Tracks and Signs

Today I had a recon mission–head out to the Yakima River ski trail to see how badly it was washed out after the last big rain. So the first tracks to report are my own. Given the snow conditions and not knowing what I’d find, I chose snowshoes as the more maneuverable mode of travel. I stuck my ski poles in the snow to mark the location of some culverts installed last fall. These made a big improvement in draining water under the trail instead of right down the middle of it. One of these days I will compose a blog discourse on the importance of drainage to preserve the surface of a trail.

I stopped for lunch and leaned my pack against a silver fir tree. My attention was off the trail for half an hour, and on some of the other things around me (including a sandwich). Tiny seeds were scattered over the surface of the snow. As I looked closely, they seemed to be most prevalent under the western red cedar trees. And indeed, that’s what they are. They are about an eighth of an inch in length, and have a papery wing on each side. Red cedars can produce millions of seeds in a small area. A side note–I looked up red cedar on the Gymnosperm Database, and meandered over to Alaska yellow cedar only to find the name has been changed! I learned it as Chamaecyparis nootkatensis and now the botanical taxonomists are calling it Callitropsis nootkatensis or Nootka cypress. Huh. These folks are turning my world upside down with their investigations into genetics. Knuckledragger that I am, I will always want to call it Alaska yellow cedar.

I found these lichens on the snow at my lunch spot too. Note the cups. These are fruiting bodies for the lichens, and I believe they live near the top of the tree. They were knocked down by the wind a few days ago. I was recently reminded by a naturalist friend that these little cups are vital water collectors in the winter. Much of the moisture is locked up in snow and ice, making it difficult for small animals to find places to drink. When the temperatures warm just a few degrees above freezing, liquid water collects in the lichens and birds and small rodents can have a sip.

All the while I was noticing little things, I was within a few hundred feet of Interstate 90. A constant parade of traffic was rumbling by as I sat in the forest. I could see the tops of semi trucks passing, one after the other.

I got up and continued on my way. This dead hemlock was being worked over by a pileated woodpecker, probably looking for round-headed woodborers and carpenter ants. These insects live in dead wood, and woodpeckers are experts at finding them using sensitive hearing. There were no fresh wood chips on the snow, so it’s been at least a few days since the birds have been feeding here.

There were lots of mammal tracks zigzagging back and forth along the ski trail. They were not very sharp and clear, having been made a few days ago when the snow was softened by rain. It was hard for me to tell just which animal it could be. The steps were about a foot apart. This animal was walking or trotting, sniffing and snooping. I brought my photos back to the wildlife biologist and we surmised that it may have been a fox. A bobcat would have sunk further in, and the gait was wrong for a marten or fisher. Could be a fox. They live here, but are rarely seen.

I finished my photographing and notetaking and turned around. My own snowshoe tracks led me back to the truck. It’s a marvel that all this life flourishes right next to the freeway. There’s no buffer at all–the busy paved road plunges straight through the woods. I’m reaching for some sort of pithy metaphor here, but it won’t be forced. The contour that distinguishes “wild” from “human-made” remains blurry to me, and just will not come into sharp focus. It’s beginning to feel less important to find meaning and more important to witness the crazy wonder of it all.

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One thought on “Tracks and Signs

  1. “It’s beginning to feel less important to find meaning and more important to witness the crazy wonder of it all”.

    **smiling**

    The appearance of this trail you were on reminds me of one section of a trail near here. The mammal tracks look like my fox tracks, Deb… which my front yard is literally peppered with this morning.. Vixen loves hot dogs! When she’s moving along the trails & the driveway, she lays down tracks like those in your description and photos.

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