Sunday, January 30, 2011

Cold Amusements

January 24, 2011
[Stayed indoors this morning]
It was to be the coldest night of the year – followed by the coldest day -- one reason I had been glad to get outdoors the day before.
Forecasters were blaring “Wind Chill Warnings” on the hour.  The coming cold temperatures were  a topic of conversation all weekend.
 It’s something that happens every year --  yet if you went by the non-stop “Weather Alerts”  on television and radio,  it was a breaking news event!
(See the Journal  entry below, to realize that this sort of fuss is really nothing new…)
The wooden rafters of our apartment building began to snap loudly at around 10 pm Sunday evening. That only happens when it gets very cold. At odd intervals, you’d hear a startling THUMP above.  I drifted off to sleep, toasty warm on flannel sheets,  wondering just how low the thermometer would go.
Suddenly it was morning – and there was light was shining in my eyes.
That’s odd, I thought, since my window faces west.  Shaking off sleep, I saw that it was the moon – its pale beams were hitting my pillow.

Well there's that heartbeat of the moon the horoscope talked about !
Six a.m., too early for an evening-shift worker to be up and about.  Back under the covers!
The temperature stood at minus 20 degrees. 


HDT’s Journal:  March 19, 1859 -While it is moderately hot or cold, or wet or dry,
nobody attends to it,
but when Nature goes to an extreme in any of these directions
we are all on the alert with excitement.
E. g., when I went to Boston in the early train
the coldest morning of last winter,
two topics mainly occupied the attention of the passengers: Morphy’s chess  victories,
and Nature’s victorious cold that morning

The inhabitants of various towns were comparing notes,
and that one whose door opened upon a greater degree of cold than any of his neighbors’ doors chuckled over not a little.

It was plain that one object which the cold was given us for was our amusement,
a passing excitement.

It would be perfectly consistent and American
to bet on the coldness of our respective towns,
of the morning that is to come.
Thus a greater degree of cold may be said to warm us
more than a less one.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Walking This Afternoon

January 23, 2011
Otter Point, Moreau Lake State Park

Henry Thoreau and I both went walking this afternoon - only not together:

(from Thoreau’s Journal:)
Jan. 23 1857 –
The coldest day that I remember recording, clear and bright …
Ink froze.

Had to break the ice in my pail with a hammer.
Thermometer at 6:45 am, -18 degrees;
at 10:30, -14 degrees
(Smith’s, –20; Wilds’ –7, the last being in a more sheltered place);

at 12:45, -9 degrees;
at 4 pm, -5 1/2 degrees;
at 7:30 pm, -8 degrees.

Walking this afternoon, I notice that the face inclines to stiffen,
and the hands and feet get cold soon.
On first coming out in very cold weather,
I find that I breathe fast,

though without walking faster or exerting myself
any more than usual.

It seems that eons have passed since the long, leisurely walks of summer. Instead, when I do get outdoors these days, it’s hurried and quick, face bundled, eyes down, choosing my steps with care.
The weather has been unpleasant for many days in a row, and I've fallen into Hibernation Mode --preferring to remain in my warm cave if given a choice.

So of course, when Jackie suggested we meet to walk this weekend, I was already mentally setting some conditions on my participation.
“If it’s not snowing”
“if it’s not too cold”
“if my car starts”
“if my little toe gets better” (yes, I bashed it again a few days ago – you’ve done it too : at first you see stars, and then cautiously look down, but it’s always still hanging on somehow).

All in all, some pretty lame excuses.

No matter that I knew that Henry Thoreau, plagued his whole short life with tuberculosis, had been out walking on this very same day 154 years ago, loping around Concord to get those temperature readings from his neighbors …

And though I was looking forward to much-needed fresh air, I was also prepared to cancel on a moment’s notice, if Jackie called.

No call came.

I wondered whether to make the call myself, when my eye fell on today's horoscope:

How could I resist such poetic advice?
Smiling at the summons to spend "more time than usual" outdoors,
I loaded the snowshoes into the car, and drove to our meeting-place at the trailhead.

As I drove southward, the sunny sky dimmed like a cataract, and the distant grey haze became tiny snowflakes falling all around.

Excuse Number One was here!

I arrived first at the trailhead and sat in the car, watching the windshield whiten. Moments later, Jackie’s car pulled up, and  just as I was about to say, “well, let’s just go for coffee” – she was already putting on her snowshoes.

