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It's interesting at this time of year to listen to folks complain about their various problems and maladies. Complaints range from the ubiquitous “cabin fever” to bad roads, bad weather, bad cars, bad drivers, bad complexions, bad news and looming taxes of one sort or another. Some people enjoy sitting around the kitchen table all day bemoaning their favorite ills, drinking coffee (or something stronger) while looking out the window and dreading the trudge out to the mailbox to pick up another load of Christmas bills.
Winter days are short in Maine, made worse by overcast skies and the never-ending threat of snow. People write to me from all over the state (and recently one reader from Phoenix, Arizona, if you can imagine such a thing!), all asking the same musical question: “I'm going crazy being cooped up in the house all day. What is there to do outdoors in Maine in January?”
Most outdoorsmen have a remarkable ability to ignore such mundane things, however. Our cure for the common calamity is always the same - got to get out there and see what's going on. In January, options run from ice-fishing, predator hunting (fox, coyote and bobcat), rabbit hunting or beaver trapping. All of this sounds good to a housebound sportsman, but even a few hours of plain old hiking in the woods is good medicine for whatever ails you between the ears.
It's never easy to leave the warm confines of a cozy bedroom on a cold January day, but I rarely get more than two or three steps into the woods before my mind switches to its “curiosity” mode and I'm off for the day. I often carry a .22 or shotgun on my winter anti-blah treks, not necessarily to shoot anything but “just in case.” There is a variety of legal game out there this month and if you walk far enough and long enough you're bound to bump into something you can eat, wear or sell. Bagging game is not necessarily the goal; it's more of an excuse to get out!
If you want to make the most of your winter wanderings, head for the lowland swamps and evergreen stands. Most wintering wildlife will be found in these areas, which provide food, cover and some respite from the wind. You'll be amazed to find how comfortable it is in the thick cover, especially after walking across a long field or open hardwood lot.
You'll know you're in game country when you start seeing tracks, trails and various signs of wild critters in action. Look for the tiny details: A small hole in the snow where a shrew popped out for a mad dash between tufts of grass. Perhaps you'll see his meandering trail end suddenly where an alert owl's wing tips paint a feathery picture in the snow.
You'll see piles of pine seeds near stumps, logs and at the base of hemlock trees, sure signs of squirrels at work. There will be tracks in the snow where rabbits, grouse and various other small birds and animals have traveled, maybe the two-inch-wide drag marks of a roaming mink, the wide, deep trench made by a wandering porcupine, or the neat, clean tracks of a fox intently searching for any of the above.
You'll see that life is abundant in the winter forest “out there,” but death is everywhere. Birds eat bugs, weasels eat birds, owls eat weasels . . . you'll find fur, feathers and specks of blood everywhere in the winter woods. It can anger some travelers to find a whole dead rabbit, nothing missing but a spoonful of meat from the back of its neck (the work of a wandering mink or weasel), or the carcass of a small deer, partially eaten, a recent kill made by a hungry bobcat, coyote or (sadly) stray dogs. Many stumps or logs will be covered with downy red fur, the last vestiges of a hapless red squirrel caught by a hawk or owl and patiently plucked like a chicken using nothing but a sharp beak.
Perhaps one of the strangest finds in all my wintertime wanderings was a big, fat muskrat that a mink had caught and killed and then dragged onto the ice of a small pond to feed. I surprised the mink in the middle of its meal and it made every effort to run off with its victim, but the muskrat was too heavy and the mink decided the risk was too great - it left with a hiss and disappeared into the same hole in the ice where the drama began.
One winter I found a huge dead porcupine at the base of a big hemlock, apparently the victim of a marauding fisher (which routinely catch and kill porcupines). As winter wore on and the snow piled up, I was able to make daily assays of the porcupine's destiny. Not a day went by that a fox, coyote or weasel didn't creep up to the carcass and swallow a few bites. By February the porcupine was some four feet down in the snow, but passing predators simply dug down and ate their fill. By spring, there was nothing left of the porcupine but a bed of fur and a few small bones. As summer ended, all evidence of the animal was gone save for a few scattered quills.
Of course, it's not all death and depression out there. If you want to lift your spirits, head for the woods and just listen for a while. You'll soon hear the contented peeps and chirrs of feeding chickadees, the peculiar, nasally call of hunting creepers and nuthatches, or the click, clack and warble of passing ravens.
At day's end, I find the snowy terrain, the tracks, songs and signs of wildlife to be very soothing and relaxing, and all my worries and troubles seem to have disappeared on the heels of the soughing wind in the branches overhead. There's certainly more than one way to survive another Maine winter, but if you want to see things as they should be, in perfect order with no discord or disarray, strap on your boots and head for the distant hills. I know, you don't think you have the time...but what will you do for yourself today that's more important?
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