Winter is this fascinating time of year, particularly here in Minnesota. Last week it was sunny and in the 20s. Today it’s pouring rain and in the mid-30s. Tomorrow the temperature will drop, and we’ll get three or four inches of snow, and next week highs will be in the single digits. That’s winter here in Minnesota.
I have always liked winter, even before moving to Minnesota. I was given my first pair of snowshoes when I was about 14, and only finally retired them two years ago. Similarly, my folks bought cross-country skis when I was a senior in high school. I don’t think they ever used them beyond maybe the backyard, but my younger sister and I did. But snowshoes have always held a greater fascination for me, as a tool and as a sport. As my family gave up on winter recreation, three of our five pairs of snowshoes found their way into my garage. A few years after we were married, my wife bought me a pair of hand-made snowshoes during one of our many trips to the Adirondacks. The neoprene webbing was a compromise between the babiche (leather) webbing on my old shoes, and the neoprene decking of the more expensive, “new-fangled” Sherpa snowshoes that had recently come on the market. Ultimately, it was a good choice, as I have stayed with traditional wood-framed snowshoes ever since.
To me, snowshoes are second only to dogsledding as a vehicle for winter adventures great and small. And since I don’t have my own dogsled and team, snowshoes are my principal way to get out and explore the “undiscovered season.” Don’t get me wrong; I love Nordic skiing and get out on groomed trails on skis several times a week, and I have true “backcountry” skis that I use, as well, (Trak Bushwackers) but it just seems so much easier to throw on a warm coat, pull on mukluks or pac boots, strap on my snowshoes and head off into the forest, be it for an hour, an afternoon or a day.
There are many, many people who have never seen a Bald Eagle in the wild, soaring over the countryside. I know this because, until we moved to Minnesota in 1988, I was one of them. Despite years of tromping over the hills of the Finger Lakes Region and the Adirondack Mountains in my native New York, the only place I had ever seen a live eagle was at Sportsmen’s shows and the zoo. Here in Minnesota, and neighboring Wisconsin, the Bald Eagle can be found in the backcountry, all year-round. For me, 2009 was a great year for seeing eagles. I am sure that by the end of the year, I had set eyes on well over a hundred bald eagles, sometimes as often as two or three a day. It started with nine of them circling over our house in early April, as they made their way back up the Rum River for the summer, and ended while I was on a winter hike on snowshoes.
The sun was low in the afternoon sky, when I went for a snowshoe hike at Becklin Homestead County Park, near Cambridge, MN, the newest park in the Isanti County system. I wanted to get some pictures of the setting sun over the deep snow that had fallen on Christmas Day. It was nearly a perfect setting for catching what would be one of the last sunsets of not only the month, but the year and the decade as well. The moon was almost full, and had already risen in the east. I buckled on my snowshoes and headed up a small rise, through the small pine plantation on the south edge of the park for a better vantage point.
As I came out of the woods, a Bald Eagle few past me, just above the tree level, and then out of my line of sight. I let out my very best eagle call, and then actually yelled, “Please, come back!” Then completely to my amazement, the eagle sailed out from behind the trees. It circled by me once more, and then soared south, back behind the trees. I don’t know how long I stood there, hoping that the bird would return, but the sun had dropped below the horizon, and the sky was getting darker. I headed back through the deep snow to my van and the prospect of many more snowshoe adventures in the months to come. It was so awesome and I was truly blessed.