Jan 16 2010
In recent years, winters here in the northern foothills of New York’s Adirondack Mountains have been characterized by fluctuating cold and warm temperatures that prevented a deep build-up of snow in the woods. This year has been more typical of the winters I remember from childhood, when winter seemed to be one endless parade of snowstorms and gray days, with snow so deep by March that we could tunnel like moles through the blanket of white stuff overlaying the lawn. With one exception this year, the days this season have been gray, and the temperatures cold enough that the snow has not melted back.
As a youngster, I was a hot-blooded adventurer into the snowy world, and dreamed of vast sub-Arctic winters where the only sounds were the distant howls of wolves and the rustle of snowshoes passing through the snow. A year like this one comes close to the kind of conditions I hankered for as a kid. While my internal furnace doesn’t burn as hotly as it used to, and my yearning for a subsistence life in the far north have abated, I still enjoy the stark beauty of the woods and waters in winter.
I know my readers who live in temperate regions of the world feel deprived because they don’t have to swaddle themselves in layers of insulating clothes, or pull on ice creepers like Yaktrax just to keep upright when they step outside the door. If this describes you, I feel forya. You’re missing out on the pleasures of winter as winter’s meant to be. You can’t fully appreciate being warm unless you’ve been cold. Really cold. Nose- and finger-numbing and teeth-chattering cold. So that you’re not left out of the cold, come along to see what zero-degree temperatures, slick ice and deep snow is like. And if you’re looking for a dose of reality, you could drop an ice cube down inside the back of your shirt every now and then to simulate a snow bomb taking you by surprise and to stimulate your reflexes.
Let’s begin at the coldest time of day, pre-dawn. The night shift is on the move, heading home to let the day shift take over. The photo is fuzzy because I hand-held the camera and shot through the double-glazed window at full telephoto, but you can tell this cottontail is alert for predators as he makes his way back to his form:
This is his kind of place, a woodland with low shrubs and hidden small hollows where he can hunker down and sleep with snow for insulation and cover against prowling predators.
The snow is dry and fluffy, and insulates wildlife the way a goose down sleeping bag insulates us.
Every morning one chickadee flies in as scout to see if there are sunflower seeds waiting for his clan. If he finds any—and he always does—he returns to the roost and comes back with the family, chattering all the while. This morning is frosty, and every limb and twig is coated with a fine crust of ice.
Down at The River, in the swift reaches the water is running ice. Mounds of ice and snow top each exposed boulder like frosting on a cupcake.
Ice. It’s everywhere.
The trail-side weeds—important sources of seeds for birds, insects, and small animals—have collapsed under the burden of snow, but one seed remains on this upside down head of queen anne’s lace. A hungry critter will appreciate the seed some frigid day when food is scarce or hard to find.
Every few days more snow falls, sparing no exposed object, and making even the least aesthetic manmade structures artistically attractive.
I keep returning to the water in its ever-changing guises.
Even when the water’s cold enough to form skim ice in the current, the reflection of an incandescent light lends warmth in the flurry.
And here’s what cold looks like early in the day, when the open water smokes and the trees crack like rifle shots:
Here’s another view of what a frigid morning looks like:
People used to the cold leave no bit of themselves exposed to the slicing claws of the lightest breeze. A gap in the ruff around your nose and mouth lets out the steam of your breath, which freezes in a filigree on the edges of your hood. You hunch over, mittened hands jammed as deeply into pockets as they’ll go, as if the cold is a heavy object pressing down on your back. And as I move about the winter woods on such days, I marvel at the animals who live there, who weather the short cold days and long frigid nights. Like them, I look forward to the warming days to come, even as I enjoy the harsh glory around me.