Archives for category: hiking

Musings on Planting Trees–

A.V. Walters–

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And that doesn’t even include the trees we bought from Benzie County!

Professional “re-foresters” can plant hundreds, even thousand of trees each day. Depending upon the terrain, they use dagger-like tools, either hand or foot powered, and can put in acres of trees in short order.

I am not one of them. I am too fussy. Each tree gets an actual hole, not just a slash with the roots jammed in. Each tree gets a shovel-full or two of compost, which must be blended into the natural soils, so water doesn’t “perch,” causing root rot. I layer in the roots, so they’ll have a stable start. This year, I’m loading up a little on the compost. They’re predicting a hot, dry summer and the compost helps to hold moisture in the root zone. I cheat a little, and soak the roots in Terra Sorb (or work a pinch of it into the hole), also to give them the moisture advantage. If no rain is predicted, they get a starter sip of water, (though spring soils are pretty moist.) Sometimes, we give trees a cage, to protect it from deer or rabbits during its infancy. There’s only so much you can do.

Professional tree-planters work on a scale that allows for a relatively high failure rate. From my perspective, there seems to be little point to doing all that work if the trees don’t survive. Sure, there are losses from natural forces, deer, bugs, and the like. This past year we lost two baby trees when other trees fell on them. There’s nothing you can do to protect from natural hazards. The best you can do is to give them the best start possible. Do I sound like a parent? I’m pleased to report that we have a good survival rate for last season’s seedlings.

In the forest, you need to look for a good spot–a hole in the canopy for light, not too close to existing trees, not near an obvious deer path, not in the “fall-line ” of any existing afflicted trees, and hopefully sheltered from strong winds. Of course, you’re carrying a bunch of seedlings in one bucket (with some water) and another bucket of compost and a spade. I spend a good bit of time, wandering in the woods, finding those good spots. I couldn’t be happier, even with the load–what a lovely way to spend time.

We don’t celebrate Earth Day. We spend a couple of weeks each year, planting. So far this season, I’ve put in 98 trees (including 3 orchard trees.) I’m over the half-way mark. I hurt like hell, but things are moving right along.

 

Better Late Than Never–

A.V. Walters.

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Yesterday’s Barbed Wire

The day before yesterday, Rick and I went for a walk in the woods. There was a wind-storm over Christmas, and we wanted to see if any more trees were down. We wore our regular shoes. There was no snow. So, we busied ourselves, with some minor trail-clearing, before yesterday’s predicted storm. (It’s nice to remove the trip hazards, while you can still see them.) At least the additional trees that fell were already dead—this is normal winter renewal.

We also wanted to check on our “widow-makers,” trees that came partially down in the wind-storm last August, but that were caught in the surrounding trees—hanging, but not stable. These are a woodsman’s worst nightmare. They are extremely dangerous to clear, as you can tell by their name. We have several snarls—where a fallen tree smashes into its neighbor, and that one into its neighbor—and so on, until four or five trees are entangled. We’ve been slowly clearing them, hoping that winter would level them for us. No such luck, so far.

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Widow-maker.

Unfortunately, several widow-makers block, or threaten, our trails. One of them is further complicated by being bound up in some of the ancient, barbed-wire fencing. The trees have grown, embedding the wire deep into their trunks. A big maple, split at its base, leans heavily on a smaller maple, over our main access trail, both of them wired together. It’s just a matter of time, and wind, until the smaller tree splits or collapses under the burden. (Should the bigger tree fall fast, that entrapped wire could cut through a bystander like a hot knife through butter.) We decided at least to clear the wire. Tinsnips in hand, we do what we can.

Yesterday morning we woke up to a different world. Finally, winter has arrived. It’s tough to estimate, with the drifting, but I’d guess we got a good six inches of dry, fine, powder. It’s about time.

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What a difference a day makes.

Though the mild season has seen great savings in heating costs and convenience, it is disconcerting not to have a real winter. This new blanket of snow sets that to rights. It will also provide needed “chill” hours to our fruit trees and down-time for the bees. Not that the bees need super-cold temperatures, but it is hard on them to have warm weather with no blossoms. Now, they can huddle and give up on the search for pollen and nectar.

Now, one would think that, being late December, we’d be ready for winter. Were we that well-oiled, seasonal machine, we’d be waiting, ready, with the snow-blower already set up on the Kubota. Yeah, right. Instead, we flailed about in the snow, disconnecting summer implements and hooking up the blower. The reward is that the blower makes short work of snow removal. Rick did the driveway, parking area and paths at the house site, and the drive at the apartment—ours and our landlady’s, in a couple of hours. Altogether it’s over a thousand feet of plowed road and path, about ten feet wide.

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Suiting up.

We’re settling in now, to the slower pace of winter. Things need to be more deliberate. A trip to town requires clearing the car, first. Work on the house requires warming glue or caulking materials. You have to think ahead. We don’t mind. We have the necessary tools and we like the snow. Another snowfall like this one, and we’ll break-out the snowshoes.