That’s the value of a good friend, they get you to go outside your
self-imposed limits.

As if to reward us, no sooner did we enter the woods, than the snow stopped and dim sunlight appeared.
We ended up having a splendid walk. I struggled a bit with the deepness of the snow – even with snowshoes, if the snow if fluffy enough, you sink down quite a ways. We took turns breaking trail, and Jackie had lots more energy than I.

Excuse Number Two was still a possibility. It was about 9 degrees.
I’ve been out on short walks in that temperature, but we stayed out for about an hour and a half. Ironically, we were more concerned with getting overheated from exertion, which is a real danger in those conditions.

After the initial coldness in fingers and toes, just a few minutes of tromping through deep snow soon gets you feeling toasty warm all over.

My hat was flaps-down, and eliminated most peripheral vision. A scarf helped keep my nose from going numb, but also helped to royally fog up my glasses. Then there was no vision at all. At times I was walking by feel alone, literally in a haze. It was good just to be outside and moving.

There were some tracks and trails everywhere, but all seemed made hours ago – except for the stitchery of mouse-tracks that went on for great mouse-distances, betraying their recent epic voyages from tree to tree.

In a way, we were like those mice, only our tracks were bigger.

The woods were very still and beautiful, and we sloped down to the coves along the river.
At the edge, you can look out across the river – a marvelous sight even on a grey day.

One pauses at coming upon such frozen serenity.

Good friend or no, I stubbornly stayed ashore while Jackie fearlessly walked out on the cove ice. She wanted to check the deer carcass, which was put there by park personnel as a sort of enticement for the wintering bald eagles.

So far, they haven’t seen any eagles during the official Friday Eagle Watches at the Park, which take place only a few miles upriver from where we now stood.

Jackie came back after a few minutes, and we just stood there, looking at the sun peek out behind Three Brother Island.

Suddenly, in the air off to the left – big wings !

and it was a bald eagle, who casually flapped his way past us,
past the deer, past the Island, in a matter of moments.

I barely had time to raise the camera with clumsy cold hands.

Sure, maybe if we hadn’t been right out where he could see us, or hear us, that eagle might have come down for a landing in that cove, but it was still treat enough for us.

We walked out to the point of land that Jackie calls Rippled Rocks. Even covered with snow, they live up to their name.

It was by no means a long walk, in time or distance, but one filled with wonderful things that made it seem a grand excursion.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


January 1, 2011
Moreau Lake State Park

A Happy New Year to All !
Yes, it’s been a while since you’ve seen any activity here. ..
Back in the middle of November, things happened -- one after the other -- things that made it difficult to keep up the blog. Things have settled down since then, and it’s time to revive this blog.
In the next few entries,  I will cover the days between then and now in an attempt to catch up. And perhaps even tackle a retrospective of the past glorious year, as my blogging friends have already done.

For now, let me leap across time to the present moment,
or rather, to the day before yesterday,
when I took a wonderful afternoon walk withJackie at Moreau.
It was the day of New Year’s Eve, and for once,  I had the entire day off.
After the previous two weeks – a blur of extra hours and odd work shifts -- I was certainly looking forward to going to Moreau and being able to take my time.

It’s been cloudy and blustery for a while, too, and today dawned sunny and warm.
(By "warm," I mean well above the usual 15 degrees. It got all the way up to 38 today!)
I celebrated by not wearing the ever-present windbreaker. (But I DID stash it in my pack, having learned THAT lesson a long time ago.) It’s amazing how leaving off one layer of winter clothing can make you feel so much lighter.  No need for snowshoes yet, either.

Jackie and I headed for an area we call The Valley of the Porcupines. It’s an area of small rocky pits where these critters prefer to make their odiferous dens.
If you pass near one of these dens, you are more likely to smell it before you see it ! Of course, the troughs in the snow, created by waddling porcupines,  are a sort of giveaway, as well.

A  few days ago, after our version of the Great East Coast Blizzard of 2010 (during which we received an underwhelming FOUR  inches of nice fluffy snow), I went walking on this same trail, admiring beautiful crisp fresh tracks of all sorts of animals.
There were deer beds, in which one could see the imprint of the animal’s winter coat.

