Early May runnings on Sheep Creek

Posted: Friday, May 15, 2009

The rains had returned, so there was considerable good-natured grousing after being so spoiled by a run of fine weather. Nevertheless, Parks and Rec went up the hill toward Sheep Creek valley. The first part of the trail was entirely snow-free. Where the trail makes a sharp left to go up more steeply, two side trails take off. One goes to some old mine debris and on down along a narrow fin to an old log dam (definitely not for the faint-hearted!). The other angles along the ridge to the right and eventually peters out. But along the way you can look upstream and see the old broken-down dam, and if you bushwhack a little more, you come out on an old pipeline and thence to a trestle across the creek - also not for the cautious hiker.

The main trail continues up the hill, over the crest, and flattens out as it approaches the basin. A small avalanche had left a pile of snow before the main valley opens up, and here the group split. A few folks crossed the avalanche pile, a few scrambled up and around on the shaley slope through the friendly alders, and a few retreated. We noted that there is a reason why we don't usually hike the Sheep Creek trail until June.

The fragrant cottonwoods and willows were just leafing out, false hellebore poked up through the leaf litter, and the wild parsnip plants were reaching for daylight alongside the snow-packed trail. Robins were numerous, some of them singing. Winter wrens twittered, ruby-crowned kinglets rolled out their rollicking song, juncos trilled, varied thrushes squalled. A couple hermit thrushes moseyed silently through the underbrush. Fox sparrows were warming up their lovely sliding notes, and I heard the descending feeble trill of an orange-crowned warbler.

It was too early for Swainson's thrushes or yellow warblers or other late-comers. But I saw several old yellow warbler nests in the forks of elderberry bushes - at least that's what I presumed they were, because this is the most-favored site for yellow warblers in the valley.

The snow got deeper and deeper toward the back of the valley, but it was still firm enough that post-holing wasn't continual. Past the dog kennels on the old mine dump, the small tributary that comes in from the north wasn't so small. The only bridge there was made of snow and looked unreliable. So we backtracked a little way and settled for lunch in a spruce grove, which had been heavily used by porcupines during the winter.

On the way out, we watched a team of eager dogs pulling, of all things, a cushy-looking buggy bearing no resemblance to a dog sled. I won't record the jokes that we traded back and forth. By the time I got home it was pouring hard, and my big armchair, a book, a cozy cat, and a hot cup of tea were welcome.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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