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It’s February already, halfway through winter some would say, even though winter didn’t really begin till well into January. Snow depth and ice thickness guide most folks’ measure of winter severity, and thus far it has been an unusual, if not disappointing, season. Bare ground, thin ice and a few related deaths suggest that this may be the winter that wasn’t.
Though skiers and snowmobilers continue to fret about the lack of snow, as do those who make their living providing playgrounds for slippers and sliders of every sort, those of us who have an interest in Maine’s wild side are secretly pleased that it’s still possible to walk in the woods without snowshoes or skis. It’s not so much how humans get around, of course, because we can always find a way, but every outdoorsman I’ve talked to in recent weeks offers up the old “At least it’s good for the deer” adage when the talk comes to how much (or how little) snow and ice we’ve accumulated since November.
My walks in the woods have been interesting, as always, but treacherous of late because a little snow covered with a lot of ice makes for some difficult woodland trekking.
There is a pattern to the snow’s crust that makes one mindful of every step. Generally, the snow next to any rock, log or tree is thin and fragile, easily broken by the slightest touch of a booted foot. The crust between obstacles is strong enough to bear the weight of most folks weighing less than 200 pounds, although the daytime sun will soften things up considerably. At night or early in the morning it’s possible to skate across the crust like a Colorado snowboarder, although the fun quickly turns to terror going downhill among those rocks, trees and fallen logs. One begins to sense the threat of a sprained ankle at every turn, at which point speed and risk-taking are seriously reduced.
It became so slippery at one point on a recent hike that I decided to stop and brew myself a cup of tea. I had to take a break after 30 minutes of half-stepping across a particularly icy stretch near an overflowing brook. The recent rains had created the perfect skating rink along both sides of the stream, and of ominous cracking sounds told me some sections were too thin to hold my weight. I couldn’t get around the stream because the normal crossing was iced over, so I just went up and over, digging in one step at a time, till I found some safe, level ground.
While sitting there enjoying my tea and the smooth, slick surface of the snow around me, I heard the tell-tale clucking and yelping of wild turkeys heading my way.
I sat perfectly still as the birds came up over the hill toward me, headed for the open oaks on the other side of the brook. They, too, had to cross the stream in order to get to the other side, and though you’d think a bird so large would consider flying as the most expeditious approach, they began to pour over the embankment in pods of two or three.
The instant they hit the off-side slope the birds began to slip and slide on the icy crust, their wide toes and long claws unable to find a gripping point. Imagine the Three Stooges (times 10) trying to get through a narrow doorway – that’s how awkward and inept those birds were acting.
Every one of them skidded down the slope, wings and legs flailing, till a rock or tree on level ground stopped their ungainly progress. I imagined that’s what I looked like while I tried to make it across the brook so I held my laughter till they were out of sight.
It’s often hard for us humans to imagine how it’s possible for wild animals and birds to survive these most miserable days of winter, but even the slowest (literally) of them find a way. A common sight in winter, in fact, are the trails made by porcupines as they travel from their secure dens to feed on the tasty (we can only assume) inner bark of the hemlock tree. It’s easy enough to find porcupines even without snow – just check the ground at the base of any hemlock tree you encounter. If the ground is littered with cut-off, foot-long hemlock boughs you’re in the right place. Slow as they are, porcupines can denude a 100-year-old hemlock in a single winter, nipping away at it one bite at a time.
Porcupines spend their days in rocky dens or large, hollow trees. Often, several porcupines crowd into one den, which is easy to find via dirty trails in the snow that lead to copious piles of porcupine “pellets” near the den entrance. None too delicate, porcupines will gladly urinate and defecate on each other, creating a fine mess inside and outside the den.
On balmy winter days porcupines may decide to remain in the tree they are eating and it’s possible to see and photograph them as they perch on a limb high in the treetop. Slow and amiable, porcupines seem utterly disinterested in what’s going on below them. Aside from the occasional fisher or bobcat, no sensible predator pays attention to them, and unless an angry tree farmer wants them out of his hemlock stand they will nibble their way through the winter without a care in the world.
Other than the occasional hole in the crust left by a foraging squirrel or mouse, there’s not much else to see in the woods when snow is followed by rain and then freezing temperatures. Factor in some high, gusty winds, however, and you’ve got perfect conditions for a peaceful walk in the woods, nothing around to interrupt your meditations other than a random meeting with wandering turkeys or loafing porcupines.
Chickadees, of course, will swing by to see how you are doing and a nuthatch may stop in for a chat, but otherwise, the woods are yours for the day.
It may look miserable out there but there’s always something new to observe. “Normal” winter or not, there’s no better prescription for the mid-winter blahs!
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