First Day Hike at Montauk


                                                                         Photo by Scott Hamilton
The crisp morning air created mist on the river the morning of the 
First Day Hike at Montauk.
By Scott Hamilton
Co-publisher

It was a crisp morning at Montauk as the hikers arrived for the annual First Day Hike. A nine-year tradition started the new year with a guided hike through a state park. The First Day Hikes program began locally in 1992 and went nationwide in 2012 under the aegis of the America’s State Park alliance.
First Day Hikes is a program of free, guided hikes offered each year on New Year’s Day by the fifty state park systems of the United States. The hikes are designed to promote an alternative way of celebrating the new year by getting some fresh air, sunshine and exercise while experiencing nature and history.
Missouri hosted hikes in 36 state parks this year. The nearest to the Licking area was at Montauk State Park, where hikers met at the Stone CCC Shelter at 9 a.m. The temperature hovered just barely above freezing as hikers arrived. Doug Rusk, Park Superintendent, greeted the hikers with a warm fire, hot chocolate, coffee, granola bars and dog treats for the three four-legged canine hikers that joined the group of 15 hikers in enjoying the crisp air and scenery.
Rusk kicked off the day describing what we would see along the trail and spoke about the advantages of controlled burns in the state forests. Among these are: a reduced risk of natural wildfires, a decrease in the number of invasive plant species, the thinning of trees in general, an increase in ground cover and an increase in insect populations and species.
For thousands of years, our prairies were known for natural fires, making our native species resilient to fire, which is not the case with many invasive species. This is one of the fastest ways to gain control over invasive plants in the prairies and rolling hills. Some of the species invade from rocky bluffs into the forests and prairies. Among these are cedar, which will take over a forest, field, or prairie if not kept in check. Cedar burns very hot and does not survive controlled burns except for the largest of trees. They are a native species of trees that were confined by natural fires to the rocky bluffs where the flames cannot cross the bluffs, but in recent years cedar has become more prevalent in the lowlands and streams. It is one of the species considered a problem in maintaining our prairies and hardwood forests.
Another major invasive species that is creating problems in maintaining our natural habitats is the multi-floral rose. They are not easy to remove as they can survive multiple fires due to strong root structures and they proliferate through both seeds and shoots, making it hard to prevent spreading. The only safe method to control multi-floral rose is by cutting and treating the stumps directly with herbicides, preferably herbicides that do not remain in the soil.
The state park systems try to keep a three-year cycle of controlled burns on the forestlands to keep plant populations under control. Most hardwoods are resilient to fire after four years, which means that some of the older young trees will survive through two cycles and grow into large trees over the years, but a majority of them will die off in the fire, allowing the large trees to thrive. Without the controlled burns the undergrowth gets out of control and chokes out many of the wild flowers and grasses, leaving the forest floor nearly bare. The last controlled burn at Montauk was last year on the uphill side of the Pine Ridge Trail; there is a planned burn for the downhill side of the trail later this year. The burn line is fairly easy to spot from the differences in vegetation.
The group left the shelter around 9:30 a.m. and headed up the steep trail toward the hardwood natural area. The first quarter mile of the hike is moderately steep and rocky along the side of the ridge as the trail ascends into the higher hardwood natural area. Approximately halfway up the ridge trail, the hikers stopped to catch their breath and view the eaglesnests. Up until last year there were active eagles nests along the trail, but over the last couple of years things have changed as the eagles have moved to other areas of the park. An older nest was up the hill to the left of the trail; the eagles abandoned that nest four years ago and built the newer nest across the valley. The newer nest was occupied until last summer when it appears that the eagles moved on, as a pair of horned owls took over the nest. A few years back when eagles were still endangered, the Pine Ridge Trail, along with 80 acres surrounding the nests, would have been closed to the public. But recent changes in their population have moved them from the list, so the trail remains open and the public can enjoy the view of the nest.
                                                            Photo by Scott Hamilton
Eagles frequently nest along the Pine Ridge Trail in Montauk State Park, 
one of the many parks that hosted guided First Day Hikes. 
This nest is currently occupied by a pair of horned owls.
The group split at the top of the hill with Ranger Hubbs taking part of the group across Hwy. 119 to the main part of the hardwood forest, while half accompanied Rusk to get a closer look at the eagles nest. During this part of the hike, Rusk shared methods of determining deer numbers based on plant populations in the area. It is easy to tell if there is an overpopulation of deer in a forest by watching the plant growth in the winter months. He showed the fragrant sumac tree buds and said they were a favorite of the deer. If you are seeing these buds on the plants, there are not too many deer in the woods.
                                                                                                                       Photo by Scott Hamilton
The last of the hikers enjoy a conversation following the hike. The two guides, Ranger Hubbs, third from left and Park Superintendent Doug Rusk on the right were full of information about the park and conservation in general.

There was much discussion over the massive trees lying on the ground in the forest. The “Super Derecho” of May 2009 was responsible for the felling of the trees. Rusk stated that the forest looked like a bomb went off in the wake of the storm. Rusk has been working in the State Park system for 29 years. He fell in love with the park while assisting with the cleanup from the storm in 2010, so applied for the open position for park superintendent.
Montauk is best known for its fishing and it runs a hatchery that provides trout for several parks across the state. Based on the number of trout tags sold, new trout are released into the park every day to ensure a steady population remains in the river. Rusk and Hubbs reported that fishermen catch most trout within 11 days of being released.
One conclusion from the First Day Hike was clear – there is a side to the park that may be overlooked. Don’t let the focus on the river and fishing cause you to miss out on the natural forests and hiking trails.

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