It has been a very cold day, with a nasty wind from the north. Temperatures were around zero at dawn, (and that is –17 for you Celsius freaks,) and then only limped up to twelve (-11 C) during the “warm” part of the day.
Being in the lee of the Great Lakes no longer sheltered us. True, those lakes are hundreds of miles away, but they do make a difference. Air that starts out at forty below to the north (-40 C) can warm to only ten below (-23 C) after crossing such huge lakes. Then there is also a slight “Chinook” effect, after crossing ranges to our west.
Our coldest blasts come from a more northern angle, “The Montreal Express,” because such winds pass over no warming waters, and also tend to channel down New England’s north-to-south valleys, such as the Hudson’s, Connecticut’s and even through the notch the headwaters of the Merrimack make, up in the White Mountains. There is less of the downslope warming.
Such winds make me appreciate the warming effects of bodies of water. Of course, if we had the Gulf Stream to our west New England might be as friendly as Old England, in the winter.
The one year I spent up in Scotland impressed me with how much closer to the pole I was. The winter days seemed so short that you could miss them, if you hit the “snooze” button on your alarm, yet that particular winter never saw the wind shift to the east and bring bitter Siberian air across the North Sea from Scandinavia, and was surprisingly mild, considering I was at the latitude of Hudson Bay.
Yesterday we had no such Gulf Stream or Great Lakes buffer. To our north even Hudson Bay is frozen over, and we got true arctic air. The public schools wouldn’t even allow the children outside, and even our Childcare, which is based around outdoor activities, was forced to bow to reality.
We did go outside, but not for long, and at all times kept an eye on the children’s ruddy cheeks. (A purplish hue can swiftly turn to the white patches of frostbite.) The bundled kids did not cringe at the cold, and instead exploded out the door, full of bottled up energy, and some were reluctant to come back in, (despite the attraction of a hot soup we’d kept them busy making, earlier.) It was the grown-ups who flinched first.
Also a couple of the older children flinched. Exiting the school bus after school, two made it quite clear they thought hiking in such a cold was a very bad idea. Of course, those two complain about everything, (and later did complain about going back in, at the end of the hike,) which means they are the two who most need to get out and blow off steam, after a long day pent up in school.
My wife has a saying, “There is no such thing as bad weather; only bad clothing,” and we go to pains to make certain the children are suited up properly. Some have an amazing ability to leave garments at home, or at school, or on the school bus, but years of experience and firm communications with parents, (and some “loaner” outfits,) has enabled us to get the kids out even when they seem determined to sabotage all efforts. However it does seem I spend a lot of my life locating and putting on snow pants, jackets, socks, boots, mittens and wooly little hats.
At last we were heading out. I planned a fast hike, out to the flood control dam and back, with four of the older children, to see if we could see any tracks in the snow in the arctic winds, or whether all the animals were hunkered down, hiding from the wind.
Even in a group that small you see greatly differing levels of stoicism. The chief complainer howled when the first touch of wind hit her cheeks above her scarf, while the second complainer flopped down on the ground to writhe and kick and get his afternoon tantrum out of the way. The other two boys looked down their noses scornfully, and unsympathetically stated, “Get up.”
I was attempting to intrigue them onwards with wonder, talking of the animals and birds out in the bitter cold woods, and asking the four to surmise what such creatures did in the cold. All four didn’t seem the slightest bit interested. It was a complete accident that got them racing ahead of me.
I am never exactly sure how I tantalize the children onwards; I simply I have learned it doesn’t pay to get grumpy when they are grumpy. Therefore, no matter how much they gripe and girn, I adopt a deranged optimism and counter each example of pessimism with sixteen hopes. When I listen to myself jabbering away I remind myself, at times, of a snake oil salesman, only rather than snake oil I am trying to sell the idea of a hike. I often have a strategy I dreamed up beforehand, but quite often it utterly fails, and what works is something that intuitively blurbed out of my mouth.
In this case I just wondered if the water, (a decent brook’s worth of flow,) pouring out of the pipe downstream from the dam had formed any sort of icicles. For some reason that caught the four children’s attention, and they went from slowly slouching along at a rate that would have covered a hundred yards in six hours, to dashing ahead as fast as they could.
