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Lots of folks I know dread the thought of a winter walk because it looks so cold and harsh out there. The same error in judging a book by its cover applies to the great Maine woods at this time of year. What you see from your cozy kitchen window is not necessarily what you’ll get if you venture past the open fields into the dark and somber forest. All that bluster and bitterness is confined to the open spaces that typically surround human habitation, farms, roads and other for-our-benefit development. Step into the world of alders, cedars, hemlocks, spruce and fir and you will be amazed at how peaceful, quiet and serene it is. Cold, certainly, maybe some wind, but there’s nothing like what’s going on in the places our wild neighbors fear to tread.
Even though there has been no snow on the ground other than a few short-term test runs at Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, the forest is noticeably empty during the cold season. Those animals that hibernate have it the easiest – just nap it off till spring! Migrating birds have drifted off to the east or south where food and balmier weather suits their needs. We’re left with only the creatures that can handle bad weather and limited food sources. Most have two options: travel in search of forage or just sit and wait it out, depending on their own fat reserves to get them through the worst of times.
Some critters survive the winters on a combination of both. Deer, squirrels, turkeys and others will feed when they can and hunker down when they must. Because predators lurk at every turn they are not wont to wander far to feed, but they will face the risk rather than starve. In my walks I’ll find grouse and turkey feathers, piles of rabbit fur and the remains of a deer, all risk-takers that ran into a hungry fox, owl or coyote along the way.
It’s tough on predators, too, because at this time of year only the strongest and best survive, so nature has pitted the most evasive prey species against the most capable predators. The winners go on to produce more of their kind come spring. The losers provide the fuel that enables them to get it done!
Although I have hunted enthusiastically for more than 50 years and pretty much live on wild game year-round, I still root for wildlife during the off-season. Come winter I want them to survive, to thrive and to live till spring. I cheer for the grouse I push out of their evergreen hiding places in January, study the deer tracks and beds I find on the sunny southern slopes and laugh at the squirrels and rabbits that leave their tracks all over woods I hunted hard – without success – just a month ago. I like knowing they are out there, I like to visit them in a non-adversarial way and I like learning what I can from their tracks and other sign.
With all this to consider it’s no wonder I don’t really feel the cold that keeps so many others safe and warm at home. You don’t have to dress up like the Michelin Man in order to enjoy a hike in the woods, just dress in warm layers and keep moving – you’ll be warm as toast!
As always, I bring my pack laden with water, my stove and tin cup so I can brew up some hot tea during my trek. Already warm from walking, I still enjoy the added heat emanating from my cup. It warms my hands and my stomach, once again making me glad I decided to venture outdoors when most folks choose to stay bundled up in their Snuggies and pray for an early spring.
Of course, January hikers can bring pre-made hot drinks, snacks and water – the important thing is to get out there to enjoy and observe. I am amazed at the number of people who “crawdad” at the mere mention of a winter walk, and there are many who simply will not do it. Those who do take a chance invariably find something interesting along the way and come home feeling refreshed and revitalized, a good way to be in January and February!
By the way, it’s not necessary (or even practical) to head out at dawn and spend all day traipsing around in the woods. I do it because I find things “out there” much more interesting than chores, housework and other mundane responsibilities. I get things done, of course, but every chance I get I go where the only distractions are wild and natural. With only 9 hours of daylight at this time of year I don’t mind spending all of mine outside, but there’s no rule about that.
If all you have is an hour, don’t waste it pacing around the house. Instead, suit up and go for a quick walk around the woods near home. It’s a good bet that there are woods roads, hiking paths; snowmobile or 4-wheeler trails close to where you live. If not, simply walk the field edges or along a stone wall or stream. You will be surprised to see how much there is going on right outside your door.
For instance, one year it was too cold to make a day of it so I just decided to walk along my property boundary and see what was going on out there. Aside from the usual rabbit, squirrel and grouse tracks, I was astounded to come upon a huge 12-point buck that had apparently died in his sleep while bedded on a sunny high spot just a few yards off the line. The entire deer was there, curled up in a ball as if he were sound asleep, and though I checked him thoroughly I could not find a bullet or arrow hole in him. His face was white and his teeth were worn down flat, so he was an old deer and most likely starved or just got too old for the rigors of another Maine winter.
Within a week the coyotes had found him and had erased every trace of him except the antlers, which I hung on the shed wall as a reminder of how fragile life can be.
You may not find a dead buck on your January hike, but one thing is for certain: You won’t find anything if you don’t go out and have a look!
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