Monday, May 2, 2011

Creek Hiking

When the weather gets crazy hot around here, we go hiking.

Let me clarify: "crazy hot" isn't what some people would call crazy hot.  Seldom does the temperature climb into the hundreds, though I've seen 105 a couple of times.  But we get into the 90s a lot, all through summer, and then humidity drops on you like a heavy weight.  90 degrees and 95-100% humidity aren't uncommon at all.  Air so warm and moisture-laden that there's a short, violent thunderstorm every afternoon for about ten minutes isn't uncommon.  The meteorologists call them "heat effect thunderstorms" and around here in East Tennessee, we expect them all summer long.

It's so moist your own perspiration can't really evaporate off you.  You just get damper and hotter.  Then the thunderstorm hits and you'd think that might cool you off, but no.  Warm rain pours over you, then it ends, and now you're soaked, hot, and miserable.

So when the weather gets to this point, we go creek hiking.

Creek hiking is when you're actually hiking in the creek.  Wearing shorts and (for me) sandals, you just slowly, carefully make your way up the creek bed.  From the knees up you're still in all the heat, but...down next to the creek it's actually a lot cooler.  And from the knees down you're in the creek which is, even if the water is kind of warm (and it never warms beyond what I would call cool to the touch) it's still a lot cooler than body temperature.  So it all evens out and you feel, after the first fifty yards or so, pretty good.

So there you are in the creek.  It's fun to hike along the creek and observe the clouds of minnows and maybe hop onto a rock and try to catch crawdads.  It's even better to get out there in the middle of the creek and hold still for a minute.

After they've had a chance to forget you were moving and maybe dangerous, impertinent, curious fish will come to you and start nibbling your leg hairs.  I've had bluegills nip at freckles, which is startling.  You don't expect them to be so aggressive, but they are.  And fish aren't as dumb as you might think; after a couple of fish have tried to eat your freckles, it appears that other fish in the area notice that none of the testers have had any luck with your freckles, and leave the freckles alone.  So you only get nibbled a few times for any given locale.

There are some nibbles we'd prefer to avoid.  There's a wide, shallow pond where we know there's a large snapping turtle.  Since snapping turtles are so hard to spot, being colored the same shade as the bottom, we give him plenty of room by stepping out and walking alongside the pond.

How do we know the snapper is in there?  Easy: we put him there.  Sweetie and I spotted him on the side of the road on our way home one evening.  Knowing that some hateful person would eventually spot him and swerve to squash him, I pulled up to a screeching halt, jumped out of the car, and grabbed that big monster by the tail (only safe place) and heaved him up into a big steel washtub that just happened to be in the trunk.

We showed him off to boys, then we all trooped up to the creek to turn him loose.  None too soon either: snapping turtles smell bad.  And the occasional rattle-bang as he tested his cage was a little disconcerting.  You hear about distracted drivers having all sorts of accidents, I can't think of anything more distracting than having an angry snapper loose, stomping around in the car.

After we've been hiking a while, we come to a spot where the creek gets pretty darned small.  We've passed several areas where streams from springs run down to join it, and there's not a lot of creek left since we're hiking upstream.  So we hike along the trail until we get to another pond.

This pond is close to where we choose to either turn around and head back to the car, or if we started on foot we keep going until we've hiked all the way back to the house.  It's an excellent hike that takes a few hours and covers lots of different terrain.  But this one pond is fun because in spring it has tadpoles and all summer there are lots of dragonflies, butterflies, what have you.

Last summer we approached the pond and there was a squawk-splash as a frog basking on the edge decided we were too close, and leapt to safety.  Stepping further along, another squawk-splash.  It seemed the little frogs just couldn't jump without croaking to announce they were going to do it.

Son #1 crouched and became very stealthy.  He advanced carefully, so carefully...getting lower...and slower...and lower...and snatched and came up, triumphantly holding his cupped hands aloft.

"I got one!  I got him!"  Sweetie praised his efforts and skill - catching frogs in broad daylight is hard.  He came to us and carefully opened his hands a little so that we could see inside, the beautiful little leopard frog he had captured.  It held very still, and he opened his hands a little further.

It was very, very still.  He opened his hands further yet.  It didn't move.  Finally he gave it a prod with a finger.  It didn't move.

Son had caught a dead frog.  He looked a little chagrined.

Sweetie shook her head.  "I was so proud of how carefully you had sneaked up on him.  You could have been a one man band and gotten that frog!"  We looked the little critter over carefully but couldn't see any sign of injury or anything else obviously wrong to the naked eye.  It was a perfect little frog, but dead.

He put it back down.

And that's another great thing about creek hiking - if you pick something up that's a little distasteful, there's plenty of fresh water for rinsing your hands.

So as the summer heats up, that's one way we enjoy for beating the heat without turning up the air conditioning.

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