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The Waterloo Recreation Area in Southeast Michigan has so many lakes, it's hard to pick a place to begin. Small Mill Lake is a natural starting point as it is overlooked by the Gerald E. Eddy Discovery Center, the main visitor center for the park. The lake itself is a former mill pond, spring-fed with one intermittent inlet, and is the headwaters of Mill Creek, one of the Huron River tributaries. A small water control structure at the outlet helps maintain water levels. The 163-acre lake is 24 feet deep at its deepest spot. There is a public boat ramp for small boat launching, but no swimming area. All fishing and boating regulations apply unless otherwise posted. Be aware that some areas are no-wake on many lakes within the recreation area.
The Gerald E. Eddy Discovery Center features exhibits on the geology and natural habitats of Waterloo State Recreation Area, both in pre-settler times and today. Another display shows fluted spear points used by the Paleo-Indian hunters and other cultural history artifacts. Like spokes from a wheel, seven trails originate from the Eddy Discovery Center to be used for hiking and cross-country skiing only: Old Field Trail -.8 mi; Lowland Trail -1.1 mi; Spring Pond trail -1 m; Bog trail -1.5 mi; Oak Woods trail -1.3 mi; Lakeview Trail -3.6 mi and Hickory Hills Trail -5.3 mi.
Waterloo Recreation Area, with over 20,000 acres, is the largest park in Lower Michigan. The park lies across the border of Jackson and Washtenaw Counties. On its northeast corner, it adjoins the Pinckney Recreation Area, and on the west, the Phyllis Haehnle Memorial Audubon Sanctuary. Although not all one contiguous property, most of the area is environmentally protected, and efforts are made to obtain additional parcels when they come available. Private properties and roads are interspersed with the State-controlled acreage. The recreation area contains several rare bogs and endangered plant life.
Although Mill Lake possesses the main interpretive center for the huge park, it is not the largest or most popular of the lakes included in the recreation area: Big Portage Lake, with 531 acres and a depth of 40 feet, holds an extremely popular swimming beach and four campground units with all amenities. The beach is open to those holding a State Parks pass (now an option to purchase with vehicle license plates for a small fee) and has a lifeguard on duty and a concession store open during the summer season. This lake is actually large enough for all types of boating, including sailing, tubing and water skiing. Many families from the surrounding urban areas reserve campsites here every summer and make it a family tradition to spend holiday week-ends here. The lake has a public boat launch for fishermen eager to pursue largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, bluegill, sunfish, catfish, northern pike and other species.
Sugarloaf Lake, with 205 acres also provides a campground, boat launch and offers small boat rentals. Other lakes in the park include:
Cassidy Lake -46 acres, 12' deep
Cavanaugh Lake -217 acres, 20' deep
Cedar Lake -76 acres, 27' deep
Clear Lake -137 acres, 34' deep
Crooked Lake -113 acres, 20' deep
Doyle Lake -18 acres, 14' deep
Green Lake -50 acres, 13' deep
Hankard Lake -7 acres, 8' deep
Little Portage Lake -174 acres, 21' deep
Long Lake -150 acres, 30' deep
Merkle Lake -94 acres, 12' deep
Mud lake -92 acres, 7' deep
Walsh Lake -15 acres, 21' deep
Welch Lake -106 acres, 20' deep
Winnewana Impoundment -approx 500 acres, depth unrecorded
A few ponds are likely missing from this list, because some ponds exist only during wet years. Several of the larger ones have public boat launches, and most provide the same species of fish. Winnewana Impoundment is a particularly productive fishing lake; a good amount of timber was left standing when the area was intentionally flooded.
