Reckling: Impressions of winter
Avid skiers and boarders see fresh snow as manna from heaven, making tomorrow’s dreams of effortless descents down the slopes even more exhilarating than the memory of yesterday’s mountain ecstasy. However, non-lovers of the snow have a different take on the frosty stuff: It’s an icy, cold unpleasantness with which they have to contend, and there’s a common misconception that the snows of winter bury everything. Living and playing in the snow give us a mind for winter and enable an appreciation for snow that many can’t comprehend.
If we pay attention to the signs that define each winter morning, we realize there is an intricate story of the night that appears with each sunrise. It could be something as predictable as what time your drunken neighbor rolled in last night or who has been on your doorstep. If one cares how many pieces of firewood have been moved from a woodpile or if the elk that passed through were male or female. Many facts can be deciphered by “reading” the stories in the snow.
There are other more intriguing things that new snow can reveal.
Last winter on Aspen Mountain, you may have been lucky enough to see the entire wingspan of a hawk perfectly pressed into the snow at the top of Lift No. 6 (right of F.I.S.). The enormous bird had been successful in snatching an unlucky rodent from atop the snowdrift; the mouse tracks ended abruptly, just behind the massive wing print. Every feather with its detailed texture could be seen from the chair just before unloading — that is, until some jackass decided he wanted to ski right through it.
As a sleepy-headed girl in search of a hearty breakfast on spring mornings, I remember my father excitedly ushering me out in my pajamas and sheepskin slippers to see fresh bear tracks in the snow outside our Red Mountain home. Mind you, in the late ’60s it was a real “frontier” up there with fewer than a dozen homes on the mountain. My dad was the only one in my family that was ever up early enough to actually see the bear.
The other morning after our last two-day snowstorm, I awoke to several inches of fresh powder, and the landscape of my place was a blank canvas. It had snowed until dawn, and any tracks made during the storm had been filled and blown smooth. I couldn’t wait to get out with my dog and see this rare, unspoiled moment.
Thereafter, with each unfolding dawn, there has been a new chapter written into the snowy fields. Like the image that emerges from a painter’s canvas, layer upon layer of animal tracks begin to form shape and depth. I become the child in “Tracks in the Snow,” Wong Herbert Yee’s children’s story, who asks, “Just outside my window, there are tracks in the snow. Who made the tracks? Where do they go?”
The wild creatures that navigate and survive the nocturnal winter landscapes of the Rocky Mountains deserve our full respect and admiration. So enamored have I become with their footsteps in the snow that binoculars weigh heavy on my neck at all times. I enjoy seeing their paths way above on the mountainsides, and the higher I climb, the farther I can see where ungulates, coyotes and hares have been. Their elusive nighttime journeys create wondrous paths as they seek out prey or nibble on winter’s lean fare.
One recent evening, in a conversation with one of my gruff, mountain-man neighbors, we discussed the struggles that the wild animals face during the winter months.
As we were admiring the numerous tracks upon the snow-laden land before us, the fragile January sun was sinking behind the ridge, and its precious golden light was retreating from our canyon just as quickly as the temperature was plummeting. I shared with him how enlightened and intrigued I am by the tales that are told in the snow. He nodded and turned away, but not before I caught a glimpse of the tears welling up in his bright, blue eyes. After a long, mutual silence, we both knew that we also struggle through the longer nights of winter and are wrapped up in the battle for existence that surrounds us.
My impressions of winter and the snow that comes with it have changed since living in a semi-remote spot. Close proximity to the wilderness and constant wildlife observation inspire an even deeper appreciation of life. A soulful beauty lies in the sculptural quality of leafless trees, and the bone structure that emerges from the landscape, while it lies bare with only a blanket of snow, is absolute. Immersion in the natural world and reading the stories in the snow is a view into true existence; it is to partake in the struggle of life and the miracle of continuity.
Margaret Reckling lives in Woody Creek and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.