A Winter’s Walk in the Woods

winter woods
A favorite stopping place makes a winter walk in the forest that much better. Photo: Jim Freed/WSU

Winter seems like a great time to hunker down near the fireplace with a cup of huckleberry tea, a wild cranberry scone, and a good book about edible plants of the Northwest. That is a fantastic idea, but winter also is a great time to walk or snowshoe through your family forest.

The winter conditions of your family forest give you a view of the plants and topography that is almost impossible to get during the lush growing seasons. All those leaves get in the way of a good hard look at the health and vigor of your forest.

When you decide to take the walk, bring along a few things. A good write-in-the-rain notebook for the Westside is worth its weight in gold. Bring a camera to record what you see in general, and at photo points you may have established to track your woodland’s health and progress. A map is great for recording locations of specific sites of interest, and property boundaries. A GPS can record the exact location of objects and sites, but a cell phone with GPS may work for general locations. A small backpack or cruiser’s vest can carry all your treasures—which should include a thermos of hot wild raspberry leaf tea with a splash of wild ginger in it.

What should you look for on a quick recon of the property?

  •  Danger trees: Trees along a trail, road or path that may fall and injure someone. Broken tops that are hanging in the crown (widow makers) and trees leaning over because of root rot or wind throw all need to be identified and located on your map. A note of how you are going to remove them is important. This exercise also is important to your insurance company. It shows that you are taking active steps to make your forest safe.
  • Stand location and spacing: With the understory trees and brush clear of leaves, you can see all the trunks of the trees. Are some spots too crowded? As you walk through your forest, take note of the different groupings of trees (stands to foresters) and map their general locations. You can use natural features like hills, streams or wetlands to locate them, or infrastructures like roads, trails or fences. On a future walk you can come back to these sites to setup photo plots, ecology plots or management plots.
  • Wildlife: With the leaves gone during winter you will see animal nests –clues about who is sharing your forest with you. You also will be able to see which trees are not doing well and can make good snags for wildlife. Look for food sources like nuts, seeds and berries that can help animals over winter. Take note of their locations and amounts produced. Enhance your wildlife food opportunities by replicating what the good wildlife sites look like in other areas of your property.
  • Healthy or ill trees: Now that the evergreen trees have shed all their old needles and deciduous trees have dropped their leaves you can take a good look at the health of your forest.
    • Check out the crowns of your conifers. Do some trees have so few needles on them (excluding western larch/tamarack) that you can see large patches of sky through them? If your trees only have one or two years of needles on them they may be under stress from disease, drought, overcrowding or age. Make a note of their locations and how many trees are affected. One tree is not always a problem but if small groups of tree are all showing the same symptoms then you need to take action.
    • Are there conks growing out of some of your trees’ trunks? Conks are a sign of fungus infection. A conk 20-feet off the ground tells you that the tree’s center is soft, at least up to that height but often higher. Based on its location, it could be a danger tree or a great wildlife tree. Note the location on your map.
    • Look for dead tops or split tops, dead limbs, mistletoe, and missing bark. These are all signs of damage by animals, insects, disease or weather. Note on your map the locations and numbers of affected trees. Keep an eye on these trees over the next few years to see if there is any increase in the damage and take action to prevent the spread to healthy trees if possible. Mark these trees for wildlife, firewood or removal as part of a forest health thinning.
  • Meditative or quiet spots: As you walk in your forest take note of any special features that provide unique places to locate a bench or log for future enjoyment. It may be a small opening in the canopy that provides extra light for flowering plants that attract butterflies and birds. It may be a small ripple in a stream that provides soothing sound; an opening in the trees that frames the view of the territory around your forest; or a private spot where trees and shrubs provide natural screening from the rest of the forest and world.

These winter walks can become very special. They give you and your family a unique view of your family forest. The winter time is often a quieter time as there are fewer animals about. More light reaches the forest floor due to less foliage in the canopy. If there is snow you’ll likely see tracks of the many different animals that rely on your forest management practices for their home.

Most of all, these walks help you enjoy your forest in every season. Families tell us that this is one of the benefits that make all the investments of time, energy and money into their forest worthwhile!

By Jim Freed, WSU Extension Forest Products Specialist, freedj@wsu.edu