Up at the dens, I was fortunate to see very fresh prints of a porcupine.
Instead of the usual trodden-down hedgehog highway –
You could see the texture of the skin on the soles of his feet – as if he was wearing little sneakers.

And where there are porcupines, there are likely to be fishers, bounding through the snow.

Jackie is so right when she confessed, “every year, I have to relearn any tracking skills I thought I knew” -  I feel the same way. Adding  to my confusion  is the fact that many walkers here bring along their pets – who oftentimes end up off the leash .  In some parts of the park, you’d have a tough time puzzling out whether it was Reynard or Rover who crossed  your path.
That’s when you have to consider other factors like location, stride, even motivation.

Today Jackie and I spent some happy hours just wandering about, following all sorts of trails in the snow,
trying to puzzle out some of their mysteries.
Another mystery was the fact that we saw insects. Alive.
First there was a small swarm of “gnats” – dancing up and down like puppets on a string, similar to the spring flights of the ephemerae. A few landed on the snow and I got a photo
of one of them.

Then another photo, this time there were two of them – hey wait, what ARE they doing? In winter?

Jackie came over to take her own photo of the gnats, and instead captured a glimpse of a stonefly !
(follow this link to her blog to realize the good fortune of seeing  this creature.)
Later I saw a translucent spider, scurrying along, to hide behind a twig,
And something that I thought was a tiny twiglet – the resemblance was perfect –except for the fact that it was moving along like an inchworm  –

When we saw some ancient logs encrusted with lichens, another creature showed up when I reviewed the photos at home – springtails. Well, those we have seen in winter before, but the others were a surprise.
Perhaps these delicate creatures were, like myself,
revived by the relative warmth of the day.

We stopped back at the newly-renovated Warming Hut for a late lunch, sitting in Papa-Bear-sized chairs by the fireplace.  Then for the first time this season, we took our first shortcut ACROSS the lake.
The sun was sinking down past the western ridge, and everything had a hazy glow about it.

Today the ice was thick enough (6 to 8 inches)  to walk on safely. The ice-fishers have been out on the ice for over a week, despite some mighty  dubious conditions.
Another dubious thing – we found two fish left out on the ice, by fishermen who had since gone home.
The first, a small sucker – perhaps used as bait? Not knowing anything about fishing, I had to stop and take a close look.

This may be the offspring of the suckers we saw spawning in the shallows last spring, as we had watched on a delightful April day from the far shore of the lake.
Jackie said, “wait a minute, he’s still alive.”  His gills were moving, as he lay staring (as fish are wont to do) at the edge of the ice-hole, just inches away. So near and yet so far!
After posing this unfortunate for the obligatory photos, I sang “Born Free,” while Jackie got her new gloves all fishy by picking him up and plopping him back into the watery hole.
I don’t know if he survived, but we thought he deserved another chance at life.

We walked on across the frozen lake, and I saw another dark shape atop the ice, near another hole.
This time it was a pickerel !
We returned this one to the deep, as well. I had never seen one close-up.
What a combination of fierce reputation, and sheer beauty !

You can read a marvelous passage about them in Walden.
Standing on the ice of my own Walden, I saw the words of Thoreau literally come to life, right at my feet.

From the chapter “The Pond in Winter:

Ah, the pickerel of Walden!
 when I see them lying on the ice,
or in the well which the fisherman cuts in the ice, making a little hole to admit the water,
 I am always surprised by their rare beauty,
as if they were fabulous fishes,
 they are so foreign to the streets, even to the woods,
 foreign as Arabia to our Concord life.
They possess a quite dazzling and transcendent beauty
which separates them by a wide interval from the cadaverous cod and haddock
 whose fame is trumpeted in our streets.

They are not green like the pines,
nor gray like the stones,
nor blue like the sky;
but they have, to my eyes, if possible, yet rarer colors,
like flowers and precious stones,

as if they were the pearls, the animalized nuclei or crystals of the Walden water. 
They, of course, are Walden all over and all through;
are themselves small Waldens in the animal kingdom --Waldenses.
 It is surprising that they are caught here — that in this deep and capacious spring,
far beneath the rattling teams and chaises and tinkling sleighs
that travel the Walden road,
this great gold and emerald fish swims.

I never chanced to see its kind in any market;
it would be the cynosure of all eyes there.
Easily, with a few convulsive quirks, they give up
their watery ghosts,
like a mortal translated before his time
to the thin air of heaven.