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Banana slugs are both male and female. When they mate, they suspend themselves foot to foot, belly to belly, hanging upside down from a low branch with a thick string of slime, explains Denise Crowe on a guided hike through the Anacortes Community Forest Lands. They hang this way for up to 24 hours.
“When I first saw mating banana slugs I was mesmerized,” she says. “It was so sensual.”
Crowe then stresses this is adult hike information.
“With kids, I tell them they’re both boy and girl and leave it at that.”
Crowe, education and outreach director with Friends of the Forest, told the story of mating slugs on a senior/adult hike to northwest Whistle Lake on Aug. 10.
Participants were treated to a wealth of knowledge, the vast array of vegetation in the forest and even a show of teens jumping off the popular Whistle Lake cliffs.
When the journey begins, Crowe tells the group it’s taking the main trail to Whistle Lake, but many of the 50 miles of established trails in the Forest Lands lead to it.
Because she has led so many children’s Forest Discovery Programs lately, Crowe says she’s tempted to go through the safety rules of not throwing anything or pushing other participants. She does, however, tell the group to watch out for wasps and hornets coming in and out of holes in the path and to listen for a buzz so the group knows to move along quietly and calmly.
Because it is a hike for the older crowd, it is relaxed and leisurely. Crowe stops often to explain what’s growing in a particular spot and how and why it came about.
Crowe also uses the opportunity to tell hikers a bit about Friends of the Forest, which provides the community hikes along with educational programs and summer camps. The nonprofit’s staff is made up of Crowe and Development and Outreach Director Jean Andrich, who both work part time.
“We live in a time of general nature illiteracy, and our kids are especially suffering from the lack of connection with the natural world around them,” Crowe said. “We invest in our forest programs to help bridge that divide, to connect the community with the wonders around us. To know our place more deeply, to feel greater love for it, and to care enough to help sustain it into the future.”
During the Friday morning hike, she points out interesting trees, ferns and other plants that contribute to the forest’s diversity.
Alongside the trail, the group comes upon the biggest Douglas fir in the forest. It has a few fire scars and is at least 600 years old, Crowe says.
“Well you have to touch something like that,” says Markay Neumann as she puts her palm against the massive trunk.
“There’s so much life on it,” Amy Ashley says.
Crowe leads the senior/adult hikes on Fridays and all-ages hikes, which include children and are a bit longer, on Saturdays. Both run about 10 a.m. to noon. Though on that particular day in early August, Crowe was so into it, the walk lasted three hours.
No one complained. In fact, people relished the opportunity to hear more of what Crowe had to say … and teach.
“You always learn something when you walk with Denise,” Harriet Hoffman says.
About then is when Crowe explains how Pacific yew trees did not fare well with clear-cuts. More recently, many in the Northwest were stripped and killed for an ingredient to treat cancer.
“But we have quite a few here,” she says.
As the group passes by a mushroom partially eaten by a banana slug, Crowe, who has a self-proclaimed “healthy fear” of wild mushrooms, says even a mushroom eaten by a creature isn’t necessarily safe.
The compliments for Crowe are almost as frequent as those for the Forest Lands from the dozen people on this particular walk. She leads with just the right amount of detail about the forest and a touch of humor to top it all off.
With each mini-lecture it is evident how much Crowe cares for the Forest Lands.
Crowe spent a lot of time outside and backpacking with her family as a kid. Later she studied at Evergreen College in Olympia, where she was recruited into a forest and salmon program.
“It turned out to be a total immersion in Northwest nature,” she said. “Every part of me went yes — it was so much of my nature.”
A couple of the participants had never been on a Friends hike before. One was Scott Gudmundsen, who joined the Friends board in January and now writes “An Idiot in the Forest” articles for the Friends’ quarterly newsletter.
“I’m in the forest a lot,” says Gudmundsen, who spends on average an hour a day hiking with his wife. “I love this place.”
At the other end of the spectrum was Hoffman, a veteran who’s been taking the hikes for 10 years.
“She’s not on every one,” Crowe says. “But I miss her when she’s not.”
Katie Redding goes three or four times a year depending on her schedule.
“It’s nice to have a group to go hiking with, just for the social interaction,” Redding says. “I hike by myself but sometimes you don’t want to be alone.”