 

 

Fore!

A.V. Walters

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I admit it. I am the kind of person who laughs at my own jokes. Even if I’m the only person who laughs…

This will require some history.

My ex and I purchased the property (that Rick and I are currently developing) over twenty-five years ago. A few years later, an adjacent parcel sold—and the buyers built a house. Ours was empty, so the husband in that duo, Brian, felt free to use our front panhandle as a driving range. He’d practice his golf swing, and send his dog out to collect the golf balls. The dog tired of this, at some point and, apparently, Brian’s version of sport and fitness didn’t include walking, which left our land with a collection of unretrieved golf balls. He’s a nice guy though, and we’d communicate from time to time. He’s a hunter and we gave him permission to hunt on our (otherwise posted) land.

Years later, the couple divorced and their house was sold.

When Rick and I arrived, we started a collection of those golf balls. We’d find them in the strangest spots. Some partially buried and others, under trees, as much as a couple of hundred yards from where he’d teed up, in his front yard. We’d go for walks on our property, and come back with a pocket full of golf balls, which we tossed into one of the tree cages. We have no interest in golfing.

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Last year, Brian, who missed the area, bought a lovely parcel just up the road. He’s saving for when he and his new partner can build. In the meantime, he’s hunting there, and has put in a little garden. We go right by his property on one of our regular walking routes. Lately, when we head off to walk that way, we each grab a couple of golf balls, and toss them onto Brian’s driveway, or into his garden.

We have no idea whether Brian has, or ever will, notice. Or, if he’ll ever piece it together, in any way—that the golf balls he lost two decades ago are the same ones mysteriously appearing on his new property.

But, Rick and I are laughing. I guess that means that we’re well-suited. It’s enough of a joke, just between us. We’ll continue to enjoy our walks, and life’s little pleasures, as we still have a couple of dozen balls left to go.

 

 

 

 

First Snows

A.V. Walters

snow days

I’ve been off for a couple of days of travel for the day job. It’s just as well. I’m not much use building right now because of a pesky little broken rib. It’s my own fault. We were moving a washing machine (a great craigslist deal) and, because I wasn’t communicating from my end, I got myself underneath it in a creative and unfortunate way. Sometimes I think I’m sturdier and stronger than I am, and that can lead to trouble.

There’s not much one can do for a broken rib. In days past, they used to immobilize patients, or tape them up. These approaches frequently led to pneumonia. We’re like sharks that way; stop moving and you don’t breathe. So I’m wandering around, doing what I can. With all the other delays, this one is just icing on the cake. A few days travel and work for a little recovery time is a good thing. Then, I’ll take advantage of my limited capacity to do Kubota work. Yay! I’ll get to use the tractor and backhoe!

We have a few weeks yet before the ground freezes. On the way to the airport, the other day, the road was so icy that we floated through a corner–where four other vehicles were stuck in the ditch! Our car has all-weather tires. (I think Rick decided that morning that it’s time to put the snow tires on the truck.) Still, the ground isn’t frozen. There’s still time to dig in the septic tank and maybe even the field.

Despite representations otherwise from the power company, our work site does not yet have power. Like us, they’ve experienced weather delays.  The most recent promise is for early this week. With it nippy, power would sure be nice. Running a generator indoors is not a good idea, even when your “indoors” is a breezy, windowless, roofless cabin. It’d be great to work with artificial light and power tools, without the drone, and stink, of the generator. Maybe, just maybe, this week will bring electricity.

We’ve already seen snow. When I returned from my work foray (48 hours, one seminar and seven flights) the season had changed. We’re ankle deep in the big white fluffy stuff. My mum, some distance to the north, is knee-deep. Being as it’s only mid-November, it’s a tough call whether this is “it,”—whether winter has arrived for good. The weather report for the week calls for snow, every single day, time to find that snowblower that I’ve been talking about.

Actually, I’m excited to see snow. It will bring a return to our snow-shoeing adventures. As soon as the rib is fully healed, I’ll get back to my plan to improve my generally spastic cross-country skiing. Here again, the delay is probably a good thing. Hunting season started yesterday, so it isn’t a good idea to go traipsing through the bush. In the meantime—just don’t make me laugh.

 

 

 

 

 

Sundays and Making Wood…
A.V. Walters–

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We’re busy building. I suppose, given how late it is in the season, we could/should just power on through and build every day. But there are other priorities in the mix. Once built, we’ll need to heat our new home. Our plan is to heat as much as possible using wood from the property. One cannot wait until the snow is thigh-high to go out for firewood. “Making wood” is what the old Finns call it, back home. Mostly, we’re cutting deadfall. There’s plenty of it these days, because those damned (but beautiful) Emerald Ash Borers keep killing the ash trees. At least the wood will still make good fires, and keep us warm in the winter.
Anyway, we decided to take one day a week to cut firewood. Sundays. It’s a lovely change of pace, and brings us deep into the forest. It’s still backbreaking labor, especially on our steep hills but there’s always something new to see. Today it was Indian Pipes.

