As arctic winds roar south over Manitou Mountain, coursing down through frozen mountainside quarries, bending low Milkweed and Monarda - their sere, dried flower-husks scraping patterns in the crystalline snow of the Woodstock Valley - deep winter comes to Waghkonk. Animals large and small, some with claws and some with paws, cast far and wide for a desperate meal, their stories told in fast-fading traces on wind-blown white, like lost memories past, as some live and some don't. Others, maybe taking a simpler path, slow down their world and wait for the green. "Got us a real, old-time Catskills winter", an old-timer might say, or even someone walking down Tinker Street, tightly holding hat to head. Many Beeches and some Oaks have tried to keep their last-season's dried leaves on their otherwise-bare branches but seem to be losing that battle to the polar jet. Snow that wasn't frozen is being piled into gleaming, sometimes corniced, snow-dunes, reminding us once again how much a northeast winter landscape can be like an icy, snowy desert, which - like most deserts on earth always harbor hidden life, however dormant and half-frozen. Some small (and not-so-small) insects and mammals half-hibernate and hide under bark and leaf, as well as carefully chosen caves and hollow logs, waiting for warmth. I guess we're not all that different and this winter many local humans might be happy to replicate their strategies.
WINTER QUIET - When we do venture into the mid-winter landscape we’re confronted by stark contrasts between the seasons - contrasts of light, temperature, sound and feeling. Perhaps the most jarring and immediately noticed is the stunning silence of the winter woods. In direct contrast to summers in-your-face raucous cacophony of life, the initial quietude of winter can be quite striking and beautifully peaceful. Therefore, when a Black-capped Chickadee cheekily announces his hardy presence to all, or when a Kingfisher calls out as he cruises along the stream, it is truly appreciated as one reminder of life in our seemingly barren winter environment. Both birds are here all year but their lively calls are buried among the auditory avalanche of summer. If we look carefully there are other reminders of the persistence of life. Even trees can add their tune to the otherwise quietude of winter. Beech- and Oak-leaves that remain on branch for the winter gently chatter in the wind, helping to entertain our somewhat sensory-starved senses.
WINTER COLORS - The colors of winter are myriad and subtle. We might think of this season as being unvaryingly monochromatic white but if we carefully look around us now we see this is not the case. The snow itself is not always white (and I’m not talking about “dirty”, or yellow, snow). It can vary greatly in its coloration - from the bright, startling super white of daylight on fresh-fallen frozen ice-crystals to the more subtle shades of off-white and gray under an overcast sky, to the downright somber, barely reflected, dark grays found in among darker, denser woods. In this sense, snow is a mirror of the winter light - sometimes bright and piercingly transcendent, reflecting to us our sunniest selves and other times dark and wan - showing us another part of our winter selves - maybe not quite so sunny and warm. In how many ways are winters a time for reflection, literally and figuratively? Our eyes are color-starved right now without the spectral-overload of Spring, Summer and Fall, so that when we do find color in the woods it really stands out. Yes, Bittersweet, Japanese Barberry, Winterberry and others might stand out, but in my mind some of the smallest plants that survive on the forest floor make the largest impression in this season, perhaps in the same way that the small birds do the same. Most notable is Partridgeberry and Wintergreen, with Wintergreen being much more prevalent. Not to downplay the ever-green of White Pines and Eastern Hemlocks, or the curled up verdure of Mountain Laurel, but something about the waxy shiny brightness of the little, valiant Wintergreen leaves defiantly pushing aside the snow to grab their share of sunlight way down on the very bottom of the forest floor that always impresses and inspires me. Wintergreen (Gaulitheria procumbens) is a little shrub that only grows to about 6-inches at its highest. It is commonly found in well-drained acidic soils of conifer and oak forests. Like the different Blueberries and the Mountain Laurel, it is a member of the Heath Family. It is no surprise then that all three are commonly found together. Wintergreen was the original natural source for oil of wintergreen, used in early beverages and candles. Locally, Wintergreen is found widely dispersed throughout the area, including among the pine woods at Comeau. There were small wintergreen distilleries in Woodstock (see Alf Ever’s “Woodstock: History of an American Town”, pg. 364). In the 19th- and early 20th centuries, large amounts of it was harvested and distilled in the Town of Kingston - surprise! - on Wintergreen Hill. The top of that hill is still thick with the shiny leaves.
THE GAME IS ON - The tracks of mouse, mole and vole will be on the snow as they look for fuel to stoke their high metabolic internal furnaces. I’m sure small rodents try to watch out for predators as they venture out from under their snowy shelter, with varying degrees of success. Even the snow itself is not proof against the incredible hearing of Eastern Coyote, Red- and Grey Foxes, as well as different species of hawks and owls. Many a Deer Mouse, Meadow Vole, Mole and Short-tail Shrew have fallen prey to the keen ears of the aforementioned predators, as they can listen very carefully, then lunge through shallow snow for their meal. In general, the deeper the snow, the safer these small creatures are - with one major exception - the ever-ravenous Fishers are perfectly designed to “ferret out” (hence the term), small rodents in the sub-nivian realm (fancy technical term for under the snow). As the snow melts you may see the remnants of rodent-tunnels.
LARGE & SMALL - As typical for a season of contrasts, our most prevalent birds now are not only the littlest ones - but also the largest - Bald Eagles. While not really numerous yet, they are hard to miss. Local eagles have nested now and probably mated already and will stick closely to their huge nest once the approx. 35-day gestation-period is over. We are so fortunate to have several nesting pairs in the area and with any luck there will be more eaglets on their way.
COMMON SENSE, LIGHTS & YAKTRAX - Please bring all three into the winter woods. The light disappears fast and trails may be icy. While heavier, more aggressive traction-devices (Katoolah, Microspikes) are appropriate on some trails in some conditions, Yaktrax will suffice more commonly for the average walker and even on short hikes. They are the easiest to slip on and off over almost any boot or shoe, yet they help give you basic traction on ice. Also, their coils will not harm tree-roots, nor are they as likely to trip you on a root.
"Ranger" Dave Holden
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