As the group passes by Whistle Lake, Crowe points out areas worn down from human activity. Even though Whistle Lake is undeveloped, it remains a popular place.
“This is a wonderful place to swim,” Crowe admits. The problem is when people treat it as a place they can have their dogs off leash, drink alcohol, smoke and leave trash around. But she adds “In the winter, once the crowds are gone from the summer, nature takes hold again.”
About that time, four teens show up at the cliffs and jump off one at a time to the cheers of the hiking group, who quip about the scores they deserve.
Crowe says she’s never jumped off the cliffs herself, but admits if she grew up here as a teen she probably would have.
Anna Hallingstad, the youngest hiker, was home on summer break from Stanford University, where she’s studying environmental science. It was her first time on one of Crowe’s hikes, though Hallingstad worked with her on a senior project on invasive species in the forest.
Tom and Robin King are one of two couples on the hike who come intermittently to hear Crowe.
“We just like getting out in the Forest Lands and listening to Denise,” Tom says. “She’s very knowledgeable.”
Crowe’s grasp of the Forest Lands doesn’t stop with flora and fauna. When the group takes a break near a restroom built along the trail by the Soroptomists, she tells the group how the structure has survived firecrackers and being hit by a truck driven by a 20-something-year-old.
When the walk continues, Crowe answers questions from the group about everything from when and how the Forest Lands were logged to what does skunk cabbage really smell like — “skunky,” she says.
The hikers nibble on thimbleberries, blackberries and huckleberries, after Crowe warns them about eating the lower ones. Dogs may have done their business there. She also tells the group thimbleberry leaves are the softest in the forest — the best to use as a tissue if necessary.
“What’s good about these hikes is Denise knows so much,” Neumann says. “So it’s not like coming in the woods and just looking around.”
Crowe goes on to tell the advantages of stinging nettles, which are good for everything from eating to making fishing nets, and draws attention to at least four different kinds of lichen, which are a significant source of nitrogen in the forest.
“Everything you point to here, there is a story behind it,” Crowe says. “There is knowledge.”
Farther down the trail, Crowe returns to the characteristics of the banana slug.
The yellow, approximately 5-inch-long creatures are the Hoovers of the Forest Lands, she says. They suck up just about everything, breaking it down and in turn feeding the other vegetation.
It’s easy to be callous about slugs in gardens, but banana slugs play an important role in the Forest Lands, she says.
After the hike was over, she described the first time she saw mating slugs on a rainy fall day more than 20 years ago.
“I was both astonished by the physics of what they were doing and overcome with the realization that they were fully sentient beings,” she said. “It was one of those moments when I felt my perception shift to encompass a very different reality, and to appreciate that the forest is filled with lives full of feeling and meaning that exist completely independent from humans.
“Every walk through the forest reveals this if we give our attention.”
Take a hike
Easy hikes with a naturalist guide.
• Big Beaver Pond — Friday, Sept. 14. Meet at the ACFL kiosk on A Avenue and 37th Street.
• Heart Lake old growth — Friday, Oct. 12. Meet at the base of Mount Erie on Ray Auld Drive.
• Little Beaver Pond loop — Friday, Nov. 9. Meet at the end of 29th Street west off D Avenue.
• Whistle Lake — Friday, Dec. 7. Meet at the Whistle Lake parking lot at the end of Whistle Lake Road.
• Whistle Lake and Heart Lake —1 to 4 p.m. Friday, Oct. 5. Plan to hike around nine miles. Meet at the Whistle Lake parking lot.
Adults and children accompanied by an adult.
• Mitten Pond Loop — Saturday, Sept. 8. Meet at the ACFL kiosk on A Avenue and 37th Street.
• Sugarloaf Mountain — Saturday, Oct. 6. Meet at the trail head on Ray Auld Drive at the bottom of Mount Erie just off of Heart Lake Road.
• Bat cave —Saturday, Oct. 27. Costumes and flashlights are welcome. Meet at the Little Cranberry Lake parking lot on the north end of the lake.
• Heart Lake traverse — Saturday, Nov. 10. Meet at the Heart Lake parking lot.
• Whistle Lake — Saturday, Dec. 1. Meet at the Whistle Lake parking lot at the end of Whistle Lake Road.
All hikes are free and run 10 a.m. to noon unless otherwise indicated. Please leave pets at home.
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