Friday, January 1, 2010

Northwest Branch

I flew home to Maryland for Christmas and went for a hike with my Dad and brother along the Northwest Branch. After hiking this trail over a span of 20 years, there has been thankfully and surprisingly, very little development along our section of the creek, despite major changes in the surrounding Washington/Metropolitan area. It is a hidden jewel in my opinion, a peaceful refuge from the surrounding concrete jungle.

My earliest memories are hiking this trail as a young boy, along with my Dad and brothers and sister. Whenever a significant snow would fall and schools would close, we would take a walk in the woods. Blanketed in a fresh layer of snow, the creek partially or entirely frozen over, the only sound to be heard would be the crunching of the frozen earth beneath our feet.

During one particular winter hike with my Dad and brothers, we got lost. I remember hiking in the cold and darkness during a several hour "death march." Somehow my mom picked us up along a road several miles from home. I don't remember where we were to this day or how my mom knew to pick us up. This was a day long before cell phones. That was a real adventure!

I also learned about the woods along the Northwest Branch from my friend's father, Mr. Leverenz. He told us about how he used to go ice skating on the creek. He told us about an African American man who once lived in the woods many years ago. In fact, one of the streets in the neighborhood were named after him, Childs Street. Mr. Childs was the man's name, or at least that's the story as I remember it. Mr. Leverenz showed us a root that smelled like root beer once it was dug up from the earth. He also showed us how he made wreaths and other Christmas decorations from the vines that grow in the woods.

I remember hiking on the creek when it was frozen over during cold winters. I remember seeing fish swimming under the ice and wondering how they could survive in such cold water. I liked the sound rocks would make when skipped across the frozen surface. Better yet, the sounds rocks would make crashing through the ice when thrown hard or high enough. My brother's and I had named one particular part of the trail "The Skinny Ledge." Here the trail was extremely narrow, passed above the creek for about ten feet, and the earth had eroded underneath. I always thought the trail would collapse as one of us walked over it like an Indiana Jones Movie. I could picture one of us crashing into the freezing creek and having to be pulled out from above. Thankfully, that never happened. I couldn't find "The Skinny Ledge" on this hike. Perhaps it did eventually collapse into the creek.

I remember one time trying to be a rock climber only to find myself clinging to a cliff's edge above the frozen creek. As a kid, it seemed like a huge cliff. I was hanging on for dear life, grasping roots that were protruding from the river bank. Usually, my brother's and I would just go to the woods to break stuff with sticks.

Some of my favorite hikes in these woods were with my dog "Lily," a Siberian husky. Well, she's my brother's dog now, but she used to love running around off leash along the creek. Often, she would disappear for minutes and I'd hear all sorts of thrashing in the nearby trees and bushes. She'd always come running back covered in mud or poop. One time she came back with an entire deer leg in her mouth. Another time, I caught her drinking beer out of a "Colt 45" bottle. She managed to spill it and drink as much as she could off the ground before I could get the bottle from her.

Also during this time, I was able to see wildlife in ways I wasn't able to before. There was a great blue heron that I'd see everyday fishing in the creek. A pair of pileated woodpeckers also made their home in these woods. I'd often hear them and see them pecking for insects while Lily was busy chewing on her deer leg. One time I heard a huge splash in the creek. The splash seemed to follow me as I hiked. At first, I thought someone was messing with me, throwing huge boulders into the creek from up above. I was delighted to discover a big brown beaver instead. Everyday, the beaver would remind me who's territory I was invading by slapping his tail against the water.

I don't know if he is still around, but here is evidence of his work pictured below.

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