Snowshoeing in January

I went snowshoeing yesterday, for the first time this winter. We have had two big storms a week apart, each of which dumped over 30 centimeters (AKA a foot) of snow. There were strong winds as well, gusting to over 100 kilometers an hour, which in addition to knocking out power all over The Island also sculpted the snow into wonderful drifts.

Sometimes these big storms are followed by a period of high pressure, with sunny skies and a bright wintry landscape. At other times the low-pressure system lingers, with grey cloud and periods of soft drifting snow. The light is flat, and it can be difficult to see the contours of the land. Yesterday was such a day.

Victoria has dug a trench to the coop, but the chickens and ducks refuse to come out. They cluster around the door and cackle derisively, scratching at the straw-strewn floor as if to show us what ground should feel like. The idea of getting cold feet from being outside is certainly not a priority.

The dogs, in contrast, are in heaven, albeit one with limited or conditional terms. Running in the deeper snow is a short-lived exercise, one which only lasts as long as it takes us to snowshoe thirty or forty metres. At that point they leap on each other and roll about, then race up and down the tracks left behind us. The further we walk, the longer the track, and so they build up their run, in perpendicular laps.

As we walk down through the woods the narrow single file track of a fox crosses the path, precision in each step. He came from the corn field and under a strand of fallen fence wire, then kept going between the rowan (also known as the mountain ash) trees. These still hold many of their berries, it was a good year for them, although the robins have stayed around to gorge themselves. Like many wild trees, rowans tend to fruit heavily every second year, so this fall Victoria picked buckets of the berries and made rowan jelly, a wonderful addition to roast pork or lamb dishes during the winter months.

Further down the trail it looks like a couple of rabbits have loped around the edge of the frozen pond and then gone up the bank next to the beech tree. The brittle brown leaves of the beech, curled in the cold, shine golden in the weak light, their ribs highlighted by a sheen of fresh snow. The shadows in the woods prevent me seeing whether rabbit and fox trail intersect.

Once we get through the woods and out to the garden we are exposed to the soft snow. It’s just below freezing, perhaps minus three or four degrees, and there is no wind. The small flakes drift down, white emerging from grey, and the landscape blurs. A northern or yellow-shafted flicker undulates overhead, making a dash from one clump of trees to another. A type of woodpecker, this one has obviously decided the COVID border restrictions are too onerous and has foregone the opportunity to migrate south for the winter.

We trek down the edge of the garden, past the skeletal orchard, outstretched branches dotted with dormant winter buds. The raspberry canes and grape vines are sleeping deeply, patiently waiting for the long warm days of May before they even think about spending energy. There are still some seeds on the heads of two sunflowers, swaying gently on their ten-foot stalks, but the blue jays have eaten most of them.

The dogs run down to the berm near the pond. The berm is left wild, rife with goldenrod and rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan), dotted with daisies and clover. Now it is a haven for voles, and the dogs dig madly in the snow, seeking the narrow tunnels among the roots as they chase their elusive prey. It is a rare and surprising occurrence when they actually catch one, hunter and hunted both frozen in place, staring at each other in confusion and trying to figure out what to do next. Usually, the dogs get bored first and dance off to another clump of grass. The vole waits until nothing is moving in the immediate area and then goes back into its tunnel, slow and nervous movements at first, followed by a quick dash.

We circle the pond, the water lilies and pickerel weed well hidden by ice and snow. The dogs run out into the middle, skidding to a stop like children who have found an unexpectedly slippery section of sidewalk. The water level is high, so hopefully the goldfish will survive another winter, settled alongside the frogs in the muddy lower depths. Last year the bullrush root I got from a friend’s place put out two new shoots, it will be interesting to see if a proper clump develops this spring. The dragonflies like to rest on the leaves that arch into the pond like flying buttresses supporting the corndog spires.

As we start to head back, the local pair of ravens glide past. They nest somewhere in the old trees down by the Confederation Trail, and regularly perform a perimeter check of their territory. Potential predators such as eagles are escorted away, and potential irritants such as humans are checked to make sure we stick to our own paths.

On this day, our path leads us back through the planted garden. I tend not to prune back the herbaceous borders in the fall. This is not entirely laziness on my part. Apart from anything else, perennials often need a cold snap in order to set seed for next spring. But more importantly, the seed heads add both interest and nourishment to the winter landscape. The tightly folded cups of the Queen Anne’s Lace, the graceful arcs of the hollyhock, the spikes of monarda, aquilegia and agastache, all stand stark against the snow and delineate the shape of the flower beds.

In this monochromatic January landscape, the echoes of last summer’s colour are visible, and so is the promise of the spring to come.

One thought on “Snowshoeing in January

  1. Good piece of writing. Fascinating glimpse of life in a landscape so alien to us in Queensland.

    Keep Safe


    Paul and Gillian


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