Monday, January 24, 2011

Snowshoe Here

"Having a wider heart and mind is more important than having a larger house" - Venerable Cheng Yen
January 12th, 2011. The snow along the roadside was a good two to three feet deep. Few people were driving this back road in East Lyme Connecticut because the season's first major snowfall was just wrapping up. The people who were driving were going slowly and trying to avoid sliding off the road. Not me. When I approached the forest road that leads into Nehantic State Forest I gunned it and pointed my truck at the snow bank. With a soft but solid thud I buried my truck in the snow. Then I reached for my snowshoes.

Buried in the snow. My truck "parked" in a snow bank.
 It is rare to have enough snow to use snowshoes in southeastern Connecticut. During most years here I have seen snowshoe tracks on snow that was so shallow that hiking boots were more than enough to keep the walker warm and dry. Evidence that someone owned snowshoes and wanted to get some use out of them even if they were unnecessary. Understandably human of course. I also own snowshoes, but mine are designed for narrow trails on mountainous terrain more than for wide open flats. I did not ever really expect to use them in Connecticut where we are now experiencing milder and milder winters. Still that was short sighted of me. Climate change is resulting in more moisture in the atmosphere, and consequently, more significant storms. So here I was, in East Lyme Connecticut, strapping on my snowshoes that I thought I would only ever use in the mountains. Over the coming week or so I would snowshoe three different times in the unusually white forests of my home state.

The entrance to the East Lyme unit of Nehantic State Forest. In summer Cerulean Warblers can be heard here. Now a cold stillness blanketed the forest.
As I adjusted my gear at the entrance, I once again was struck by the stillness that pervades a northeastern forest after a deep snowfall. Much like how the soft edges of an owl's feathers kill sound and allow the bird to silently approach its prey, snow that covers the forest floor and clings to trees and undergrowth also deadens sounds. The result is a silence and solitude that is more perceptual than real. But humans are creatures of perception, so the solitude felt very real to me, though I knew I was not far from roads and houses.

Self portrait showing snowshoe gear. Mountain trail snowshoes, trekking poles with snow baskets, gaiters. The cotton jeans are a clear indication I'm not dressed for backcountry but more for a stroll.
As I headed into the forest my snowshoes sank deeply into the soft powder. We had about 10 to 12 inches of new snow, and it was too dry and too new to really support my weight on my narrow snowshoes. That was okay with me today because I really just wanted to enjoy the forest and get a little workout to prepare for a planned 15 mile hike in the White Mountains later in the season.

The snow clad forest seemed silent and bereft of life. Silent it was but bereft it was not.
 I plodded along in the snow and each time my snowshoe came up its tail threw powder on my nether region. I soon adjusted my stride and pace to eliminate that uncomfortable occurrence. There is an old saying in mountain lore, "cotton kills." It is a reference to cotton quickly absorbing moisture and losing all insulating properties. Wool on the other hand, actually increases in insulating value when it gets damp. Maybe that's why sheep have wool instead of cotton. As I was wearing cotton jeans, I did not want to end up with a cold wet butt, so I adjusted my stride accordingly.

As I walked through the deep snow, at a blistering pace of about 1 mile per hour, I listened to the forest. It seemed nearly birdless. Many of the wintering songbirds would now be clustered around feeding stations at human residences. I did hear a few though. The call of a Red-bellied Woodpecker rang distantly. I can not help but compare the stark differences in spring and summer deciduous woodland noises against the winter. So much life can be heard in the warmth and so little in the cold. That doesn't mean life isn't there, it just means much less of it is avian.

Watching the snow for tracks I saw abundant sign of the seemingly ever present Gray Squirrel. These tracks often start and end, not surprisingly, at the base of trees. I did not see or hear a squirrel during my walk, and by that, one could be forgiven for thinking they were not here. But the myriad trails of their prints spoke in silent eloquence of their numbers. At one point I found ridges poking up out of the snow like the bulging veins on a body builder's arms. These were tunnels of a small mammal, perhaps a Short-tailed Shrew or a Masked Shrew. Shrews are voracious little predators eating their own body weight or more every day, and the Short-tailed (Blarina brevicauda Say) has the unique adaptation of a neurologically toxic saliva. Yes, that would be poison spit. Not to mention it emits ultrasonic sounds for echolocation. Good thing they're not the size of a dog, they'd make a Black Bear look like Winnie the Pooh.

