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If I had to pick one thing to do before this winter is over, it would have to be a snowshoe trek through the snowy woods. There is something about hiking far into the winter forest, brewing some hot tea for lunch, and just enjoying the peace and quiet “out there.”
Lots of people look into the distance and see snow piling up and think, “What a mess!” but things look a little different through a woodsman’s eye. I’ve heard many a time (in poems, among other things) that the January woodlands are “bleak and bare,” but apparently those poets weren’t looking into the forests of Maine.
With two feet or more of snow on the ground, the snowshoe-bound traveler can pretty much go anywhere his bear paws take him. The longer, slimmer pickerel-type shoes are best for open country walking, but the wider designs are best when navigating through brushy country. Even with knee-deep snow there are going to be times when you stumble over a rock or log, but that’s just part of the experience. Learn to fall gracefully and slowly, and then get back up and start over. A fall in the snow is not going to kill you!
Thanks to many years of logging activity, just about anywhere you care to wander in Maine is marked by trails or roads of some sort. Easily traveled roadways can be found in the valleys, mid-way up hills and on the high ground, so getting from here to there shouldn’t be much of a challenge. All you have to do is decide how far you want to walk and how deep into the woods you need to go. I like to make a full day of it and go from dawn till dark (just an 8-hour day in the dead of winter!) and plan my trips accordingly. It usually turns out that about three hours of steady walking coupled with an hour for lunch and tea will put me at the halfway mark. Then I simply strap my snowshoes back on and head for home. I generally arrive, worn but satisfied, just as the winter sky starts to change from blue to black.
I honestly don’t care if I’m late because walking in the night woods is a pleasure, too. It actually seems to be warmer; more still and less overwhelming at night than on a daytime hike. It’s also more quiet and serene after dark, but you go when you can go.
The great thing about a winter hike is that you don’t have to tie yourself down to one place, as you would for a day of ice-fishing, and you don’t have to carry a bunch of gear, as you might for a day of rabbit hunting. In fact, you don’t have to carry any thoughts with you either – no deducing where the fish may be or wondering where the dogs are going to go next. You head out with a clear mind and a fresh perspective and just see what happens next.
While many folks view the winter woods as empty and barren, that’s far from the case. The best thing about snow is that it tells stories you would never otherwise have heard. A fresh fall of snow reveals everything about the day’s events. From mouse tracks to moose trails, the snow tells you what critters were about, where they went and what they did, with all the drama and suspense of the best soap opera going.
For example, I dread observing fresh coyote tracks along an old woods road or snowmobile trail. I know these opportunistic predators are on the prowl for one thing only: food! In winter, there’s not much for a meat eater to dine on other than deer flesh, and when the coyote’s tracks veer off the trail into a dark evergreen stand, I begin to think the worst for the local yarding area.
Many times a coyote will wander through a deeryard and do nothing but intimidate the resident whitetails, but when a group of hungry canines decides it’s dinnertime, you can’t even imagine what goes on. Suffice it to say that somewhere in that yard is going to be a pile of hides, bone and hair indicating the last hurrah for some desperate buck or doe. When the snow is deep and the deer are young and clustered together, the carnage can be mind-boggling I have found yarding areas with no deer in them, just pile after pile of hair and bones. When coyotes find an easy mark they come back for more as winter wears on. I try to remember that this is “nature” as it was intended, but seeing the predator/prey relationship in “real life” is an education you’re not going to get on the Nature Channel.
Fortunately, the winter woods are not all gloom and doom. There will be endless rabbit and squirrel tracks to follow, porcupine trails to unravel and maybe an otter, fisher or mink track to liven things up. I have bumped into many a moose during my winter wanderings and have always been amazed at how fast they can disappear. I once tried to outrun a moose in waist-deep snow, but the animal disappeared (in open woods) before I’d gone a dozen steps. Apparently those long legs are good for something other than wading in beaver ponds!
It’s always a treat to stop for lunch and, while brewing some hot tea on my little gas stove, watching as the chickadees and nuthatches come shyly in to investigate. I can call chickadees in close enough to land on my hat, and if I’ve remembered to bring along a pocketful of sunflower seeds, I can get them to land in my hand to eat.
I always take my time at lunch because I know when it’s over it’ll be time to head out. For some reason the hike out of the woods seems faster and less eventful, maybe because I’m anxious to get home, dry out and warm up.
That first hour by the evening wood stove is something to look forward to, I can tell you that!
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