Saturday, September 05, 2015

The wilderness next door

From comments I keep hearing both online and in person, participants in the inaugural Orchestra on the Oregon Trail are expecting either a Symphony in the Flint Hills experience or a pioneer slog through the howling wilderness. Several I’ve talked to are shunning the event based on rumors of infestations of poisonous snakes that make Alcove Spring Historic Park a veritable death trap. When I tell them that I’ve hiked almost every square inch of the place for over 15 years and have seen exactly one poisonous reptile—a timber rattler—I can see in their eyes that I’m wasting my breath. Rumors trump facts any day. While neither expectation is entirely accurate, there is something to be said for being careful within the boundaries of the park.

Located six miles north of Blue Rapids, Alcove Spring is something of a mix between the two concepts. Unlike the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve where many of the Symphonies are held, only an interconnected series of meadows are open, with the remainder choked in almost impenetrable deciduous forest. Hiking trails wind through open meadows, cross sun-dappled creeks and climb wooded hillsides, and are, for the most part, perfectly safe for even inexperienced hikers.

What seems utterly foreign to me is the amount of chatter I’m hearing about the dangers of the place. Most of it comes from outsiders, residents of the larger cities where parks are groomed and neat and tidy, but a surprising amount is being generated right here by people who have never stepped foot in the park. Organizers for the event are advising people to bring bug spray, and while that’s a good start, it might be helpful to include a little note explaining that the Alcove Spring genus of mosquito seems to be attracted rather than repelled to the scent of DEET. Semi-scientific research conducted over the spring and summer suggests that it actually whets their appetite, making them not only more aggressive but more insatiable.

Then again, it’s probably best to keep that quiet.

It appears that the average person finds the outdoor experience both mystifying and faintly menacing. There are any number of ways to get hurt there, from tripping over the occasional strand of rusty barbed wire to twisting an ankle on a loose rock, but the vast majority of visitors stick to the meadows and never face anything more difficult than a slight elevation gain. The park is both perfectly safe and a perfect place for an outdoor concert.

There are a few caveats, however. Several years ago I had just descended through the woods to the culvert below the railroad grade and started across the upper meadow when what had been a rich medley of birdsong suddenly went silent, as cleanly and abruptly as if a switch had been thrown. Startled, I stopped and glanced around. The meadow abutted the overgrown railroad grade creating a steep, nearly impassable barricade to the east, and heavy woods encircled the remainder of the clearing except for a small slot to the west where a narrow two-track opened to the big meadow. Not a breath of air stirred the leaves. Not a bird called nor sang nor flew. 

There was something deeply disturbing about the stillness. I stood there listening as hard as I could, trying to rationalize what I was experiencing. Maybe an accipiter had flown into the woods in pursuit of prey, I thought. I’d seen that before in darkly shadowed recesses along Seehan Creek, indeed, had once almost collided with a sharp-shinned hawk as it chased a dark-eyed junco. It was the only plausible explanation I could summon, so I shook off my unease and turned to go.

A twig snapped in the shadows along the rocky channel of the creek.

Not an accipiter, then. Something that walks. Something that stalks. 

Two-legged or four? I looked for movement along the tree line and seeing none reached into my fanny pack and withdrew a small Colt .380. It wasn’t much but it was better than nothing.

I started walking, keeping my pace steady and slow as if unconcerned. Near the west end of the meadow the road crept to within several feet of the creek, and though I could dimly peer into the shadows, the fact that I saw nothing only added to my unease. I picked up the pace and slipped into the larger meadow where a sense of relief was cut short by the snap of another twig. I was being followed. 

Whatever it was, it stayed with me for another quarter mile, and when it broke off it was with a sensation of being let go, or released. I made it back to the car in record time.

So yeah, Alcove Spring is still a wilderness of sorts. Bring your bug spray—you’ll need it. Watch for snakes and poison ivy or, on the wooded trails, vast spider webs with massive orb spiders lurking at face level. There are ticks and chiggers and mosquitoes galore, and people have been known to get lost, and maybe, just maybe, there are bigger things to worry about, but there’s no reason to be afraid. Or not too many reasons. Well, maybe some.

Good grief, I’ve already said too much. Forget about it. Enjoy the music. And remember: there’s safety in numbers.


Bud Simpson said...

You said it all, "Rumors trump facts any day." Pity, isn't it? Wish I could be there for the event.

shoreacres said...

I've heard birds go quiet in that way, when a predator swoops in. Still, the palpable quiet you describe reminded me most of the time after Hurricane Ike, when there wasn't a sound, for weeks. There weren't any insects, any birds, any fish jumping -- all of the creatures were gone. I remember the night I heard the first fish jump, and what a relief it was. It was as though the whole world exhaled.

Tom Parker said...

I wish you could be here, too. I think it's going to be a special event, though now we're keeping an eye on the weather...

Tom Parker said...

Linda, the same thing happened after our ice storm a few years back. The silence was preternatural. When I heard the first bird sing a few weeks later, it was like an announcement that the world was getting back to normal.