Walkabout in the Local Woods

Walkabout - Australian Aborigine term by which young boys, having learned survival skills from their parents, head into the Outback (wilderness areas) of Australia for weeks or months on solitary journeys, live off the land, be spiritually enlightened, and begin the process to go from boyhood to manhood. Vision Quest (translated into English) is the Native American term referring to a similar journey. On a limited scale, due to limitations of modern world, these personal journeys continue today for these cultures.

We 'western civilizationers' have changed things up as we do not make that kind of time for turning kids into adults. Sending children out for these kinds of extended periods alone has never been part of our western culture. We do condensed versions - sending kids on solo overnights, maybe a backpacking trip for several days to weeks and usually in groups, or perhaps sending them to summer camp where the hope is, kids will get similar revelations, via experiences and interactions, about growing up in the world.

My mom used to read Readers Digest Condensed Books and turned me onto them as a way to read classic novels in a short amount of time. I would get the 'gist' of the story, though the experience may have been without the literary brilliance of the author's longer version. The question is, do we lack true growth experiences by minimizing our walkabout time? The local NPR station (KAZR 88.7) has a public service announcement for encouraging people to get their kids into the forests. It could be that any time spent in nature is time well spent.

Going for walkabouts on trails in the SLV yields wonderful things for our senses. We begin to experience time and space differently allowing us to see ourselves, through introspection, as a more natural part of the world, not separate from it. My brother, a math professor, considers his second profession, hiking. He loves the mountains because as he puts it, 'You never know what you are going to see.' We wandered the woods together as kids and one of our favorite parts of hiking was wandering off the trail in a hiking sideline called bushwhacking. We continue this now and have both gotten into a few unnerving predicaments due to weather, terrain, darkness, etc. But, we have learned interesting lessons!

WALKABOUT # 1 - Using observation skills, combined with a few basic understandings of how nature works, as I will attempt to present here, will 'arm' you with more knowledge of what you are seeing. I took the Fourth of July Holiday to go on a couple of purposeful walkabouts. I was checking the health of the Ponderosa Pine forest. Though some trees showed evidence of beetle entry, (all the little holes in their bark), this forest was healthy. Ponderosa Pine trees are found in drier forest conditions and their normal altitude range is from 6,500 - 8,500 feet but as Nature provides, can go higher or lower if climatic conditions allow. Ponderosa pines can handle the hot and drier climate of these mid-range altitudes.

I picked a place in the western part of the San Luis Valley where I was in the upper end of the Ponderosa range at 8,000 feet. I was in an area also where there was no permanent stream, where the only time the dry washes have flowing water are early in the winter snowmelt season or during heavy summer thunderstorms. Because of the wet winter, the grasses and scrub oaks that make up the understory, living in the space and shade below the well-spaced Ponderosas, were exceptionally green. I decided to get off the main trail and wander, my official walkabout. I could tell the understory below the large Ponderosa's had burned at some point in the recent past as a few old burnt stumps and blackened logs were scattered about but the new growth of oak trees indicated the fire may have been over 30-40 years ago. Fire suppression is a dangerous game with nature. If we let too much dry fuel build up before a natural fire starts, the fire can become almost uncontrollable. But, I found what I was seeking.

Years ago, when I worked at a summer camp, a massive Ponderosa near employee cabins was struck by lightning. The tree had not caught fire, it had simply exploded! I was the designated science guy and as I observed the hundreds of pieces of bark that had flown off the tree, I also noticed, as I looked higher into the tree, large chunks of the tree were missing. I went searching and I found it, the largest chunk, which had come off the tree about 60 feet above the ground. It weighed 30 pounds and I also walked off the distance it had flown from the explosion. One hundred and fifty feet! Lightning can be as powerful as it is deadly. The bolt hit the tree rapidly heating the water and expanding in the tree tissue and the physics dictated only one thing could happen, an explosion. The employee who told me about the lightning strike near her cabin said the blast was extremely loud!

As I looked around the forest last weekend, sure enough, there were several dead Ponderosa Pines, as well as one live one that had the lightning signature. Strikes usually knock off the top part of the tree and pieces scatter in all directions. The scar from the lightning usually goes all the way to the ground. Bark is ejected off the tree the whole length of the strike as the electricity, a massive numbers of electrons, seeks equilibrium of the positive and negative charges between earth and sky to achieve a neutral charge. This can happen several hundred times during a thunderstorm, hence the reason thunderstorms are so dangerous for mountain hikers. The bolt scar may be several inches or more wide as it flings bark from the tree, and a few lingering burn marks are usually seen along the split. Go wander through a Ponderosa Pine forest, as the trees are spaced nicely making for easy hiking, look for pine beetle entry holes the size of a pin head, and then look around the forest for a 'lightning tree.' Try and avoid doing this during storms that may be packing lightning as I am not suggesting getting firsthand experience of one of these events!

WALKABOUT # 2 - Middle Frisco Creek Trail - Trailhead is 10 miles south of Del Norte. The trail allows mountain bikers, hikers, runners and horses. I chose this one for solitude but have been on the trail before, and though parts of the trail are lush and green with a healthy aspen forest, the beetle kill pine trees are dead sentinels as reminders of our most recent severe pine beetle epidemic in Colorado. At some point, all of these dead trees will either fall down, blow down or burn down. As I made my way up the trail, I began to see quite a few trees that had fallen. The nature of the narrow valley allows wind gusts to accelerate with the hydraulic effect along the creek, thereby increasing winds speeds with enough velocity to blow the trees down. The words of caution here are to avoid hiking or biking on windy days. The trail is beautiful. I studied some of the blow down trees and it is amazing how many beetles attack each tree as there are hundreds of holes in the bark of one tree. I have not researched how many beetles can attack each tree, but imagine being bitten by 5,000 mosquitoes at one time!

BONUS discoveries - This trail has thousands of wild strawberry plants and many are in bloom right now. The real bonus was finding a ripe wild strawberry along the trail. In size, they are about a 1/3rd scale model of a raspberry but as tiny as they are, they make up small size in flavor! The taste of whatever chemicals in strawberries create the flavor must be 10 times as powerful as a regular size strawberry. Don't believe me? Find one, eat one!

The other bonus was getting to the lake at the 6.3 mile mark and looking to my right and noticing the pine forest had changed! Lo and behold, a grove of Bristlecone Pines! Species of Bristlecone Pines are the oldest known living organisms in the world. Some of the gnarly ones in this grove, may be over 2000 years old. The thought of that provided tremendous introspection into who I am. Add a wild strawberry, cool breezes and mountain views makes the Middle Frisco trail a nice walkabout!