The Branch Hoppers arrived at the North Lake Samish Trailhead excited about the sunshine that was creeping over Alger Alp and Lookout Mountain. This outing location has become a classic for the group, they explore there at least once a season. The terrain holds the perfect mix of logging land where the boys can wander, learn to navigate, and work on skills with low impact together with a more established forest on it’s steeper terrain that offers considerable physical challenge, a pristine waterfall, and plenty of natural history mysteries.
Circling up in the parking lot for their opening meeting the mentors brought the Explorer’s attention to the group’s main challenge for the season, inclusion and interpersonal dynamics.
Setting up the intention to improve upon our circle time, group decision-making, and interpersonal relationships the mentors laid out three rules to help support the group. First to encourage the heart by supporting other group members, being genuine and caring towards one another, helping peers when needed, and keeping each other’s goals in mind. Second, don’t waste anyone’s time (including your own) by taking advantage of what is offered during the outing and listening when needed. Lastly to be here now, which is an Explorers Club motto that demands staying present and mindful during outings and group focused work. With the whole group on board for our three commitments they nominated a leader of the day, passed out jobs, and checked in about our skill focus for the year fire by friction.
With the intention of inspiring the group to continue their skill journey of fire the mentors passed around an object that looked like a piece of fruit leather and felt like suede. They went on to explain that the object was called tinder fungus. “Fomes fomentarius or Horse Hoof fungus is a polypore that grows on Birch tree snags. The name, Fomes fomentarius means, ‘to use as tinder’. It is extremely flammable and has a nice slow burn, which makes it excellent for starting fires”.
Elaborating the mentor explained that in 1991 hikers found the preserved remains of a naturally mummified man who lived between 3400 and 3100 BCE in a glacier in the Otzal Alps between Austria and Italy. Ötzi the 5000-year-old “Iceman” was found with a similar polypore fungus in his pocket. He is thought to have carried the mushroom to preserve fire, use as insect repellent, and as a bandage. How exciting to think that in harvesting, processing, and practicing the technique of using tinder fungus as fire starter we’re carrying on a tradition that is at least 5,000 years old. Connecting the Explorers to the natural history and stories behind Earth skills brings relevancy, responsibility, and an element of sacredness to learning this knowledge.
The process of turning the raw fungus into a usable tinder involves cutting the middle of the fungus (the Amadou or trauma layer) into thin slices, boiling it for a few hours with the ash of a Paper Birch tree, then pounding it flat with a mallet. The mentors brought a few Horse Hoff funguses to the outing for the group to process, but our aim for the day was to ascend the North Lake Samish trail and head out to a wetland where we would search out the fungus to harvest and process. We’d wrap up our day up with some hot chocolate and games.
With inspiration as our momentum the group headed up the trail in search of the wetland. The group did an excellent job trading off carrying the heavy water jug and equipment for boiling the fungus. As we climbed water poured out of the hillside through the creeks and drainages, and the sweet smell of fresh buds, flowers, and spring was in the air. We arrived at the top of the power lines sweaty and hungry so the group lunched.
Establishing a basecamp we headed North on a logging road. Unexpectedly the group discovered a second wetland to the West. Climbing into the thicket we pushed our way through the loamy undergrowth. The Explorers had discovered not just a wetland but also a Vernal Pool!
A Vernal Pool ecosystem is a temporary wetland area formed by fall and winter rains that hold the water in land depressions until late spring or early summer, when it dries up. The pool holds water long enough to allow some aquatic organisms to flourish, but not long enough for the development of a typical pond or marsh. The resulting winter-wet/summer-dry conditions result in the creation of the specialized, rare, and unique variety of flora and fauna that calls it home.
Skirting the pool the Explorers noticed what look like miniature shrimp swimming around in the shallows. They had discovered Fairy Shrimp! These tiny invertebrate typically hatch when the first rains of the year fill vernal pools.
Freshwater Fairy Shrimp are inch long crustaceans, which spend their entire lives in a vernal pool. They mature in about 41 days under typical winter conditions.
Toward the end of their brief lifetime, females produce thick-shelled "resting eggs" also known as cysts. During the summer, these cysts become embedded in the dried bottom mud and hatch when the rains come again.
Continuing our exploration we did end up finding a few Birch, but none that had tinder fungus. We headed back to our base camp and got our stove going while we carefully carved off the trauma layer of the Horse Hoof fungus. While it was boiling away the boys practiced igniting pieces of some already processed tinder fungus and eventually got a small twig fire going. We spent the rest of our day finishing out our skill process, following our interests, and enjoying the sunshine.
Circling up to give some thanks with a round of hot chocolate and reflect on our day we asked ourselves if we had held to our three commitments and how it changed the group dynamic during the outing. The mentors definitely noticed a marked improvement in the group’s support and care for one another and appreciated their demonstrated focus while working on the complex skill of fire. Each Branch Hopper walked away with a piece of tinder fungus for their fire kit and a new found fascination for the complex ecology that lives in Vernal Pools and our lowland forests.
For more pictures please visit the Branch Hoppers photo album from the day.