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Mud is Our March Madness

Note: This article by Susan Ballinger was first published in The Wenatchee World on February 21st, 2014 as a "Culture of Conservation" post within Community Connections. However, muddy trails (especially on north-facing hills) will persist for a few more weeks, so Susan's suggestion to head for the river (despite the lower water levels) and to avoid trails that will be wet is still good advice.

Photo by Susan Ballinger. Fresh beaver activity on this young cottonwood.

By Susan Ballinger

"This time of year I think about our valley in  E.E. Cummings’ terms  as “mud-luscious” and “puddle-wonderful.” During this in-between season, consider heading to a local riverside park, swimming beach, or boat launch to experience a muddy adventure. You may want to take a child along to make sure to witness first-hand the delight of new discoveries. With a kid along, you may even take off your shoes and let the mud squish between your toes.

As you walk along the shoreline scan the beach for fresh tracks left by a beaver, muskrat, or otter.  Look for the webbed prints of Canada goose, or the slightly narrower prints of common merganser.  Use your nose to find the earthy sweet smell of a cottonwood tree. Glance up into the bare-branched treetop to see if a bald eagle is perching.  As you round a corner, you may flush a great blue heron from its bank resting place beneath a willow.  Listen for the slow “whoosh” of its wings as it flies out over the water.  If you stay for an hour, you are bound to hear the rattle of a belted king-fisher cruising by at eye-level above the river.

Photo by Susan Ballinger. Beaver prints on the river bank.  Compare with the human boot and drawing of a set of beaver prints.

Water-splashed driftwood and rocks glisten against a backdrop of fine silts and it is hard to resist stopping to construct a temporary outdoor sculpture or stacked stone tower.  Look for chiseled teeth-marks on a freshly cut green willow branch – evidence that beaver have been harvesting a next meal.  Sharp sticks are just right for signing your name in the wet sand. Check-out the still leafless shrubs for signs of swelling buds. Look to see if mule deer have been browsing shrub tips, leaving behind roughly nipped branch ends.

Keep an eye out for the “just-right” flat skipping rocks, that fit into your palm.  It takes me a few practice throws every time to get my rock to skip 2-3 times, but it is so satisfying to see the rock fly!  Pocket a pretty rock to take home to display on your desk.

Photo by Susan Ballinger. Canada goose prints above a human boot print.

The few weeks of mud season are times when we need to stay off our local trails in the foothills and mountains. Most have been built by volunteer labor, and the damage done by hikers when using muddy trails is significant.  On a muddy trail, we naturally try to walk on the higher sides to avoid the mud, and this widens the trails, damages native plants, and creates new places for weeds to grow.  Plan to resist tracking up trail, and instead head to the river for an outing.  During March, take delight in mud, as proclaimed in the Charolotte Pomerantz  poem, The Piggy in the Puddle “Mud is squishy, mud is squashy, Mud is oh so squishy-squashy. Squishy-squashy, mooshy-squooshy, oofy-poofy  mud!”"