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Last week I wrote about one of Maine’s enduring sporting traditions, a Christmas rabbit hunt. Each year I reserve today, the last day of the year, for a tradition of my own – my annual reflective walk in the woods.
While everyone else is out stocking up on beer, chips and bubbly for tonight’s New Year’s celebration, I’ll be heading for the deep, dark woods. I like to get an early start on this last day of the year, usually taking along a daypack full of food, water and tea with plans to spend the entire day out there. With a late sunrise and an early sunset the “day” is rather short by any account, so a few bottles of water and a few brownies or sandwiches will tide me over till I get home in what amounts to late afternoon.
There is no real purpose to these rambles except to escape the routine of daily life, the noise of human activity and the stress of having to be or do or perform to someone else’s standards. When you’re alone in the woods you can walk as fast or as slow as you wish, dally wherever you choose and take any path that suits your mood. I’ll start out on a logging road or snowmobile trail, but soon I’ll wander into the woods as I follow deer, moose, coyote or rabbit tracks. I invariably end up in a swamp where a plethora of animal signs tells me that there is another life outside the city limits and things are going well.
With snow on the ground there is no limit to the diversions one may find in the woods. I am as fascinated by mouse tracks (how do they make those tunnels under the snow?) as I am by porcupine trails, and on any given winter day you shouldn’t have to wander far to find either of them. If you follow a stream or brook for any distance you should encounter fisher, mink, otter or beaver tracks, plus foxes and coyotes will make an appearance as well.
I like to head straight into the deepest part of the woods, farthest from civilization and away from the last of the grind and groan of human influences. Somewhere in the distance there’s likely to be a chainsaw running, maybe a skidder or snow plow, but if you put enough hills behind you the din can at least be muted. I know I’ve “arrived” when all I can hear is the sizzle of falling snow or the tick and rattle of sleet falling on the last dead leaves clinging to the treetops.
Most folks see the winter woods as dead and solemn, but those folks only see what’s outside their picture windows. Get out there and you’ll hear the cheery calls of chickadees as they meander through the woods in search of food, or the raspy call of creepers and nuthatches as they pick and poke around the tree trunks for seeds, insects and other tasty treats.
I have yet to be in the woods anywhere at any time and not hear the raucous calls of a pileated woodpecker, crows or ravens. I have often heard romantic writers call the clucks and chatters of passing ravens as “the essence of evil,” but I don’t see it that way. I admire their ability to make a variety of calls that sound like anything from an angry crow to the dripping of water, and they do it most often and most enthusiastically on the coldest of days. In fact, from now on through the rest of the winter the most common animal sound you’ll hear in the woods during the day is the call of a distant raven. If you’re lucky enough you’ll hear the distinctive “whoosh” of their wings as they fly by overhead, but mostly you’ll hear their harsh cries, clucks and croaks as they sail high through the perfectly blue sky.
It’s sad to admit that there is no more “wilderness” in Maine, and sooner or later I’ll cross a snowmobile trail or ATV path that is obviously well used all winter. I don’t mind the machines or their purposes, but it saddens me to cross such a trail only to find fresh coyote tracks upon them. This, I know, means the canines are on the hunt, and most snowmobile trails eventually pass or cross deer wintering or yarding areas. What is going to happen next is not difficult to conjure.
Coyotes are intelligent opportunists, and if a packed trail leads them to a herd of captive whitetails, nothing good can come of it, at least not from the deer’s point of view. Every time I have followed coyote tracks on snow they have led me into a yarding area, and every time I will find the remains of one, if not many, deer in the snow. Once the coyotes find a yarding area they tend to revisit it throughout the winter. Though I don’t mind or object to letting nature take its course, I think the coyotes are given an unfair advantage when they are given a packed, paved highway to their quarry.
I leave the yarding areas alone as much as I can because coyotes will even follow snowshoe trails to them, and I don’t want to contribute to the problem by being that curious. When the cover gets thick and the deer sign gets heavy I make a detour and find a beaver flowage or porcupine den, instead.
My interest in being in the woods today is simply to empty my mind of the things that have weighed on me all year. We all carry out own baggage — debts, family, jobs, issues and conflicts of every sort — but for a few precious hours all that angst and anxiety can be placed on a back burner while taking the time to track a turkey or wonder how a deer can find the last apple in an orchard under 20 inches of snow.
By the time I get home my mind is cleansed, refreshed and back in order. I may even have solved a pressing dilemma that, before my walk, seemed to make no sense and have no solution.
Find the time to get into the woods this winter. Get away from it all and everyone and see what miracles can happen for you. You may find that a spiritual cleansing once a year may not be enough!
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