Whatever the number, there’s a lot to know about these lakes.

Here are nine historical and cultural notes about Oakland County’s lakes, however many there are.

1. Oakland County's lakes are a gift from the ice age

“The lakes are the result of the de-glaciation of this region about 17,000 years ago,” explains John Zawiskie, curator of earth and life sciences at Cranbrook Institute of Science in Bloomfield Hills. “The lakes had their origin during this period when the ice (from Earth's last ice age) was melting.”

An ice-walled valley, running northeast to southwest, formed between two melting ice lobes across what is now Oakland County. Huge volumes of meltwaters flowed off these glaciers, carrying with them massive quantities of sand and gravel.

“Sand and gravel piled up against the ice walls and left a high ridge down the center of the valley called an Interlobate Belt,” Zawiskie says. This belt (and thousands of lakes associated with it) extends all the way through Washtenaw and Lenawee counties to Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Interlobate high elevation area of Oakland County shown in brown shades. This area was formed as glaciers melted and is dotted with thousands of kettle lakes. Photo courtesy John Zawiskie, Cranbrook Institute of Science.

As the ice melted, chunks of it broke off and became buried in the sandy plains that extend across the county, creating lakes like Cass Lake, Orchard Lake, and Union Lake.

Oakland County is the headwaters of six watersheds.Water draining from these lakes and associated wetlands in the highlands of Oakland County formed the modern-day headwaters of six river systems and watersheds, including the Clinton, Huron, Shiawassee, Rouge and Belle rivers.

“Many of the lakes were blocks of ice that were separated and buried, and when melted formed 'kettle lakes,'” Zawiskie says.

Where there are lakes and wetlands, the remains of ice-age era wildlife like mammoths and mastodons can often be found.

There are over 300 mastodons recovered from Michigan and 17 from Oakland County. You can look at maps and predict where they will be found by people excavating on their property, working on their farms, or digging near small lakes,” says Zawiskie.

Pontiac Lake and Cass Lake are examples of kettle lakes. Photo courtesy Michigan State University,

2. Native people first knew the beauty of Oakland's lakes

Historical records from the early 1800s suggest the lakes drew native American populations, presumably for their rich stores of fish and birds.

The Potawatomi maintained a seasonal village in the northwest shore of Walled Lake as late as the 1820s, according to author Charles Martinez in his 2004 book Song of the Heron: Reflections on the History of West Bloomfield.

Rendering of Potawatomi Village near Battle Creek.

An 1817 survey of the area, carried out by Sam Carpenter, Jr., and contracted by Edward Tiffin, then U.S. Surveyor General, records “Indian huts” at Commerce Road and Indian Trail on the northeast shore of Orchard Lake, as well as a path which crossed what is now Lone Pine Road west of Middlebelt, according to Martinez.

3. Oakland County's lakes were once the “up north” to Detroiters (and for some, they still are)

At the turn of the twentieth century, city dwellers in Detroit and Pontiac flocked north on the Detroit United Electric Railway and the Grand Trunk lines to lakes in Sylvan Lake, Orchard Lake, Lake Orion and others, according to Seeley’s History of Oakland County.

Beginning in 1874, visitors could ride excursions into Lake Orion on a steamer called Little Dick. Much of the lakefront property was purchased in 1899 by Lake Orion Assembly Resort and taken over in 1910 by Lake Orion Summer Homes Company, which offered small cottage rental for those who preferred seclusion.

Remnants of these cottages can still be found along Oakland County's lake shorelines today. Many have been converted to full-time dwellings while others recall another time.

When a longed-for cottage up north never became a reality, Barb and Paul Richards recognized they could have everything they desired in a lakefront home right here in Oakland County. They moved from Bloomfield Hills to a home on Wing Lake in December 2011.

“We definitely feel like we are on vacation every day,” says Barb Richards, a former nurse and mother to two grown children. “It lowers your blood pressure with nature, boating, the swans and fish. We have a western exposure and beautiful sunsets.”

