Signs of Fall #9: Grove Run Trail (part 2), Striped Maples and More Rocks

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

(Portions of this blog posting are taken from my hiking essay about Grove Run Trail (on the “Between Stones and Trees” web site))  (Continued from last week)

We crossed the narrow wooden bridge over Grove Run. The stream bed was filled with rocks and fallen trees. Some of the rocks had been deeply grooved by the water flows, but there was no flowing water today.

Across the bridge we climbed steadily up the slope on the opposite side of the deep hollow and headed, in general, to the east. The trail followed a small tributary of Grove Run back up the ridge. This side of the hollow faced the northern sky. In this more shaded environment, American beech saplings and pole trees became increasingly abundant. Beeches should grow especially well in this ravine. The cool, moist conditions are ideal to nurture this slowly growing species, and the near immunity the beech seedlings have against deer browsing will greatly favor its persistence.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

The trail surface was covered with rocks that seem to get larger and larger as we hike up the ridge. We had to pay close attention to each footfall and were forced to stop when we wanted to look around or try to take in the beautiful scenery and day. The walking was hard, and Rob and I agreed that we were glad that we were wearing boots and had hiking sticks. Deborah was in tennis shoes and never uses a stick. She and Michele were also probably a half a mile ahead of Rob and I by now. As I stumbled along looking to my footing I wondered how they were going along so rapidly! Different hiking techniques, I guess.

There were even more downed trees along this section of the trail than in the previous one. There were great stacks of fallen tree trunks piled up on the slopes and scattered down into the deep recesses along the stream. There were extensive areas of open canopy generated by newly fallen trees and abundant zones of sunlight that illuminated the forest floor. The “sun spots” were especially filled with yellow poplar and red maple seedlings.

We turned left and walked due north up a side hollow crossing several small, dry stream beds. We hike up and up on long switchbacks that were edged by briers and nettles. In one section of the switchback trail someone has cleared away most of the path rocks and lined them up neatly along the left side of the trail. Suddenly, it was very easy to walk! The twisting, jarring strain on the ankles, knees, and back with each footfall was gone! Our walking pace picked up. It was possible to look around while walking without fear of missteps. The trail was clear for about a quarter of a mile and then reverted back to its un-managed state. The memory of the cleared trail, though, actually slowed us down as we twisted and stepped up through the continuing rocky footpath.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

The trail surface and most of the surrounding boulders are covered with moss. Everything was green and soft looking and must spend a great deal of its growing season in a wet state. The “up” continued and we passed into an increasingly dry forest dominated by oaks. Chestnut oaks, often very large specimens, fill in the surrounding woods inter-mixed with red, black, and also white oaks.

At the top of one of the switchbacks there was a trail register and a sitting log. We had caught up to Deborah and Michele and stopped to have a water and gorp break. Izzy ate four dog biscuits and drank two Sierra cups of water. A group of teenagers came up the trail from the opposite direction. They were staying in the Linn Run cabins and were out for a stroll. They didn’t look nearly as tired as we felt! They petted Izzy (once she stopped growling at them) and headed on down into the ravine.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Most of the trees on the ridge top were striped maple. This is a tree species of some poor reputation among foresters. Their idea, of course, of a “poor” tree is heavily influenced by the economics of that tree’s wood. Striped maple is not a tree from which any lumber or wood products could be easily made. Whatever the future potential of this tree is, though, along this ridge it was generating a rich habitat that in the summer at least is full of birds!

Striped maple is also called “moosewood” in places, I assume, that have the luxury of having moose. It is a small tree or large shrub that thrives in cool, moist, but well drained sites. It is found throughout the northeastern United States and across southern Canada. It makes up part of the understory vegetation in a wide variety of forest types.

Striped maple can live in the deep shade of a forest for many decades in a slow growing, suppressed state. Over these decades, in spite of a very high mortality rate in its first year seedlings (9 out of 10 seedling die in their first year of life), very large numbers of individuals can accumulate in the forest system.

Canopy disruption allows increased light to reach this understory triggering a vigorous growth response in these suppressed striped maples often to the great disadvantage of other, less abundant seedlings. Forests that have striped maple making up 30% or more of its total seedlings typically will generate after clear cutting nearly pure striped maple stands. These ridge forests, then, must have had dense undergrowths of striped maple that were released when the larger trees were cut or burned.

Deer browse heavily on striped maple. Rabbits, porcupine, and moose (hence the “moosewood” name!) also readily eat it. Beaver will even take striped maple if their preferred aspens are not available. The very large number of individual trees that build up in a stand, though, and their rapid potential growth rates upon release from shade suppression, enable this species, unlike many of its less abundant or less robust competitors, to thrive in areas even with very high deer populations.

Striped maple flowers in May or June and has a very interesting “gender” story. Most striped maple individuals are either “male” or “female” and, thus, only set either pollen synthesizing flowers or ova synthesizing flowers. But, from year to year, an individual tree can either be male or female. Environmental variables are thought to determine the yearly gender of a particular tree.

In a stand of striped maples there are always many more female trees than male trees, and these female trees, undoubtedly due to the extreme energetic demands of seed production, are much less vigorous than the males. In fact, in one study 65% of the female striped maple on site died by the end of the growing season.

The seeds in winged samaras are wind dispersed in October or November and may germinate the next growing season or, possibly, the season after that. Birds (including ruffed grouse) and many types of small rodents eat striped maple samaras, but, again, overwhelming numbers insures the survival of more than enough seeds to fuel the explosive growth of seedlings in the forest understory.

We crossed the broad, open Quarry Trail (part of the snowmobile trail system that crisscrosses the Laurel Highlands) and continued on the Grove Run Trail. The red blazes were set very far apart and in places the trail was so covered with rock that it was difficult to see the path. We focus on the blazes and keep on the trail.

Years ago, Deborah and I were caught in a large thunderstorm up on this section of the trail. Lightning and thunder, torrential rain, and hale pounded on us for over an hour. Today, thankfully, the skies stayed clear and blue. It was hard enough walking on these rock paths without having them coated with water and ice!

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

The remaining trail was all side-hill cuts into a very steep slope. The pull to the downside of the slope really strained our knees and ankles. You felt like you could go tumbling down the slope with even a tiny stumble. To our right was the valley of Linn Run and all around us were stands of beautiful oaks and red maples and great expanses of ferns.

We had been hiking for two and a half hours. The end of the trail should be close but everything seemed to stretch out to longer distances that we expected. At one point the trail even turned back uphill! That didn’t seem right (or fair) but we stuck to the red blazes and pushed on. Deborah and Michele were far ahead of Rob and me and even told other hikers heading up toward us to say “hello” and ask if we “needed a rescue party?” (what great sense of humor, eh?). One woman with a young, bouncing golden retriever asked me “are you Izzy’s owner? She’s so cute!” They must have had a pleasant encounter.

We stretched out the last mile and finally got a glimpse of the Grove Run parking area. Deborah and Michele were sitting with Izzy around the blister beetle fire ring. Deborah has used her scarf for an Izzy leash (the actual leash was in my pocket). Rob and I had the car keys, too. We were also carrying the extra water and all of the trail snacks. We sat down and, eventually, agree to share (we have a sense of humor, too!).

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