A winter walk
by: Mike Lushington  

            Thus far, it has been a very busy winter. I have had little opportunity for the long, solitary rambles back over our property that I so much enjoy taking. When I was presented with an uncluttered afternoon recently, then, I took advantage of it and set out, simply to see what I could see.

            It was cold and there was a bit of a north-westerly wind. The sun was trying, rather fitfully, to break through clouds, but I could see snow flurries on the river and on the hills on the Quebec side. In all, it was a typical early January day. When I could see the sun, I realized that, although we had passed the winter solstice, it was still lying very close to the horizon even at 1:30 in the afternoon. It would be some time yet before it would begin to make its midday mark on the ice and snow.

            I decided to start up the east side of the property, simply because I hadn't gone that way in a little while. I like to cruise the hedgerow here because there are mountain ash trees mixed in with the spruces and cedars of the little swamp where we find our fiddleheads in spring. It is often a good spot for wintering robins or wandering flocks of waxwings. However there were none to be found on this day. A little further up, I entered the birch grove and began to find tracks on the snow. Our resident fox had made its daily tour and I could see rabbit tracks everywhere. I looked a little more closely, trying to identify the makers of other, smaller prints that I began to find near trees and under bits of brush. Here, a partridge had trudged along, poking around under the birch trees, looking for seeds that might have dropped onto the snow. A couple of squirrels had played tag, judging by the scatter of tracks beneath a large cedar; a little further along, I found a pile of hulled spruce cones, further evidence that they were having a good winter.

            And then a found a set of tracks that looked like squirrel, until I realized that they seemed a little more direct and purposeful. I followed them with my eye to a place where they disappeared, abruptly, into a pile of snow, leaving only a hole. It was probably an ermine, judging from the size, the pattern and the location of the tracks. I have only ever seen two or three of these beautiful little creatures in the woods, although I know that they are really quite plentiful. The tracks confirmed their presence, though. So, too, did the marks made by mice and voles; these little creatures were obviously of some interest to the ermine. Further along again, I saw, barely, a trail of tiny marks, barely indenting the snow. Like the ermine tracks, they appeared and disappeared abruptly as their maker alternatively crossed the surface and tunnelled beneath it. Again like the ermine, this tiny shrew was searching for its prey wherever it could find it.

            I crossed to the west side and continued over the hedgerow to the open fields of my neighbour's property. A moose had been crossing regularly in recent weeks and I wanted to see if I could find fresh tracks. I didn't, not there, although I could still see the traces of the old marks from a couple of weeks previously. Further on, up the hill, I did find new tracks and further along again, another set. some day soon, I resolve to follow a set of these tracks to find out where the big animals are hanging out these days, simply to satisfy my curiosity. I also intend to track one of the resident foxes, for the same simple reason.

            And so I spent a very pleasant several hours. I saw no one. There were no birds about, except for two woodpeckers that I saw just before dark. It might seem that the woods were deserted, that life had either fled with the fall migrations or retreated into hibernation to wait out the long nights of winter. The tracks on the snow, though, told another story. Life continues, sometimes it would seem rather abundantly, even in this cold time of year. Once again the thought occurred that we have become so divorced from the world around us that we do not realize just how much happens even in our backyards, quietly, out of sight, under the snow and the blanket of night, but vibrant and passionate for all that.


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