Letters from the Snowshoeing Bookworm: Part 2

Dear Reader: I am terribly sorry to report that this month of January has so far been a complete snowshoeing failure. I have no interesting trails and ice-crunching adventures to share with you, yet. In fact, looking out my window there simply is no ice and no snow, either. Our Canadian winter is normally much more cooperative than this, but, instead, the radio keeps informing me that we have broken yet another record high temperature for the season. So if you are coming to Canada for winter sports, I recommend heading to the west or Midwest, where apparently they are hogging all the snow.

The eastern part of the country is uncharacteristically bare for the time being. Probably this is due to the fact that I am so anxious to try out my snowshoes again. (You’ve heard of Murphy’s Law?)

Rain is awful stuff in January, in my opinion. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Just ask the poor white rabbit who has patchily been molting into his winter coat of furry camouflage, and now shines brightly against the muddy terrain in the moonlight. He might as well have a neon sign on his back: “Owls Eat Here, Lunch Is Served!”

Everyday I get up and cannot believe what my eyes and calendar are telling me. We’ve had little thaws mid-winter before, but this winter doesn’t seem to want to begin. Perhaps the oddest of all is the fact that for the first time I have seen a mosquito outdoors flying around in January! What the heck? I have been trying to understand some books on climate change, and it would seem, finding evidence in the backyard as well. I thought green in December was bad, but surely, a green January is genuinely whacky. The buds on the trees and fresh bright green growth on the mossy rocks are really, truly amazing. We visited friends in the city over the holidays to find the few degrees warmer it was there had elicited dandelions on front lawns. I couldn’t get over it.

The weather is indeed big news here. Unfortunately, what is merely a fascination for me will be devastating to others. Many migratory species are staying here and may get caught with a short food supply later. The lake’s water levels will be very low again in spring without some ice cover to prevent winter evaporation. I already mentioned that poor white rabbit, too. (How was he supposed to know he wouldn’t be in fashion yet this year?) There are also skiing communities in real financial trouble. Hundreds of people lost their jobs when the ski hills closed, and are more anxious than I am for some white stuff. They don’t even have temperatures cold enough to make artificial snow. So let’s hope that the latter half of January brings lots of chilly, stormy skies.

On the opposite side of the snow fence, we have some very grateful Canadian golfers who are teeing off happily without having to head to Florida with the snowbird crowd. They now have bragging rights about golfing in January, which is a pretty impressive feat in Ontario. Not me, though, I am watching the weather channel and hoping for the world to return to normal. (Here imagine my sad lonely snowshoes hanging dry in the garage…now cue the violins.)

Actually, I find the whole affair very depressing. I love winter. So when I went to our local drugstore and heard a friend say something about a forecast temperature of -15°C, I was much relieved. Apparently some nice Arctic cold front is headed our way, and I think we may get some snowfall next week!

In the meantime, we can rely on my bookworm habits for inspiration. I have many great snow-loving wordsmiths in my library for just such an emergency. Wherever you may be reading this, I hope you have snow under your boots and hot coffee in your cup.

My first choice off the shelf to get us in the spirit is “Wintergreen: Reflections from Loon Lake”. Its author is well-known Canadian environmentalist and president of the World Wildlife Fund Canada, Monte Hummel. It is not his only book, but the only one I have read (to be rectified, as soon as I find a copy of his “Arctic Wildlife”).

His thoughts on snowshoeing are bound to get you outside, and he certainly makes a good case for night travel and starlight reflected in your teacup when you make camp. He describes his trips through the woods amid moonlight and howling wolves in vivid detail, complete with instructions for fireside tea and bannock making. He recommends brewing with melted snow rather than bringing my usual thermos. I imagine this must be an ambiance thing. I will give it a try, and let you know.

Personally, I have walked late at night in winter, but not far and not on snowshoes. That is on my to-do list, but I have been known to walk down the lane in the middle of the night to see the aurora borealis reflected on the lake or simply stargaze as my breath floats upward like smoke. I love the diamond-like, light refracting brilliance of a new snowfall in the beams of my flashlight coupled with the feel of large flakes on my nose and cheek. I spend most of that time simply listening to the quiet; the incredible stillness that I love about winter. The darkness seems to amplify the effect, while the stars add the magic that makes you remember how small you and your troubles really are.

So, as soon as we get some nice layers of snow, I am going to follow Mr. Hummel’s example. If you read his book, I am certain you will want to do the same. For those of you that might not find the time right away, I have selected one of my favorite passages from “Wintergreen”.

“Snow, far from being a monotonous blank area of white is in fact a living ledger in which winter posts its journal entries, occasionally wiping the slate clean, then busily beginning another account. It serves as an insulative layer, without which hundreds of species could never survive winter, and as a vital frozen reservoir of moisture made available by the warming temperatures of spring. Each six-sided snowflake on my parka is unduplicated and wonderful in itself. But when they combine to form a winter blanket over the land, a miracle emerges.”

How true. Snow provides so much more than a traveling surface, but traveling upon it brings us closer to understanding the environment in which we live. Tracks betray movements of the multitudes of creatures that share it with us. So much goes on under cover of darkness and is visible only when we wake in the morning to find the new snow dented by various passersby. One winter I went out my front door to find that several deer had made a bed of the snow bank under the window of our spare room. They were long gone, of course, but I was glad to know they enjoyed my hospitality. The best part about hunkering down to wait out a nasty winter storm is knowing that no matter how isolated your location might be, you are never really alone. Life is everywhere, and it is never more obvious than after a new snowfall.

Wintertime is the best time for even a novice to have the chance to track and identify wildlife. I have a lot to learn on this subject, but Mr. Hummel is already an expert. I may be able to make out a track, but he is able to understand habits and ecology with years of experience watching the animals at Loon Lake. He mentions a few interesting examples in this passage below.

“Some of my favorites at Loon Lake are: braided lines of grouse tracks, especially a pair crisscrossing as they randomly roam the woods, take off, land, or explode from their snow burrows; ….the smudgy mark a coyote’s hindquarters left as it sat down on a rocky ridge to take in the view the night before; the clean straight line left by a fox daintily placing its trailing paws exactly where the lead ones have stepped; the short trip of a red squirrel, barely a hand’s width out and back from the base of the tree it descended to dig up a cached cone; tail-drag between the neat prints of a white-footed mouse…..”

I will definitely try to look more closely as I wander the trails this year. I hope you will find lots of life along your trail as well. Until then, I have included some photos from last winter to further inspire you. Happy snowshoeing!

Sincerely,
SRW

PS. Since the time of this writing, I am very glad to say that January did redeem itself, and there have been nice big snowfalls here in Ontario. Next time I write, I will have some trail adventures to share with you. Winter hasn’t forgotten us, it just took a wrong turn on the way here. Those lonely snowshoes are coming off the hook in the garage today!

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Stephanie Warkentin