The winter holds secrets: field mice tunnel under the snow, their trails hidden to the eye above the crust; black bear disappear into dens, giving birth and feeding their young all before coming out of torpor in the spring; weasels and snowshoe hares shed their summer coats for white ones, camouflaging themselves against predators; and each new snow covers the trails of animals to make it seem as if they never gave themselves away in the first place. Between snowfalls, though, winter lets you in.
Deer, snowshoe hare, coyote, bobcat, squirrel, raccoon: their tracks tell me of their presence. Every time I go into the woods, I see the paths of animals all around me, though rarely do I see their bodies. That’s okay with me; knowing life moves through these woods all winter is enough, and each time I come upon traces of animals I stop to inspect. It is because of this I can never move quickly through the trees—it sometimes seems that each time I pick up my feet another detail catches my eyes, and I stop again. I must admit, I am new at track identification, but between common sense and a good field guide, I’m learning. The small hoof prints of deer have been familiar to me since childhood, but I only recently learned that cat tracks are clawless, unlike those of dogs, and that the shape of the ball pads also differs between the two animal families.
Last week, Edge came home from the Green River Reservoir, where he was out skiing with the dogs, and showed me this picture of an owl’s imprint:
I marveled at it as he described coming upon it, a single large pattern in the snow with no tracks around it. We were both puzzled, thinking we should be able to see the line of a mouse beneath the snow, but later I read how owls can hear their prey in the subnivian zone, and thus often rely on their ears instead of their eyes for winter hunting. The owl did indeed find food that day.
When I go out on snowshoes instead of skis, I explore steeper slopes and areas more dense with trees. A few days ago, I climbed up on top of a knoll where balsams grow close, and found snowshoe hare tracks casually leading this way and that. Not too far from there, where the land depresses into a bowl and a small field opens up, the hare’s tracks appear much farther apart, and I imagined the animal bouncing quickly through the open space before slowing once again amidst the shelter of evergreens with their branches hanging low, laden with snow.
There is of course more to the winter woods than animals—there is the snow, the frozen streams and the ice that clings to rock: water pausing in its colder forms and reminding us of the beauty of slowing down. As a child, I’d stare wide-eyed at frozen waterfalls along the highway and skid to a stop near any wall of ice along resort ski-trails. Now I snowshoe or cross-country ski, moving slower to find the smaller strands of ice. My father taught me this—to look for the details in the land—and as I crouch down to get the right angle, I think briefly of winter walks and morning drives together, each of us equipped with a camera, and my father always stopping suddenly when he’d see it, the picture, and me learning to be patient and to look.
The winter holds secrets: freezing rain can come one night and transform the details you found; snowstorms and wind can fill in the tracks and create snow-dunes where there were none before; the arctic air can snap so cold that you stay inside, baking and drinking tea while the lives in the forest continue on in their own ways. Patience, patience. If you look, the winter lets you in.