Gifts of Winter

Gifts of Winter

By Frank Grindrod

Winter is here, and there is so much to celebrate and so much to learn! The word “winter” conjures up many thoughts, feelings and powerful images. Some people think of winter as cold and dark–a good time to get close to the wood stove or crank up the thermostat; while others see the first snowflakes and think, “I am going to the mountains to ski, snowboard and snowshoe.” You may hear an excited shout “no school!” and “I am going out to build a snowman or snow fort!”  Of course, there is always, “I’m going sledding!”

Animals in Winter

As a tracker, there is a long-awaited unveiling to seeing the many trails of animals and bird species. A blank canvas is placed on the earth, the snow is a medium, and the animals are the artists creating a masterpiece about the story of their lives.

When going for a walk in winter, it is like attending an amazing theatrical performance. There is action, drama, adventure, suspense, mystery and love.

As we witness these works of art, like tracks criss-crossing across a field or the wing prints of an owl swooping down in silent flight for a vole (small mouse-like creature), we get a glimpse of the playful courtship chases and successful hunts. We can also observe the hardships that face our wild neighbors, such as the deer being heavy enough that their hooves break through the ice whereas the coyotes are light enough to travel on top of the ice-crusted snow. Many animals, who are well camouflaged in other seasons, stand out in winter–their black, red, dark brown fur contrasting the white landscape. But there are masters of camouflage in all seasons; the ones that seem invisible. These critters are the ones that molt and actually change color. They turn white! Who am I talking about? Any guesses? I will give you a hint. One is in the weasel family, and the other is a lagomorph? A what? A lagomorph is a fancy way of saying rabbit or hare; it’s Latin. You were right if you guessed snowshoe hare, Ermine (short-tailed weasel), and long tail weasel.

Winter Living and Ice Safety

There have been several weeks this winter where the temperatures have dropped below freezing; an Arctic blast moving through the region. When cold temperatures are sustained, bodies of water freeze. This creates a new environment for both humans and wildlife to adapt to. Travel is made easier, though precarious, on ice-covered lakes. Games are created, and the ice becomes a playground for ice-hockey and ice-skating. People still need to eat, and fish is still readily available, as long as you can create a hole in the ice for ice-fishing. Be safe–the ice can be unpredictable if you don’t know how to read it. So safety first: check out our blog for research and videos (the best I have seen). (These videos may not be suitable for very young children…parents may want to view videos first.)

The Sami people of the Arctic follow the reindeer herds. They are nomadic hunter gatherers, continuing the ancient ways, heating their homes with fire. First there was the campfire, but a campfire is far too inefficient when temperatures range between 40° to 50° below zero. In these conditions you would go through a lot of wood! So these traditional people adopted a small portable wood stove that transformed their winter lifestyle. Today, the Sami still live traditionally, working, playing, creating amazing crafts of beauty, making their own clothes and shoes, harvesting their food, and raising their families; traveling across the snows with their portable fires. The Sami are many miles from any kind of town, so when a journalist who was studying their way of life asked the elders “what happens when someone gets sick?”, there was a long pause before someone stated “we don’t get sick.”

Night Sky Navigation

In the Northeast alone there are so many celebrations of winter, especially the Winter Solstice. This is a very powerful event because this is the longest night (or shortest day) of the year. The next day, the light returns and the days begin to grow longer again. Winter is a great time to learn about the night sky. As winter begins you may look to the sky for some constellations you know such as the Big Dipper (Canis Major). However, upon gazing skyward, you realize you cannot find it so easily. This is because the Big Dipper or the Great Bear, as it is otherwise known, is not as prominent in the winter sky early in the evening. Looking for the North Star to help guide your way? Are you thinking it is the biggest and brightest? The North Star, otherwise known as Polaris, is not big or bright. This is a common myth. Some people have gotten lost, because in the far reaches of their mind, they remember something about star navigation, so they follow the brightest star, which is actually Sirius. However, as all stars move across the heavens, except the North Star (which is stationary), following the brightest will not lead you north. In the winter night sky look to the constellation Orion, the Great Hunter; he is your guide this time of year.

So you are outside on this beautiful, clear night. As you gaze at the stars there is a part of you that would like to stay outside all night, breathing in the crisp air. Brrr! However, if you are not prepared for winter camping, it can be a challenge. Learning how to camp in the wintertime is very empowering and rewarding. Imagine you have all your layers on and just finished cooking by a warm fire. You enjoy sipping your hot tea or cacao outside, surrounded by forest. You look up and see the stars and the Milky Way. Wow! There are no ringing phones, no TV or computer screens, or even the humming of a furnace or refrigerator. The snow creates a blanket of silence. You watch the moon begin to rise and see millions of sparkles glistening, reflecting off the snow. It is all magical! Everywhere the moon’s luminescence touches the snow…it is glowing. A whole new sense of quiet and peace washes over you, and you are cleansed with a form of renewal that only being in nature can bring. We are all searching to slow down, rest and recharge. Experiences like these can be life changing; creating many years of memories and a strong connection with all things.

Embrace the gift of winter!