Friday, November 4, 2016

lessons in the woods

I don’t think that it is possible for me to go to Potter County without going on a hike.

Potter County’s nickname is “God’s Country” and it lives up to the name in the amazing natural beauty that is evident around every corner on the winding mountain roads.

I traveled North on Wednesday to spend some time with the Rev. Janis Yskamp and her husband Wayne in the aftermath of a devastating house fire.  No one was injured, but everything was lost.  And after we spent time on Wednesday touring the rubble, there wasn’t much to do, as the insurance inspector wouldn’t be arriving until Friday.

And so we took to the woods.

Joined by woodsman and hiker Lewis Russell, we four set out on a rainy Thursday on a trail in the woods on Denton Hill, near Coudersport.  Wayne let me use his new walking stick which looked surprisingly similar to a crosier- even with a slight bend at the top.  And so we began our procession through the woods.

It had rained all morning, and we set out close to noon. The ground was springy and soft and it wasn’t too long before the moisture found its way in through a hole in the toe of my hiking boot and my feet (well, at least one of my feet)  were sopping.  But there was little time to lament about sodden feet, as Wayne began his familiar banter, entertaining us with stories of people he’d known and places he’d been-  Wayne could smoke any Toastmaster’s meeting, for sure.  Lewis led the way, Janis played the role of Sweeper (making sure that the bishop didn’t lag behind and wander off the trail) and we made our way deep into the woods on a grey November day.

We walked on trails cut in the woods for cross country skiers and on logging roads.  All of these are connected in a trail system and documented on a state map- which we left at home.  These three had tromped all over this hill in the past and, with a few comic exceptions, had maneuvered their way around with few problems. 

We were a boisterous party, making our way through the woods and any deer or bear were well warned that we were  in the ‘hood, so we did not have any wildlife sightings. 

But, oh, what I learned.

Wayne, Janis and Lewis are so knowledgeable about the way of the woods and the animals that live in them.  It was like walking with a naturalist’s guide to the outdoors.  I learned about deer scrubbings-  circular patches on the ground where bucks scratch through the leaves and underbrush down to the earth to leave their scent for the does during mating season.  The buck makes the circle on the ground, urinates to leave his scent and then- this is the cool part-  reaches up to break an overhanging twig and rubs his eye on it to release mucus from his eye, which has another scent to mark and attract the does.  The doe, then, comes to the scrubbing, marks it with her urine as a way to let the buck know that she is in the area.  The buck returns at sunup and sundown to check the scrubbing and, eventually, the buck and the doe find each other, all facilitated through this system of scrubbing, marking and scenting.  FASCINATING.   Wayne pointed out about a half dozen of these scrubbings on our walk.  Each one, a circular patch about 2 feet in diameter and each one with a broken twig hanging overhead.   We saw, too, some “fake” scrubbings which had been set up by hunters who make the scrub and use a bottled potion to scent the circle. But the hunters do not bother to break a twig.    We walked past several of these, and determined their authenticity based on the presence of one broken, hanging twig (or not) in the middle of a woods filled with billions of twigs.  Wow.

I learned, too, about the process of rubbing-  when bucks rub the velvet off of their horns- and how you can track a buck (and how other deer can track their own) by following the progression of logs and trees going up and down a hill, that had been used as rubbing points.  I looked up the hill and saw a leafy, pretty hillside.  Wayne looked up the same hill and showed me the exact path that a buck had recently traveled based on the rub marks left on the trees on the way up.  Wow.

We walked past lots of creeks and streams and I learned about trout pools and the way that they travel through the watercourses.  

We laughed at “trees with legs” (trees whose roots were exposed, making them look like legs) and I learned about why they grew this way, in the path of the runoff of water in the spring.

We reached the top of the ridge and Wayne looked across, about 4 miles away, and spotted two hunters in blaze orange. 

I learned about clear cutting lumber and the degradation of the forest.

I learned that there is an entire ecosystem and natural course of wildlife that I know so very little about.  And I was grateful for the lessons and the time spent in “God’s Country.”

Our hike reminded me of the depth and intricacy of God’s Creation and how, as humans, we are called to tread lightly on this earth, respecting that we are but one part of God’s created order.  And I was in awe, again, of the workings of the natural world and our Creator’s design.  I remembered that part in Job when God lays it out for him, saying, 

         Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
    or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
    and all the heavenly beings[a] shouted for joy?
“Or who shut in the sea with doors
    when it burst out from the womb?—
when I made the clouds its garment,
    and thick darkness its swaddling band,
10 and prescribed bounds for it,
    and set bars and doors,
11 and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
    and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?
12 “Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
    and caused the dawn to know its place,
13 so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth,
    and the wicked be shaken out of it?
14 It is changed like clay under the seal,
    and it is dyed[b] like a garment.
15 Light is withheld from the wicked,
    and their uplifted arm is broken.
16 “Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
    or walked in the recesses of the deep?
17 Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
    or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
18 Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
    Declare, if you know all this.

This is a bit of a comeuppance for Job, but underscores that we know only a tiny bit of the Creator’s holy design (Well, Wayne seems to know a good deal of it, actually)  and possess none of the power.

We put in a good seven miles or so on our walk.
It was a healing, restorative and humbling afternoon.

And I thanked God for the day.


  1. Thanks for this particular reflection. (And the passage from Job was particularly stunning!) I grew up on a "gentleman's farm" (i.e., four cleared acres which we didn't farm + 10 acres of forest on a mountainside.) Thought I knew a lot about nature from my childhood>teen hikes, but never learned about scrubbings. Thanks for that. And for the memories...

  2. Glad you enjoyed my hike vicariously... I love the out-of-doors and there is no one better to visit it with than the Yskamps and Lewis!

  3. Janis and Wayne have lost their human possessions, like Job. They may have lost their brick and mortar home, but it seems the glory of creation is their spiritual home. I am glad you were able to affirm that with them as you journeyed together.

    1. yes, indeed. And yesterday, in spite of the grey start, was a glorious day.