Signs of Life and Death, as the Snow Melts

Has the winter’s heavy snowfall hastened growth in the scorched soil?

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SheridanSlushFor many weeks, it’s been like this up at Sheridan Creek, one of my favorite hiking spots:  A slow and steady slog through the slush. Not much fun. Good exercise.

I would soldier on, hoping to see whether the creek was still snowed under. The dog enjoyed digging in the snow for buried bones, but would lose enthusiasm long before we reached the creek. Any time he ventured off this surface tamped down by snowmobiles, he’d be buried up to his chin. No fun for him either.

In the valley, most of the trees are still green. But as you head uphill — a point I never reached in the heavy snow, on the other side of the creek — you come to the region of the uncontrolled burn from last summer’s big fire.

Looking ahead to that landscape of black vertical trunks, I wondered what I would find as spring came in. Would the extraordinarily heavy snowfall of the winter just past hasten the growth of life in that scorched terrain?

SheridanCreekDeadTrees042217Don’t count on it, someone said recently. Fire that hot sterilizes the soil for a long time.

But what is the start of spring, if not the dawn of hope?

BearPrintsToday, the dirt road was nearly dry, with a stream of snowmelt running along the side.

My companion, who is fascinated with tracks and always vigilant, quickly noticed that someone large had gone lumbering out that road as we went in.

(A note for readers who live elsewhere: These are not the prints of a barefoot man. They’re the prints of a man-sized bear.)

Immediately we both reached around to locate our bear spray bottles, even though this walker had been headed in the opposite direction. It looked to us like he or she had wandered off toward the willows beside the river, not long ago.

BearPrintWithBoot

Measured against the size of my hiking boot, this is the track of a brown bear, not a grizzly. It’s a true sign of spring. Time for caution; they’re out and about. (Here we were relatively safe, because the vista is open and sight-lines are clear.)

We headed toward the creek, and the place beyond where the road begins to rise uphill. At last, it was nearly clear of snow, and we could walk without much effort.

We crossed the black and red debris of wood-cutting, as well as trees that were felled, not fallen. Obviously the foresters have been out bringing down the dead wood so that hikers like us can pass without fear of being felled ourselves.

The ground beneath the blackened trunks was mostly bare of snow in many places. At last, I could look for signs of new life.

GreenShootsClose to the road, these were easily visible. We saw blades of new grass and sprouts of fern beginning to peek up from the soil.

But as I crossed to where there had been woods last spring, the dirt underfoot was darkly black beneath the bare, standing trunks. The scene was bleak. No signs of green emerged from below.

BurnedTreeWithLichenInstead, I noticed fronds of white extending toward the soil from many of the fallen trunks. I saw these bands of powdery white around the base of many of the dead trees that were still standing.

I’m no microbiologist, but my guess is that this is some sort of fungus. No evidence of new life here. These are signs of decay.

I walked back to the road and on uphill. Turning around to look back, I clearly saw a gray figure about 8 inches long and sleek slithering quickly between the dead trunks and disappearing. A weasel? A stoat? Who knows, but certainly something lively.

GooseTracksAnd who had walked downhill before our dogs came trotting uphill to add their tracks? I guessed it was a goose. (That’s a bear spray bottle to the left, for perspective.)

Two live ones had just swooped past, noisily, not far overhead.

Farther on, my friend saw a gopher and tried to point it out. But I couldn’t spot it. We returned home without seeing any other creatures, except our own lively dogs.

I spent the rest of the beautiful afternoon pulling weeds in the garden beside the house. It took a long time, because there were plenty of them. I was very pleased to rediscover a hollyhock that I thought had been lost in the hard winter. The columbines are back.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Author: LivingDubois

I am a retired science journalist, devoted to enjoying and recording the many pleasures of life in the Wyoming's Upper Wind River Valley.

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