Summer evenings mean relaxed dinners on the pontoon as they circle the lake, and winters bring ice fishing, skating and cross-country skiing.

“We had talked about retiring up north, but we never wanted to have two properties to take care of,” says Barb Richards, who has been married to Paul for 34 years.

“Now, this is where we want to be. We do love it.”

4. Lakes are for the birds

Fall migration season means Oakland County’s lakes welcome a variety of duck, geese and swan species as they pass through to their winter homes, according to Holly Vaughn Joswick, wildlife outreach technician with the Michigan DNR in Detroit.

“Over 30 waterfowl species are regularly found in Michigan, and all of these species have been recorded in Oakland County. Trumpeter Swans, a threatened species in Michigan, were reported this spring in Independence Township,” Joswick says.

Fish-eating Osprey, once close to extinction, are again common in Oakland County.

“Today, Osprey can be found nesting at Kensington Metropark, Proud Lake State Recreation Area, Pontiac Lake State Recreation Area and several other sites in the county. The large size and number of lakes in Oakland County offer great hunting grounds for these majestic birds,” she says.

Kensington Metropark. Photo by Marissa Gawel.

Joswick advises being mindful while boating or driving on lakes to protect waterfowl.

“Give wildlife a wide berth as you travel around lakes on your motorboats, jet skis and other watercraft,” Joswick says. On roads, watch for crossing geese, frogs, ducks and turtles. And don’t feed the birds!

5. Lakes spur industry... and connect generations

Brothers Nelson and Jeremiah Clark arrived in Clarkston in 1831 from Detroit and purchased an existing saw mill, to which they added a gristmill and a flour mill, all powered by water from the Clinton River.

“Our lakes drew people here for fresh water, and the mill power to grind flour and mill logs,”  according to Toni Smith, director of the Clarkston Heritage Museum.

The entrepreneur of the two brothers, Nelson Clark, set up what was likely the state’s first fish hatchery, says Smith.

The mill set the stage for the location to eventually become one of Henry Ford's Village Industries. The Village Industries were an attempt by the auto magnate to establish small plants in rural villages to produce car components within train access of the large assembly plants. Most of the industries were situated along waterways and powered by hydroelectricity. A small plant at Clarkston manufactured drill bushings, straps and seat covers for Ford, employing about 40 men for several years in the 1940s.

More than a century later, Clark’s great-great-great grandnephew, Bart Clark, whose career as commanding officer with the U.S. Navy took him to New England, California, Virginia, even Hawaii, retired in Independence Township. He no longer owns a sailboat, but Clark appreciates that his roots lie deep the lakes in Clarkston.

“Clarkston is a warm community, a really good place to live,” he says.

6. Lakes boost property values

To put a residential and business dollar value on the lakes, Oakland County conducted two economic studies between 2007 and 2009.

“Folks know there is a dollar premium on lakefront homes, and this was a first attempt to put an economic figure on that,” says Ryan Dividock, senior planner with Economic Development & Community Affairs at Oakland County.

The studies showed that Oakland County's lakes add more than $1 billion in value to Oakland County’s residential properties.

The average lakefront home, adjusted for size and other variables, is valued at more than $55,000 than another home located more than 150 meters away, according to pre-recession sales data. A second study showed that water-based recreation generates about $200 million annually in the county.

Lakefront residential property in White Lake. Photo via michiganlakerealestatehomes.com

7. Lakes are managed by the people who live on them

Mike West has been living on and caring for Upper Long Lake in Bloomfield for a quarter century. An avid boater and member of the Upper Long Lake Management Committee, West is passionate about quelling invasive plant species to improve the health of the all-sports lake.

“One of the biggest threat to Oakland County lakes is phragmites. We had a patch appear in our lake and its growth was explosive,” he says.

He researched methods to control the invasive plant, consulted experts at the College of William and Mary, and formed a plan that involved mechanical, rather than chemical, removal.

