Sunday, February 11, 2024

Winter Walking by Karla Stover



By the Same Author:

A Line to Murder

Murder: When One Isn't Enough

Wynter's Way

Parlor Girls



The roast is in the oven, the potatoes are peeled, and the dog and I are hiking in the woods. Winter-woods walking is different from summer hiking. For one thing, it’s easier to see the dead leaves, twigs, plant stalks, and animal droppings which nature is gradually turning into rich, forest compost. Unexpectedly I spot a lone oak leaf carried by the wind clear from the other end of the county where they’re native. However, mostly our trail is covered with maple leaves, many still retaining their color. As a child, I ironed maple leaves with wax paper to help them retain their beauty. Four years ago, University of Washington scientists got a grant to check the possibility of tapping big leaf maples here for syrup. Two good reasons to love them. Watch out Vermont.

After drying up in summer heat, moss has returned, thanks to recent rain. Moss has been used for everything from surgical dressings by World War 1 doctors, to diapers by Native Americans. It’s a lovely contrast to gray-green bits of fallen lichen. I’m worried, though, because where I walk, moss is losing a competition to a ground cover I’ve been unable to identify.

The dog chases a squirrel into a cluster of Oregon Grape. Both the Indians and the pioneers used it for medicine, food, and dye. But where we’re walking, there’s more salal than Oregon grape. Salal has sticky berries which, when very young, I used to put on my earlobes. The Indians were more practical, turning the berries into cakes, or drying them to treat indigestion, colic and diarrhea, and respiratory diseases such as colds or tuberculosis. I’ve had salal berry pie; it’s very dense. Not to ignore the Oregon grape, though. It also had its uses, mainly to fight parasites and viruses.

The woods have lots of green, my favorite color. Sword ferns snuggle against Douglas firs which the Salish Indians used to ward off ghosts. When we bought our house, there was a copse of all these natives but it lacked two types of trees: cedars, which I brought in, and madrona which are notoriously difficult to propagate. My family had a number of elderly Indian friends who told me their women used madrona’s orange berries to make necklaces and various decorations. I recently learned that once dried, the berries have hooked barbs which latch onto animals for migration. How cool is that? Along our forest trail, the madrona’s peely-ochre trunks stand out among the green.

Eventually, my dog and I break out of the trees and into a clearing where we pass a spread of the ground cover, kinnikinnick. Before tobacco became the go-to plant for Old World smokers, they sought out the nearest patch of kinnikinnick, a word that actually means “smoking mixture. Some articles I’ve read claim it’s becoming endangered. And my hike is endangered, too. Sadly, the sight of it means our walk in the woods is over. So, back to the kitchen I go.


  1. Interesting exploration. No woods close enough to my house to hike without taking a car to reachthem. My walks are along the sidewalk past neighbor's gardens and some are spectacular though not so much now that winter is still with us.

  2. Such a varied flora makes a hike interesting. Here, in Arizona, the desert plants are sparse, but in the spring, the desert blooms in yellows, pinks, and purples. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Your hiking area sounds enchanting. I had to google some of the plants! Reminds me of the 'hawberry,' which is only found on Manitoulin Island, the largest freshwater island in the world, located in Ontario, Canada.

  4. Thanks for so much information on the plants you point out on your walk. I had no idea salal had berries! As a florist, I used salal in my floral arrangements. The rich green color of those leaves offer a lovely background to spotlight the flowers in the arrangement.


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