This is when it feels like winter won’t end, so I double down on putting the time to good use. I walk. This winter I have walked even more than usual, trying to keep my body moving and my blood pumping.
Usually my route includes some variation on walking down a bluff and then back up it. The valley’s topography makes for a great fitness club. There are many places along the river where enough people snowshoe and walk that there is usually a well-packed path. I rarely see anyone but we benefit from each other’s footsteps.
Dropping down the steep slopes toward the river, roads and responsibilities quickly slip behind. The topography silences civilization, and a short trek allows an escape equal to hiking a mile from the trailhead on flatter terrain.
I hike under gray skies and blue, over snow soft or frozen solid, in bright sunshine and on dim days when our home star seems to be leaving us forever.
In January, we pleaded for sunshine after a blur of featureless clouds, filtered sunlight. Our appeals are eventually answered.
On a blinding afternoon in February, when the sun bounces off fresh snow and hits my eyes without losing much of the original solar intensity, I walk down a trail that follows an old road cut through the bluff line. My new dog, Ginger, trots along next to me. She is another good reason I have hiked more — a six-month-old mutt needs exercise if she’s going to spend the day locked in my office with me while I work.
I added two pieces of gear this winter that have greatly improved my walking. The first was a pair of Yaxtrax, the cleats that go on my hiking boots to improve traction. They’re largely intended for ice, but I find them great for hiking on packed trails. I waste much less energy, since my foot doesn’t slip backward with every step forward.
The second piece of gear are Outdoor Research boot gaiters, which attach to my boots and go up to below my knee. These let me wear light hiking boots, and occasionally, inevitably cross through some deep snow without getting it packed around my ankles.
With snow on the ground and no leaves on the trees, the woods are better lit than any time of the year.
It’s almost perfectly silent. There is little wind at the moment, and few birds. The smallest sound carries great distances, my footsteps steadily squeaking and crunching, giving rhythm to thoughts. A far-off airplane breaks this silence, then a blue jay screech, a tapping woodpecker, and then the soft music of trumpeter swans flying up from the river.
These scarce signs of life only increase the sense of solitude.
I’m reminded of a blog post I recently read by Chris Helzer on his blog The Prairie Ecologist. A scientist working for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska, Chris has deep knowledge of the ecosystems along another National Scenic Riverway, the Niobrara.
“When wandering through a stadium during the off-season, the stillness can be overwhelming. The arena is full of life and commotion during the season, but most everyone is gone now. Only a few die-hard athletes and year-round staff remain, preparing for the next year, or just hanging around because they don’t have anywhere better to be.
“As you walk around in the near silence, it’s easy to imagine the kind of bustling activity that occurs when everyone is around. While much of the mess has been cleaned up, the main infrastructure remains and you can squint your eyes and envision the players moving about on the field. While meandering about, you feel nostalgic about previous visits as well as a strong yearning for the start of the upcoming season.”– The Empty Stadium, The Prairie Ecologist, Jan. 28, 2020
There are trees and rocks and the intermittent sounds of birds, but otherwise the land seems to lie waiting. This is the season of owls and eagles nesting and mating, whitetail deer does in their second trimester, but the bursting of life is a long ways away.
When I come out of the woods and walk along the edge of a big prairie, with acres of land and water before my eyes, and little movement, little visible activity, it feels just like being in an empty arena.
Of course, there are countless mice and voles scurrying under the snow, and snakes hibernating down in the ground. Insect larvae wait under dead leaves and logs for their chance to mature. But the signs are few, and so many creatures are elsewhere.
Some of the best mental medicine I know is to see somewhere new, or see somewhere familiar in a new way. That might mean observing a beautiful sight previously passed by, or a native flower blooming, a bird fluttering among leafy limbs where my memory is of bare branches.
That will come. Right now, the newness is the emptiness.
It’s when my feet fall into that rhythm, and my thoughts match its pace, that the feeling of smallness sinks in, the sense of being the only thing moving and making noise in a still and quiet coliseum.
Big open-grown oaks stand every 100 yards or so along the edge of the bluff, like columns adorning ancient arboreal arcades. They have snow in the joints of their limbs, gnarled bark, and jagged limbs spreading to find the sun. They’re surrounded by recent growth, small maples and basswood, but generations of these softer trees will come and go in the lifespan of an oak.
When the first European-American settler surveyors mapped this area in 1848, the term they most often used to describe it was “scattering oak.” This was the savanna — grasslands sprinkled with sprawling oak trees, sunny and dry and alive in summer, windblown yet wondrous in winter. Occasional grassfires limited the growth of other trees, and protected the prairie.
Most of the land was cut and plowed and the natural fire cycle was forgotten, but it’s remembered now at parks and nature preserves, and oaks still scatter across the prairie in some places along the St. Croix River.
The path here has been obscured by blowing snow. A breeze pushes north, and I dip my head into it and keep going. At the edge of a bluff, I look over the river, a quarter-mile to the matching sandstone cliffs on the other side. Bare silver maples poke up from the floodplain.
This is like standing in the bleachers, just another fan watching the river sleep. I want to yell “wake up!” but that’s not for me to say. I’m a short-lived aspen tree compared to the river, which is an oak. The seasonal cycles will outlive the trees and me.
I turn and keep walking, feet crunching, silence singing.