A trail that leads to a more sustainable future

June 3, 2024

Enjoy a scenic walk that highlights actions taken to improve the health of the river and wildlife populations.

EIC Natural Areas Manager Rick Simek by the north end of the Rouge River
Natural Areas Manager Rick Simek looks at the Rouge River from Kingsfisher Bluff. Photo/Sarah Tuxbury

Just steps away from campus, there’s an overlook that has wooded views and the soothing sounds of a flowing river.

Called the Kingfisher Bluff, UM-Dearborn’s Environmental Studies Area Manager Rick Simek says it is a place he goes to relax and reset. “For long weekends, people pack up and drive a few hours to go up north for what you can get right here,” he says, overlooking the Rouge River from the bluff point. “In fact, it was just downstream from here, in 2014, that I saw the first (documented) beaver in Dearborn for more than 130 years. Now there are a fair number of them in the river.”

trail map
The blue line shows the trail we took. It started at the EIC, which is outlined in red, and ended at Kingsfisher Bluff, which is marked by a star.

A walk from the Environmental Interpretive Center to Kingfisher Bluff and back to campus, via the Rouge River Gateway, takes about an hour, depending on your pace. There are benches at the spot, making it a nice place to sit in the sun and listen to water or enjoy a packed lunch. But that’s not all there is to see, Simek says.

“The walk there shows all kinds of conservation and restoration efforts — for the river, wildlife and for us,” he remarks.

Here are a few more things you may see if you take the north side of the Rouge Gateway trail, which is in the direction of Henry Ford College. We’ll check out the south side of the trail in July. View EIC and natural areas map.

Rick Simek stands near the insect hotel Block M
Rick Simek discusses who lives in each home. Photo/Sarah Tuxbury

The Block M insect hotel and pollinator garden

The Nessus sphinx moth gets a snack in the pollinator garden. Photo/Sarah Tuxbury
This nessus sphinx moth enjoys a tasty snack in the pollinator garden. Photo/Sarah Tuxbury

Welcome to the Bug House. Some of campus’ smallest victors live here: solitary bees, thread-waist wasps, pill bugs, millipedes and more. “This past April, hundreds of native Mason bees could be seen building their nests in the structure,” he says.

This 10-by-6-foot insect hotel was built in 2016 by EIC staff and students and 15 Ford Motor Company employees, almost all of whom were UM-Dearborn graduates, as a part of Ford’s community service-focused Accelerated Action Day.  Faculty member David Susko, then the EIC director, received a $4,000 grant to support the project.

The EIC team researched the types of homes different insects preferred and the sizes needed for the pollinators to safely grow into larvae and, ultimately, adults. Simek said that, in the last few years, a UM-Ann Arbor team came to UM-Dearborn to research the bee populations. They found dozens of bee species and other pollinators, including five species of bumblebee — and all are doing well. “The study focused on whether pollinators here and in urban spaces, such as vacant lots, are doing better than those found in agricultural areas. They are. One potential factor in that could be that these spaces don't have quite as much pesticide exposure,” Simek explains.

If bees aren’t your thing, the pollinator garden just past the Block M sign attracts butterflies, hummingbirds and exotic moths, like the nessus sphinx moth, with its native plantings that includes jewelweed, cardinal flower, spicebush, swamp milkweed and more. Just take a seat on the bench by the side of the pond and enjoy.

Community Organic Garden sign
Photo/Sarah Tuxbury

Community Organic Garden

Walking by the community garden sign, Simek comments that the 40-plus-year-old wooden rectangle was repainted a few years ago. He says the garden was started in 1970, but not in this location. First, it was where the CASL Building is now. Then, it was where the Campus Support Services Building stands today.

The current location dates back three decades. Simek remembers because he helped relocate the garden when he was hired in 1994. He says UM-Dearborn Environmental Studies student David Zenisek developed a wonderful design layout for the eventual garden plots. Zenisek, Class of 1996, went on to start a successful landscaping business, Castle Landscaping in Chelsea, Mich.