Indian Pipes are a rare form of plant. Also called “ghost plant,” they are a luminescent white—turning to a soft pink. They have no chlorophyll, and so cannot make their own food. Instead, they tap into certain kinds of fungus, which themselves have tapped into certain trees. The fungus-tree relationship is mutually beneficial, but the Indian Pipes are parasitic—they do not give back to either the fungus or the tree. They actually flower, like a regular plant—and are food for bees, both in nectar and pollen. Because they have no “plant” color, many think that the Indian Pipes are fungal. Without chlorophyll, they don’t need sunlight and can grow even in the densest of forests. No bigger than the spread of your hand, they’re easy to miss on the forest floor. They are often found in areas with beech trees or pines. We have both.

We’ve seen several patches of them this summer. When I was a kid we used to find them in the northwoods of Keweenaw County. We picked one once, from deep in the forest, to bring to a naturalist friend for identification. She chastised my parents, because the ghost plants are so rare. That got my attention—an adult wagging her finger at other grown-ups—my parents! No picking! I took the admonishment to heart and, to this day, I treat Indian Pipes with respect. indian pipes2

The Indian Pipes were our big score of the day. Of course, the firewood, too. All of it came from trees that had already fallen. Unfortunately, when the ash trees fall, they take prisoners—crashing to the forest floor, dragging their neighbors down with them. Today we gathered mostly ironwood (hophornbeam), beech and a little maple. We’re clearing trails for future access, so the day’s haul was moderate. Next Sunday, we’ll be at it again and who knows what we’ll find.

Two-Legged Hazards…

A.V. Walters–

People just don’t walk. In Two Rock, Rick and I had a reputation. If we went to feed the emus, on the other side of the farm, we walked over. We walked when we visited Elmer, our friendly landlord. We walked to our favorite berry patch, only about a mile and a half away. We would have walked to more places, but there wasn’t much around. (The nearest market was about 5 miles away, and that’s a little far to be lugging groceries.) People noticed. Sometimes they’d roll down the window to ask if you needed a ride. Soon, folks in the area knew us—they’d wave. We heard that they’d asked Elmer about us—you know, what’s up with those two, always walking all over the place? Elmer would just shrug. The farmers in the area all drove pickups, or four-wheelers, wherever they went. It made sense if you carried tools and feed. But it was more than that, one day Elmer dropped by for one of our friendly conversations. In the middle of it, he was reminded of a newspaper article that he’d saved for me. He held up one finger, “Be right back,” and he hopped in the truck for the 500-foot trip to his house.

On his return, I asked why he drove that little hop, to his place. Granted, he had a bad knee, but it was more than that. Elmer and Don always drove everywhere on the farm.

“It’s habit, I guess, we can’t afford the time it takes to walk everywhere.”

I guess my face showed doubt.

“Really, a walk over to the sheep barn would take 20 minutes, the work-day is long enough, as it is. If we walked, we’d never finish what needs to be done.”

So, in part, it’s a habit. Once the workday is done, the habit remains, and you drive to visit the neighbor—if only yards away.

Our walking was noted by the livestock, too. We had a single lane driveway to our side of the farm, about half a mile long. On one side of the lane, there were two large pastures, for sheep and, opposite the sheep, there was a huge field for the dairy cows, next door. That dividing lane serviced the dairy trucks, hay haulers, feed trucks, egg trucks, tractors, numerous tenants, you name it—all manner of large and noisy, vehicular farm traffic. They moved along at quite a clip, too. The sheep and cows grazing mere feet from the hurtling trucks didn’t even flinch at the noisy invasions. But, pedestrians? You’d have thought we were wolves. We’d walk down the lane and the sheep would flee as though their lives depended on it, lambs galloping, followed by lumbering, milk-heavy ewes. The cows would stare, chewing, and as we approached, mosey on, away from the fence line. Of course, if you carried a feed-bucket, those same sheep would mob you.

We’re back to our walking ways, and our neighbors have noticed. They drive by and wave. Yesterday we walked into town, just over a mile, to check the mail. Like Two Rock, the roads here are not very pedestrian friendly. On the way, we spooked a doe and her fawn. They’d been poised at the road’s edge, readying to dash across. It’s a busy road. Michigan statistics show that every year over 60,000 of them don’t make it to the other side. Deer seem oblivious to two or three tons of fuel-injected steel, screaming towards them at 70 mph, and yet, when confronted by a couple of pedestrians, that deer bolted back into the swamp, along with her equally spooked, spotted fawn. Maybe I should check myself in the mirror. I’m a little afraid of traffic—but the deer are afraid of me.

Learning the Language…

A.V. Walters–

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I had the best of intentions this spring. We walk most days, and my plan was to try to identify all the new plants as they popped up through the leaf litter in the forest floor. Ha! Then, we started work on the apartment, putting in such long hours that we didn’t get out for our regular walks. By the time we got back into the forest, it was lush and green, overgrown way past my ability to catch up on the name-game.