The pipe is about four feet across, but outside of floods the brook only fills the bottom eight inches. The pipe juts out of the lower side of the earthen dam’s 45 degree slope, until it is around eight feet above a rock-lined pool, and the water then curves down into the pool, making a nice place for cooling off in hot July days. However the lower side of the curve of waterfall had now frozen, into a shape like a water-slide’s, as the water above kept pouring out of the pipe and down this strange icy channel. The four kids found this amazing and fascinating, and I had to sternly warn them to stay away from the icy sides of the pool. (The last thing I needed was a drenched child, when the temperature was ten and a wind was blowing.)
Because they had run the whole way, they were not cold, and wanted to climb over the dam and go down to the ice on the far side. That has been out-of-bounds the past month, as the reservoir froze over, however I have walked over the ice quite a bit the past week, and therefore surprised them by saying they could not only go down to the ice, but could go onto the ice, on the east bay. (The water is only a few feet deep there.) Their eyes lit up and, with me huffing behind, raced up the 45-degree slope to the top of the sixty-foot high dam, and met the north wind.
The view up there is of a stark, white desert, completely different from the summer view of teeming waters and lush marshes. The wind hits your face like a stinging slap, but the same girl that was howling earlier, over what was little more than a draft, was now lowering her shoulder into it, and turning her face expertly away from the cruelest blasts. The wind had blown the powder away on the slope, exposing a frozen crust of earlier snow beneath, and the four decided sliding would be far more efficient than walking, and on a 45-degree slope it was.
Considering the point of the entire hike was to look for tracks, I decided we should do some looking, though the kids were far more interested in finding places where the ice was slicker and free of snow, to slide upon.
Though the kids hadn’t been interested in tracks, I’d kept my eyes peeled, because the dusting of powder on a hard crust was good for tracking. During our entire walk I hadn’t seen a track, or heard a solitary bird for that matter, except for a single trail a squirrel made near a southwest-facing outcropping of stone, that caught the afternoon sun and likely made that spot slightly warmer.
The squirrel had frisked from the foot of a tree a short distance over the snow, and then dug down through the crust for a cache. I always find it amazing that they remember where they left their nuts, and tried to get the kids interested. (Some naturalists point out that squirrels have a large hippocampus in their brain, and surmise they have a keen memory, while others theorize they have an amazing sense of smell; I think it is a combination of both.)
There was a lot to wonder over and talk about, just looking at that short sequence of prints left by a squirrel having a snack, but as I had looked up to pontificate, with my index finger raised, they were long gone, on their way to see the waterfall.
Now as we headed out across the ice, already on our way back to warm soup at the Childcare, I didn’t expect to see any tracks on that wind-swept lake. There were some old and indistinct tracks, most likely dog’s, as many walk their dogs up there during warmer days, (but with the cold wind blasting only fools like me are out there.) Or so I thought, until I saw, right in front of us, some lovely, fresh bobcat tracks.
Some bobcats aren’t much bigger than a large tom cat, and you need very clear tracks to be able to tell a bobcat’s from a housecat. However these were too large for a housecat. They were nearly as large as a medium sized dog’s.
Back in 1971 I painted houses for an gruff old Yankee who had hunted bobcats for their beautiful and valuable furs, back in the Great Depression, and he held the state record for the heaviest bobcat ever caught: Ninety-one pounds.
I decided not to mention this trivia to the kids, as they only weighed around fifty pounds each. If they had been lagging behind, I might have mentioned it. Anyway, this cat wasn’t that big, but it was a large one.
As I looked ahead I could see the tracks led to a place where the bobcat had done what the squirrel had done, and had dug down through the snow and pulled something up. Curious, I followed the tracks to see if he had munched a mouse, or perhaps looted a coyote’s cache.
Most know squirrels cache nuts and seeds, but larger animals do the same. (Think of a dog burying a bone.) While larger animals actually do respect the cached food of their own species, (unlike squirrels, who are terrible thieves,) they feel free to loot other species, though they have to be very hungry to eat the musk-drenched cache of a member of the weasel family (especially a skunk.)
The footprints told me that this bobcat was crossing the snow, sniffing for the whiff of a mouse, when it abruptly smelled canine saliva. It must have smiled, thinking a bone was buried beneath the snow. Happily it dug down to a furry, frozen object, and pulled it up and out, and discovered it had a tennis ball.
I only wish I’d had one of those wildlife cameras set up, to capture the look of complete disgust that must then have crossed the poor bobcat’s face.