Yesterday was not going to be ignored.
Morning dawned at a mild 47 degrees with gentle sunshine and no wind, and the Weather.com app promised the day’s temperatures would peak in the mid 60s.
I struggled with my urge to hike, which was tamped down by both irrational fear (I’m reading a book where a woman gets clobbered on a trail) and rational fear (gun hunting season is open), not to mention the burden of a mountain of laundry to do.
But a day like this? Sunny and 60s at the end of November? I can weatherproof myself till I’m winter-immune, but to reject the gift of a glorious, warm, free day with no scheduled appointments because of irrational fear or dirty laundry is an insult to Mother Nature herself. (I called the organization, checked trail conditions, hiked at mid-day, and wore bright colors to make sure I wouldn’t run afoul of hunters. I’m enthusiastic, not stupid.) There are going to be plenty of times that commitments and chores keep me inside, but not today.
I made the short drive to the south side of the Parker’s Creek Trail System created and maintained by the American Chestnut Land Trust, and I was rewarded with a brand new trail and all the joy that comes with spending two hours in the woods.
After parking in the gravel lot and signing in, I strode out across a field to begin the Stream Loop in the clockwise direction. Beginning counter-clockwise on a new trail seemed counter-intuitive. I’ll have to walk it that direction next time, though, to see what I missed this time.
If this log had been smaller or more decomposed, I would have rolled it and looked closely underneath. There are always all sorts of critters -from salamanders to millipedes – living in and underneath decomposing wood. Rolling logs is one of my all time favorite activities to do with kiddos.
One should note, however, when hiking in any floodplain or bottomland, unless the area is in the middle of a major drought, there will be muddy areas on the trail. This is not a reason to avoid the “low road” hikes, though – you’ve got to remember that hiking boots aren’t ruined by mud, they’re baptized by it. And, while you might not want to wear your newest, most expensive clothes on a muddy hike, a little mud does a body good. (And human skin is wonderfully washable, too.)
Though I have always taught kids to look first before touching something in the wild, I won’t stop them from touching. The urge to reach out and lay your hands against the bark of the tree gate sentinels is overwhelming, and if you take a moment to close your eyes and breathe deeply while touching these forest elders, you get the greatest feeling of peace and joy.
Whenever I hike with kids, and especially when I hike with my daughter, we play Pooh Sticks. Named for Winnie the Pooh, it’s a game of dropping sticks on the upstream side of a bridge and seeing whose stick reaches the downstream side of the bridge first. I’ve played it a lot with toddlers, but I can now vouch that kids as old as 11 (my girl) still get excited by the competition.
In researching the scat I found on the trail, I first leaned toward bobcat as the source. Bobcats are known to leave scats right in the middle of the trail. However, my stick investigations revealed that the contents of the scat belonged to an herbivore. After looking at dozens of scat identification pictures and descriptions, I think this scat was made by a raccoon.
Important note: I did not, and one should never, pick up or examine scat with bare hands or put the scat close to your face where you might accidentally ingest or inhale even the tiniest bit of scat. Scat can be rife with parasites and diseases. (This is a long way of saying please don’t touch, sniff, or taste wild poo. Obvious to many, but an important thing to watch out for when hiking with the very young!)
I found nut shells left by some critter and, further down the trail, a black walnut (I think – see the caption) half eaten by another. A hiker clomping through the crackling fallen leaves has little chance of interacting with wildlife; they hear us coming and high-tail it to safety or hiding. However, you can often delight in a close encounter when you find tracks, scat, or seeds.
On this particular hike, I did get to observe wildlife for a little while, because I found a fallen log at the side of the trail on which to sit still and be quiet. I rarely take the time to pause mid-hike because I’m usually trying to get some exercise but, based on this experience, it’s going to become a part of every hike.
After I’d sat for a few minutes, not really moving and not making any noise, a squirrel skittered down the hill and stopped on the streambank opposite me. It sat on its haunches and looked straight at me. As I returned its gaze with a gentle, passive expression (no toothy smile to advertise my status as a predator), the squirrel examined me first with its left eye, then its right. It scratched its belly absent-mindedly with its arms and then dropped back down onto all fours, beginning to move in a circuitous path at least 10 yards away from me. Springing from ground to branch, branch to trunk, trunk to nearby log, the squirrel didn’t hurry or panic, but kept me always in sight.
The squirrel escaped my sight, though, within about five minutes. Another three minutes after that, a second squirrel (or it could have been the same one – they’re not like whales with individualized, identifying tails) followed the exact same path the first took, just a little faster.
Finally, I heard two squirrels chittering in a nearby tree. I’m fairly sure I interrupted an afternoon of warm, productive foraging. I put my nature journal away and calmly got up to finish my hike.
My fungus ignorance hasn’t dampened my mushroom love one bit. Before the squirrel(s) appeared, I found this little purplish brown beauty in the leaf litter at my feet. I photographed it against the pages of my nature journal so that I could get approximate measurements for cap diameter (30mm) and stalk width (7mm) when I got home to a ruler. I observed the gills and their attachment to the stalk. Still, I can only narrow the identification down to group level – either a Milky or a Russula. I think.
But once your eyes are opened to mushrooms, you see them everywhere! I found four more great examples – my attempt at identification is in the caption for each.
And, last but certainly not least, two videos from this hike:
Leaf Showers – every time the breeze ruffled the tree branches, I was showered with fall leaves like confetti. A great autumn game for kids is to try to catch a falling leaf in midair. It’s best to play this in an open field, though – on the trail it’s a tripping accident waiting to happen!
Flow Under Protozoans – Don’t be grossed out by the oily film on the water, it’s just millions of microscopic organisms called protozoans. They’re feasting on bacteria blown onto the water’s surface by wind. As long as there’s no nearby sewage input to the water body (and there certainly wasn’t here) there’s nothing to worry about. In fact, if you’ve got a kid and a microscope, a sample of this “scum” is an educational treasure trove! I just love how you can see the stream water swirling and flowing underneath the protozoan film.
Yesterday’s hike was really wonderful and I’m so glad I went.
Now on to the (one day bigger) piles of laundry.