Group heads out the road

Posted: Sunday, November 23, 2008

A big storm roared in the night before, thrashing the trees even in the protected spot where my house sits, filling the pond and floodplain, and scaring the pets.

It was still raining in the morning, when I got up. But the Parks and Rec hiking group always goes, no matter what, on its appointed days, and this day was no different, so out the road we went.

By the time we got to Eagle River, rain had ceased and mysterious blue holes appeared in the clouds. The day's choice was a stroll rather than a big hike, and the group of 15 strollers set out on the trail to Crow Point, talking all the way. The Sentinel Island lighthouse gleamed in a shaft of sunlight, and some of the snowy mountains in the distance glowed, at least for a while.

The tide was out, but a super high tide was expected in the early afternoon, and a stiff, cool breeze was blowing from the south. So instead of picnicking on the south-facing beach in our usual lunch spot, we kept moving. This disappointed the ravens that usually visit our beach lunches, when they often harvest bread crusts, grapes, or cheetos (a favorite!).

On our way around the beaches and back across the low marsh (happily, ahead of the tide), we saw a couple eagles, two small groups of buffleheads and a big flock of Barrow's goldeneyes, a scattering of gulls, and a magpie. A merlin sent up a small bunch of unidentified shorebirds and then vanished into the forest. A raptor that I'm pretty sure was a short-eared owl winged its way into the distance before I could be absolutely certain of its name. In the forest along the river, I saw a song sparrow (a year-round resident) and a hermit thrush, one of the last migrant songbirds to head south.

The berm above the beach showed serious signs of erosion in several places. Big clumps of grass had fallen out onto the beach and the sandy berm was deeply excavated. We found cleanly washed roots of the chocolate lily (a.k.a. rice root) down on the beach, mixed with seaweed. Tree trunks on the beach had been rearranged, and new ones brought in by the storm. One of the cabins of the scout camp was now perched precariously on the very brink of a steep bank.

We stopped for lunch out of the wind, still talking. Some strollers then wanted to walk through "The Aisle" of spruce plantation on the way back. This is an even-aged stand on a slight rise. It is pruned and thinned periodically, but the canopy is still so dense that the only vegetation underneath the trees is moss. The only animals in evidence were red squirrels, whose middens cloaked the bases of several trees.

The meadow near the memorial bench was decorated with thousands of clusters of the bright red berries of the so-called false lily of the valley (which looks nothing at all like the real one in its leaves or flowers or fruits). The fruits of this little plant are white with reddish-brown dots until there is a hard frost, which gives them their mature red color. Most of the fruit-eating thrushes are gone by the time this happens - leaving the berries to the ravens and crows, or to the first-arriving thrushes the following spring.

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

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