Winter is the season of our discontent and, like some animals, we go to extremes to avoid it — hibernating in our dens or flying south in search of warm breezes.
“People avoid winter because it has the narrative of death and dying,” says Lee-Anne Walker, the naturalist guide from Wild Nature Tours, who is leading me on my first-ever snowshoe outing, in British Columbia’s Mount Fernie Provincial Park. Walker has been snowshoeing for 40 years, ever since she trudged along next to her land-surveyor father in the foothills of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains as a girl.
“Snowshoeing is quiet, reflective and spiritual in the sense that it’s very invigorating for the soul,” says Walker.
Strapping on a lightweight pair of red plastic snowshoes featuring front and rear serrated crampons, I feel quintessentially Canadian: like the canoe, snowshoes were important to the survival of early Aboriginal people. They allow me to plough through tight spaces between congregating pines, walk across a frozen pond and clamp firmly into hefty snowbanks, tackling the drifts’ height as smoothly as a superhero. Best of all, these snowshoes will soon offer me a glimpse into hidden stories in the snow.
The pristine duvet stretched before us seems dormant on the surface, but signs of activity are revealed in lumpy droppings of scat and well-defined tracks. There are deep narrow stakes where moose have stepped through the snow. The periodic criss-crossing paw prints of a hare and a lynx look misleadingly playful, but foreshadow the possibility of bloody drama up ahead. I stare in holy awe at the erratic tracks of a mouse that has likely been scurrying for seeds while evading circling hawks, its tiny feet and dragging tail leaving behind a delicate pattern of embroidery. I think about the human tracks I am leaving, so ungainly and heavy-footed in comparison.
We pass naked trees, stripped of their leaves, exposing claw marks in the bark where a grizzly has been clamouring. Chewed bits of lichen cling high on the trunks of red cedars, evidence that elk have reared up on hind legs for this emergency food supply. Alerted to a sweet melody in the sky, Walker announces, “An American dipper — North America’s only aquatic songbird.” High up in a hollowed-out tree is a winsome pine marten, its button eyes following our every move. We amuse each other for a good 20 minutes.
Walker hands me a magnifying glass to study individual snowflakes, explaining the difference between radiating dendrites and sectoral plates. Their complex structures are as precisely rendered as stained glass in a cathedral’s rose window. “How full of the creative genius is the air in which these are generated!” wrote American author Henry David Thoreau. “I should hardly admire more if real stars fell and lodged on my coat.”
How can I mutter for months during a season that heralds such perfection? I resolve to buy a pair of snowshoes and some long johns. Instead of cursing winter’s cold, I will celebrate it. This simple trek in the woods has shown me it would be a sin not to.
Anne Bokma is a journalist in Hamilton.
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