ROLLERCOASTER SKY(part 1)
Cold arctic winds blow across the mountains, bringing their fierce reminder of Winter’s power, scattering brown leaves and making the deer in their winter yards hunker down a little more. While protected somewhat from the worst of the polar blast by the hills themselves, these powerful winds still course through the cloves and down the hollows of the southeast Catskills. I pity any creature caught out in this season. I think of the turtles buried in the mud, the Woodfrogs frozen under litter of leaf and the people huddled around their fires, all waiting for Spring.
WINTER WANING? - As the days become noticeably longer and the light (oh, so) gradually returns, it might seem like winter is waning but I wouldn’t believe it just yet. It looks like our “rollercoaster”, up and down temps will be continuing, generally more above freezing than not for now. As I write this, the bulk of ice and snow that remains locally is on the hilltops and in the hemlock and pine thickets, as well as on the north side of the hills (which, in a good, cold, snowy, old-fashioned local winter can remain under north-facing ledges ‘til June). We may well return to serious winter, which really should be expected (and desired by some - human and otherwise) in January. Since most recent snow has disappeared in the valleys, the predators must be fattening up as the small rodents scramble from one exposed spot to another, in that eternal hustle of life and death. I don’t think the short warm-spell was enough to wake the Black Bears, though I have seen bear-tracks in the snow (probably males - called boars - with most of the females - sows - still napping, some giving birth shortly). I’m hearing more and more reports of Fishers (Martes pennanti) as they successfully repopulate the area. One more good reason to keep cats in at night! Local Bald Eagles will be mating and hopefully having young this season. Usually only the Beeches and a few Oaks will keep their golden and light- brown leaves all winter, gently gently rattling in the whispering wind. This year is different. We have many dead dark-brown leaves remaining on hardwoods, killed by last year’s near- drought. The old Beech-leaves normally are pushed off by the new ones in the Spring (sounds so far away still!). All in all, an interesting winter so far, with much yet to come. Still be cautious out there. Bring a light and don’t misjudge the onset of darkness when in the woods. Also, don’t be fooled by the relative snowlessness - it’s still very icy in the hills and in the dense, dark woods, as we continually thaw in the day and refreeze at night.
THE GLORY OF SNOW - Not too many weeks ago a friend was half- heartedly grousing about how it didn’t seem like much of a winter yet. I suggested that he might want to be careful what he wished for and to enjoy the mild weather (in the 40s!) while it was here. I didn’t mean to be so prescient. Well, here we are, in serious cold, icy, snowy winter. It is certainly harsh - right now my thermometer reads 9 below - luckily with no wind. I was just thinking about any creature that was outside - the deer yarding up in the Hemlock and White Pine thickets, huddled together to share meager warmth, some with little future fawn embryos growing inside, cute little Bambis-to-be; all the small birds fluffed-out in down, like all the small rodents, hunkered down for the bitter night, trying to stay warm, waiting for cold daylight to continue their incessant hunt for sustenance. Thinking of the larger birds, roosting on branch and bough, waiting for warmth - like all of us. With an icy crust on our snow right now the mice, moles and voles have a lot of insulation to help them survive and some protection from predation, but not a lot. Many predators have strategies to reach them in their subnivean realm - hawks and owls can and will listen for movement under the snow and punch through, sharp talons extended, to grab a hapless rodent. Wild canines can do the same, rising straight up, then pouncing nose-first. Fishers simply follow through tunnels to nab their meal. It is a hard world for all of them in this time. Starvation and death are never far - for either prey or predator. There is so much life that is dormant now, even the myriad seeds suspended in the layers of snow, preserved by the cold, also waiting. Even if ingested by birds or mice, they still might be excreted to germinate in spring. Yes, one could call this the season of Darkness or of Death, though, like the deer, Life is still here, though mostly hidden and growing, making plans for spring and there is always Light - and more with each day. The season of Hope, I say.
WINTER REFLECTIONS - This is an amazing time of quiet in the woods that are “lovely, dark and deep” as Robert Frost says so well in his Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. No leaf-blowers, few chainsaws - just the persistent pecking of a Downy Woodpecker among the tree-boles that seem so dark now against the snow-gleam. In one sense many things in the forest become so self-evident right now. You can tell which direction the snow came from, only plastering one side of the trees. We can see so far into the woods, without leaves (remember them?) to block our view, seeing birds and squirrels in the near-distance that would have been hidden. Tracking becomes so easy, each track telling its own story. Sometimes a second track intercepts the first one - one story ends and another continues on. As I mentioned about small animals, snow hides things as well. The person walking in the woods has to be extra-careful. If bushwhacking, we have to watch out for hidden dips and holes covered over by white and it’s not a good idea to go too close to stream-banks or the edges of ponds because snow may overhang the water. It is no fun at all (and can be extremely dangerous, possibly leading to hypothermia and death) to take an inadvertent “dip” in ice-water. Even walking on trails involves extra caution as ice easily hides under snow. Unfortunately, snow also hides things we wish would remain hidden - our scarred land and the trash which inevitably follows us, for example. Let’s take this time and enjoy the peace and quiet it can bring, to escape - if only momentarily - the turmoil of our world, to watch the many shades and shadows of the subtle reflections of bright light on snow, while breathing clean, crisp air. Indeed, this is a time for us to reflect, as well. Please stay Safe and Warm. MUST-HAVES right now: warm boots, hats and gloves; polarized sunglasses will help with glare off the snow and ice; sunblock; ice-grippers on footwear (at least YakTrax); trekking-poles can be a big help; flashlight and/orheadlamp.
Thank you all, “Ranger” Dave Holden / (845)594-4863 / email@example.com / Woodstock Trails on Facebook / rangerdaveholden on Instagram / www.woodstocknytrails.com