A Short Winter Hike


(This 930th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on January 18, 2009.)



A chickadee has taken a sunflower seed from my hand


The snow is deep. To get out of the car I have to push my door into a drift. Fortunately the snow density is light and I will be able to drive out when I return.


That lightness creates another problem, however. My snowshoes are going to be of little help. They sink in and serve more like shovels as I hobble toward the forest. I won't be going very far this way.


Never mind that. As soon as I move away from the car I find myself overwhelmed by this world of snow. There is more than a foot on the ground and every twig sports an inch or two of its own personal blanket. It is clear that I am the first visitor here this morning. Not even animal tracks mar the pristine white surface and the snow twinkles like a million Christmas ornaments in the bright sunlight.


Some would call this a stark world and indeed here at the edge of this hardwood forest all but the sky are in neutral colors – shades of brown and gray against white snowpack. However, the blue of that infinite sky, only broken in a few places by fleecy stratus clouds, makes a perfect backdrop.


How silent this world is. Anyone who has ventured out in winter has experienced the dampening effect snow has on sound. It absorbs any noise. Even on crowded ski slopes this is evident. There is no difficulty hearing your partners talk to you. In fact, voices sound clearer against the silence, but as soon as conversation stops that silence takes over. This morning the only sounds I hear are those of my own breathing and my snowshoes plopping into the snow.


Before I enter the woods, I pause to observe the few weeds that are not completely snow-covered. A tall mullein stalk stands guard over some thistles, goldenrods, Queen Anne's lace and milkweed. The milkweed pods still retain a few of their feathery seeds. One of them floats off as I watch.


I think about the future of that seed. Its outlook is bleak but it may settle into the snow, even its slight weight slowly working it down to the ground. There it will remain until the bright sun of spring reaches it to cause it to germinate and recreate life from this inanimate object.


That's the bright scenario. There are many others. The seed could, for example, drift into a creek where it would slowly rot or be eaten by a fish. One milkweed seed's future is certainly not assured; no wonder each plant produces so many.


As I walk into the forest, a sudden gust sends clouds of snow off the trees creating a brief whiteout and then disclosing the green branches of a spruce that had been completely covered.


Even with this deep snow, the trail through the woods is not difficult to follow, its painted blazes marking it as part of the Conservation Trail. Even without them, I will have no difficulty retracing my snowshoe-plowed pathway.


A chickadee chatters and I offer it a sunflower seed in my open hand. The bird flashes in to take it and quickly flies off. Just in time for seconds later a Cooper's hawk speeds past looking for just such a tiny morsel.


Soon I reach the creek that is my goal on this short hike. Both upstream and downstream it is frozen over and snow-covered, but here the grade is steeper and the small rapids is keeping the water open. Ice is everywhere though, coating the stones and logs in the creek itself and all of the exposed banks. A line of ice tells me how many inches higher the water level reached in an earlier run-off.


I stand a few moments before going back to my car simply to enjoy the beauty of this spot. Even some exposed tree roots, undercut by spring floods, are attractive in their icy uniforms.


I enjoy a bonus when returning. Many of my snowshoe prints are filled with what looks like pepper. The dots are tiny springtails, normally invisible among the leaf litter. I insert my finger next to one and watch it jump. It does this by whipping its tail-like furcula against the snow.-- Gerry Rising