By: Caleigh Stanier, JCC Naturalist Intern
The July prairie is full of treasures.
However, a harsh and sometimes unforgiving summer sun can easily turn a prairie hike into a punishment. But today, the overcast sky’s chilly threat of rain provides you with a rare opportunity to explore Kent Park’s blooming grassland, undisturbed.
The trails here are unfamiliar to you, but that makes them all the more intriguing. Getting lost in a place like this is worth it. You take a turn – left – after passing the pond just to see where the trail will lead you.
The sound of gravel crunching under your feet is replaced by the soft swish of grass as you trek up the hill. When woodland opens into the first prairie vista, you see yellow. Grey-headed coneflowers blanket the fields, as far as the eye can see. Their sheer numbers are impressive, but what makes you stop and stare is that color – constant and brilliant. You’ve never seen a yellow with that exact personality before. The scene reminds you of an impressionist painting. Every flowerhead is individual and precise, but all you see is their vibrant blurr.
You continue hiking along the path that skirts the parks’ edges. Knobby trees and thorny gooseberry bushes interweave with the barbed wire fence that separates prairie and pasture. You’ve never expected to find gooseberries in large numbers before, so you can’t believe your eyes when you come across a single bush, its branches loaded with deep purple berries. They are plump and glistening with promises of sweet, juicy bursts. Of course, you collect them all, filling your jacket pocket with the little treasures. They won’t stay there for long, though. You snack on them one by one as you continue down the trail.
Tall and robust milkweed plants line this next section of the path. Out of the corner of your eye you see something small and white adorning one of the plants, about halfway up its stem. Curious, you take a closer look. You discover that it is a young milkweed seed pod, silky and soft.
The leaves of the milkweed plant next door look like they have seen better days. Something has been using them for shelter, and for sustenance. Skeletonized milkweed leaves are a sign that hungry milkweed tussock moth caterpillars have been present, so you turn over the leaves in search of the little critters. There they are; an enormous furry cluster chewing away at the stiff, sappy leaf.
The sky creaks and groans. Its clouds are heavy with water, and you know a downpour will soon be in the works. While you are watching the grey sky, something colorful flits across your vision and lands in the prairie nearby. It is a clouded sulphur butterfly, stopping to rest on a wet leaf. It stays incredibly still – still enough for you to take in the details of its wings. Yellow, rimmed with soft green. Up close, you notice that what you thought were brown splotches are actually intricately detailed eyespots. These butterflies usually just fly by you in a pale blurr, barely noticeable. They don’t have the vibrant colors or fancy designs of the monarchs and swallowtails, and they are much smaller in size. But up close, you see that they are no less beautiful than their showy-er cousins. Their beauty just takes a bit more patience to notice. You wonder where this butterfly will take shelter during the impending storm.
You feel one drip on your shoulder, then three, then ten. Sure enough, the sky breaks open and pours out onto the fields around you. The cool water is refreshing at first, but the drops soon begin to fall much harder. You run to a wooded area a little ways up the trail for shelter against the worst of the wind and rain. It seems like forever that you wait under a wide hickory, listening to the rain slash the leaves overhead. Tall branches and a windbreaker can only provide so much protection against sheets of heavy droplets, so you are soaked to the core. But you don’t mind. It was exhilarating. The sky had finally released a day’s worth of weight and tension, and the air is now calm and still.
You decide that it’s time to start heading back, so you start down this new, forested trail. Here, the sharp scent of cold water intermingles with the wet earth’s warm aroma. After a while, that winding, wooded trail opens up onto a large clearing. Here, two wetlands are bridged by a strip of prairie-covered land and a mowed path. Usually, the cup plant that lines this path towers above your head. Today, the tall stalks arch gracefully over the path, beat down slightly by the heavy rain. They have just started to bloom, and you travel excitedly through a mysterious tunnel of flowers.
On the other side, you catch a glimpse of a familiar stand of evergreen trees. These mark the trail you started down an hour before, and, for the first time, you know exactly how to find your way. As you exit Kent Park’s serene world of woods and grassland, you marvel at the rare wonders you witnessed on this July prairie hike.