A walk with old friends

“A man could be a lover and defender of the wilderness without ever in his lifetime leaving the boundaries of asphalt, powerlines, and right-angled surfaces. We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to set foot in it. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis.”

Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Upon receiving the news that I was supposed to go for a day hike to break up the routine of my summer job, I was thrilled. It’s not often that you get paid to hike for the day. As a matter of fact I think it may have been the first time ever. After the large crowds of visitors in town for the 4th of July, I definitely welcomed the chance to escape it all and venture out into the wilderness. 

An pollinator busy at work.

It may sound simple to just pick up a day hiker book or map and go off hiking along a trail that looks good. For me, it takes a lot more planning because I am always looking to maximize my opportunities as a naturalist in the wilderness. I try to give myself a decent amount of time to hike near a river bank, because that is where the life of the forest is. All life depends on water and that is especially evident here in the Sawtooth Wilderness with a climate that receives on average of 13 inches of rainfall per year. So when I was picking a place to go explore on my day hike, it definitely had to have a few lakes that drained into a creek. This would provide plenty of habitat for animals, and also better chances to see more wildflowers. 

Elephants Head blooming in a meadow

The other key aspect for me was to find a beautiful and quiet area that had views of a classic rugged ridge line that dominates the Sawtooth Mountains. There is a certain feeling that comes over me when I look at the mountains here. It’s hard to describe exactly, but I think it’s knowing the fact that it would take tremendous effort to explore everything you see here and because of that, things will stay wild here. 

Looking up towards Snowyside Peak

As I made my way up the Alpine creek trail, I heard a waterfall off to my left and decided to leave the trail to see what I could find. Almost as soon as I started following the path I had choosen, the whole forest came alive to me. I followed the deer paths through the trees to find myself pleasantly surprised by a gushing waterfall. Down there, the water was in the air and it made the entire area prime for plants to grow and insects to live. I knew most of the flora and fauna and even found a few I had never seen before. It was as if by taking a different path I had opened up a whole new way of looking at things. It made sense why the deer traveled by the river and took the path of least resistance in the trees. It made sense to find the different wildflowers in their specific micro climates.  By taking a new route I discovered a new connection to the plants and animals I already knew so well. You have to have acute awareness to detail with every step you take when following a deer’s trail because it will keep you from stepping on vulnerable wet soil that is teaming with life by the river. So I decided to not make as much of a disturbance and walk only on durable surfaces. 

It was like my friends had been asleep for the winter and only in summer did they come back to flower and say hello to me. I made my way along the stream, stopping at each new species of wildflower I could find. There seemed to be more flowers as I went on because the soil became wetter and more lush. Soon I found myself next to a pond where all the water was trapped. It was a classic beaver dam that had been constructed to preserve the water in and are around the lodge of the beaver.  (Insert beaver photo). There was plenty of fresh green willow growing, wet soil teaming with life, and warblers singing in the trees. 

The beaver pond and dam created to increase habitat around their lodge.

By making a dam in the stream the beaver family had let the whole neighborhood thrive. As the flow of water slowed down, the nutrients and soil that had once rushed down from the steep mountain sides settled to the bottom of the pond. Little flows of water were making their way over and through the dam; effectively turning it into a filter for the stream. Taking a moment to observe all of this from the side of the beaver pond, it slowly started to dawn on me that this simple rodent was the means by which the whole ecosystem thrived here. They were responsible for bringing life into a dry land and providing habitat for many.

The beaver creates the framework for everything else to thrive in the wilderness. They are the key to life by the river and friendly reminder of how everything is connected in the forest. The deer may not know how much the beaver does for him but they sure do appreciate all the flowers and food they help maintain. Without the beaver, my hike and escape from the busy world would have been lacking wildflowers and wildlife. Thanks beavers, you sure know how to keep us all in check.

“Perhaps the most radical action we can take today is the simple act of walking slowly through the wild world,” Arin Trook