“Now it’s all restored back to natural plants. You can hear frogs and see more amphibians and reptiles. It’s been seven years now, and I can say comfortably it’s under control. I like to inform other concerned lake people about this alternative.”

Addressing lake and watershed health issues is an important part of the work of a lake association or lake management board, which is a collective of local government and resident stakeholders who work collaboratively to monitor such things as water bacteria and invasive aquatic species and plants. A lake association may also educate homeowners about their roles and responsibilities in caring for the lake.  

Unfortunately, lake associations are often formed reactively, in response to critical need, according to Dick Morey, president of the Michigan Lake & Stream Associations, a support and resource organization for individual lake associations.

Morey's organization works in tandem with the Michigan Waterfront Alliance to lobby at the state level on behalf of lake stakeholders.

“Unless you have active people who realize the value of a lake association, most of the time it is born from a cause, like sewers going in along the lake or invasive species that have taken over,” Morey says. “The state of Michigan doesn’t have the money to fund treatment of the lakes, so we have to do that ourselves. It’s a grassroots effort of getting a petition signed, then getting it approved through the municipality and getting a special tax assessment established so the money can be used to manage the lake.”

The MLSA is focused on attracting Oakland County lake associations to become members, attend annual conferences and learn more about effective lake management.

Lake associations also get support and expertise from the Michigan Chapter of the North American Lake Management Society and the Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner, which provides information about how to form a lake improvement board for public and private inland lakes.

8. Shorelines are critical to lake health

“We love that people have many different uses for the lakes. Many times not as much attention is paid to the interesting set of plants and animals living along the shoreline. They are habitats for fish to hide, spawn and feed,” says Bindu Bhakta, natural resources extension educator at Michigan State University Extension.

An Environmental Protection Agency inland lake study conducted on 50 Michigan lakes—two of which were in Oakland County-- determined that the number one stressor to these bodies of water was the destruction of shoreline habitat, followed by excess nutrient input, largely from fertilizer use, according to Bhakta.

Resource-preserving ordinances and practices exist for some lakes, but not for all.

“That makes it challenging for people to try to do the right thing because there are not always ordinances to protect the shoreline,” says Bhakta.

The Michigan Clean Water Corps (MiCorps) collects and shares water quality data to assist in protection efforts, and offers a way for volunteers to learn more about their lakes, says Bhakta.

“It’s very volunteer-driven, and there are sets of parameters for collecting samples," she says. "Someone from the state program can and will come out to provide an opportunity to get some one-on-one training, and it’s a good way to get to know people on your lake.”

9. A judge sets many of Oakland County's lake levels

By law, 54 of Oakland County’s lakes in the river basins of the Clinton, Huron, Rouge, Shiawassee and Flint Rivers have water levels which are monitored and maintained by court order to provide flood control, maximize recreation and protect property values. Among these are Cass Lake, Long Lake, Orchard Lake, Pontiac Lake and White Lake, and others.

Lake level control structure. Photo courtesy Michigan Sea Grant.
Because these lakes are the headwaters of rivers like the Clinton River, which connects to 21 separate dammed lakes, artificial maintenance of lake levels creates an environmental challenge. When the levels of these lakes are adjusted, it impacts the wildlife habitat and recreational capabilities of rivers. Simply put, what is deemed right for the lakes isn’t necessarily right for the river. 

A 2013 Michigan Sea Grant study assessed the impact on both river and lake stakeholders when lake levels are managed to produce a more natural flow regime. The report found that court-ordered controlled lake levels harm the health of the watershed and that small changes to the current management practice would improve the overall health of the lakes and rivers.

The report further found that management changes would not be damaging to the property or individuals living on the lakes and that recreation along the river would be positively affected by such management changes.

According to Michigan Sea Grant's website, the Water Resource Commissioner is using the information to test new water management strategies in select lakes.
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