A great snow, almost a foot deep

This morning, temperatures were about 5 degrees Fahrenheit when I left the house. We’ve had snow on and off all weekend, starting with about eight inches Thursday night that shut down the schools and a number of businesses. On Saturday when I walked in Maple Grove Forest Preserve, I had the sense that even the mice and squirrels had taken a hiatus: across the entire woods, I’m not sure I saw a single footprint. It took me 20 minutes of walking and prowling around the hilltop near the south edge of the woods before I realized that I wasn’t seeing any animal tracks. The snow was perforated with sugar maple shoots, and plenty of people had been out on the trails. But I didn’t see tracks of deer or coyote or rodents or even birds. I dug along the edge of a couple of tree trunks buried in the snow, thinking perhaps I would find a vole tunnel in the lee protected from the snow. Even there I just found masses of leaves, no evidence of anyone on the move.

But if the animals were in fact resting in the first day after the snow, they have been busy in the East Woods. The crescent moon was bright in the sky when I arrived, and the horizon was perhaps just beginning to glow. A deer appears to have been patrolling outside the gate. The snow here was too deep for riding, and I pushed my bike with some difficulty to the plowed road beneath the power lines. There the road was smooth with packed snow, as it seemed the side streets always were in winter when I was growing up, and you could ski or sled on them from December until things warmed up a bit in late January or February. I locked up at P10 and walked the trail clockwise, where it overlooks the interstate with its view of the lighted buildings across the way.

The trail was exceptionally easy to follow by feel, and it seemed many had been out on foot or ski over the weekend. By the side of the trail just after its turn to the west, a deer appears to have been rooting around for acorns or shoots protected from the cold. The snow was cleared away down to the oak litter in an area about 3 feet in diameter, then scrunged up extending another four feet or so in one direction. The tracks of a deer led north into the woods. I followed them for about 20 feet. A white-footed mouse had popped out of the snow on one side of the track, leaving a hole no larger around than a dime, scampered six feet over the snow, then dived back down. Why had this mouse come up in the first place? Just to see what was going on? There was no obvious impediment, but if the tunnel beneath the snow had collapsed, it might be easier—if riskier—to get up on top of the snow for a few feet. Flying fish do it, and so do dolphins. Why not mice? One has to balance the metabolic cost of being in the cold and risk of predation on one hand, saving a few seconds and seeing what is going on above the snow on the other. Do mice make such calculations?

By the time I crossed the road near P8, it was growing light enough to see the landscape. The bench beside the trail was buried up to its seat. The trail northward from P8 heads downhill, following a ravine that veers left and away from the trail as you cross the road toward the spruces. Along the edge of the spruce plot, the horizon had lit up almost as bright as the moon, and the snow to the east of the trail took on the color of the moon itself. This was perhaps just power of suggestion: the moon wasn’t giving off enough light to play any role in this. On the west side of the trail, the snow was shaded; on the east side it glowed from the light coming in through the open trees.

I crossed the road at P12, where the trail begins to open up and you can see across the ephemeral frog pond to the woodland trail that runs east from Big Rock Visitor Station, north and east to the power lines and the prairie beyond, up into the woods on both sides. The ground was bare this time last year, and I had spent much of the month of January looking at winter sedges. Now, the snow is nearly a foot deep, and the hulking boles of trees lay quietly under the snow. The ridges of snow over the fallen tree trunks spread off in all directions: the tired analogy of sleeping giants seemed apt. I thought of John Burroughs’ description of snow falling, imagining it blanketing a sleeping fox that might have been over the hill from Burroughs. I imagined this hillside extending for mile after mile, covered with snow like this, sleeping, waiting for the spring fires.

Before I reached my bike, I saw a squirrel bouncing—relatively calmly, for a squirrel—back and forth beside a fallen branch. I walked off trail toward him, and he seemed uncharacteristically alarmed at my presence this time of the morning. He bounded four feet from his branch to the nearest tree and headed straight up it and out of site, not waiting to chastise me. Beneath the branch the ground was snowy, but as the branch plungeed down into the snow at each end, the snow opened up to reveal a bed of leaves, a point of entry to the homes and paths beneath the snow that must be housing 1000s of mice and voles and deer mice and sleeping beetle larvae.

I thought for a moment that I was hearing a bird, the first of the morning, but it was only the quiet whistle of my own breathing. I returned to my bike, and my toes and forehead were suddenly and almost unbearably cold. I sang to keep warm as I biked in to make coffee and write these notes before getting back to work.