Alberta Agriculture calls them range plants—”the native and introduced plant species” in the rangelands, including “grasses, sedges, forbs (e.g. weeds and flowers), shrubs and even trees.” In a recently updated report, the department explains that “[r]angelands provide an important source of forages for domestic and native animals as well as protection to the soil and watersheds.”
The report lists more than 250 species with their common names, latin names, origin (native or introduced), “grazing response”, and forage value. Grazing response is the reaction a species has to continuous defoliation, i.e. grazing and damage from being trampled on.
We encounter range plants all the time on the Waskahegan Trail. To those of us who are plant lovers (and there are a lot of us) the report is fascinating reading. Did you know that the young leaves of the chokecherry are poisonous to the foraging animals? Or that the early blue violet, which looks so delicious, is nutritionally poor?
It was longer than some WTA hikes, with a total distance of 12 km, but our team was seriously svelte and eager to take on a million mosquitoes. Sprayed with a plethora of chemical repellents (claiming only to be disagreeable to bugs), and further armed with mosquito nets, we began our adventure. It wasn’t long before Jerry found some flowers that he did not know, so he picked them for later identification.
As we walked along we were pleased to learn that our new recruit, Robert Scriba, was a bit of a birder. When we rested at the Wanisan Stopover, he alerted us to the proprietor of the cabin, a Western Peewee.
Farther on we stopped at the Wanisan Lake Lookout, where he called our attention to a Ruddy Duck.
And as we elegantly navigated the boardwalks alongside a beaver pond, he pointed out an adorable family of Blue-winged Teals. It’s always a treat to have someone in the group who can teach some of us more about our natural world.
We were fortunate to time our lunch exactly when the rain came. We were sheltered in the very cabin where Darlene and David are stationed every winter while volunteering at the WTA Aid Station during the Birkebeiner.
The hike back seemed fast, as it usually does. But we did have time for an impromptu boot camp featuring the classic quackgrass-between-your-thumbs whistle. Vivian was the champion and intends to keep practicing. Her son Marco was very proud! She thanks all her professional coaches. We’ll assess her progress on another hike.
Jerry later commented: The vegetation had grown rapidly. But the clearing done by the trail maintenance crew made walking much easier.
In the long stretches of trail the sunlit interludes revealed bright red sprigs of fireweed. The pretty, fragrant dogbane shrubs around the high lip of a beaver pond were amazing.
Elsewhere along the trail we found other plants in yellow flower but had to check our books to identify them. Coots, blue-winged teal and ruddy ducks and other waterfowl were on the ponds. A few harmless garter snakes escaped the trail as we passed by. There were signs of recent beaver work along the trail and deer tracks in the muddy spots.
As you can see in the photo (below) we had to protect ourselves from mosquitoes—Nature’s indicator that we still have a somewhat pristine environment.
Early in the morning, the rain was pounding hard on the roads. For about two seconds we wondered would anyone show up? Well of course they will! Rainy days can have the best hiking conditions: not too hot, always refreshing, and you never know what you’re going to see.
We started on the trail with eight hikers, and were soon joined by a ninth, and after lunch, a tenth. The trail was lush and green, and the path was easy to walk, having been cleared and mown just three days ago.
While we were still in the woods, our guest, Anita, was quick to spot a white tailed deer–just meters away from us, on the other side of the fence.
We came out and rounded the slough. Suddenly a chorus of sharp yipping, bright and sassy, rose up in the near distance. Birds? “A coyote family,” said Anita. “Babies greeting their mother.”
A few minutes later, I was leading us through the mown path of reeds. Suddenly I jumped. “A snake!” cried Anita, who was immediately behind me. “You almost stepped on a snake.” Sure enough, a garter snake was lying in the middle of path, absolutely still. We all agreed it was the longest snake we had ever seen in the wild.
I told Anita she gets the award for being the day’s best animal spotter.
Our hike continued through the Allen Nature Trail. We ate our lunch in the yard of St. Margaret’s church. As we nibbled on our sandwiches, we looked up and watched as majestic white pelicans flew overhead.
After lunch we walked down to North Hastings Lake to investigate. No pelicans here, just plenty of ducks and an unusual flock of waterfowl we couldn’t identify.
Not a long walk by Waskahegan standards (only 8 km), but a day full of surprises.