Life Under the Snow


 (This column was first published in the January 7, 2002 Buffalo News.)


The response to snow differs among us humans from individual to individual. Some of us are delighted to see the falling flakes. We have visions of skiing, snowshoeing, sledding or snowmobiling. Others among us are less enthusiastic. Our thinking focuses on shoveling and hazardous driving.


Just so is it among the animals. Some, like rabbits and deer, are threatened by snow. It will be harder for them to forage and hunters – coyotes, foxes, hawks and owls as well as humans -- can better follow their trails. But for other animals the snow will bring protection from the cold and from at least some of their many predators.


On our closely manicured lawns the snow piles up directly on the ground, but in the longer grass of meadows and on leafy forest floors a quite different process ensues. Not all of the snow reaches the ground. The leaves and branches of living and dead wildflowers and grasses form tiny roofs that hold the snow a few centimeters above the soil. Natural passages are formed through which mice, shrews, voles, lemmings and even chipmunks and weasels can make their way. The Inuit name for this complex layer of ice crystals and open space at the base of the snowpack is pukak.


Imagine for a moment that, like Alice in Wonderland, we can shrink ourselves down to an inch in height in order to enter this subnivean world. We'll need to carry flashlights because very little light penetrates that thick ceiling of snow. The animals that inhabit these passages have much better eyesight than we do and their other senses, especially their better ability to smell and hear, serve them well here.


We find ourselves in a complex system of caves in which it will be very easy to get lost. Some of the openings have been enlarged by the bodies of mice and other animals forcing their way through, however, and we can more easily follow one of them.


Surprisingly, because the snow serves as a kind of blanket and the ground below our feet radiates some warmth, the temperature is a degree or two above freezing. This causes slow but constant melting and refreezing so all around us are ice formations that mimic the stalagmites and stalactites of mineral caves.


When we wander through this wonderland, we find much that serves as food for the inhabitants of the pukak. Everywhere our light discloses living as well as dead plants and fungi on which we occasionally see flies, beetles, springtails and aphids feeding. These insects are fed upon in turn -- predatory beetles, mites, spiders and wasps make meals of them.


And now we must realize that our size threatens us as well. We too could serve as prey for a mouse, shrew or weasel wandering through these passages. When we hear crashing noises approaching, we had better recall the magic incantation that will return us, bursting up through the snow cover, to retain our original size.


Surprisingly, more than a dozen species of small mammals spend much of their time through the winter in these passageways. Among the mice and voles, only the jumping mice are not to be found. They, like the woodchuck and the little brown bat, are true hibernators and they spend the entire winter curled up in their nests soundly sleeping. Far and away the most common of the denizens of the pukak are the voles, little "meadow mice" that seem designed to serve as food for our carnivores.


Recall the next time you trudge across a snow-covered field that each of your steps capsizes a little of that world under the snow.-- Gerry Rising

Much of the information for this column was taken from an excellent article by Jon Nelson entitled "Pukak: Life Under the Snow" that appeared in the Winter 1966 issue of The Boundary Waters Journal. The article was forwarded to me some time ago by my good friend and companion of many years camping in the Minnesota Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Wally Neal.