Our beautiful glassy-smooth ice was ruined by a snow of around 4 inches, followed by an arctic blast. I missed my chance to go skating, and faced more mundane tasks, such as cleaning snow from lots and walkways at our Farm-childcare. (But at least I was outside and under the sky.) After I was done with the snow-blowing I was confronted by a “2 hour delay” at the school, which overloads our Childcare with children, because usually just when older children leave for school on the bus, a pack of younger ones arrive, but now the younger pack arrived and the older pack wasn’t leaving.
My assessment of the situation indoors, after a quick glance around, was that I was inside a pressure cooker that was about to blow its lid off. I figured I’d better do something, so I casually mentioned that I was heading back outside to see if I could find any of the local, (mythical), mountain lion’s tracks in the fresh snow, and that I imagined no one wanted to come with me, because the adventure would be far too dangerous and frightening. I swiftly was swarmed by a small group of adventurers , and also got a grateful glance from a member of my staff, for the noise level dropped significantly just after the boys stampeded thunderously out the door.
The snow wasn’t deep enough to make walking difficult, and the snow was powdery; perfect for tracking, as the wind still sifted enough powder to gradually fill in the tracks, which let you gain an idea how fresh they were. We saw numerous tiny tracks of voles, mice and squirrels, and the bigger tracks of deer, coyotes, fox and even a mink, without seeing a single living creature. During the rare occasions I managed to get the boys to pipe down, there wasn’t even the sound of a distant crow. All you could hear was the sigh of the wind. All the animals were hunkered down, waiting for the cold to let up, but it was obvious many had been out the night before.
I like to track animals, because there are stories in the footprints, but the boys weren’t all that interested. Several kept running ahead and messing up the tracks before I could read them, but I didn’t have to say anything, for the one lad who sometimes likes to heed my imaginative pontificating was quite scathing about them “wrecking everything”, and told them so in no uncertain terms. If I was a lieutenant, he was my sergeant.
I suppose some of my tales truly were a bit boring, if you are a boy. The tiny tracks of mice can be several different sorts. They are a “jumping mouse” if you can see a sign of a dragging tail, (though such mice tend to vanish early in the winter, as they are wimps and hibernate.) Voles tend to tunnel under the snow. Almost always the tracks you see are deer mouse tracks.
However these tiny tracks were far too spidery, and indeed showed a jumping mouse was still up and about. He obviously was a hyper fellow, as he wasn’t even dragging his tail, and likely had insomnia.
These little mice have a tail longer than their body and big hind feet, a bit like a kangaroo, and can jump a long way when they want to. I was hoping to show the boys how far they jump, by following the tracks, but our mouse’s tracks led to a wild rose’s thorny stem, and vanished, and I explained that the mouse had likely climbed the stem in the moonlight to look for rose-hips. I pointed out where the snow was littered with tiny flecks of red, beneath a bunch of hips on a stem, and explained that the mice eat the seeds we throw away, and throw away the outer pulp we use for rose-hip tea, (which is high in Vitamin C). Then I glanced about.
My audience numbered a lone sergeant, who, after screeching at the other boys to come back, asked me how it was the mouse didn’t get stabbed by the thorns. I explained mice hands are so small they fit easily between the thorns, meanwhile fumbling with my camera to take a picture, which I didn’t take, as I saw I had to run after the other boys before they vanished in the trees.
In the trees I asked them why there were so many squirrel tracks when there were never any squirrels we could see, and the boys looked like they could care less. So I rather lamely explained they were flying squirrel tracks, and flying squirrels only came out at night. The boys were already hurrying on, as they wanted to go out onto the ice of the flood-control reservoir.
I glanced at my watch and figured I should delay them, for the wind is cold out on the ice and we had a long time to spend before the two-hour-delay was over, and I didn’t want them shivering and complaining and heading back early. So I distracted them with some cat tracks. The cat had come back along its own trail from the flood control, and the new tracks were quite fresh. I thought it probably was a big Tom Cat, but it might have been a small female bobcat, and I figured a bobcat would interest them, and it did.
The tracks were interesting because they left the trail after a while, preferring a precarious route hopping from stone to stone atop an old stone wall, which the boys liked clambering over as well. Then we reached the edge of the woods, and the tracks led away across a lawn towards a house. “Guess it wasn’t a bobcat, after all,” I muttered, and we turned back to the flood-control.
The flood-control was crisscrossed by the tracks of fox, coyote, and I think a mink (though those tracks were wind-filled) and I always find it interesting to see how such carnivores respond when their trails cross. Predators are not fond of each other, and will kill each other if they can do so without injury. (Injury makes them weak, and at a disadvantage, so they have to weigh the advantages against the disadvantages before they fight.) (I have seen fox tracks turn the other way, when they come across coyote tracks, when the fox is small, but the have seen the fox tracks continue on, if it is a larger fox and the coyote tracks are small.)
Out west it is fairly easy to tell a coyote from a dog, but in New England, not so easy.
The problem is that in New England fussy people take their dogs to the vet to have the dogs nails clipped, (so they won’t click on the linoleum), and also the New England sub-species of coyote is getting bigger and bigger. Perhaps it is because they have to subsist on deer, and the shrimpy coyotes don’t make it through the harder winters. The local folk have long referred to our big coyotes as “coy-dogs”, and they were especially hated when the local economy depended on sheep, for they are sheep-killers.
The boys were not the slightest bit interested in this trivia. They only get interested when they lag behind, and I shout back at them, “Y’know, I heard a fellow say he saw a coy-dog big as a German Shepherd in those woods behind you, just last week.” Then they listen, and hurry to catch up.
