January brought us unseasonably warm temperatures and lots of rain. The once-lovely snow turned first crusty and then punky and rotten. Heavy rains put a serious damper on hiking too—post-holing on soft snow, even on snowshoes, while getting totally drenched is conducive to grumbling and grousing and whining, but not to just staying home.
One little expedition went to a wet meadow fringed with a few million bent-over alders. This required lots of bending under, clambering over, and twisting around. Snowshoes often slid down under the bowed branches, tipping the hiker into sudden lurches and bad words. Curiously, there were no animal tracks or signs to be found, even though these abounded in many other places. We saw one shrike in the top of the scattered spruces. I did see one interesting alder: it had eight trunks, all of which had been snapped off at different times in the life of the tree, most recently by a snowstorm this winter. This tree says “Never, never give up!’ But we’d had enough of alder yoga, and we bailed out.
A few days later, we ventured into a snowy muskeg along the Eaglecrest road. Compared to the alder thickets, this was easy going and much livelier. Lots of porcupine and deer trails wandered about. A flock of crossbills chattered as they swept from one big conifer to another. We saw several eagles and three or four ravens, all flying uphill, and wondered what would draw them there. Many of the shore pines bore knobby infections of western gall rust. This fungus-relative does not kill pine branches by itself, but it gets a secondary infection by a different fungus that does kill the branches. We marveled at some of the tiny pines, no more than two feet tall, that nevertheless bore a cone or two. Small does not necessarily mean young for these trees; indeed, some of the little pines may be quite old. What is interesting is that a tree that is forced by conditions to grow very, very slowly still has some resources to devote to reproduction.
In the middle of January, we decided to look for a reported trail that leads to the top of Goat Hill. I don’t think we found it (but we now know better where to look). Undeterred, we bushwhacked our way up, toting snowshoes for use on the snow in the little muskegs at the top. Fortunately, this was a nice, partly sunny day (unlike almost all preceding days in the month), or else getting repeatedly whipped in the face by seemingly malevolent bushes all aimed at hikers going uphill, and stumbling through spiny devil’s club stems, or punching down through the punky snow into hidden rivulets might have discouraged us. Deer sign was evident all over the hill– tracks and scat and dwarf dogwoods neatly browsed by foraging deer, and their trails provided occasional help in negotiating the messy understory. We persevered and found the cluster of small muskegs at the top. Then the snowshoes earned their keep.
By the time we reached the top, we didn’t have time to explore all the little muskegs, but in the biggest one we found several things of interest. Porcupines had recently gnawed on hemlock bark, and we found partly chewed spruce twigs they’d dropped. There were old footprints of a bear and of a large canid (wolf, or maybe dog). A low, rocky ridge wound through the middle of the muskeg, and here I found some nice red lingonberries, slightly shriveled but still tasty. The miniature gardens of mosses and lichens were gorgeous. One such mini-garden on a broken snag held sodden body feathers, stripped off a hapless bird by a hungry raptor that perched there to get at the meat of its prey.
Too short a time on top of the hill! There would have been more to be found in this un-trafficked place. But we bushwhacked our way down—much easier than going up, since the bushes aren’t out to get you. After this little junket, the creaky old bod knew it had been somewhere…