There should be no question now that winter is back. We had our January thaw and our February thaw; in fact there was bare ground to be seen just a week ago, but now . . . not so much.
Regular readers of this column have come to know that I am more a fan of winter than summer for two very important reasons: No bugs and no humidity! Thaw or not, it’s a pleasure to go outdoors and not be assailed by a variety of pestering, biting, buzzing critters that outnumber us a zillion to one, meaning there’s no escaping them in summer. And, being that I can break a sweat sitting down in the shade, I’m all about winter’s dry feel. Certainly it’s cold but one can escape the bitterest of winds by simply going inside and plunking oneself down in a comfortable chair nearest the wood stove. Too bad it’s not so easy to avoid summer’s bugs and steamy atmosphere.
Like it or not winter is here (again) and that means surrendering to the afghan or finding something to do on the other side of the windows. From the looks of things it appears that snowmobiling is iffy at best because of the recent hot, cold, rainy, snowy spells that have raised havoc with groomed trails in many areas. After the most recent snowfall I donned my trusty pickerel-style snowshoes and headed out for a midday hike on one of the trails that runs past my cottage. The fluffy stuff was barely able to support my weight and so I had to pay close attention to the stubs, limbs, branches and rocks that should have been covered with knee-deep snow by now. Instead the trails were, at best, mushy, and I saw several places where snowmobilers tried to make a run of it but, sadly, sunk in right to bare ground.
I have made the rounds of the local lakes and ponds to test ice thicknesses and found a rather disturbing trend – iffy at best, with some ponds featuring water on top of the ice instead of under it. I know that a solid layer of ice can support quite a bit of rain water and ice melt but being that we never really got a good start on it I am leery of venturing too far out, snowshoes or not. Some places are safe, some are not. Check first or call the local sheriff for updates on waters you plan to fish this winter. From what I’m hearing the common advice is, “Don’t,” but that is merely taking the high road. I’ve seen anglers ice-fishing here and there but not the crowds that have cut hundreds of holes in the ice by now. All of this leads us to suggest finding something to do on land that’s well away from established trails where falling into water over your head is not a factor.
For a pleasing combination of exercise and education I always recommend a good, long trek on snowshoes. Pack some water, snacks or (as I like to do) a small stove and the fixings for some hot tea, and strike off in a direction that takes you close to the evergreen swamps in your area. This is because most of the wintering critters will be found in these sheltered areas. Their tracks and sign will be most abundant in the days following a decent snow storm, giving the snowshoer plenty to observe, study and contemplate along the way.
Because I put food out for birds and deer all winter I can usually start a track right outside my back door. In fact, not long ago a yearling whitetail walked into my wood shed in search of apples! My goal in winter is to back track these animals to see where they have bedded and how close to the house they are staying. I’ll even lie down in their beds and try to see what they see as they curl up and chew their cuds. In a lot of cases and using binoculars I can see in my own kitchen window, which tells me they can hear me bang the grain buckets together at feeding time. They still wait until near darkness before coming in for their share of sunflower seeds and apples, but I’ve noticed that the younger deer are always the earliest and most anxious to stake their claims. They practically run in off the surrounding hills, and from my treks I know that they were there, and watching me, even as I put the food out for them.
Of course, none of the deer’s wintering habits apply to a hunting strategy for fall because they bed and travel in different patterns throughout the year. What they do in winter is just about worthless from a hunter’s standpoint; spring and summer are equally without strategic value. It is nice, however, to know they are nearby.
Another fun trek is to head into the thickest evergreen stands for a cup of tea and a spell of thoughtful sitting. Most folks don’t know it but our winter conifers are full of birds and animals that no one sees except those who dare to venture there on snowshoes. Within minutes of sitting down you’re likely to hear chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers nearby, and if you are lucky you’ll begin to see small flocks of wintering robins. Yes, we all thought robins headed “south” for the winter but actually they are closer than you think, relatively dormant and nearly silent. They may venture out of the evergreens to feed on berries, crabapples or other dried fruits, but most of their winter provender consists of insects including spiders, worms and grubs. Robins don’t say much all winter but they are among the first birds to begin singing in spring and we’re all certainly glad of it.
Things may seem dull and lifeless as you gaze out the window toward the winter woods but rest assured that there is more going on out there than meets the eye. Creep in quietly as an observer, not an intruder, and you will quickly see what I mean!