"Go as far as you can see; when you get there you'll be able to see farther." ~ Thomas Carlyle
I took a long walk in the woods the other day. The sun was shining with an irresistible invitation. Unseasonably warm weather made gloves optional (of course I brought them as well as a spare pair of mitts) and the lack of snow made me feel that skis (which I own and love) or snow-shoes (which I unfortunately don’t own) would not be worth the necessity of packing them across the open spaces. I have not been out in the woods as much as usual this winter and, well, I was wrong about the snow.
It would have been fine had I stuck to the sun-baked, wind-swept south side of the coulee I chose to follow. Snow has barely accumulated to my knees in the open, moss-covered under-story beneath towering conifers, where the first of two ruffed grouse that day startled me when it broke its “I’m a stump” cover and thundered high up into the sheltering branches of an old spruce tree.
But an old trail tempted me down into the deep, familiar place where hare hide under drooping boughs and tangled willow and alder entwine their branches to build protective arbors over tiny waterways, that in spring carve their courses with melted snow, deep into the soft and giving ravine floor.
There, after making my way down the overgrown trail, steeply into the flat-bottomed defile, where the bordering slopes capture the snow and tame the wind, and the blizzard is broken and forced to unload its arsenal, I found myself negotiating the tangled maze in a thigh-deep layer. In such a place, each step must be taken with great care in summer; water carves beneath deceptively solid moss ceilings and covers suspended branches. So much more hidden are these treacherous obstacles in the winter under the serene, pristine quilt.
I had three choices once I realized that this part of my hike was going to be more challenging than usual and possibly somewhat unsafe. After all, if I did not sprain an ankle (or have a heart attack from the physical effort), I was more vulnerable than usual to any predator that happened to be close by and hungry. I could return up the trail I came down on, or make my way the short distance across the ravine and climb a steeper and more deeply laden hill on the far side, or I could follow the curving wash to a snowmobile trail that I knew cut across it perhaps a quarter of a kilometer away. I chose the last option because I love this place.
I could worry about wolves, cougar, lynx and even black and grizzly bears, although bears are unlikely to be straying very far from their dens this time of year. I could even worry about coyotes but I think they would have to be extremely hungry before attacking a human. They are too smart. They have learned about people and big sticks. I don’t worry though. Not usually. I see their tracks and I beg to get a glimpse of their lives of basic survival that I can only imagine. I know well that they avoid me. I am the enemy. I am the creature to avoid.
Deep in the ravine, slowly lifting one foot high after the other like a stalking lizard, making my way over and under grasping branches, I would be easy prey. It was very unlikely, however that any large predator would be nearby. I was not far from the industrial part of town; occasionally the echoes of heedless grumbling and gnashing sounds reached down into the hollow. I could tell by the tracks, that ungulates, the more likely prey, were no longer attempting to use the little valley as a path, the snow was much more dense and shallow on the open plateaus and hillsides. My more likely companions there were the masters of the snow. Snowshoe hare and their nemesis, the lynx are night creatures though; their dramas written on the landscape for me to read in the sunshine.
For much of an hour then, I plunged each heavy boot onto unknown footing; one careful probing through powdery drift after the other. It was not a hardship. Time was suspended and for long moments, I stopped to take in the beauty around me. Snow cloaked the landscape, pillowing on branches and wrapping around boughs. Dainty footprints of birds and rodents marked the fragile surface with staccato landings and percussive marches. Golden swaths of sunlight streamed across the gully in broken ribbons, gilding the suspended skeletons of alder leaves and setting the pine aglow. Chickadees chirped and a pine grosbeak softly sang; no, it was no hardship, just a long-overdue reminder that I am alive and living is grand.