The woods sleep through the winter, but every Saturday and Sunday at 3, kids and parents go on a winter slumber walk in Rock Creek Park to look for signs of stirring.
"These are young woods, with young timber, mainly oak," naturalist Vanessa Molineaux explains as we pause on the trail. The adults listen attentively, but the young humans are looking for more lively signs. Led by 11-year-old Zane Gorove, a uniformed member of Friends of Rock Creek's Environment (FORCE), they scamper off the trail and into the woods lifting logs and rocks in hopes of finding salamanders underneath.
"There's little vegetation in the winter," continues Molineaux, "but here's something the rodents find to eat. It's called mustard garlic."
"Is it mint?" asks a kid who has rejoined the fold too late to hear the name of the plant.
"Smell it," replies Molineaux. "Have you ever smelled mustard greens? Later on it'll smell more like garlic."
What animals are here? Well, raccoons, certainly.
"There aren't enough foxes or barred owls to knock them off," says Molineaux.
"I love to pet raccoons," says a little girl, who is warned that the critters "have sharp teeth." Other habitues of the park, says Molineaux, are foxes, deer and rats.
"There are very few rabbits in the park," says the ranger. "They say that's because of the foxes, but I think they left when the farmers moved out. But the timber is good for deer, and deer are coming back."
Molineaux points down the hill at the den of one of the park's foxes.
"If you come here at six in the morning, you'll see them, the fox and her two little kits. Maybe they den here because the stables are nearby and they have lots of mice and rats to eat."
There aren't enough foxes, however, to control the park's rat population.
"It doubles in the spring and summer with all the picnics," says Molineaux. "We'll either have to bring in more foxes or use traps. There's no way we can use pesticides."
Zane and his band of young followers, meanwhile, have evidence of another park denizen.
"Here's a mole trail," says Zane, following the trail to the mole's hole. Zane's uniform looks like a park ranger's, and on it are sewn badges earned for volunteer hours.
"I got this patch for 15 hours, and this one for 40 hours," he explains. "Mainly I explain things to visitors in the nature center or help on walks."
Zane spots a red-headed woodpecker in the woods, but is disappointed in the dearth of salamanders.
"So far all I've found is lots of worms," he says. "A couple of walks ago I found salamanders under almost every log."
Molineaux is talking about how you can identify trees even when they are bare of leaves -- by the bark and the shape at the top.
"The beech has a grayish, coppery tone," she says. "The dogwood has a flowering bud in wintertime, and the hickory is noted for its scars. You can take the hickory nuts and boil them and get a milk solution. The Indians used it for frying."
At the word "Indians," the kids perk up.
Yes, Molineaux tells them, there were Indians in the park a long time ago.Not only that but right around here somewhere was one of their workshops, a place where they chipped away at arrowheads and things. How can you tell? When you find a rock that looks like a chisel.
As the kids scatter through the woods in search of Indian signs, Molineaux talks about the medicinal and nutritional uses of the vegetation around us.
"This greenbrier leaf will put saliva in your mouth if you're on a walk and get thirsty," she says. The allspice bush, she explains is the source not only for allspice but for some insect repellents.
"Rub the leaf on your arm," she advises a man who seems skeptical. "Doesn't it smell like citronella?"
A lot of people, says Molineaux, make tea from things gathered in the park -- cherries, sumac, even pine needles.
"But you have to be careful," she warns. "These things ferment fast and you've got joy juice."
Zane has finally hit pay dirt, under a rock, and the kids run to Molineaux to show the salamander.
"It's a redback in the gray stage," says Zane, who then returns the salamander to its home under the rock.
"If you didn't put him back the toads would chew him up," approves Molineaux.
A three-year-old, also looking for approval, has been bringing Molineaux leaves and berries and sticks. Now she runs up carrying a rock with lots of sharp points on it.
"She found one," says the ranger excitedly. "This is the kind of rock used in an Indian workshop. Where did you find it?"
"I don't know," shrugs the little girl and runs off down the trail.