Saturday, January 7, 2017

A Winter’s Walk

    The snow is deep and climbing over the plowed up snowbank is difficult. Then caution is required going down the slope, although slipping would only land one in a bed of thick fluffy snow. Stepping into the shelter of the softwoods a tiny stream gurgles beneath the snow, but a few steps on there is silence. The new snow has stolen all sound.
     The dogs zig and zag, following their noses and scents we can only try to imagine, snow is flying everywhere, then they disappear ahead.
    Boisterous squawks and clucks and thundering flaps of wings ahead!
    A big black turkey flaps overhead, then another. Hurrying on, the huge three toed tracks cover the snow. The dogs bound about with enthusiasm, going back then rushing ahead. Another turkey is aloft…five in all.
   When things quiet we proceed. Colby, the oldest German Wirehaired Retriever, stuffs her head into a fresh deer track. There are many tracks, all headed down the hill and none were there before this last snow. Both dogs show interest, but neither follow, instead vaulting ahead on the path hidden by snow. They know the way.
    An opening in the forest allows sunlight, it is almost a small field, and another slope through wrist-sized maples takes us to the valley’s bottom. More deer tracks, most wandering, with a few snowshoe hare tracks mixed in.
    Beneath tall softwoods a stream rushes, coming down through ledges above us and hidden by ice to be easily crossed. Only the muffled babbling gives away its presence.
    Next to the edge of a meadow, whose tall grasses are unseen beneath the snow, stands a fat ancient white cedar. The deer have beaten a path, coming down a particularly steep slope and passing next to the big tree. Maggie, the younger wirehair, plows through the open meadow in big bounds, the feathery snow up over her shoulders.
    On the far side we hear a grouse flush from a tree.
    Our path follows the edge where the soft boggy open ground meets the forested steep rocky slope. Above us spruce, maple, and birch cling to craggy ledges. Fractured rock shapes the hillside, creating vertical walls. A deer used our path since the last snow while one or two others crossed the spongy meadow.
    In a thicket of young fir trees we leap over a small brook. No ice has formed there yet. Only a couple of weeks ago spawning brook trout swam in the gravely shallows. Perhaps the soil of the boggy meadow warms the water to keep it from freezing. Beyond the stream the softwoods are huge and again swallow up the sound.
Branches bent with snow hang into our trail, sometimes sneaking snow down the collars of our coats. The path is hidden beneath the new white blanker and we stop to sort things out.
    A second ruffed grouse thunders from high up in a fir tree.
    The dogs sniff beneath its branches with tails wagging. There are no bird tracks in the snow. In ever widening circles they search. We walk on.
    Approaching a dogleg in the main stream we pass through alders then step out onto what is a gravely bar in the summer, but now is a plateau of snow. On the far side a small field allows the north wind to drift snow over the stream’s banks, creating wavy shapes with sharp edged shadows. A gentle wind nips at our faces so back into the shelter of the tall softwood trees we go.
    An otter created a shortcut where the brook makes a bend, leaving a lumpy trough through the snow. How many trout might the critter consume in the winter? Our path now parallels the stream. Pools that hold trout in the summer are now covered with ice and snow, but dark inky runs and riffles have so far remained fluid.
    Deer have crossed where the forest hugs the stream from both sides, avoiding the field and a near vertical slope ahead on the far side. Rabbit tracks mix with the deer tracks. Squirrel tracks look tiny. Unidentifiable little tracks look like stitching on the snow.
    A fir that leaned over the stream the past three summers has shattered from the weight of snow and now bridges the stream, its stubborn jagged stump pointing defiantly upward. Clumps of ice cling where the green branches touch the water and balls of snow sit atop, while dark water bulges around their bases.

   The path continues between the straight trunks of tall spruce and firs. Rusty barbed wire, inches inside the wood, stretches between a handful of trunks. Other fallen trees lay cross the stream, but have done so for two or three years. One day a large spring runoff will carry them away, but in the meanwhile summertime trout hide beneath.
     At another large bend, where the stream alters its course to create a gravel bar half the size of a tennis court, the otter again made a shortcut, probably preferring the shelter of the woods to an open exposer. Even though its tracks are fresh, the dogs show no interest.
    In the opening a second freshly fallen fir collects ice and snow, enough to make the water bulge on the upstream side. The spring freshet will rip the tree from the bank for sure and again change the shape of the stream. In ten years that gravel bar has quadrupled in size.
    Maggie covers all of the flat ground between the stream and the hill, hunting hard and oblivious to the snow. Colby doesn’t like the cold or the snow and stays closer. Neither dog shows any interest on walking on ice where the stream is frozen, but we keep an eye on them anyway.
    Beneath tall softwoods the path bends where the water has undercut the banks in another sharp turn. Upstream, an almost continuous riffle creates a long straight stretch. Rabbit tracks weave with no discernible pattern. In an abandoned field on the far side, alders have flourished to create what looks like excellent woodcock cover.
    Eventually we turn away from the water to cross to the slope that will take us up to our home. Deer have followed the edge of the incline, staying in the dense cover of young fir trees. Their tracks pass under unbelievably low leaning dead softwood trunk. We pick through the thick trees up to an old skidder trail then follow it up the hill.
   Ahead of us is home.