| After last week’s “arctic blast” there’s little doubt that we will certainly have a white Christmas this year, one where we could, indeed, hook up the sleigh and glide to grandmother’s house if we were so inclined. The few inches of snow that hit us two weeks ago was still on the ground, brittle and crunchy, providing the perfect base for the most recent “plowable” storm that blew in a week ago Sunday.
My mantra through the winter months is that snow is better than bugs and humidity, but I’m not sure I have a very large fan base with that one. Lots of people love winter for its recreational possibilities, but for day-to-day Mainers who must travel to work in the stuff it’s not all that popular.
Luckily, I’m one whose interests like in the natural world, so a good helping of snow is like getting a gift-wrapped, first-edition book in the mail. I can’t wait to get out there and see what the settling snow has to tell me and rejoice in the fact that I can do it without battling biting insects or heat and humidity.
The first snow of the non-hunting season is a special one to me as well because after spending most of October, November and half of December studying the signs of game, always alert for “the clue” that results in a successful hunt and meat for the freezer. That’s all behind me now (and yes, the freezer is full!), so now I switch from hunter to naturalist, an easy transition with none of the stress and anxiety that plagues the average meat seeker. Now I can go forth and observe, free to follow the most obscure bunny trail because the quest for sustenance is no longer the goal.
What’s great about copious amounts of fresh snow is that it leaves no doubt as to what has transpired since the last few flakes sifted down at the end of the storm. Anything that has touched the surface of the snow has left an imprint from the giant moose to the tiniest mouse it’s all there to see and consider for as long as my attention span allows.
What’s great about snow is that it tends to dispel the sage announcements of coffee shop pundits who say there are no deer in the area, the coyotes are everywhere or they haven’t seen a rabbit or grouse in years. One leisurely trek through the countryside after the first real snowstorm of the year tells the tale and, as is often the case, the pundits are proven wrong.
I learned all this decades ago, of course, but it still surprises me after a long, tough deer season to find dozens of fresh tracks in the snow in the very same area where, weeks earlier, I could not find the first bit of fresh sign. I follow the snowy imprints in hopes of finding where the deer spend their time during a storm but it’s always the same they are there during storms but rarely at any other time. Where they bed during “normal” weather conditions remains the ultimate guessing game. You will guess correctly once in a while, but 80 percent of deer hunters guess wrong, year after year. A walk in the snow will at least rejuvenate the psyche of hunters who, a week ago, were convinced the coyotes did in fact eat all the deer!
Speaking of coyotes, the new snowfall suggests that they are not quite as abundant as the diner desperadoes claimed. They are out there, certainly, always traveling in search of food, but not in giant packs or in such numbers that they wiped out the deer herd (a notion that, we have seen, the snow also dispels). Following coyote tracks in the snow is an exercise in frustration because they can (and will) go for miles without doing anything other than going for miles. No sign of a kill, no bedding down, no stopping to pounce on a mouse . . . just constantly trotting to or from a source of food. Other than road kills, I have yet to find a deer killed by coyotes in my urban treks. I know they find and kill deer but in my area they are more about rabbits, squirrels, various rodents and whatever highway leftovers they can scrounge. In many areas along the way I’ll find deer tracks intermixed with the coyote tracks with no evidence of a calamitous encounter. The deer go one way, the coyotes go another and the balance of nature remains unchanged.
What I have found peculiar and surprising is the continued decline in the sign of rabbits, grouse, squirrels and other small animals and birds. In years past it would be impossible to roam through a snow-covered cedar swamp and not find plentiful evidence of these and other small creatures, but on recent hikes I have not found the first sign of a hare, a partridge or even a red squirrel. Some, I’m sure, like the squirrels, may be in semi-hibernation mode, but grouse and rabbits have always been known to face the worst of winter storms and come out smiling on the other side. Could it be the result of dwindling habitat, loss of habitat due to natural progression (brush turning into mature forest) or . . . well, the snow only tells me so much. It clearly presents only the evidence, not the cause or solution.
On my morning jaunt through the new snow I pause to soak in the ambience of the quiet woods, imagining what the atmosphere must be like today in the stores and malls where folks are storming the shelves in hopes of finding the perfect bargain. I hear the occasional call of a chickadee or nuthatch in the distance, otherwise only the rattle of the few remaining beech leaves in the wind break the silence.
With only two days till Christmas the mood must be close to frantic “out there,” but where I sit on a stone wall deep in the snow-covered woods all is tranquil. It suddenly strikes me that you can’t buy the gift of serenity it’s right here, and it’s free!