Backyard Naturalist: Break in Weather Gives Chance to See Creatures Cope With Winter

Editor’s Note: Outdoors Writer Russ Mohney died Aug. 31. The loss is staggering. His writing and insight into the outdoors of Southwest Washington was unmatched. We will be publishing his popular column each week in the coming months from his abundant body of work created throughout the past decade for The Chronicle. This column was originally published Jan. 27, 2006.

Russ Mohney

Here we go again with one of those “false alarm breakups” that have punctuated late winter for the past few years. Last Sunday, we had a brief but altogether welcome break from incessant rain and a wind chill to be reckoned with.
We know the gentle switch from bad weather to a warm and comfy weekend won’t last, but it’s sure nice when it occurs. I took the opportunity to go upcountry and see how some of the lesser habitats had endured the winter.
We tend to routinely visit the lakes and rivers where a nice trout might be caught or a broad-shouldered steelhead may generate an exciting red-letter day on our otherwise unblemished calendars.
In doing so, we tend to overlook those places that are merely woods and wetlands and wildflowers (with a scolding squirrel or bunny to add a dash of seasoning) that foster more honest reflection — and appreciation — than a washtub of fat yellow perch.
Last Sunday was one of those days when I took advantage of the benign quirk of the weather gods and paid my respect to the unmeasured handiwork of nature.
It began with a perfunctory stop at South County Pond to see how the natives were coping with high water. The natives in question, by the way, were the fish, invertebrates and tiny lakeside rodents that watch the rising floodwaters of the Cowlitz every bit as anxiously as any farmer or landowner along the watershed.
Their rocks and redds and nests won’t bring as much money on the real estate market as the homes in the lower valley, but they are essential nonetheless.
Satisfied that all had endured the floods, my next destination was the second-growth woodlands above Winston Creek. Along the roadside swamps and under the low canopy of fir and hemlock it all smelled of spring. A few ragtag mushrooms had responded to the unseasonable temperature and constant rain with a feeble cap here and there, but you could tell their hearts just weren’t in it.
On the margins of the tiny seasonal swamps, however, the first of the sedge grasses had thrown up their shoots and were declaring their proprietary occupation of the soggy bottom.
A few weeks hence, a gang of robust cattail shoots will push up and challenge the sedges for dominance. With the cattails will come red-winged blackbirds that each year sing the wetlands alive with arias as liquid as the creek itself.
On an old south-facing cut bank, the first leaves of mallow had pushed up, some wisps of wild grasses were hiding in the shadow of last summer’s spent stalks, and a few thumbnail buttons of coltsfoot were just cracking the skin of muddy clay at the nose of the slope.
While neither was obviously present, I surely caught the scent of skunk cabbage and mint, although it was only the third week of January. It might have been another wonderful link between nose and memory, but those familiar smells were as real to me as the flavor of a licorice fern I was chewing. Some old bush habits are hard to break. Or explain, for that matter!
Walking back up the spongy, overgrown cat road, a welcome midday sun penetrated the small softwoods, causing some bold darting about by wrens and sparrows in the deep shadows. They were awfully quiet, presumably saving their songs for the springtime rush to acquire a mate.
It was an entirely wonderful day for me. I didn’t see a herd of elk or even a solitary deer. Neither were there flocks of finches or gangs of quarreling crows to attract my attention, but it wouldn’t have mattered a whit.
The land, you see, was covered by a comfortable old blanket of promise, as it always is during these “false alarm” days. Sometimes I believe it is less important to see the first violet of spring than it is to recognize the unbroken promise that dictates it will always show up, whether I like it or not.
I do. It makes me feel more alive than ever.
The rare phenomenon of “false spring” will occur on every unexpected sunny afternoon from now until the trillium blooms. I hope you don’t miss it!
Russ Mohney, a fourth-generation Lewis County outdoorsman, expanded the best of his decade’s worth of “Backyard Naturalist” columns into a book. Copies of “A Simple Song: Recollections from a Backwoods County” are available for $12.99 at Book ‘n’ Brush, the Lewis County Historical Museum and at The Chronicle.