For weeks I’d wanted to explore the Lemon Creek Trail, in hopes of enticing the Parks and Recreation hikers to go there again, after a hiatus of several years. I know the first part of the trail well — up over the saddle behind Home Depot — from many excursions to a dipper nest site that’s approachable from upstream (after a short bushwhack from trail to creek). But just over the saddle is a small swampy area and another small creek, and the continuation of the trail on the far side of the swamp eluded me.
So, one day in late March, I headed up the Lemon Creek trail with two friends, one with two feet and one with four feet. The trail was pretty icy, and we met a guy who had turned back, but our ice cleats proved themselves once more. Near the swamp, we crossed the little creek on a snow bridge, but — of course — missed the spot where the trail resumed.
So we floundered on down to some alder thickets close to Lemon Creek where the snow was still pretty deep. Soon we noticed a series of elderberry stems that had been nipped off. Sometimes the nipped-off stem was still there, and then we saw that the leaf buds had been nibbled away. Aha! So that’s what the porcupines were after. Cut off the whole stem to get a few bits of budding leaf. Foraging porcupines had pruned most of the elderberry bushes in this area. I have to wonder why they like the stuff — it smells bad (to me). I think elderberry has defensive chemicals intended to deter munchers, but porcupines seem to be able to deal with them, or else they are desperately hungry.
After plunging through the snow for a little while longer, I said that I had a faint memory that the trail should be a bit up the slope in the conifers. So we peered up the steep hillside, well decorated with devils club and, indeed, it looked like a trail up there. Up we scrambled, and there it was. Now I knew we could follow it back and find where it connected to the little swamp. It was a decent day, with just a little misty rain from time to time, so, having regained the trail, we went on. And the rest was “cake”. The trail is clear and easy to follow, probably because the research teams that go up to the glacier have kept it open.
Along the way, we commented that porcupines seldom seem to completely girdle the hemlock trees from which they eat bark; usually they just sample a patch on one side. No sooner had we said this than we came upon a twenty-foot hemlock that was completely de-barked all the way around from about one foot high to about fifteen feet above the ground. What made that little hemlock, in particular, so tasty? It was out-competed (for light) by its much taller neighbors, so maybe it didn’t have a lot of energy to allocate to defensive chemicals.
We trudged and slid along, eventually dropping back down to a broad sand flat with lots of alders and the remnants of an old log bridge. Just upstream from here, the creek makes a ninety-degree turn, and so does the trail, which goes on up the valley.
Several years ago, the Parks and Recreation group used to be able to walk up the road through the gravel pit on the opposite side of Lemon Creek, cross a bridge, and thus get to the wooded valley that comes down from the glacier. But nowadays, one gets to this point by almost two miles of trail from the trailhead behind Home Depot. After numerous side excursions to look at things, by the time we reached the sharp angle in the stream, it was time to turn around. So we perched on a log to share a snack while gazing at the creek and wistfully contemplating another day when that upper valley could be explored.
Our return trip was uneventful, although the snow bridge that held both of us on the outward-bound trip only held one of us on the way back. But at least I didn’t get my feet wet in the little creek!
The conifers were full of talkative pine siskins and a few crossbills. Juncos flirted around in the brush by the big sand flat. Varied thrushes sang all day. Kingfishers rattled up and down the stream, no doubt checking out cutbanks in which to dig a nest hole. A dipper put on a concert down in the creek. Best of all, we heard our first winter wrens trilling enthusiastically. But technically, we can’t call them winter wrens any more. The taxonomists have decided that the western winter wrens are genetically distinct from winter wrens in the east (and Europe, where they are called The Wren). Although the plumage differences are subtle, and the songs are not very different, the calls are reported to be distinctive. So now our wrens are known as Pacific wrens.
All in all, it was a good day. Mission accomplished, most pleasantly. Now to see if the Parks and Recreation hikers will try this trail, come summer.
• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.