It’s not like I don’t know anything. After all, I grew up around the Great Lakes—most of these plants are familiar. But I know them by the names that kids use, like sour grass, white man’s footsteps and sugar plums (oxalis, plantain, serviceberries.) I’m looking to upgrade my botanical vocabulary.

We’re back to walking regularly. My new goal is to positively identify at least one plant a day. We come home from our walks with pockets stuffed with leaves and berries. Then I hit the books (and the internet) to find their “real” names. We notice other things along the way, too. A few weeks ago someone dropped off a load of bee hives in a clearing along the road we live on. Sometimes, you can hear their hum from 100 feet away. A few weeks later, an electric fence went up around them. We scratched our heads. Just who was that fence supposed to dissuade?

According to the DNR (Department of Natural Resources), there are no wolves, bears or cougars in Leelanau County. You hear of sightings, but they’re never “substantiated.” I’ve been hearing of them for 25 years. I can’t imagine that the DNR has a stake in not acknowledging them, but neither is it comforting to think they’d be wrong for so long. (More head-scratching.) Almost twenty years ago I found a deep and impressive set of scratches in the bark of a tree—six feet up from the ground. That’s a bear. This winter, on one of our snowshoe hikes, we found (big) cat scratch marks on a deadfall tree—with big cat prints to match. (More tree scratching.) Yesterday, on my walk I found bear scat. I spent my childhood summers in Keweenaw County—I know bear scat when I see it. Then, I heard through the neighborhood grapevine that one of the neighbors had seen a bear in her yard.

For whatever it’s worth, these things don’t scare us. It doesn’t change how we move through the trails. (I might re-think planting blueberry plants around the new house, though.) I’m glad that the forest is healthy enough to support the critters all the way to the top of the food chain. Other than us, I mean. I have no intention of setting the record straight in any official capacity. I’ll keep cataloguing my way through the plant kingdom, so I’ll feel more at home, in my new home.

 

 

 

 

 

Bugged–

A.V. Walters

My California friends can’t believe that I moved to a place that has snow in the winter and bugs in the summer. I usually put it right back at them—both of those features are a direct result of one thing—we have water.

In California you don’t even need screens on your windows. Sure you’ll get a couple of insects—but because of the long, dry summers there never was a big problem with mosquitoes in the summer (early spring, sometimes, but it never lasted.) In Two Rock, living right next door to a dairy, we had flies and spiders. (There, I was glad for the screens, though, in all honesty, sometimes the dairy smelled so bad you didn’t dare open the windows.) When Californians recoil about insects, they mean one thing—bugs that bite.

We have them here. I know all the jokes—In Michigan, the mosquito is the state bird… Okay, so there are insects; it’s a given. We measure them in seasons. Just now, we’re (hopefully) coming to the end of blackfly season—which is usually June, but running late this year because of the overlong winter. Blackflies are an annoyance in Leelanau. Back in Keweenaw, they are a force of nature. (I always suspected it was why June brides wore veils.) Back home, one’s wardrobe for June activities includes a “bug baffler,” screened headgear that looks like beekeeper’s clothing.

July is the main mosquito month, though Rick and I have already earned our fair share of bites. We insist on being outdoors, even into the evening, and that’ll do it. Mostly we wear hats and we keep moving. In August and September we have an assortment of biting flies—horseflies, deerflies and stableflies. Again, a hat and proper clothing for the outdoors is your best defense. They (the biting flies) aren’t really looking for you (though you’ll do in a pinch.) The worst of it is that they annoy as they buzz in circles around you. As kids, we’d pick ferns to wear on our heads, like some kind of pixie tribe. It kept the biting flies on a farther perimeter and gave us some small measure of control.

Having adequate rainfall means we have bugs. Having bugs means we have birds, so don’t wish your bugs away so quickly. We have amazing birds. The air here is, more often than not, filled with birdsong. We live outside the town of Cedar. That’s a polite way to say “swamp.” It’s located in a low-lying area and, like any wetland, rich in biodiversity. Bugs.

We try to get some kind of exercise, every day. Right now we get it primarily through working on the property. We’re doing site prep—and in the summer heat and humidity, it can be grueling. If that wasn’t enough, we often go for a walk around the block at the end of the day. “Around the block” is a three-mile loop. The bottom third of that loop runs adjacent the swamp. It’s probably crazy to go walking there at the buggiest time of the day—but it’s cool, and, if you keep moving, you can escape without being bitten. We went for one of our walks the other night, right at dusk. It’s a great way to unwind— to talk about the day’s events and connect with your surroundings. We were just getting to the swamp section when I first saw them. At first, I thought it was a bit of trash, maybe a scrap of Mylar, catching the fading light. When I saw it again, I realized—fireflies! Even though I grew up in the Great Lakes region, I’d never seen them before. Once you look, suddenly they are everywhere–a profusion of flashes, shining at you in an orchestrated mid-summer display of sparkles. Some, in mid-flight, look like three-dimensional punctuation, illuminated ellipses. Rick was amazed—both at the tremendous surprise of nature, and that we were seeing it, together, both for the first time.

