Friday, March 22, 2013

Saying My Last Goodbyes

Early spring is an amazing time. The sun’s rays are intense enough to melt ice when the air temperatures are still barely above zero. The pussy willow buds are opening, despite blustery weather and forecasts for more snow. Even the buds on the oak trees are starting to swell. Not long ago, I encountered the first skunk wandering hungrily out of his winter sleep. Every beautiful afternoon teases me into thinking about bike riding and gardening.

Yet, I feel like I am saying my last goodbyes after a long visit with an old friend. Every time I ski a trail, I wonder, “Will this be the last time I ski this trail this year?” The animals are feeling spring fever, too, and as they wander farther and faster on the thick crust of the snow, they leave behind a maze of tracks. I also feel sentimental about these, since summer tracking is confined to sandy or muddy edges and those rare soft soils not covered by life.

So, I think, “Is this the last weasel track I’ll see for the winter?  I had better stop a moment and admire the incredible length of its jumps one more time.” “Are these the last fox tracks I’ll see, trotting daintily down the ski tracks and leaving musky scent marks on baby balsam trees?” Maybe I won’t even see many more squirrel tracks, although they seem to last the longest, and pattern every last snow pile with their four-toed front feet and five-toed back feet.

I make sure to savor every moment left of winter. On a recent ski through a friend’s young woods, grouse tracks quilted the crusty snow in lines and loops and spirals. Their tracks went winding around, under, and through the bare, twiggy shrubs. Projections on the sides of the grouse’s four toes, grown just for winter, worked like snowshoes to keep them afloat.

Suddenly, a blur of dark brown rose from the edge of the trail. I had followed the tracks right to the grouse! It must have landed recently, because the trail was short. It began just a couple feet off the ski trail with a sitzmark. Most of us up here think of a sitzmark (one of my favorite words) as “An impression made in the snow by a skier falling backward.” But I first encountered it in animal tracking terminology, referring to the mark made by the belly flop of a mouse or a squirrel as they dive off a tree into deep snow.

The grouse’s sitzmark was just an impression of its belly from a soft landing. A chain of maybe a hundred footsteps led up the bank and into the woods, then ended with an elegant pattern of wing marks where the grouse took flight again.

Soon the grouse will be drumming up love. Soon the snow will be all melted. Soon I will be able to find tracks along the lakeshore in soft sand. Last year at this time it was 75 degrees, the ice was out, I had been kayaking already, violets were blooming, maple and poplar bud-burst had occurred, spring peepers were peeping, maple syruping season had come and gone, and even the lilac buds had burst. Two years ago, I was still skiing in April. You can always count on nature for being unpredictable!

Although I love winter, and try to savor every last bit of skiable, trackable snow, soon the momentum of spring will take over. Each new bit of bare dirt, each swelling bud, each returning bird will push the memories of skiing through restful black-and-white woods further back in my memory. Soon, if you ask me what season is my favorite, I may look up from planting seeds, or smelling a flower, or spying on a warbler, and tell you, “Why spring, of course!”

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