Grey winter's days

GOING NATURE’S WAY
By Kate Crowley
Fifty Shades of Grey is how I’d describe our weather over the past two months.  That is why I had to get outside on Saturday when the sun was actually visible in a blue, blue sky.  There isn’t enough snow to ski on, but I grabbed my poles anyway and used them to add some aerobic energy to the walk.  I was also hoping to find some inspiration for this column and as usual on any walk in the woods, I was not disappointed.  What I was looking for was some color; preferably red or yellow, something bright and cheerful.  I didn’t find anything like that. Instead, my eyes wandered over the crusty snow and into the shrubby woods and I found what I was looking for - inspiration and mystery. 
The myriad tracks worn into the old snow caused me to stop often.  I studied where they came from and where they went, trying to interpret their stories.  Were they mice or shrews scurrying across the trail and diving into the tiny hole in the snow on the other side?  Was that a coyote track paralleling the side of the road?  And then I saw the otter tracks.  They were slight impressions , but defined enough that I could see the five clawed toe marks.  In my mind I could see the sleek brown animal making its way down the trail, back arched in an inchworm sort of way.  It was traveling from the Willow River to the lake or wetlands on the other side of the road.  On top of these tracks, in the deeper snow were the palm sized three toed prints of a wild turkey. 
At times I’d stop and just listen; silence, complete silence, except occasionally, the whooshing sound of wind in the tops of the tall pine trees.  When I was on the road, it sounded as though a car was approaching somewhere in the distance, but it was only the wind.  When I walked, my clothes and the snow crunching under my feet were the only noise in the world and so there was no hiding my approach. 
When I got closer to the river and stopped again to listen, there was even less sound. No wind rustled the branches, but as soon as I started walking again a flash of dark shapes ran across the trail ahead of me.  If I’d been looking down I would have missed them. It startled me at first, but then my brain registered ‘turkeys’.  The sun highlighted their glossy backs as they disappeared up the trail.  I managed to catch up and see the last two in the line disappear over a lip of the trail.  From that angle their waddling gait reminded me of Canada geese.
I expected to see the flock running ahead when I came into the opening with the river on my right and our neighbor’s house up on the hill to my left. But there was no sign of the big birds, just a few oak leaves tumbling across the thin snow. I turned in a circle and listened and wondered how they could evaporate so efficiently into the thin air or thick brush:  Ghost birds. 
The river was open in places where the current runs faster. A skim of ice covered slower spots, while a thick crust reached out from the banks.  Out in the middle there were a couple volcanic-like eruptions where a tree trunk had lodged and pierced the ice.  I envy our neighbors who get to watch the river every day as it goes through its winter evolution, changing with the temperatures and snowfall.   
Continuing on I looked for the orange bittersweet berries that my son and I found in December on my last walk through.  They were gone; a treat for some creature.  Not so the blackened, wrinkled berries hanging in clusters on a short tree I encountered next.  The bark was a shiny maroon color with light horizontal striations.  Some of the berries littered the ground, but many were still on the tree.  Why hadn’t the birds taken these?  I picked one and squished it between my fingers, releasing a dark smear with a hint of red. I licked it; not bitter, but not exactly sweet.  I bit into one of the berries and could feel large seeds.  I’m guessing it is a cherry, but I’m really not certain. 
I stopped by the river again, where the trail turns left and takes me back to the road and our property.  How many times have I looked at this small waterway?  For 29 years we have been coming down to this spot, accompanied by beloved dogs, friends and family.  It seems not to have changed at all in that time, but like our lives, it has. 

Like a lone wolf or bobcat, I finished the circuit of what I have come to think of as my territory, even though it takes me onto State Forest land and through neighbor’s property.  I know this route and this land pretty well, but I will always find something new and inspiring along its length no matter how many years I walk it.  I returned home solar charged and ready to share this walk with you. 

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