You won’t see them from a passing car. You have to be out with them, at the right time of day and, at risk from the rest of the insect kingdom. But, it’s well worth it. It leaves you breathless, awestruck and feeling almost childlike. This will do for our July fireworks display.

 

 

 

 

Marching Through the Seasons

A.V. Walters–

Still Closed.

Still Closed.

Most of the country is experiencing Spring, in all its glory. Some, in the northern reaches (like my mum) feel the warmth, see the birds, but still have 6-8 foot snow banks, and the woods are still zebra-striped—tree trunks and snow. Some of us have a little bit of everything.

Granted, if you look out the window here, you can only spy a few stubborn patches of snow, hidden in shady spots, or where the snowplows had piled it deep. Here, in town, we have snow-drops and crocuses in bloom. The daffodils aren’t far behind. But if you go into the woods, it’s a different story.

Our favorite hike takes us up and over three layers of wooded dunes before it delivers an amazing high-bluff view over Lake Michigan. The secret of the variable unfolding of season is revealed on those dunes.

The path, compacted by hardy winter hikers, may be the last to melt.

The path, compacted by hardy winter hikers, may be the last to melt.

The exposed, or south-facing slopes, are snow-free. There, the forest floor is carpeted with leaf litter and spring plants, pushing through to the sunshine. These early plants of the forest floor are well on their way staking out their spots in the sun—wild leeks, trillium and dutchman’s breeches. They’ll get established before the ferns pop up—later competing for sun and water. Stepping into the woods, I try not to tread on the sprouts, but they’re everywhere. One wrong step and I can identify who’s first in the race for spring. It’s the leeks—pungent and oniony. These early pioneers into season have a built-in defense against the winter-starved deer.

Wild leeks!

Wild leeks!

Just on the other side of the rise, it’s also a different story. On the north-facing, or shade sheltered slopes, it still looks like winter. The snow is deep enough to make for tough walking (and slippery purchase.) In a few weeks these slopes will catch up, Spring–the sequel. But north-facing slopes have slight variations in vegetation, with cooler, damper, shade-loving plants having the edge.

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As you traverse the dune forest, up and down, you alternate your way through the seasons—winter, spring, winter, spring. Until last week we had the same dichotomy in town. All through the village it was winter on one side of the street while the snow was gone on the other.

The forest floor, now visible, is littered with the fallen ash trees, victims of the Emerald Ash Borers.

The forest floor, now visible, is littered with the fallen ash trees, victims of the Emerald Ash Borers.

The critters tell a different tale. To them, it’s clearly Spring. Robins, cardinals, chickadees and sparrows are reveling in the bounty of seeds and worms to be found in the warming earth. The deer, who, all winter would stroll down our road at dusk, now have the full run of the fields. They still come by, but now they’re grazing on the first bits of grass that will be our lawn in a week or two. We’ve seen a pair of pileated woodpeckers, too, our attention drawn by their relentless carpentry pounding.

The destination of this hike is the ever-changing face of the Great Lake. Last week the Lake Michigan was almost clear—with just a lacy edge of ice along the shoreline. This week the wind has changed and we see shifting continents of float ice, punctuating the deep blue of the open lake. Seagulls are back, bobbing and nearly indistinguishable from the small chunks of ice on the surface.

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We’re due for some heavy rains this week. I think that will finally spell the end of the snow. In the meantime, I’ve enjoyed this glimpse of the in-between.

Look at those red branches, waiting to leaf out.

Look at those red branches, waiting to leaf out.

Winter Freedom

A.V. Walters—

Winter Freedom!

Winter Freedom!

Yesterday, we tried out our new snowshoes. I remember snowshoes from my youth. They were cumbersome affairs, long and wide with bindings that seemed to wrap around endlessly. They were not as sleek and fast as cross-country skis, but they were useful, nonetheless. Snowshoes gave you hands-free mobility. They were good for steep terrain, working outdoors, and for traipsing through the woods. Ever clumsy, in snowshoes I found the grip to enjoy a sturdy form of winter transport. Sure-footedness aside, I’m in no shape to try those up-slopes on skis, and some of our favorite hikes are on steep slopes, as they wind their way through the wooded dunes.

Last week's winds obstructed the road

Last week’s winds obstructed the road

That inspired our snowshoe venture. But, buying snowshoes is a confusing endeavor. I did my research online, and then went searching for bargains. I tried craigslist, but every time I spied a set of worthy snowshoes, they’d be gone before I got there. Either that, or they were hundreds of miles away. So, I went to my trusty retail back-up, Ebay.

