Winter is now undeniably upon us, with cold and snow everywhere, ice forming on most of our lakes and ponds and bitter winds blowing fast and steadily across the open spaces. This is the time to hunker down by the wood stove, cover up with a heavy blanket and sip hot chocolate as gusty winds batter the north side of the house.
This is what most Mainers will be doing between now and (at least) Ground Hog Day, but those with an outdoor bent are not going to let a little bit of snow and wind keep them trapped indoors. The allure of fresh air and sunshine is too difficult to ignore for those of us who find it impossible to stay trapped indoors on a bright, sunny January day.
I’ll admit that when conditions are at their worst I consider staying close to the stove with a good book in hand, but my outdoor inspiration comes from my next-door neighbor, who, at age 75, still spends every single winter day on the ice at a nearby pond, cold and snow notwithstanding.
John actually fishes the pond year-round, but no one can blame him for being out there in spring, summer and fall. It’s only when winter’s bitterest days arrive that everyone wonders about his level of sanity. I understand what drives him – all outdoorsmen have the same gene – but it is amazing to see him sitting on his bucket in a driving wind, snow whipping past horizontally, as he patiently jigs for perch and bluegills. He catches a lot of fish, as one might expect, and he eats most of them, but many of the smaller specimens end up fertilizing his many summer gardens. Yes, fertilizer is cheap enough these days, but buying bags of manure at the local farm store doesn’t have quite the same appeal, at least not in John’s mind.
John is a crusty old cuss who rarely speaks, shuns visitors and does his best to avoid conversation but one thing he can’t deny is that he loves to be outdoors. Why else would he spend every day of the year in his “secret” spot, patiently waiting for a school of perch to swim by and take his bait?
I can’t fault John for his obsession – we all have some degree of passion for the things we do outdoors. I spend as much time as possible during the various open seasons doing whatever the law allows, with far too much time spent fishing for trout, bass and stripers in spring and summer and then deer, bear, bird and rabbit hunting in fall. It’s to the point now where I can’t let a single day go by without having done something on the water or in the woods, even when conditions are poor or the odds of success are against me.
As the saying goes, I hunt to have hunted and the same applies to fishing. I doubt there’s anyone out there who hunts or fishes to survive – it’s not about subsistence anymore – but there is a certain element of satisfaction that goes into gleaning one’s own sustenance from the wild. With venison, bear, moose, waterfowl, upland birds and fish (from fresh and saltwater) in my freezer I rarely feel the urge to go with “store bought.” Properly prepared (on the rare side in most cases), wild game is surprisingly delicious. I have some of my red meats made into sausage and other specialty cuts so I always have something new and interesting to put on the table.
In winter, I’m with John, although I may find other things to do besides sit on a bucket and jig for perch. After a storm I may decide to don my snowshoes and head out to back-track a deer or moose just to see where they holed up during the harsh weather. Most times I’m amazed to see that they were bedded within sight of my cottage. I have found beds as close as 100 yards away, some right beside the wood shed, where I’m sure they lay down overnight and then moved on before sunrise.
Deer are expert at choosing sites that can’t be seen from common roads or trails yet they can see everything that’s going on all around them. I often get right down in a deer’s bed in an attempt to view the world from the whitetail’s vantage point. They tend to bed with the wind coming from their blind side, so if they can’t see what’s coming they can at least smell it. This explains why many woods wanderers find a lot of deer beds but not a lot of deer in their beds.
Conditions are rarely such that one can sneak up on a group of bedded deer, by the way, because they normally lay down facing different directions. By the time you arrive they are long gone. This may explain why deer tend to travel in small groups during winter – it’s simply much safer when extra eyes, ears and noses are focused on the surroundings.
It may not seem so when viewed from a frosted kitchen window but Maine’s winter woods are calm and serene, the perfect place to go to “get away” for a few hours, perhaps to mull over a personal quandary or simply to soak up nature’s soothing ambience after a long, hard day of dealing with the complications of humankind. There’s no better way to clear one’s mind than by sitting on a snow-covered stump in the woods surrounded by absolute quiet. Perhaps there is a method to John’s madness.
Of course, the only way to learn any of this is to go outside and look around. Dress for the cold, bring a bottle of water with you and see what you can discover “out there.” Spend your daylight hours wandering the woods in winter and you’ll appreciate the wood stove and hot chocolate all the more at the end of the day!