Tunnels in the new snow, Short-tailed Shrew?. A little difficult to see the tunnels in this un-enhanced image.
Here, by enhancing the image's contrast, you can clearly see the meandering sub-surface movement of the foraging animal.
  The trees were plastered with the wind driven snow. Each species of tree seemed to take on the snow in accordance with the texture of its bark. Birches and Beeches grabbed the snow in solid blankets while Ashes and stately Tulip Trees only held the snow in the deep grooves between their ridges. Even fallen logs were heavily blanketed in the new snow. Very soon this snow would fall or be blown off, indeed as I walked I was occasionally showered by mini avalanches as this process was already underway.

The bark of the Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), or Yellow Polar, held the snow in the recess while the ridges were mostly scoured clean.
Simple winter beauty.
The light was fading and the snow hadn't completely stopped when I finally returned to my truck. I experienced a new life first by shoveling snow while wearing snowshoes to extricate my truck. It had been a very enjoyable walk, with the benefit of physical exertion. I drove home on the still very snowy roads. I managed to only slide off the road and bounce off a snow bank once on the way.

On January 17th I headed to Pleasant Valley Preserve in Lyme for another bout of Connecticut Snowshoeing. I didn't know what the trail conditions would be so I also packed my cross country skis. I figured the snowshoes would still be preferable at this point but one never knows. I timed my hike to extend into the night as the sky was clear and the waxing moon was nearing full. I love the forest at night and frequently hike in the dark.

Pleasant Valley Preserve sign and map in Lyme, Connecticut.
Once I parked I scoped out the snow/trail appearance and decided that indeed it snowshoes and not skis today. Once geared up, I headed in and quickly was reminded just how many seldom seen animals are present in our deciduous forests. In a small field a large brush pile has been built up, presumably for wildlife. It certainly was working. Around this pile, in the snow cover, were the tracks of Cottontail Rabbits that clearly showed the entry holes into the brush pile that the rabbits were using for shelter. These were either the tracks of the introduced Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus), or the greatly diminished New England Cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis), but I could not be sure. You can separate the species in a number of subtle ways but field researchers are now heavily relying on DNA determination in the droppings. Yup, you are what you poop. The New England Cottontail needs transitional habitat, cleared land that is reverting to dense brush. The Eastern Cottontail is able to exploit a larger variety of habitats, and thus out-competes the native New England. The State of Connecticut is doing studies to try and help the remaining populations of New England Cottontails, one of which is at Bluff Point Coastal Reserve in Groton. Some individuals of both species have been out-fitted with radio transmitters to better understand their dynamics. A rabbit with a white waistcoat and pocket watch has nothing on a bunny with a transmitter. Apologies to Lewis Carroll. In addition to the rabbit tracks, White-footed Mice tracks also abounded, not to mention the searching tracks of the Eastern Coyote (Lupis latrans).

Cottontail tracks around brush pile and at rabbit hole entrance. White-footed Mouse tracks can be seen at upper left.
There is a nice stand of Red Cedar in an open field on the preserve. I wanted to search for Saw-whet Owls in the stand before dark so I continued on. You need to walk under each tree and look up into it to find these diminutive little owls. I spent about a half hour doing so to no avail. I could easily have missed one of these winter visitors though, they can be tough to spot when properly tucked into the tree.

Northern Saw-whet (Aegolius acadicus). Photo by AJ Hand
 Feeling I had given it the ole college try, and by ole college try I mean a half-hearted quick look, I followed some White-tailed Deer tracks down to the Eight Mile River which borders the preserve. The river was largely frozen over and the snow, ice, and moonlight were gorgeous on this marvelous stream. A winter's stream frozen in crystal and white under a silver disc.

