A Year on Trail 3: January

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January is almost over, and I came dangerously close to failing on my New Year’s resolution less than 30 days into the new year.  As I wrote at the beginning of this month, I resolved to walk the same trail–Trail 3–in Clifty Falls State Park at least once a month.  This is inspired in part by my almost perpetual re-reading of Annie Dillard’s great book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  And because being on a trail in Clifty Falls is quite helpful to my own sanity and mental well-being.

I will confess at this point that I gave Trail 3 a preliminary go in December.  On Christmas Day, in fact.  Not much has changed since then, or at least not much that’s visible to my untrained eye.  The creek at the bottom of the part of the trail I’m walking was flowing a little bit higher after all the rain we had last week.  And the way down was a bit muddier.  But otherwise, everything looked mostly the same as it had in December.  So despite the unseasonably warm winter we’ve had so far around here, there are no signs of spring yet.

For the first time ever on a trail in Clifty, I neither saw nor heard any other humans on the trail, except for my husband, who came along.  Clifty is a well used park, and so in my experience, even if there’s no one actually on your particular trail, you can usually hear the voices of your fellow hikers off in the distance.  Not on this Sunday, though.

Tree fallen over the beginning of the trail

There are several things I like about Trail 3.  First, it’s fairly close to the south side of the park where I usually enter coming from downtown Madison.  Yes, I know it’s lazy, but I don’t have to drive as far to get there.  Second, there’s a lovely deadfall of trees across the flat part of the path towards the beginning.  I love the tunnel-like feeling this fallen tree gives you as you walk under it, even in the winter.  And I’m no naturalist, but I believe it makes a nice little habitat for birds.  At any rate, I often see cardinals flitting across the path right at this spot.

As the trail heads down into the creek valley, there’s a lovely little place with a rock overhang which my husband has identified as a great location for outdoor meditation…in warmer weather.  At a certain point on the way down the trail, you can catch a glimpse of the Ohio River in the distance.  Or at least in winter you can.

Eventually you reach a fork where you can either head back towards the Clifty Inn or down again towards the creek.  I have elected to generally head down towards the creek, because it is another one of my favorite things about this trail.  The descent is quite steep in places; towards the bottom it looks less like a trail than a washed out creek bed.  Only a very, very steep creek bed without the usual rocks that help you get traction when it’s wet.  But when you get to the bottom, it’s well worth it.

The creek, and on the right, the
mysterious “wall”

I’m not very good at reading the maps of the Clifty trail system, and so I can’t say for sure whether the creek you reach at the bottom of Trail 3 is Hoffman Creek or Clifty Creek (I confess that I’m not even really sure at that point whether I’m still on Trail 3), but I do know that it is quite a nice creek all the same.  After the treacherous climb, you come to a little area where to your right, the creek disappears up into a steep canyon, and you can see in the distance a series of waterfalls.  To your left, the canyon flattens and widens out into a lovely little secluded area filled with sycamore trees.  Even in the dead of winter, this place seems kind of magical to me, like you very well may have stumbled into a lost world at the bottom of that steep climb.  I haven’t crossed the creek yet to go exploring in this flattened out area, but it looks as if it may be where two creeks join, or at least where one slows down quite a bit.  This area at the bottom of the climb is yet another of my favorite things about Trail 3.

In Clifty, I sometimes find it difficult to tell what’s man-made and what is not.  Down in this valley, there’s a little square stone structure that’s quite convenient for sitting on and looks like it may have had some life as a water fountain in the past.  It is pretty clearly man-made and I feel (though I have no actual knowledge to back this up) it is a remnant of some great WPA project that took place in the park.  I like to tell myself this, anyway.

Where the creek comes down through the steep canyon, it’s sides look like a wall that’s been constructed.  Constructed with huge, heavy slabs of rock very neatly and uniformly lined up.  It’s so uniform that you say to yourself, “This must have been built.”  And then you ask yourself, “Why?”  Why would you build a wall for this creek down in this fairly steep canyon?  Perhaps the only answer that makes sense is to give people a job during the Great Depression.  My husband and I are divided on the issue of whether this wall is man-made or natural.  If I were a less lazy person I would go ask someone.

The fountain type thing

Or perhaps I would not.  Clifty Falls is an odd combination of civilization and the lack of civilization.  Of course the Department of Natural Resources manages the trails.  They built the huge stone steps that take you down into the canyon.  The evidence of how we have created the park is everywhere.  But you, or at least I, can also get the feeling that you are discovering everything anew in Clifty.  Hence, why my post about a trail which has been traversed by thousands of people over the years reads like the journal of one of those eccentric and egotistical European explorers in the Antarctic pretending to have discovered places where humans have been living for thousands of years.  And yet, Clifty brings it out in me.  “Look what I found!”  Description is an act of ownership, after all.  So I guess part of me doesn’t really want to know, though if anyone can tell which creek it is from my description, that’d be nice.

Here is what I have discovered is true about the woods in the winter–there is still color and still life.  We think of winter as devoid of color, but there are still green things.  Some of them are moss, but some of them are plants.  If you look closely, there are still just a few red berries hanging on a bush and on the ground of the trail.  On this walk, there was a little plant whose leaves were bright purple underneath, whether naturally or from being frost-bitten, I can’t be sure.  The stalks of some plants dry up and turn a bright kind of tan that is almost white against the dark leaves underneath.  And coming back up the trail on the way home, I mistook a collection of fungi on rotten logs for flowers, they were so bright white in the sunshine.

Fungus on a log

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard seems able to selectively shower us with information about the flora and fauna in her little neck of the woods.  I am currently not in possession of such knowledge, which means there are things I see, and things I don’t see.  Seeing and knowing are so deeply connected, you know.  But as part of my year on trail 3 project, I’m looking for some books on the flora and fauna of Clifty Falls.  Perhaps I’ll actually visit the Nature Center there next time around.  It will be good to know the names of things, but also sad to have to remember that I’m not, in fact, the first one to discover them, and so I don’t get to name them myself.

Look for more pictures from Trail 3 on my Facebook page.

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