I wasn’t interested in the authenticity of the wood-and-gut appendages of my past. Today, there are newer, sleeker, lighter snowshoes. There are aluminum frames with synthetic webbing or the lighter, smaller, solid-deck models. I opted for the latter, and picked a mid-priced model. Then, I hovered over my eBay auctions like a vulture over fresh kill. (It’s amazing how high-up I can be, and still smell a deal.)  Later, my nephew quizzed me on my selection. He was all for the super-expensive ones, but I explained what I’d purchased, and why. When he, the-expert-on-all-things-outdoors, acknowledged the wisdom of my selection, I knew I’d done alright. Finally, they arrived.

We’d opted not to get poles. We see our hiking comrades out poling their way through the snow, and assume there must be something to it. But, from my perspective, the whole point of snowshoes was that they were hands-free. So, we slipped into the easy, cinch-up bindings, and headed out into the yard to check them out. They’re easy! It’s a breeze!! Without another thought, we launched off on our favorite route, up to the Empire Bluffs.

Hands-free, with snowshoes!

Hands-free, with snowshoes!

The best thing is that modern snowshoes have incredible traction. They have teeth that dig into the icy snow, and rim cleats, too. I never felt so sure-footed. They let you head off into deep virgin snow, without so much as a second thought. In our regular winter boots we didn’t dare step off the trail, or we’d be ass-deep in snow. I saw a bird’s nest, off the trail, and headed out to take a look. These snowshoes give unfettered access. You can wander off to see whatever beckons. (And then follow your own monster-tracks back to the trail. No Hansel and Gretel “lost-in-the-woods” issues.)

New vistas, off trail

New vistas, off trail

There is a lovely rhythm to the snowshoes’ scrunch and slap of progress.

We figure that our standard, hike to the bluff (including the road up to the trailhead) runs about 3 to 3.5 miles. The outgoing leg is a pretty steep climb, at times, but the snowshoes tackled that like a champ. We probably put in some extra distance, because of the regular temptation to take off into previously inaccessible areas. We worked a little harder, too, because tramping through fresh powder was a novel option, even if we stuck to the general area of the trail. Still, they are comfortable and, for winter gear, relatively light and sleek. I didn’t fall once! (As compared to my luck on skis, where a major component of the exercise is the getting-back-up.)

They do use a whole new set of muscles, though. We felt it later that night—walking around on rubber legs. And, we slept like logs. We’re fine today—and some of that is the point of it anyway. We’d recommend it to anyone who’d like a back-stage pass into the beauty and quiet of the winter woods.

Cabin Fever Paranoia

A.V. Walters

Police Blotter

Police Blotter

For most of the locals, this winter is a little long in the tooth. They’re tired of it, and getting a little crabby. It’s showing in the local paper. At last report, the snow total was 228 inches, just three shy of breaking the county record, to date. Since then, we’ve probably had at least three inches. That means that this year will be a record double header—in both temperature and snowfall.

You’d think everyone would be excited. Where’s their pride in being here, and witnessing this little bit of weather history? Noooooo, people are ready for Spring and are tired of all this. The headlines are revealing: “COLDEST, SNOWIEST—Winter to Break Records; Man and Wildlife Cope.” The deer and wild turkeys are suffering with the cold and deep drifts. The wildlife guys, at the DNR, have suspended the rules against harboring ducks and waterfowl. They need open water on our rivers and inland lakes so they can take off, and it’s not easy to find. People are finding, and rescuing downed ducks. So, if officials catch you harboring a duck, they won’t prosecute. They’re even giving out information on where you can find open water to release them.

Even the snow plow drivers, are weary. “It’s starting to wear on all of us… It’s always fun in the fall, to start plowing, but by now, it’s not fun anymore.” (According to their supervisor.)

A week or so back, a couple warmer days and fierce winds broke up the ice on the Lake Michigan. Suddenly the lake, which had reached over 80% ice coverage, was once again a wild and thrashing deep blue. It was impressive. I mentioned it to the guy in the local grocery store. He nodded, acknowledging the really awesome power of a Great Lake.

“Plus,” I continued with some enthusiasm, “With the Lake open again, you know what that means?”

He just looked puzzled.

“We’ll get more lake-effect snow.”

He just groaned and put his face in his hands.

We’re in another cold snap, now—you know, Polar Vortex, the sequel. We hiked up to the bluffs to see the lake. It’s starting to fill in again—frozen out almost to the visible horizon. They say it’s back up to 50 %– in just days. And, it’s snowing. The paper says that, with all this snow, there are concerns about Spring flooding.

We love the local paper. It covers all the small town stuff, high school sports, ice-fishing events, bowling, that kind of stuff. Rick loves the police Dispatch Blotter. This week though, the police blotter showed that winter is taking its toll. A paranoid caller complained. “…the Road Commission [snowplow] is purposely placing snow at the end of his driveway.” (Rick had a good laugh, at that one.)

Winter Mix

A.V. Walters

Winter Mix?

Winter Mix?

