Winter walks

think, consider and imagine

In late January, the Parks and Rec hikers visited Sheep Creek Valley, a place we seldom visit at that time of year. The ground was frozen sufficiently that the mudholes on the uphill trail were no bother, and all that earlier warm weather had cleared the usual iceflow that commonly covers a side-hilling trail segment in winter; no problem there either.

Aside from a few fresh squirrel tracks, wildlife was not in evidence. In the uppermost part of the valley, below Hawthorne Peak, we could see snow squalls, which eventually came down to the main valley. The light dusting of fresh snow, and the seasonal absence of leaves, brought into clear and delightful relief many features of micro-topography that are normally obscured: drainage channels large and small, ridges and hummocks, rock outcrops. As I looked up the big ridge on the north side of the valley, I noticed a series of smaller, parallel ridges that ran up the side of the main ridge. Each of the smaller ridges had a rounded side, facing up-valley, covered with green moss and a few shrubs. The other side of each of these small ridges was a barren, rocky cliff, with a talus pile below, that clearly showed the distinct tilt of the rock strata, leaning toward the channel.

Other walks have been more productive of wildlife. My walking companions and I have found very large canid tracks in more than one location. These tracks were about five inches across, from outer toe to inner toe. Barring a return of the Hound of the Baskervilles, they have to be those of wolves. Happy thought! In a meadow near the Crow Point or Boy Scout trail, we found deer tracks of two sizes—maybe a doe with a late fawn, or a doe with an attendant buck. Vole tunnels in the grass along Eagle River were exposed as the snow melted, and led to small digs where the voles had eaten the roots of chocolate lily (aka rice root), often leaving some of the small bulblets (“rice grains”) scattered in the holes as well as the remains of earlier, well digested dinners.

Vole nibble, Fritillaria bulblets, and vole scat. Photo by Katherine Hocker

We are lucky to live in a place that often offers great views over the landscape or over the seascape, into the distance, and many of us enjoy that. For me, however, the place truly comes alive when I concentrate on what lots of other folks would dismiss as ‘boring details’—seeing the little things. I revel in the little stories in the snow (or mud), the small signs of animal activity, sorting out the distinctions between the winter buds of different shrubs, watching a nuthatch work over the bark of a tree trunk. I loved watching a young porcupine demolish the plywood that reinforced a gate, even as dozens of humans hovered about, or a mother bear trying to keep track of three cubs while she foraged. This sort of fun is enriched by sharing with an interested companion or two, asking and sometimes answering questions.

Here are some very small observations and questions from recent winter walks near the lower ski loop at Eaglecrest. We found a tall snag with at least ten woodpecker cavities, which must have been excavated over many years. What made that particular snag so popular? In some of the meadows, the husks of crowberries held onto the stem but the seeds had been removed. ?by mice? There were quite a few remaining bog cranberries lying on the sphagnum moss, unharvested by any creature, so the seeds had not been dispersed. Will some lucky bird find them in early spring? The seed capsules of bog laurel and Labrador tea held their seeds tight, but the capsules of rusty menziesia were empty. Why the difference? We found well-worn squirrel highways running from one burrow to another. Does one squirrel, moving so predictably over the same terrain, live long enough to make a highway, or are several generations of squirrels using these routes?

That’s a tiny sample of the kinds of things we note and discuss as we wander about the forest and meadows. Another interesting exercise is to define a rather small area, maybe ten feet square, or twenty feet square, or whatever (some observers choose a one meter square!), and study it intently to see as many little stories as possible. Or just find a spot to sit for a while, on repeated occasions (for instance, daily or weekly), to register whatever happens there. It can be quite surprising!

Some folks find such proceedings unutterably boring and totally ignorable. It’s not for everyone! But I think that once one starts to see some of the details, it brings perceptions of our rainforest to the parts of our brains that think, consider, and imagine. Then the rainforest environments become more than part of the scenery.

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