The most stressful holidays are behind us, which means we can join together in a huge sigh of relief and then take a moment to reflect on things we can do now that we’re done spending, baking, visiting and returning.
This has been an interesting month for the sporting ilk, being that it’s been record-class warm in most places and snow free in others. Most of our lakes and ponds still contain open water or do not have enough safe ice covering them, which means snowmobilers, ATVers and ice-fishermen can’t do much more than maintain their gear and wait for the green light from the meteorologist. Predictions are for continued mild weather, so the Old Farmer’s Almanac’s normally accurate predictions are off target for the time being. I had expected to be on the ice jigging for pickerel by now but some ponds are free of ice and others have nothing more than a skim around the edges. Thin ice is one thing but few winter fishermen can walk on water!
One advantage of a snowless December is that there is plenty of room to roam for those who feel a need to be outdoors. Maine’s thousands of miles of snowmobile trails are wide open to hikers right now, and an ambitious walker can stroll for hours without running into anyone wearing skis or operating tracked machinery. These trails wind and twist through some of the state’s wildest country, and it’s a good bet that there will be deer, moose, coyote, fox and other wildlife encounters along the way.
If nothing else the low, swampy spots will reveal the tracks of these and other common Maine animals plus turkeys and grouse. Most of these critters spend the winter in lowland wetland areas where there is food and escape cover, not to mention some protection from normally inclement winter weather.
If you plan on walking one of these trails expect some difficult terrain along the way, especially in those aforementioned lowlands. Some snowmobile “bridges” consist of piles of logs stacked side-by-side lengthwise (or not!) and can present a challenge to someone wearing only boots or hiking shoes. I’m an “observer” and don’t travel very fast, so I usually wear my trusty calf-high Muck boots, which help me get around and through some of the muddiest places on the trail.
After many years of wearing trendy “new-age” clothing I have gone back to wearing mostly wool and am quite happy with the reversion. I don wool pants, a wool sweater and a hooded wool pullover over my wicking long johns. A knitted wool hat, gloves and hand warmers complete my outfit, and thus equipped I can hike comfortably all day without feeling too cold, too warm or too heavily laden.
This is pretty much the same outfit I wear all through hunting season but it seems so much lighter now without the orange vest and heavy bow, rifle or shotgun.
For all-day trips I do bring my trusty pack but it, too, seems nearly empty after I remove all the hunting-related paraphernalia. I still bring my little stove, tin cup, water, binoculars, camera and compass but more than half of the normal load is eliminated when observational hiking is the plan for the day.
When hiking logging roads or snowmobile trails it’s not really necessary to carry a compass or GPS as long as you’re mindful of the detours you make and don’t venture too far off the trail.
If you’re going to be bushwhacking (free-hiking off of established trails) it’s only common sense to take your bearings, watch your compass and take precautions so that you’ll end the day exactly where you want to be. I’ve navigated by compass for over 50 years so it’s second nature to me to focus on such permanent landmarks as roads, streams, mountains or ridges. When walking a trail that goes north, for example, I know that if I go into the woods headed east I must go west to come out on the trail again. The same goes for navigating along any other established landmark. In unfamiliar territory I carry a laminated map of the area and refer to my compass often to be sure I’m on the right track.
My wildlife strolls are nothing compared to the exploits of Lewis and Clark and I’ve yet to become totally, permanently lost. Orienteering at the bird-watching level is quite simple and even on long-range treks one should be able to come out on a familiar road or trail.
One important tip is to always trust your compass. It’s sometimes difficult to believe that you are headed north when you know you are headed south, but the human mind is prone to error – your compass is not. Over the years I’ve had self-proclaimed “mountain men” insist that camp was due East when in fact my compass said it was due West. I’m the type who’ll walk along with them in the wrong direction for an hour until they finally realize they are mistaken. Even GPS units are prone to failures and inaccuracies, so carry a compass and know how to use it. A good, serviceable compass sells for less than $20. You can’t go wrong and you can’t get lost.
If you’re going to head out for a hike during this snowless winter plan on going during midday when it’s warmest and brightest. Keep in mind that the sun will set around 4 p.m. for the next few weeks and you will begin to feel the evening cold begin to set in well before that. If you’re walking briskly you should be able to keep warm even on a windy day, but if you’ve been dawdling along the trail, studying deer tracks and turning stones over to look for salamanders you may want to pick up the pace near the end of the day. I have a habit of sitting too long in one place, sipping tea and waiting for something to happen, but I try to plan my trips so I run out of tea just before I run out of time. Stumbling around in the woods on a dark December night is definitely not how I want my hike to end!