A Late Fall Hike

Leaves already fallen. Photos by Katie Finch

Editor’s note: This article was originally published November 2016.

I’ve been in the office quite a bit lately, so when I had a long break on one of the recent mild fall days I took the opportunity to take a hike. Since I was close to it, I headed to the Westside Overland Trail that runs 24 miles from the town of Harmony to Mayville.

The sunlight set the stage, casting its warm glow through openings in the forest. The canopy was fairly open as many of the trees had dropped their leaves. The forest had lost the brilliant reds and oranges of early fall. Those fleeting colors were already fading on the forest floor. I compulsively picked up the most brilliant of the leaves, thinking I would capture its beauty somehow. But I knew it would never be as lovely as it was at that moment.

Left in this forest were the yellows and browns of the Quaking Aspen and the American Beech. Why do some trees hold on to their leaves so late? Aspen leaves drop before winter but young beech, along with oak, will keep their brown leaves until spring. For as much as we know about the world, there are answers that we still don’t have. Maybe dropping leaves in the spring gives the trees the nutrients when they really need it. Maybe the leaves protect the new buds from frost and deer browse. Maybe it is something else.

Further down the trail, I came upon a shallow creek. The creek was flowing in the main channel and also in a secondary channel, leaving a small island of rocks in the middle. Illuminated by the sun, the rocks seemed like perfect spot for lunch. As I hopped down the bank and across the stream, I realized I wasn’t alone. A large Snapping Turtle was on the edge of the creek looking so much like a rock I almost stepped on it.

Snapping Turtle.

The slow blink of an eye indicated it was alive. But it didn’t move the entire time I ate. Too cold or too scared? Was it headed toward the creek for one more meal on this warm day or to the mud to bury itself for the coming winter?

Birds came in to investigate the disturbance my presence caused. I first noticed the Black-capped Chickadees, bold and brave, the leaders of this flock calling their characteristic “dee, dee, dee.” They moved from branch to branch, sometimes upside down to find insects and seeds. A White-breasted Nuthatch walked headfirst down a tree trunk searching out insects among the bark. A woodpecker hammered somewhere nearby and the flash of white tail feathers from a Dark-eyed Junco caught my eye. No longer competing for territory and mates, these winter birds find safety in numbers as they forage for food in their own niches.

I was about to turn around and head back to my car when I met another hiker. After initial greetings and comments about the beautiful weather, my fellow hiker said disappointedly, “I didn’t really see anything so far.”

I wondered about that on my walk back. There were certainly things to see. The beauty of the sunlight through the trees was more than noteworthy. But what did that hiker expect to see?

How often do we go outside with expectations of what nature will be? Do we go on a hike and expect to see animals? Not just chipmunks and birds we can’t identify but big animals–deer, bear, eagles. We expect to see something exciting!

How the light gets in.

Goals and outcomes are important for life to move us forward in the direction we want to go. We may hike with goals of distance and speed in mind to reach a predetermined destination. Those ways of hiking can be their own kind of adventure.

But what if we put goal aside for a moment? What about the adventure of a wander, with no expectations as to what you will see and what will happen except that you will return safely? Rather than counting our sightings and finds like points on a score card we found joy in breathing and the being. Sometimes the pressure of doing gets in the way of just being.

Wouldn’t it be different if we let the world present to us what is there that day, in that moment? And we pause and take it in? A challenge but a realistic one perhaps. If we can achieve that then we might find joy and gratitude in the surprises rather than disappointment in what we didn’t see.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information is online at auduboncnc.org or by calling 569-2345.

Katie Finch is a naturalist at Audubon.