It’s the resting time of year. The seed catalogs are sprouting post-a-notes of things to be ordered very soon now, the houseplants and herbs are stretching toward the pale sun on windowsills, and the hens are taking a well-deserved break from laying eggs. Other than keeping the girls in the coop fed, watered, and warm, and making sure the bird feeders are topped off regularly, there aren’t many chores to claim my attention. Not even snow clearing or roof raking–not this year. Folks in Maryland and Virginia have had our normal amount of snow, and we’ve had theirs. Not that I’m complaining, I hasten add. At this time last year the path out to the garage was a roofless tunnel four feet high, which was quite enough snow for two winters put together. No, this milder season has been pretty darned nice. The road is down to bare pavement in most places so I can go for a walk unless the winds are howling, and we have about five inches of snow on the ground here on the Cape, which means I can snowshoe into the state park where the lighthouse is. That’s where I’m headed now.
The weather today is perfect. The sun’s bright, the sky incredibly blue, the temperature in the high twenties, and for the first time in a week, there is virtually no wind. The snow condition is equally good, I note as I unload my gear at the small parking area: a pleasingly firm skin with soft snow beneath and no ice layer. I buckle on my snowshoes, strap on my daypack, and clamber over the berm left by the snowplow to set off through the woods.
The access road to the park isn’t plowed precisely so that people may ski or snowshoe in safety. There are a lot of tracks, so someone has been skiing regularly, it seems, a dog owner, judging from the exuberant paw prints that veer from side to side of the road, presumably sniffing all sorts of interesting things. I’m glad to see many deer tracks, too. The deer population suffered high mortality last year because of the deep snow; this year they are finding easy forage, so the does should be able to deliver healthy fawns in the spring. There are lots of squirrel prints, too, which probably means that the smaller paw prints I’m seeing might well belong to the foxes I love to glimpse on summer walks.
The woods are surprisingly quiet. The birdsong that marks mating and nesting territories from spring into fall is absent now, and many of the songbirds have migrated south for the winter. I hope they’ll survive the storms down there and return in May to grace our woods again. Today only the tweets and chirps of chickadees and nuthatches and the racket of crows breaks the silence. That, and the crunch of my snowshoes.
I haven’t been out to snowshoe much this winter, so I’m having to remind myself to make my natural walking stride both a little shorter to keep my weight over the crampons under the ball of my foot rather than landing on my heel, and a little wider so the inner sides of my snowshoes don’t snag each other and trip me up. I feel as though I’ve adopted the rolling gait of a sailor, which is surprisingly hard on lots of muscles in lots of places that will make it difficult to sit or to climb stairs tomorrow, I expect.
As I round the last bend into the park itself, the whole vista to the south suddenly opens up. In the foreground undulating mounds of snow cover the remains of the eighteenth century Fort Pownal. Beyond, the lighthouse and keeper’s cottage perch on the crest of the bluff, and farther still there are glimpses down Penobscot Bay and across the river to the Castine shore. No matter how many times I have seen it, no matter the season, my heart always lifts at the sight.
I head over to the bench near the tower in which the fog bell used to hang to rest for a few minutes. While drinking some water and unwrapping a granola bar (more so the squirrels and chipmunks can have the honey-oat crumbs than because I’m hungry), I realize there aren’t any sea gulls around today, nor ducks of any kind, either. This is surprising. I’d thought there would be eiders wintering here–they have done so before–but maybe I’ve just come at the wrong time to see them. Leaving most of the granola bar for the critters–yes, it’s against the rules, I know–I head down to the small beach.
In a normal January the Coast Guard would have been busy with their ice breakers to keep the river navigable, and as a result there can be bergs of ice three feet tall and as wide washed up on the gravel. Not so this year. There is absolutely no ice, not even a skim on the rockweed at the tide line, and the river is open. I don’t know whether to be glad or disturbed about that. On one hand, there will be no danger of flooding in the spring due to ice jams, but surely the ecology of the river has not evolved to be this warm. How will this affect the delicate web of life of this place where the river meets the sea?
My legs are stiffening up, and it’s a mile back to the gate where I’ve left the car. I take the trail through the wooded picnic area, and just as I am crossing the diamond-glinting snow of the parking lot, a shadow passes overhead. I look up in time to glimpse a bald eagle glide over the spruce trees and disappear in the direction of the cove. What a treat!
I’m still smiling an hour later at home over my coffee and cranberry scone.