“And here we are in the garden — 30 years later. It’s thriving and all 50 plots are spoken for. You frequently see someone up here tending to their vegetables, fruits and flowers,” Simek says. “Best of all, they share their passion for gardening as well as organic gardening methods and practices. The experienced gardens share their knowledge with new gardeners.” For more information about the garden or to apply for a plot.

A bioswale in the Henry Ford college parking lot
Photo/Sarah Tuxbury

Henry Ford College parking lot

Yes, we are putting a parking lot on the list. This seemingly standard parking lot view is anything but. In an attempt to balance human wants and nature needs, creative efforts were put in place around 2005 to reduce the car-related chemicals that seeped into the river through rainwater runoff, Simek says.

Simek remembers when the bioswales — those tall native plant landscaped spaces in the parking lot — replaced pavement areas in an effort to slow and filter rainwater. As precipitation passes through the soil, pollutants such as oil from vehicles, road salts and fertilizers are filtered out. These changes have resulted in an annual reduction of 685 tons of sediment, 122 pounds of phosphorus and 253 pounds of nitrogen from reaching the Rouge River, according to this EIC naturalist interactive tour.

Simek says the efforts, which slowed heavy rainfall from rushing to the river, also helped slow erosion by reducing the river’s flow velocity, which is the speed of the water. “Up until the mid-2000s, we had magnificent 200-year-old oak trees toppling into the river because the soil around the water was eroding so quickly. The crumbling ground was starting to creep toward the existing infrastructure too,” Simek says. “With these changes, and others, they’ve done a good job turning things around in a relatively short period of time. You might not see the impact just looking at a parking lot, but the plants and animals sure have experienced a change.”

Bridge at the Rouge River Gateway trail, north
Photo/Sarah Tuxbury

The northside bridge

There’s a red wooden bridge near campus that joins the gateway trail to the north, leading to Hines Drive and continuing to Northville. It connects the two-mile Rouge River greenway to the 17.5-mile Hines Park Trail. “Not only is it great for wildlife, it’s nice for us too. People bike and walk here now, but — until the trail was put in — this area was a bit tucked away,” Simek says. “Walking here is good for mental and physical health and a nice reminder of how busy the wildlife is around us. Compared to what I remember from the 1980s, the river is making a comeback. People can see and experience how sustainability efforts are making a big difference.”

Looking down from the bridge, there are wood duck families, beavers and blue-and-white Kingfisher birds. “The Kingfishers dig into the river’s exposed clay bank to create cavities for their nests,” he says. “You can see Kingfisher Bluff from here — that’s probably how it got its name.”

Speaking of Kingfisher Bluff, the pictured spot at the top of the article that Simek is enjoying, it was a $1.5 million project funded through grant money from the Clean Michigan Initiative and the Wayne County Rouge Program Office. The remediation project stabilized the river’s bank, restored the habitat and created an observation deck. “They really did a nice job. I see a better present and a healthier future when I stand here. This place is an oasis in so many ways.”

Reporter will feature a trail and the insights of UM-Dearborn’s EIC staff each month of the summer — the next one will run July 9. Read the May edition.

See something on your walk that you're curious about? Snap a photo and send it to EIC's Laura Mallard at [email protected] for answers and to have your finds possibly show up on EIC social media.

Upcoming walks

Birding by Ear and Beyond
June 8, 9 a.m., EIC. Get more information.
Focused on bird nests, Birding by Ear and Beyond is open to all people who are visually impaired, along with friends and family.

Nature Story Time
June 13, 4 p.m., EIC. Register for this program.
For this family event that’s best for children ages 7 and under, there’s music and bubbles, nature-themed books, crafts or activities — and a nature walk.

Nature Walks for Mental Health
June 19, 1:30 p.m.. EIC. Register for this program.
During this special Juneteenth event, you can relax, unwind and get outside, with brief guided meditations and 45-minute nature walks.

Story by Sarah Tuxbury.