The nearly full moon over the Red Cedars of Pleasant Valley.
The frozen Eight Mile River in the moonlight.
The day had nearly ended and night was falling on Pleasant Valley. I love being in the forest at night, did I mention that? Now was time to just walk and enjoy. I climbed back up to the Cedar field and as I prepared to hike the forest I noticed the tracks of what I believe was a White-footed Mouse crossing the snow. White-footed Mice will cross the snow surface and then dive into the snow and tunnel. Here was clear evidence.

The tracks of what was likely a White-footed Mouse end at a hole created when the Mouse decided to return to tunneling under the snow.
I had brought a headlamp with for when the daylight failed. However the nearly full moon on the snowy forest floor was more than enough light to see my way. The rest of my hike was in the silence and the dark. It was superb.

Beauty, silence, cold, a nocturne most wonderful.
January 22, 2011. It was time for a more serious walk. The weather had produced another snowfall on top of the unusually deep base here in southeastern Connecticut. But it also rained briefly during the storm. So I knew there would be a layer of crust, wet snow that had refrozen dense and hard. This meant little compression under the snowshoes. So a long hard walk was in the offing. And another night walk. This time I headed for the Lyme Unit of Nehantic State Forest. The last night hike I had done here had been during the summer and I had the sound of Flying Squirrels to accompany me throughout the walk. None of that tonight.

Arriving at the forest road I found it unplowed, so dropping my truck into four-wheel drive, I plowed through to the parking area. From this small gravel (now snowy) lot I have started many a walk in the forest. Tonight I saw that someone had already been both snowshoeing and cross country skiing here. As part of my hike would be on forest trail and not just forest road, I chose snowshoes.

Someone had beaten me to it. I was not the first to snowshoe the forest road.
This was to be a roughly three and one half mile jaunt. Once again the night was still and beautiful. The moon was now passed full and would not rise till I was done. So I had my headlamp with me, but as usual I would resist using it till the last possible moment. As I traversed this now very familiar hike, I was struck by the plethora of tracks in the snow. Distantly a pair of Barred Owls called. First the deep "Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all," of the male, then shortly after the higher pitch of an answering female. I have never failed to hear these wonderful birds in Nehantic at night, though oddly I have not succeeded in seeing them here. I have seen a Chuck-wills-widow in this forest, a very uncommon night bird from the south, related to a Whippoorwill, but I just haven't laid eyes on the common Barred Owl in this forest. Life is chance, is it not? 

Barred Owl (Strix Varia) in Connecticut. By AJ Hand 2002
As I cruised along my mind wandered, as it usually does on long hikes, though this wasn't really a long hike. However tonight I kept being brought up short by tracks in the snow. Gray Squirrel, White-footed Mouse, shrew tunnels, White-tailed Deer, Coyote, Red Fox, human, and dog. The forest floor spoke of many passages while the silence suggested otherwise. Silent does not mean empty, clearly. At one point a pack of Coyotes howled and yipped briefly, and yet again I felt the thrill of hearing these wild carnivorans.

The trail of a White-footed Mouse showing tail prints as well.

A closer look

The tale of the tracks. Old showshoe prints overlaid by new snow and then cross country skis on top. To the right is the straight track of a Red Fox.
Tunnels, probably shrew, Short-tailed most likely but possibly Masked? Gray Squirrel jumping through.
The night was getting very cold as I hiked, nothing better illustrated this than the energy bar in my pack being frozen solid when I stopped to eat it. It was the better part of two and a half hours when I finally returned to the parking area. One more exquisite night hike in a forest. As I paused before stripping off gear, I looked at the night sky. My breath turned to silver mist that swirled and twisted upward like a dissipating spirit. The stars shone intensely bright and clear with shreds of wispy clouds stretched between. How bereft of romance, how dead to the beauty of the world, how soulless must a person be, to be able to look at the night sky bespeckled with the countless points of light from our galaxy on a still winter's night, and not be left in awe?

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