The false spring lures me outside. The icy grip of this polar winter seems distracted today, and the temperature is in the low 40’s. I strap on my snowshoes – the snow is really deep. More than a foot is on the ground. There are no paths to follow, just tracks in the snow. Even in just my boots, I could not walk in the dainty, heart-shaped footprints of the deer.
I hate the loud, intrusive sound of my snowshoes. I hate the ugly, scarring tracks I leave behind. Coarse and clumsy, but at least mobile – I am uncaged.
I often stop to appreciate the silence of the woods. There are no sounds of birds or other animals, just the dry rustling of leaves tossed about in a capricious breeze. The woods around me are silent. I hear nothing. No sounds of humans reach me in the snow-insulated woods. (If I want to, I could hear the traffic on the interstate more than a mile away. I choose not to.)
But around me, I see evidence that the woods are alive with unseen activity. A cold winter is nothing to the animals who find dens underground and in old trees. Cozy dens they carefully lined with leaves and fur protect them from even this year’s winter cold.
I mentally catalogue the tracks I see: The signatures of rabbits are two small, round and two longer, oval dents in the snow. When I see little hands, I picture a raccoon or a squirrel, noting too just the slightest sweep of a furry tail behind. What looks like a dog’s print, I imagine to be that of a coyote.
The tracks crisscross, myriad little feet have passed this way and left their marks. Look! Here’s a drama written in the snow! Was it a fight over food or a romp of spring fever? Here’s a snow scar where some creature has dug beneath the snow to the rotting leaves below in search of food.
The snow is beautiful. So white, so pristine. Where it is turning to icy crystals, it sparkles. The wind and the sun combine to melt the snow into fantastic shapes. The backdrop it provides the lone burst of color from a fallen evergreen branch, a patch of moss, or the irregular shapes of leaves and seed pods is a canvas an artist would envy.
And, holding my breath, just as I did at eight, I attempt to walk on top of the snow. It holds! It makes me feel so powerful and light. I am not tangled in a trough of snow that drags at my feet. I’m taller. I am as light as a feather as I cross my personal tundra.
Early March 2014
I can hear birds! The sun beckons. The temperature has soared to a balmy 50 degrees! The urge to go out in the morning sun is more than I can resist. Is spring really here?
All evidence around me says it is, but wary Wisconsinites know that sometimes winter can linger well into April, so I’m not fooled. Purposefully, I am going to take advantage of this gorgeous day. I lace up my boots; underneath I have on two pairs of socks. Even if the temperature is in the fifties there is still a good eight inches of snow cover – and it is wet and melting!
First discovery – it is easier to walk in the heavy, wet snow than it is on the icy paths now glistening with melt water. Second discovery – the snow is still hard enough to walk on in some places. Oh! The euphoria of childhood memories! Twice in one winter is a gift!
I head for the open water of the creek between my pond and my uncle’s. It’s a sweet spot for pictures – pretty in every season. In the winter, naked tree and bushes leave a clean, far view that shortens the distances between me and the wider world. In the summer, those leaves cocoon me in just the thirty foot radius that I can see.
I can hear lots of birds! A woodpecker that was tapping on the house when I left is now in a tree above my head. I hear a robin, but I don’t recognize the call until I see it startle up from a nearby bush. In the open water near the aerator for the pound, two huge Canada geese are honking up a storm. It seems they’re a bit angry that I have disturbed their temporary idyll on their own journey, northward (we hope!) to summer nesting grounds far from here.
I follow the deer tracks I followed earlier in the winter. Now well-trodden paths, they are perfect if you’re just a foot or so wide…and your bulk is spread on four legs, not just two. Again, I feel how graceful they are, their tiny hooves defining a path as they walk single file through the woods. Every now and then I encounter a little pile I don’t want to step on. A month ago, each dropping created its own tiny nest in the cold snow. Today, they are easier to avoid!
I can hear sand hill cranes. Like “lunatic clowns” was the way my older son described their call. He was so right. I will forever think of them that way. I can hear them clearly, but scanning the brush and the forest for them, I can only hope to see them on the ground. Despite their size (about 4 feet tall), they camouflage amazingly well. You have to search for the red patch on the top of their heads. I can’t find a single one. Like the deer at this time of year, the animal needs to be moving to see it. If they are still, they blend right in.
Besides their sound, I come across lots of their tracks in the snow. Like me the cranes seem to enjoy being able to walk on top of it. The tracks are everywhere. They are one of the harbingers of spring, the reason I saw no tracks a month ago.
I am following their sound. It is carrying me up and over the hill of the old orchard – a walk I cannot do in any other season. That orchard has been converted into a beautiful prairie, its heritage of a century or two ago. In the real spring it is too wet, in the summer the plants are too tall and tangly, in the fall too many burrs snag your clothes. But in the winter, the burrs are gone or have lost their barbs, the plants are buried and the ground is cold enough to allow trekking over the snow.
From the top of the hill, I can see across the marsh to the waters of Lake Koshkonong. When the trees are leafed out, that view doesn’t exist – so it always surprises me to realize how close I really am to the lake.
Something odd and out of place is in the meadow below me. The orange color gives it away…I walk to it only to discover that it’s a deer blind. Disgusting blots on the landscape, they are a constant reminder that this is a state of people who love to hunt.
Off to find my favorite spot, a brook with a funky, wooden bridge. This is another place that seems to fascinate me no matter the season. Does it send out a tractor beam to my camera and pull me right to it? But besides being picturesque, I have even found little treasures there – like the skeleton of a deer that had probably died in the fall, been partially consumed by coyotes and remained covered by snow for the winter. Wasn’t much left – but that was part of the appeal. That was last year. Today, there is nothing.
From here, in the summer, you can’t go anywhere once you cross the bridge. The ground is wet and there are no paths. But with the snow, I can continue to follow the deer paths. Where this summer it will be boggy – right now there is ice. I can easily make my way towards the west, toward the marsh that separates us from the lake, and where there are always lots of birds. That’s the direction from which I hear the cranes, so I keep going.
On every adventure, at some point reality starts poking at your mind. It happened to break through once I got onto the path we take to hear the owls on our summer night hikes. The cries of the “lunatic clowns” are ever further west – and I realize that they are probably moving away from me and that I will never actually get to see them. I turn for home, this time following the man-made path through the snow and tall grass. That’s when I got my reward! Startled by cries close by, I look up in the sky and there are three cranes! I watch them for a few minutes, hoping they will come closer to where I am, but they look as if they are going to settle far to the east. At least I got to see them! I see more geese, too, but they aren’t much to write home about: Too common, too noisy, (too much pooping).
Back across the bridge, I follow the path that skirts the western edge of the meadow. The woods of my uncle’s property on are on my right. How I love the “Halloween trees” the big huge oaks with their twisty, evils claws reaching out, silhouetted against the sky. They lose some of their fearsomeness when the sky is bright blue – their métier is definitely the haunting, brooding, grey sky of dark autumn days when the bitter wind forces the leaves into a ghostly rattle.
When I hear the rev of the chain saw – my journey is over and back in the present I contemplate the trimming of two iconic trees at the end of my pond. It is a good day! They won’t come completely down. Lopping off two huge limbs that stretched out over the pond and threatened to bring both trees down with them seems to have saved them for a few more years. I already have enough trees in the pond, but I am loathed to give up a single, live tree along the shore. And just to punctuate a good decision and a good outcome, a chickadee lands in a bush not three feet from my head and gives me a chirr-up!