March madness…

…our way

Madness in March usually refers to a frenzy of college basketball, or maybe Gold Medal basketball in Juneau. But the madness of naturalist-explorers takes a different form.

Encouraged by some tantalizing comments from a Friendly Observer, a friend and I went back to the Dismal Wood in the upper reaches of Switzer Creek. Our goal was to explore some old logging roads that were thought to lie between the trail leading uphill from Mountain Boulevard and the relatively new gravel pit behind the Lemon Creek prison.

“It is only five hundred meters between the trail and the pit”, says our F. O., and indeed, so it appears on the aerial photo. Uh-huh! But it’s five hundred meters through an understory of ‘pick-up sticks’—fallen logs and brush piles, which trap my snowshoes and tip me off in unexpected directions, while my friend prances lightly on top of it all.

“Oh, good, here’s the old logging road” (shaped like a trident in the aerial photo). “Let’s follow that!” No brush piles, no logs—should be clear sailing. Ha! The snow is deeper here, with a crust that is just hard enough to let my friend (mostly) dance across the surface, while I break through at every step, post-holing down a foot or more and catching the tip of the snowshoes on the crust as I try to move forward.

Of course, I’m supposed to be throwing sticks for our canine companion and keeping an eye out for interesting natural history as I go…

Pretty soon, we got off the crusty roads and back in the pick-up sticks under the second-growth forest. Eventually, we find a new clearcut, the gravel pit, and what seems to be a small muskeg. Here the crust is firm enough for me to walk on and I can begin to look around. The first thing I notice is that there are no pine trees in this little muskeg, just hemlocks. Very strange—do the seeds not get here, or can they not germinate, for some reason? (But I went back there a few days later, with the F. O. and two four-footed friends, and found cut pines in the slash piles nearby, so our speculation was in vain.)

Then we spot a spider crawling along on the snow and wonder what it might find to eat. We also notice that even the second-growth spruces bear good cone crops this year, but we also find a place where a red squirrel dismantled a hemlock cone, de-winged and ate the seeds. Why bother with a little hemlock cone when there are so many, more calorie-rich, spruce cones available?

So, as usual, we ended up with more questions than answers, which is its own kind of fun. And we had a good workout in that measly five hundred meters. But do I want to go back? Hmph.

(Well, I did, though, but up the gravel pit road on a nice, hard crust, NOT through the Dismal Wood and NOT on the old logging roads. We found porcupine and possible marten tracks, and the path of a deer in a hurry to get across the open ground.)

On another, equally beautiful, day, Parks and Rec (on snowshoes) headed up to a small lake. No one had preceded us since the last big snowfall, so we took turns breaking trail, sinking in to our knees at almost every step. After I had my turn at this, I found that being second or third in line was not a significant improvement, because the folks ahead of me took longer strides on their long legs; I took about five strides to every three of theirs. So it was a serious workout going in; coming back out on our packed trail was a treat!

This little junket also provided some nice conundrums. One was provided by small, slender insects crawling on the snow. Ranging in size from about four to ten millimeters, these stonefly adults had recently emerged from a nearby creek and were on a mating mission. No one really knows why they come out so early in the spring, but stoneflies have so many interesting adaptations that they were a subject for an essay last week.

The best puzzle was found at lakeside, where a tiny rivulet offered about ten feet of open water. A well-worn path led from a nearby burrow in the snow to the open water. There, a narrow opening under the ice gave access to the lake. A dead stickleback lay in the path near the water’s edge. In the other direction from the snow burrow, a less well-used path led to a latrine between some tree roots. OK, so those signs indicate either a mink or an otter.

A few footprints, about two inches wide, showed five rounded toe pads. A footprint of that size belongs either to an extremely large mink or a very small otter. Mink are more likely to be solitary, but small otters are likely to still be in family groups—unless, of course, this individual happened to be dispersing from its natal family or (sadly) the rest of that family had been trapped. We hoped for the best.

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