Up the Creek Trail -- Winter

Up the Creek Trail -- Winter

Welcome to the Up the Creek Trail. This trail takes you through low-lying boggy areas near the beaver pond up the creek beyond, and back. Just follow along and carry out any instructions you may get. Try to decide what you are hearing, smelling, touching, or feeling before going on to get the answer. If you want to test yourself, or play a game with yourself or someone else, keep track of your right answers. Ready to start?

It is a cold, windy day. That is one of your reasons for taking a lower trail — less wind. You are going to do this alone. Your ride is hudled by the fire inside the center, wrapped around a coffee cup. You try to avoid thinking that maybe your ride is the smarter one of the group.

Oh, well; you enjoy being alone. There was a time when that was a great joy to you, experiencing solitude in the outdoors, but now it is difficult to find a time and a place to do so. You give your radio a little pat. It is security without encumbrance. Your cane picks out the guide rope along the trail, and you are off. You really need the walk today. Things have been piling up recently, bills, doctor visits, reports at work, the house filling up with smoke because the spark arrestor got too plugged — lots of things.

The snow has blown in drifts across exposed portions of the trail, so you walk carefully. No use getting your cyber-shoes full of cyber-snow. Many small mammals winter and remain active in tunnels under the snow as you have read. It is hard to think of snow as a warming, insulating substance, but it does keep out the worst of the cold.

Almost immediately you find a branch on the snow. Picking it up, you feel it over, risking taking off a glove for a few moments. Leaf scars, buds, and twigs all seem to grow opposite. Mad-cap horse, you recite, the acronym for maple, ash, dogwood, caprifoliaciae, and horsechestnut, the species of hardwood in which plant parts grow opposite each other. You don’t have to worry about horsechestnuts around here, and the twigs on this feel too thick for dogwood, the caprifoliaciae or honeysuckle family, or maples. Which leaves ash. You have no idea where the branch came from, so you can’t check the bark to find out if you have a white ash or a black ash, also called brown ash. It’s probably a white.

As if to underline your reflection, another little bird sounds off. Well, what walk in the Maine woods would be complete without a chickadee? Now you have your first for the day. It is our state bird, after all.

You carry on, the path tending downward. The bad part of that is that it means you will have to walk upward at the end of the trail when you are more tired.

The feel along the sides of the trail tells you that you have entered a region of dense growth. Must be the marsh. You reach out to find a plant sample and encounter a branch bare except for some small, hard cones. Ahha! Alder. You are in the marshy area. It is no surprise to find another plant in the mix. It has buds pressed to the stem and with no obvious separations that you can feel in the bud’s covering. Probably a willow. What species? Well, er, ah. Maybe a Bebb willow?

But there is something going on. A bird. Be thankful for birds. This little character is getting in a bit of early singing practice from the marsh vegetation. Have a listen. Yup, a song sparrow. You idly feel the branches of a shrub while listening to the bird. Bare branches, but tiny cones. An alder.

You walk on past the area. A tree arrests your cane and your attention. It is obviously an evergreen. It has short, rounded needles growing singly along the branch. A spruce. And if the water weren’t frozen, your feet would be wet. Which makes the tree a black spruce.

From nearby you hear another sound. It is a short, dry ‘pick’ call. Now what… Oh, yes, a woodpecker. Must be a downy. The hairy has a louder, sharper call. They are sort of hard to tell apart, but then they are hard to tell apart for the sighted. The only notable differences are that the downies are lots smaller, obvious when they’re seen together, not so obvious when you see only one bird, and have shorter beaks.

Another sound stops you. Back in the direction of the nature center you hear a familiar sound. It’s nice to have an easy identification after the tough woodpecker call. This one everyone knows. You listen for a moment. It must be in the open fields around the center or across the road in the cleared area.

Here is another tree next to the trail. It has bark that shreds in long vertical strings. The branches have leaves pressed flat against them. Northern white-cedar, of course, another of the swamp and bog trees of the area.

Soon you come to a choice point. This is the end of the short loop of the Up The Creek Trail. You can head on back to the lobby where it is warm and you can brag a bit, or you can go back to the trail heads. Or you can continue on with this trail. What do you wish to do?

You’ve decided to continue with the Trail. It’s peaceful here, and calming to the soul.

You know from the feel of the land that you are heading up the creek before cutting back toward the center. Nearby you hear a sharp ‘peek’ sound. Well, you were just thinking about the differences between downy and hairy woodpeckers. Now you’ve had one of each.

You continue on your way, pleased with having figured out the tree. Off to the side you hear a squeek that probably indicates a flock of feeding chickadees. You try ‘pishing’ but get no response, so onward. Chickadees are everywhere.

The trail is rising a bit as you cross the bench to return to the center. Wonder what kind of trees are around. Well, here is an answer. This sound can only be a red-breasted nuthatch. And that means conifers. Since it seems to be coming from the higher elevation, must be red spruce or white pine. Of course, there are certainly hardwoods along the trail here, too.

Now, there’s a familiar sound from ahead of you along the return trail. Must be excited about something. Not that it takes a whole lot to get a bluejay excited. They are actually pretty smart for birds, you remember reading. That whole group, bluejays, crows, ravens are considered by many to be the most intelligent of the birds.

While you are listening to the bluejay, you almost step on something else that flies from under foot with a loud, whirring rush. When your heart slows back down below the danger range, you are able to reflect calmly that you have just stirred up a ruffed grouse, also called partridge around here.

A little farther on, you find a tree in cane range beside the trail. A quick feel of the smooth bark leaves your hands sticky. You feel little resin bulges in the bark, and your hands are soon a mess. You don’t even have to look for branches. You know they’d be evergreen with inch-long flat needles growing singly along the twig. A balsam fir.

Almost back to the center, you stop to grin at a familiar, cheery sound. It is a bit early for them to be singing, but it does make you think of spring. You know that there is a small robin flock that winters around the area, contrary to the popular belief that they all fly south.

So now you’re back where you started, but a little calmer, a bit rejuvenated, and perhaps just a bit wiser in the ways of nature.

image: Tony Webster