No form of outdoor recreation is neglected near the Waterloo Recreation Area. There is an equestrian camping facility and several miles of horseback riding trails, bicycling paths, birding trails, fishing piers and rustic camp sites. It is possible to hike around the entire recreation area on marked trails. Hunting, ice fishing and snowmobiling are all popular in winter. Near the northern border of the recreation area, the restored Reilly farmstead forms the Waterloo Farm Museum, with intact farm buildings and demonstrations of early settlers' home-making activities such as candle-making. To the west of the area, the Phyllis Haehnle Memorial Audubon Sanctuary encompasses over 900 acres where sandhill cranes roost and feed. The sanctuary regularly schedules visitors from all over the world to observe these large fascinating birds in their natural habitat. The sandhill cranes are so numerous that they are not seen as unusual when they flock to farm fields and yards in the general area, although it is somewhat disconcerting to find a four-foot-tall bird looking in one's windows. Of particular interest some years are the solitary whooping cranes that end up off-track and come with the migrating sandhill cranes to the sanctuary. Invariably it is found that these misplaced whooping cranes were released to Wisconsin from a breeding program and somehow follow the migrating sand hills back to Michigan by mistake. They are safely captured and transported back to Wisconsin to join their own kind.
The Waterloo Recreation Area and its adjacent protected areas contain a wide variety of geological and habitat diversity. A network of streams and wetlands across the area has created valuable bog remnants where rare native orchids grow. The eastern parts of the recreation area ultimately drain to the Huron River and Lake Erie. Western areas drain to the Portage River (headwaters at Big Portage Lake), then on to the Grand River, releasing eventually to Lake Michigan. Before European settlers arrived and built a large number of dams for milling purposes, it was possible for native American tribesmen to travel across the state via their shallow-draft canoes with only one portage of less than a mile along the entire length. A large number of archeological sites give evidence of long-term occupation by native tribes in the area, with much of it yet to be mapped. For this reason, metal detectors are limited to previously explored areas.
Although the gentle grade of the streams flowing down toward the Great Lakes was ideal for building mills, the farmland was not ideal for growing crops. During the Great Depression, a large number of farmsteads in the area were either abandoned or were in forfeiture for back taxes and missed mortgage payments. The State stepped in to take over the properties and form what became the Waterloo Recreation Area. The Civilian Conservation Corps built facilities at Mill Lake, Cedar Lake and Cassidy Lake, among others. Building and management were eventually transferred to the Works Progress Administration. Mill Lake, the first Outdoor Center to be built, was completed in 1936. The original occupants of Mill Lake were a group of boys from the Detroit Public School System. Mill Lake Outdoor Center remains the most intact example of a WPA Outdoor Center in the Michigan State Park System, with 15 of the 16 original buildings remaining.
Cassidy Lake was a year-round trade school for low-income youth before being converted to use as a prison in 1942 and eventually a 'boot camp-style' incarceration facility for first offenders. Facilities near Cedar Lake began as a CCC camp, then served to train military police and as a German POW camp during WWII. It later became a low security prison and is currently abandoned. In 1942, the Federal Government signed an agreement with the State of Michigan for the State to take over operation of the huge recreation area, with the stipulation that it remain protected land with suitable habitat for the migrating sandhill cranes.
A few vacation rentals are sometimes found along the private portions of lakeshores within the Waterloo Recreation Area. And camping is extremely popular: Big Portage Lake even has camping cabins for rent for visitors who wish to 'rough it' as gently as possible. Towns surrounding the recreation area provide hotels, motels, bed-and-breakfasts and often, private rental cottages on other lakefronts in the area. No shortage of supplies, entertainment or fast food exists in the area, with most towns holding the usual chain restaurants and at least one local diner.
Chelsea offers fine performances at Jeff Daniels' famed Purple Rose Theater (his family owns the local lumber yard), while Ann Arbor provides an eclectic mix of ethnic foods, specialty shops, artists and crafts. And although real estate within the recreation area itself is not available, sometimes a lucky buyer will find the perfect lakefront hideaway on a private corner of one of the mostly State-owned lakes. Within ten miles of Waterloo Recreation Area, a number of properties are available at excellent prices in a wide range of layouts and locations. The area is ideally located within 30 miles of both Ann Arbor and Lansing, making it especially attractive to college-agers. So, come discover your first bog orchid . . . or look a sandhill crane in the eye! These experiences and more await your visit. We'll see you soon!
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