Early fall hikes bring sunshine

Posted: Friday, September 18, 2009

Fall seemed to come down like a heavy gray curtain, sometime in August. So it was a very pleasant surprise when two Parks and Recreation hikes in an early September week found us in broad sunlight.

One of those days took us up Gastineau Peak. We rested on top for lunch, hunkered in little hollows more or less out of the wind. Far below, in Icy Gulch, there were two mountain goats lazing on a snowbank. After a while, they rose and ambled off to graze.

Lazin' 'n' grazin'-sounds pretty good!

A few late flowers bloomed along the trail, including Sitka burnet, northern geranium, and monkshood, attended by a few persistent bumblebees. Best of all were the lovely sky-blue broad-petalled gentians. A dark red-tailed hawk soared by and two ravens flew overhead in serious discussion about some important matter.

The very next hike went to Sheep Creek. The trail was somewhat overhung by salmonberry and nasty nettles, but the new bridge over a tributary coming off the ridge to the north is wonderful. It sure beats creeping over on wobbly willow branches and slick rocks. Let's hope it outlasts the snows and floods for a while!

There was evidence of recent heavy rains that had sent sheets of water across the trail, combing the grasses and other low vegetation in a downhill direction. A big, new, erosional divot has been carved across the trail and will surely get worse as fall rains continue. There was also new erosion of the banks of Sheep Creek itself and several trees newly fallen or about to tip over into the stream.

This was a day when gusting winds screamed up-valley and then turned around and swept down-valley, almost as if it were trapped in the basin. Leaves and small branches were stripped from some of the cottonwoods. In addition to several wind-broken cottonwoods from earlier this summer, I think there was one large limb that crashed down in the time between our going up and our coming down. Those gusts really made me nervous. One of the first 'laws of the jungle' is to get out when the winds may bring down trees upon your head!

The big bonanza on this day was the phenomenal crop of high-bush cranberry. Gleaming red berries shone through the greenery, increasing in frequency toward the back of the valley. We commented that we'd never before seen a crop this rich. I picked a gallon of berries in a little over half an hour, without moving more than a few yards-and still left plenty for the next picker. I like to make ketchup from these berries, but colorful jelly is another option. The berries are said to be full of vitamin C, and a tart juice is popular with some folks.

In spring, Sheep Creek Valley is seething with songbirds, from the early-arriving fox sparrows and orange-crowned warblers to the late-arriving Swainson's thrush. But on this fall day, I detected none except for a few golden-crowned kinglets in the conifer stands. Rather lonely! I remember walking along through the forest with a person from the local media, years ago, and commenting on the bird songs we heard. That person seemed surprised at the thought of listening to the natural world, but for me that is just part of being out there. So I miss the many bird songs and calls when they dwindle away in fall.

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

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