An Early Spring Hike Through Bear Run

Hi, I’m Rachel! I joined Mountain Watershed Association as an AmeriCorps member in early February.

While I’ve always loved exploring the woods, I found myself going out for walks much more frequently last week. I’ve been out daily as opposed to just on the weekends or when the weather was particularly pleasant. And I noticed a lot of other people were doing the same. Everywhere I went for a hike or a run, it seemed that people were buzzing around like happy little bees– a sight for sore eyes in the midst of a pandemic.

You don’t have to try very hard to get lost in thought when surrounded by nature. But sometimes I feel particularly curious, and find myself deep in thought over every natural phenomenon surrounding me. This is something I surely learned from my dad during our daily walks in the woods. He would stop and sit on any nice log, calling it his ‘thinking log.’

So if you have a healthy sense of curiosity like me, please join me for a hike at Bear Run Nature Reserve by reading along as I share my observations.

As we enter the forest, we immediately notice how dark it is under the shade of densely packed pine and hemlock trees. It recently rained, but wet socks are a small price to pay for how wonderfully green everything is for March. After it rains– when the mushrooms are vibrant, everything is still dripping, and the plants and mosses are full of water– is my favorite time to explore!

It seems like there are pine trees down all over the place! Is this the aftermath of a bad storm? Or were these trees purposely felled? Maybe they were a hazard or had some sort of affliction?

Well I guess we don’t have to wonder for long! The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which manages this property and trail, felled them as a management measure, but for one I hadn’t thought of. What about you?

The trees were cut down to make what we call forest gaps. It’s much brighter here than where mature trees are packed tightly together. In the highly sought after sunlight shining through the forest gap new plants have the chance to grow. This allows other species to eventually mix in with the pine trees, hemlock trees, and ferns. Soon, this forest will have many different species. This is called biodiversity. High biodiversity is an important keystone of conservation because different plants provide different habitat and food for insects and wildlife! In the forest, every living thing interacts.

Speaking of which, what is going on here?

This slimy substance is oozing from three trees that have been felled. I can’t help but be reminded of the bubbling muenster cheese on the french onion soup I ate last night.

Are the recently cut trees still leaking sap or resin, maybe in an attempt to heal their wounds? Is this a side effect of a disease or other ailment of the tree? Some sort of fungus growing on the dead tree?

This answer isn’t so simple. It’s sort of a consortium of yeast, bacteria, and filamentous fungi all feeding off of the sugar still flowing from the tree. See what I meant when I said how interconnected all organisms are?

Let’s keep walking.

Woah, all of a sudden we stepped into a completely different looking forest. It’s so much brighter here since the deciduous trees don’t yet have leaves to soak up the sunlight.

The forest floor has also changed as the tree cover changed. Now, it’s mostly covered by these strange groundcovers. They look like mini pine trees, don’t they? That’s why folks commonly call this ground pine. Notice the white projections that top a few of the plants, kind of like candles. We’ll talk about these later.

This plant almost looks like it belongs underwater, reminding me of the fake stuff you see in fish tanks.

Both of these strange groundcovers are clubmosses. Despite the name, clubmosses are not mosses! They’re an ancient group of vascular plants that appeared over 400 million years ago. Some species used to grow over 100 ft tall! Today’s clubmosses are very slow growers, and never reach more than a few inches in height. Like ferns, they reproduce via spores. The ‘candles’ you saw on the ground pine are structures that will produce spores to send out for reproduction.

As the trail descends into the stream valley, rhododendron and mountain laurel take over. We can hear the flowing water of Bear Run, an Exceptional Value stream. The rhododendron shades the stream, keeping the water nice and cool for the fish. Another underrated benefit of stream side vegetation is that it feeds the stream with leaves, sticks, and logs. This organic matter provides food for some aquatic insects, a surface for other aquatic insects to attach to, and great shelter for fish and other organisms.

Surrounding land is a really important clue of stream health. Let’s think about the land we just walked through. All of the rainwater that just flowed across this landscape will eventually make its way into Bear Run, which then empties into the Youghiogheny River. It’s fun to think about the journey it takes along its way. The rain will have plenty of time to soak into the soil, filter its way down into the groundwater, or be sucked up by a plant. If I were a raindrop, I’d want to be absorbed right away by some squishy moss.

Now think of a different stream, a more urban one. What journey does rainwater take after falling onto its surrounding land? Does it run across grimy roads and parking lots? Into a drainage pipe that spews it into the nearest water body? Does it have time to filter back into the ground? It’s no wonder that these streams aren’t nearly as high quality as Bear Run.

It’s time to head back now. It’s getting ready to rain again!

I hope you enjoyed seeing this beautiful area through my experience. If you’re able, go for a walk. Stay curious, and actively ask yourself questions to get your thoughts turning. It’s amazing how much more you begin to notice once you do! Happy spring!