Last year, my boyfriend and I found ourselves with just one shared day off during the holidays. I had worked literally every day in December, so I was physically and mentally drained--I didn't care about missing Christmas dinner, I just wanted to sleep in for once.
We kicked around a few ideas on how to celebrate Christmas Day together, and the one we kept coming back to was a winter hike. We've gone hiking together many times before, and we liked the idea of being able to incorporate the dog in our plans. It turned out to be one of the most relaxing, invigorating, and fulfilling ways to spend a quiet holiday together.
This year, both of us were lucky enough to have both the 24th and 25th off, so we planned to join my family for the holidays. Since we were both lamenting the lack of opportunity to do another Christmas Hike, we decided to do a shortened version on Christmas Eve morning before hitting the road. After a quick breakfast, we set out for the Rocky River Reservation in the Cleveland Metroparks.
The woods always looks different to me each time that I go, even when we walk the same trail. I find berries and leaves to identify, exclaim to Brian over jack-in-the-pulpits and mayapples, and spot many birds and small woodland creatures. We occasionally spot larger creatures, too, like this beautiful Great Blue Heron that we scared from his fishing grounds into a tree across the river. (You can click on the picture to enlarge it and get a better view of him.)
I love that nature is rarely stagnant, but this time the woods felt different in a very large way. Our feet stepped on softer, more vulnerable ground. The trees looked more abused than our mild December should have made them appear--like a glancing blow that leaves behind an inexplicably large bruise. It wasn't until I noticed the way the leaves were clumping around the stems of shrubs and fallen logs that I realized what I was seeing: The effects of late fall flooding.
Rocky River remains high from the melting of early snows plus recent heavy rains. Small waterfalls still pour down the layered shale cliffs commonly found in our area. Patches of river rock, worn smooth, were deposited in various areas along the riverbank--or exposed through the removal of the layer above them, I'm not sure which. The softness that I noticed in the forest floor was sand and silt that had been left behind when the floodwaters receded.
I found myself admiring the stark beauty of roots left exposed to the open air by rushing waters. Of a forest floor cleaned bare of the protective leaf cover it usually sports through the winter. Of pools of gravel interspersed amongst sweeps of sand.
And while I was drinking in the beauty, I was also wondering: How will this flooding affect the future of this quiet woodland? What native plants and seeds will have been buried--or unearthed to sprout and bloom come spring? Will the sleeping plants make it through the winter without protective cover, or suffer from a loss of nutrients as the leaves decompose elsewhere?
I will likely never know the answer to my questions. I have not been walking this particular woods long enough to have built up any knowledge base of it, for one thing. But of course I have to ask the questions. And I also have to appreciate the contrast between this beautiful wild place where nature is free to act upon the land and my own little artificially engineered suburban backyard utopia. All gardening is artificial... but at times like these, I really feel like I am cheating.