Small thoughts on big woods

by CHRIS PETERSON
Editor | November 4, 2020 1:00 AM

On Sunday we went into a patch of big woods that I know of. The woods take a while to get to — you go through a patch of smaller woods before you get there.

By big woods I mean big trees. Huge trees. Trees that have been around, I’m guessing, 400 to 500 years.

The trees are all larch and they’re on a bench close to the river. I suppose someday, the river will swing their way and the bench will disappear and so will the trees.

More likely a fire will tear through there and burn at least some of them. Though once larch get that big it takes an awfully hot fire to kill them all.

Larch, for uninitiated, have thick bark that is fire resistant. That’s partly how they get so big in the first place. I suppose this grove has seen plenty of fires over the years.

A low grade fire is actually good for them. It clears out the ladder fuels — smaller trees — that might set them completely ablaze.

But it seems like we don’t have that many low-grade wildfires anymore. Most of what we get are full-on infernos.

But I would be remiss to say this hike was fraught with worry about these trees. It wasn’t. It was a hike of admiration.

The larch are turning colors right now, dropping their needles as they do every fall. This year has been different, as the cold snap we had seems to have froze the needles, so some turned more brown than the typical bright yellow. These big trees were actually still a bit green.

The grove was alive with woodpeckers, mostly three-toed from what I saw.

They weren’t in the larch, they were in the younger spruce, which had died and were now buggy. We watched one work a spruce for close to half an hour, pecking a hole here and there, finding a grub or two, and then pecking another hole — so on and so forth.

Three toed woodpeckers and black-backed woodpeckers are very similar. The latter, of course, has a black back, while the three-toed has a white stripe down it’s back.

Their heads are similar, with black and yellow.

Hairy and downy woodpeckers, by contrast have patches of red on their heads and, of course, the pileated woodpecker, which is much larger, has a bright red crest.

We had the woods to ourselves, which was nice, though on the way back we ran into an older couple out for a walk. The woman was using her ski poles to try to cross a suspension bridge.

It took her awhile.

Then after waiting for her, the boy ran across the same bridge.

“You need to take big steps and hold onto the cables,” I suggested as the woman let a whoop as the boy zipped across the bridge.