Hiking with the Experts
Imagine walking through beautiful Ellison Bay Bluff Park on a gorgeous May morning. Add intermittent sunshine and a gentle breeze from the south. Perfect? Not quite. Include guides Roy and Charlotte Lukes, plus Mary and Dick Smythe, and now you have the combined knowledge of four experts in wildlife biology, entomology, ornithology, botany and Door County history. Now you have a hike!
Armed with binoculars and wildflower books, we did a counter-clockwise stroll through one of northern Door County’s loveliest forests. I classified myself as the kindergarten kid in the group, open to learning more about the trail that I usually hike in 15 fast-paced minutes. Just ten feet down the path, Charlotte pointed toward a big birch. “Look! Right there! It’s a Scarlet Tanager!”
While Charlotte talked in Tanager to the bird, Roy handed me the binoculars. Color exploded through the lens!
“You’ve heard of Red-Winged Blackbirds?” asked Charlotte. “Here we have a Black-Winged Red Bird!” We listened to its call for a few, quiet moments. “It sounds like a robin with a sore throat,” she laughed.
The woods were carpeted in the snow of springtime, thousands of white trillium. Roy explained that some people think there are white and pink trilliums, but that in truth they are the same species. As the trilliums age, they turn pink. “Just the opposite with us,” said Charlotte, “We turn white!”
Roy said that the tallest trilliums he has ever seen are 21 inches, but it seemed that several might have topped that record. Yellow Lady Slippers also lined the trail. Not quite yet open, they nodded in the breeze. Roy examined a Downy yellow violet, showing me the hairy stems.
Plume lily, or false Soloman’s seal, grew everywhere. Charlotte taught me the rhyme to identify it. “Solomon’s seal, for it to be real, must have berries along its keel.” And there they were, all lined up along the stem: berries!
Everyone stopped again, listening intently to a different birdcall. “It’s an Ovenbird,” said Mary. Charlotte didn’t miss a beat. “That’s one kind of Ovenbird,” she said. “What’s the other one?” A pause. “The one in the oven at Thanksgiving!”
We wandered along, stopping often to look at a new flower, or to listen to the combined chorus of birds. We found a Canada mayflower that seldom blooms in Canada in May. Too cold! Wood Betonies were ready to pop into tall yellow flowers. Roy claimed he didn’t like the popular name for the beautiful flower: lousewort. Mary read from her flower book that it was once believed cattle would get lice if they ate the flower. “Not true,” said Roy, “although it could make them sick. But nibbling too much bracken fern can kill a cow.”
I was taking notes as fast as I could. Someone mentioned that I might be overwhelmed with so many new names. Roy answered, “Once I had a professor who said not to try to teach everything in one class. He told us that knowledge was like armyworms: 95 percent of it goes in one end and comes out the other!”
Dick commented that we hadn’t yet seen any butterflies. On cue, one whooshed by! I saw the flash. Dick identified it. “That was most likely a question mark butterfly, or one of the angle wing butterflies.” He opened his butterfly book to show the photograph of an orange and black butterfly with definite angled wings.
Roy saw a small shrub that he said was the only native shrub in Door County. “It’s a favorite of mine. I like the arrangement of the leaves, and the bendable branches of the leatherwood shrub.” Then he pointed out the bark of an Ironwood tree. “I once asked a group of third graders how they would remember the name of the smooth, shaggy bark. One boy told me that he could imagine someone ironing it with an iron. I like that description!”
Roy continued with another story. “One time a kid asked me how deep frogs can go in a pond. That’s a good question, I told him. What’s the answer?”
“Knee-deep, knee-deep, knee-deep!” croaked Roy, sounding more like the third grader than the frog.
Our springtime hike was coming to end, but we still saw Pennsylvania sedge, the most widely spread sedge in Wisconsin. We discussed regional pronunciation of the rusty-leafed sarsaparilla. Lovely wood anemones danced in the breeze, and we found some late-blooming hepatica, or liverleaf. Roy added, “Some believe that the good Lord created plants to relieve human ailments, like hepatitis. That has proved untrue, but hepatica is used to treat coughs.”
“There’s so much to learn,” I smiled, as I filled up the last two blank pages of my wildflower book.
Roy laughed. “It wouldn’t be any fun if you knew everything in the woods…”
We walked along the path above the bay, noticing that the cliff fell away over one hundred feet to the bottom. As we took last photos of each other in front of our three Prius autos, Dick motioned into the woods. Standing alone was a fully opened Yellow Lady Slipper! It bloomed just for us, ending a truly memorable hike on Memorial Day, 2014.