One interesting thing in the tracks was that a coyote swerved to follow a fox for around fifty feet, and then the snow was all messed up. Briefly I was exited, and exclaimed, “Was their a fight?” You might think that would interest the boys, but it didn’t. Maybe it would have interested them if there was blood in the snow, but the fox’s tracks continued on unperturbed, and indeed they were slightly snow-filled and demonstrated that the fox had passed hours before the Coyote. So why did the coyote roll in the snow? (The answer is gross, and is a disgusting habit canines have I’ll never understand: They think poop is perfume.)
What the boys were more interested in was the groaning and moaning the ice was making. This was partly because the cold wave was ending, and the ice was expanding, and also because the flood-control’s level was sinking after the rains we had a week ago, and the ice was stress by the shores, because it couldn’t sink at the shores and was bending and breaking.
I told the boys the sound was made by bergasauruses, and we ought to hunt one. So we did. We cornered a bergasaurus by a small, rocky island, and a furious battle ensued.
The bergasaurus slithered and was slippery, but could not escape.
Then the question then became, what do you do with a dead bergasaurus? The danged things are heavy
The answer to the questions is fairly obvious. You lug the bergasaurus nearly a mile, to impress the girls at the bus stop. (The battle occurred beside that small island in the background). (I wonder what the foxes, coyote and mink thought, studying human tracks, the next night?)
Now look at the same scene only four days later.
Another warm surge has brought more rain, and the flood-control has risen to cover the island. The ice is still is safe to walk on, but the water on top will so drench a child who slips and falls that it is forbidden territory to explore. (Also there are gaps between the ice and shore with no ice, where a child could step and have water pour into their boot, or even plunge up to their waist.)
Therefore a new hunt must be instituted, a hunt for snow.
The small girl dragging the sled in the above picture, just past her third birthday, dragged that sled over a three mile hike that was snowless 80% of the time, just so others could drag her, 20% of the time. (I was going to forbid the sled, but I am old and wise, and have learned to chose my battles with women, even when they are only three years old.)
The point of the hike, (not that hikes really need a “point”, but I invent a “point” for parents who want to know what my “curriculum” is), was to find a thicket of puckerbrush where the children could taste the bark of black birch saplings, and discover where the minty flavor of “birch beer” came from. That part was a success.
Making them wear snowsuits was not so successful. I figured that snowsuits would keep them dry, when we found a patch of snow and they rolled in the snow like a coyote. However at times children can roll more than coyotes or dogs. When I was held back by a child who was getting tired after 2.8 miles, the other children decided to roll down a hill, once they were too far ahead for me to stop them.
It would not have been bad, and in fact would have been healthy activity, if they were rolling on grass, but they were on a trail, and the thaw had turned the trail partially to mud.
In the twinkling of an eye my name was turned to mud as well. I was turned from a wonderful man, who quiets children by burning up their amazing energy, and makes them mellow at nap time, into a very bad man who brings children back to the Childcare with their snowsuits covered in mud.
Oh well. I likely was feeling proud about how well I was doing, and the expression “pride goes before the fall” seems especially apt, when dealing with children.
One good thing about winter is that usually you don’t need to deal with mud. However winter hadn’t truly started. The prior cold had been a false start.
The cold came creeping back, and the ponds and flood-control reservoir again were covered by a beautiful lid of glass-smooth ice. The forecast was for snow, and I suddenly thought that maybe I needed some time away from the kids, some time when I didn’t need to be so danged adult all the time. I needed to go skating, without anyone to watch or watching.
It did take me a bit of searching to figure out where my rusty old skates were, but before dawn this morning I was headed back to the flood-control, all alone. It was a brooding gray, and had dropped to 22°F (-6°C), which isn’t terribly cold, but I was amazed by how quickly everything had frozen solid. I suppose all the liquid water is brought right to the freezing point by being in contact with ice, and only needs to be chilled .00001° to freeze, but still the complete lack of wetness was startling. The flood-control was as dry as a desert, as I laced up my old skates and went gliding out into the dusk.
I have a little attachment to my cell phone that tells me how far I’ve walked, but it can’t handle skating. I skated around and around for an hour, covering roughly three miles, but the cell phone said I’d “walked” a third of a mile. That is the wonder of skating on smooth ice. With a minimum of energy you go three times as fast and six times as far.
The only sound was my scratching skates, and, if I paused, the sound of distant traffic, of people hurrying to work early, to get things done before a coming storm. Me? I had to take some time off and be a kid, and do all the things kids do without worrying that I might be a bad example or endanger someone.
For example, one dangerous place on the flood-control is where the brook rushes in, and the water never freezes until the depths of January. It’s a place I’d steer kids away from, but now I was free to skate close.
Or how about the drain, where water sucks out of the reservoir, and a small child might get slurped in and not be seen until they were spat out at the end of the pipe fifty yards downstream?
Or how about where ice fishermen cut holes just the right size for a small foot to plunge through, thigh deep?
Ah, free at last! Glory! Glory! Glory! Free to skim with a minimum of effort, taking the time to noticed pines silhouetted against a hill.
Free to pause to contemplate the beauty of old stumps silhouetted against ice
Free to start something new, in the brief hour before work, and, just as winter’s false start had ended, to have my life’s many false starts be over, and to begin the Real Deal, and perhaps even to find the owner of these mysterious boots:
Ah ha! Found him!
Perhaps in my new, non-false start I will be like those active men who yearn to die with their boots on, but even better. I’ll be a man who yearns to die with his skates on; zooming, just zooming, with a minimum of effort.
And to celebrate the end to all false starts I’ll end this post with a self-portrait of myself with the hills and pines in the background, and…
Blast. Wouldn’t you just know it!? The camera stopped working. It must be the cold. But I can’t end the post with a false start! Maybe it is the lens. Perhaps if I wiggle this thing over here….