Sounds to me like something you’d serve as an appetizer at a holiday gathering. In reality, it’s not so friendly—it was today’s weather report. Winter mix is unsettled weather that serves up a mishmash of rain, sleet and snow. We’ve had gorgeous February weather for a couple of days, bright sunshine and upper thirties to low forties. I consider February to be the seventh-inning-stretch of winter. The sun comes back, for whole days, not just the cameo appearances of December and January. The cats have been sprawled-out, on floor, in the sunshine streaming into the living room.

It’s been especially delicious, since there’s so much snow. We’ve been skiing (albeit badly) and hiking. The sun and snow are so nice that I broke down and ordered snowshoes. (Don’t worry, there’ll still be plenty of winter left by the time they arrive. We have a couple of innings to go, yet.) Tonight brought a decided end to our reprieve. This will be the first real “storm” of the season. Sure we’ve had snow, (lots of it—217 inches, so far) and the occasional travel advisory, but nothing that came with storm warnings. Today’s snow/rain mixture will freeze tonight as temperatures drop back to more wintery levels and we usher in high winds and more snow. Tomorrow, winds are expected to gust up to 55 mph. On fresh slick ice, that should be loads of fun. I ran into town today and picked up groceries and coffee. We can hunker down for the duration. (Or, we can suit up and put on spikes to go see what happens at the lake in such winds!)

We’re only 14 inches shy of breaking the all-time, county snow record. It’s still only February, so we’ve got a good chance of doing it. I find myself rooting for snow and season. My first winter, back in Michigan, and a record-breaker! I can’t complain; it’s been an adventure. My mother says it may all be my fault. She’s remembering that the year I moved to California, 1978, was one of the last record-breakers. (And, just for good measure, I left California with what might be a record drought.)

The Other Side of Winter

A.V. Walters

I get comments, (mostly by email) from friends and family when I post a blog. They’re usually supportive but, occasionally, they’re smart-assed. There was a range of comments on my last post. Apparently everyone wants to know–how are these two transplants doing with winter? It makes me wonder if bets have been placed. One friend thanked me for posting a positive perspective on the season. This is, after all, one of the most intense winters in decades (which is why everyone is so curious as to how Rick and I will handle it. Of course, to us, it’s all new.) My sister set me straight.

I guess my warm and fuzzy “snow dusting” blogs are pissing her off. She lives waaay up north, and they’ve had so much snow, that they’re running out of places to put the stuff. My mom reports that the snow banks are between 10 and 12 feet high. My mom is delighted; but she’s not doing the plowing. For many, they have to get up early to deal with the snow before they go put in a full day at work. For my sister, Kelly, lately that’s been three or four hours of extra work each day, hand shoveling out her entry and the path to her chicken coop. Today she was especially heroic—she snow-shoed over to my mother’s satellite dish, to clear it, so my mom could get reception. (Poor mum, last night she missed Downton Abbey!) Kelly’s husband also puts in several hours each day with the plow—besides their home and store, he keeps a number of other families clear.

Kelly is not alone in her frustration. She runs the town’s general store, so she hears about it from everyone. Over the weekend a colorful, but not particularly volatile local came into the store, stomping the snow from his boots and railing, “I’ve had it. Snow just isn’t fun anymore! I’d suck someone’s cock if the bastard would just blow out my driveway!” He hand-shovels, and has run out of places to put the snow. Now, he’s loading it into a wheelbarrow, then carting it across the highway, where he shovels it again, mostly up over the existing banks and into the woods. He hopes the Road Commission doesn’t notice that some of it strays onto the highway. (You’re not supposed to shovel your snow into the roadway, though the plows feel free to fill your driveway with road snow.) Keweenaw County checked in earlier this week at 167 inches for the season, and that was before the most recent foot, or so. I guess this all helps to keep the northerners fit.

So here I am, singing the praises of the beauty of winter. Add to that, I work from home—I don’t need to shovel out everyday—and Rick has taken up most of that duty, in any event. My family and I talk, everyday. Discussions about the weather are sometimes charged. There’s a fierce one-upsmanship to even the most casual comparisons. My mother called first thing this morning, and demanded to know, “What’s your temperature?!” (“Oh, hi mom. It’s 9.”) “Yeah, well it’s minus 7, here. Visibility is so low, I can’t see the mountain!” Really, it’s much milder here; I can’t compete.

Yesterday, my brother called to warn me about “wind chill.” (We’ve actually had a Wind Chill Warning.) We’re in a cold snap—it’ll put us in the single digits and negatives for the better part of the week. Really, though I’ve been in California for thirty-five years, I didn’t slip into a coma. I do remember wind chill. It seems that everywhere, but here, it is really snowing. My brother (a few hours south of us) has seen 14 inches in the last two days. My mother (well north of us) has seen even more. Us? A dusting, maybe five inches over the past four days, barely enough to shovel every day. Today, we are seeing the beginnings of the “big storm”. We check the radar by keeping an eye on the weather websites.

