Monday, February 27, 2012

Cold February Mud is Fun

You might have wondered about the neat rake marks under the bridge off of exit 38 on I-90. The bridge spans a tumultuous section of the Snoqualmie River, and is a good spot for wildlife to get from one side of the road to another. I never knew I would spend so much time under bridges but I am regularly amazed by what I can see in the soft un-rained-upon soil, provided we were careful to rake it smooth after our last visit! This place had raccoons aplenty--or was it only one?--making the rounds between river and the bank. Deer mice, voles, and perhaps a mole made marks where the water had receded from a recent flood. My favorite mystery was where a small bird had hopped up and down repeatedly, leaving a pattern that kind of looked like crayfish tracks. Was this some kind of spring display behavior? The tracks didn't look like the robin tracks nearby. I have never seen my backyard song sparrows do anything like that so I am really curious now. Whatever the birds were saying about spring, snow and cold wind whistled under the next bridge we checked. A coyote had come through there, navigating the rocky terrain in a strange jumble of gaits. I narrowly missed getting obliterated by slushy dirt when a snowplow went over us. And we all agreed to go get warm beverages after discussing the difference between flood debris and woodrat nests.
Thrush tracks in the mud along the South Fork of the Snoqualmie River
 In the afternoon we went to a sandy spot at Three Forks. Rakes in hand again, we scratched up the sand and studied pressure releases, those indications within a track of speed, turns, and myriad other details. It was challenging and not always successful, but the next day I had a sense of how useful a knowledge of pressure releases could be...

Saturday night we gathered in the original structure on Wilderness Awareness School's land. It's called Malalo Ya Chui, which means "Lair of the Leopard." Just the right sort of place to gather 'round a fire and tell stories. We focused on stories from our own experiences with crows, ravens, raccoons and foxes. I loved comparing notes: You get mobbed by crows too? You have also seen raccoons with no tail?

 The wind and cold thinned our ranks the next day as we met early at a place called ElkLand. Well, that's what we call it. It's also a dog run and sports field near the Three Forks natural area. And it's crawling with elk. Mark and I went to scout for fresh sign on one side of the road. Thick snow started to fall, but we squelched our way in to the soggy woods along a well-worn trail, undaunted. A hundred yards in, Mark spotted a group of elk moving away from us. Yep, that's fresh elk sign. We marked the spot to come back to and spent the rest of the morning trying to trail the rest of the group as they went into the woods across the road and picked up a fresh set of elk tracks. Success! We followed the trail until a group of elk popped up from their beds ahead of us. After watching them move off, we stayed on their trail until they scampered down a sandy bank into the river and across. Clever elk. Sorry to disturb you. But we've got some happy trackers who are excited to work on trailing skills now.
Searching for the trail of the herd of elk we were following under the freshly fallen snow on the otherside of a wetland they crossed.
A successful escape! Where the herd forded the cold waters of the Snoqualmie River we chose not to follow.
Except that it turns out we couldn't even trail ourselves back through the muddy landscape. I should have looked closer at those pressure releases! Our entire group wound up on a spit of land that jutted out into a marsh, with a deep four-foot gap of water to cross. Snow was falling again. More than a few feet were wet and cold. Yet let it not be said that this group isn't resourceful... Lots of log-shuffling and splashing later, we had a spiffy wilderness bridge cobbled together. "You must have planned this as a team-building exercise," said one student. And it did bring us together to cross and look out for each other, to make it through a day of tracking. Now I'll have an elk story to share around the fire someday. I hope you do too.
Alexia Allen crosses a lead of water on a bridge skillfully constructed by several students in the class.

The intrepid elk trackers.