A Jewel on the Trail

by Angie Meroshnekoff

I found a jewel in the most unexpected place recently. I was out marking trail with one of my young students for an upcoming NATRC ride. The area is used as a cow pasture in the spring and summer but by early fall what grass that was left was short dry straw and there were more stickers than grass. As we traversed the dusty roads and trails we could tell our horses were looking for water. The weather was hot (over a hundred degrees) and the hills were barren and dry. Mile after mile of dried grass, dusty trails with no shade, and dried cracked stock ponds. Other than the occasional crazed squirrel it seemed like there was no life out there, everything had gone into hiding to escape the extreme heat.

We had ridden for miles before we turned off the main fire road heading south to begin marking the Open loop - And there it was just below us, a jewel. The first hint was the dark green color, and a flash of sun as something sparkled. As we rode towards it, it appeared to grow in size until we realized what we had found, a jewel of a lake. Not one of the tiny stock ponds, but a lake big enough to survive the dry season. The horse high reeds surrounding it and a grass covered bank gave it the green look we had seen in the distance. Close up the water was clear and sparkling. As we approached, we heard the squawks of the bull frogs as they escaped to the water to avoid us. A big splash caught our attention in time to see a large fish leap out of the water to get a bite of insect.

But our attention was drawn to the bank: as our horses strained at their reins to get to the water, we heard the sounds of crunching underfoot and realized we were walking on the shells of crawfish. Hundreds of dried carapaces lined the banks and as the horses pushed their noses into the water they shoved aside dozens more of the live ones to drink. They were just hanging in the water plants at the edge of the pond, only their tails and antenna moving occasionally.

As I was looking on in amazement at the huge numbers of crawfish in the water, Jody said "look at all those huge frogs looking at us!" What I had taken for lily pads or water plants were the heads of 50 or more bull frogs peeking up out of the water keeping an eye on us. While we stared back, several more fish leaped out of the lake to catch insects. We could see tracks where the raccoons came to feast on the water creatures, and where the elk and deer came to drink and browse on the plants at the edge. This tiny little jewel of a lake was teeming with life in that hot, dry and dusty environment.

The horses refreshed themselves with a very long drink and as we left I realized we had refreshed our spirits by taking a moment to see how life had concentrated and survived around that tiny little oasis in the hot dry hills.