Critters here are challenged, too. It’s tough when, everyday, you have to dig deeper for your food supply. The last two nights, rabbits have come to clean up what’s left of the birdseed we threw out for our jays, juncos and chickadees. We get squirrels, too, and that makes me nervous. The squirrels can get into the engine compartment of your car. Sometimes they’ll even eat the insulation on the wiring. I mentioned it to Rick, who noticed that the squirrels seemed particularly interested in hanging out under and around his truck. (He went out to check the engine compartment—just to make sure there weren’t any rodent condos going in. Believe me; you don’t want to tangle with squirrel HOAs!)

Inside, (though I don’t think it’s any gotten any colder) the cat has taken to snuggling up all day on the electric baseboard heater. It hasn’t the charm of a good woodstove, that’s for sure. It’s a little pathetic, but we all do what we can.

Our local papers are full of weather reports and snow records, too. Our year-end snow count topped 100 inches. The local Meteorologist promised that the colder temperatures would slow the snow. Also, he points out, if the Lake freezes over, it will lessen the “Lake Effect” snow. If the Lake freezes over? Look at a map. See how big Lake Michigan is? They don’t call it a Great Lake for nothing. When a Great Lake hits 90% ice cover, it’s said to have “frozen over.” (Normal winters usually see a 50% cover.) How often does a freeze over happen? Well, in the last 110 years, only four times (1904, 1976-1978.) His report is otherwise scientifically problematic, saying (and I quote), “Northern Michigan only gets 140 to 150 inches of snow each year. We’ve already had 100 inches, so that leaves January, February and March to get an additional 50 inches.” What? So, if we reach our statistical norm, someone’s going to turn off the snow?

We’re lucky. Nestled next to the lake like this, we get the snow, but not so much of the cold. Inland areas can get bitterly cold. And, we have great winter gear. My oldest sister abandoned the state a couple of years ago, saying she never wanted to be cold again. When we decided to move east, she gave us all her winter gear—coats, hats, scarves and mittens by the bin-full. (We’ve got so much down, we’re up!) We have no excuse for being cold, or for staying in. In fact, as soon as I finish this, Rick and I are headed off for a walk. We thought we’d go take a look and see what the Lake is doing.

We Are Not Alone

A.V. Walters–

Over Thanksgiving, about 8 inches of snow fell in Western Michigan. If, up to then, we’d had any doubts about winter, or where we’d moved, that white blanket made it clear where we were. This isn’t Two Rock, anymore, Toto.

The snow was lovely; we’ve walked in it every day, here around town and in the trails along the dunes. I was reminded how snow records comings and goings. Here in our cozy cottage, we could remain oblivious to what’s going on outside. We see deer in the field, across the way, but we’re otherwise not privy to the wild world.

Not so with the snow. Whether you see them or not, the critters leave their marks. Just in this little yard of ours, we see deer tracks, many different birds, a zillion squirrels, big rabbits, little rabbits, a raccoon in the back alley and something we can’t recognize—it appears to be feline (with bigger feet than our cats.) We don’t actually see these things in the yard, (except the squirrels) but they are here, their trails are clear evidence of their comings and goings. There are a lot of deer. We see them often in the field and even on our “town walks.” The yards here in the village are peppered with well-stomped deer trails—everywhere where there aren’t dogs. A garden could never make it here without a substantial fence. We have to remember that, when we finally settle and start planting.

One of the funniest things is that people have yard décor here, including fake deer. Go figure. Stepping out to take out the trash in the evening you’re likely to bump into the real thing—so, what’s with the statues? I note that one of our neighbors has deer statues, (well, they’re actually flat, metal deer) and it is in the direct path of many deer tracks. Do the deer feel compelled to check it out, or is it just coincidentally placed where the deer go? In Two Rock we didn’t have fake cows or sheep (but, I shiver to recall, Elmer did have a fake deer.) The whole garden statuary thing is lost on me. Lighthouses, ship anchors, wagonwheels, windmills, gnomes (lake freighters!)—I just don’t get it. Instead I look out to the field and count the real critters.

Yesterday we took the bluffs trail. It pleases me that the trails are heavily used, even in winter. There’s still snow in the woods, so we can count the tracks of hikers, dogs and snow-shoers. The trail is a bit treacherous—a brief thaw glazed over the compacted hikers’ tracks and re-froze it all into a slick, lumpy ice-field. We neglected to wear our spikes, so we found ourselves walking in the deeper snow on the edges. It’s a workout, picking your way on the safe untrodden and crunchy parts, but it’s better than landing on your ass. It gives depth to the word, trudge—with its combined onomatopoeia and connotation of hard going.

I looked back at the trail and laughed to see that other hikers were also sidestepping the beaten path—our tracks mixed with theirs on the edges, making for a very wide trail—the equivalent of eight hikers, abreast. It looks as though we came through together—a crowd of belligerent nature lovers—when in reality we rarely see one another. We only know that other hardy souls are out in the woods, because of their tracks.