Walking in the woods in winter

“Just make sure you pick up a winter sport, like skiing or snow-shoeing, if not you will get cabin fever!” said the Verizon tech as he was setting up the internet connection in our rental condo.  I had just moved up from Florida and the tech was giving me advice on how to handle the New England winters.  My previous encounters with the cold and snow in particular came from brief visits to my sister-in-law’s house in NJ or to MA on work.  We had now transferred to MA and winters were going to be a new experience for us.

If you decide to stop by woods at any time of the season!

When we moved into our own house a year later, one of our neighbors told us that there were trails in the woods behind our house.  She talked of a secret pond where children skated and trails conducive to cross country skiing.  It was July and the woods looked impenetrable.  I did not really venture into the woods for the first five years.  When I finally did a couple of years ago, I was bowled over.  While I have written about the woods in a previous post, this one deals with my walks through the last three winters.  

My first “expedition” as I like to call it had me attired in snow pants, a thick ungainly jacket, skiing gloves and a balaclava.  It had snowed the previous day and I wanted to be prepared.  I looked like a seal hunter.  I had hiking boots on and walked through the woods behind my house, not quite knowing where I was going.  My foot sank in the snow and I had to duck and weave around branches.  After what seemed like some aimless wandering, I suddenly came across a wide clearing.  This was the trail and sitting smugly alongside the trail was a bench covered with snow.  The sun was out, the sky was clear and blue and icicles hung from the branches.  The trail at this point was almost as wide as a single lane road.  

Trail maps and regulations

There were trails in the snow indicating that somebody had already skied this way.  I trudged along the trail, sinking in the snow sometimes halfway up to my knee.  I came up to a fork, a trail led to the right, another to the left and the main trail seemed to go up a slope.  As I was figuring out which fork to take, I saw a woman ski down the slope with her dog running alongside her.  I figured I would go up the slope to see where it led.

The ridge along the hill

I walked along the edge of the slope in case there were other skiers heading down.  As I crested the slope, I could see that I was on a hill and the roofs of a few houses were visible below.  I pressed on and came to a ridge.  A stone wall ran along one side of the ridge while on the other side, the ground gently sloped down.  Everything was covered in snow, and the sun shone brightly reflecting off the snow.  Standing here, as I looked down the slope, I was reminded of the Bond movies where James Bond zigzags down the slopes, escaping pursuers, shooting bullets from his modified ski poles.  The trees were too close here, but who knows, he would probably even scythe his way through them or fly laterally!  I followed the ridge and as I came down, I noticed that there was a small green block of wood nailed to the tree.  These were trail markers!  I continued on the trail marveling at the scenery.

Let there be light

This was my first foray into the woods and I turned around after about 45 minutes and trekked back.  I met a couple of people walking their dogs.  As I retraced my steps and entered my house, I was agog with excitement! I had taken a bunch of pictures and showed them to my wife.  After a couple, she said they all look the same!  In fact, they did.  The camera just captures the white of the snow and the brown of the trees and when viewed two-dimensionally without the depth, the pictures all started looking the same.

Since that initial walk, it has become a winter tradition for me to walk through the woods when it snows.  I followed Stan the caddy’s advice from Seinfeld and I traded my bulky clothes for lighter outerwear which when combined with layers actually keep me warmer.  I bought a good pair of snowshoes from LL Bean and the snow-shoes make a world of a difference. These were not the old tennis racquet type of shoes that I had envisioned. These were sleek, lightweight with a tubular aluminum frame. They make it easier to walk on the fluffy snow and also traverse frozen streams.  My foot does not sink in when it has snowed a lot and gives me an excellent workout.  I went online and researched the trails and found that there were several trails, some of them forming loops.

Sangam – where the three trails meet

On subsequent walks, I started investigating the different trails.  Some are pretty narrow and the trail markers are a fair distance apart.  When I walk in the fall, the trails are clearly visible, but in winter these can easily be lost. If somebody has already walked ahead, then it is easy to follow the footsteps.  Once, I happened to walk early on a Sunday morning and I was amongst the first on the trails.  The fresh snow was a blanket of white like a thick dusting of powdery sugar and the trails were not visible.  Just trees and snow.  I stuck to the main trail that I was familiar with, I did not want to risk wandering off the beaten track.  A neighbor, who is a veteran of the trails, then suggested that I buy an app called Gaia.  This app provides topographic maps with marked trails and provides a host of other features such as the altitude, speed and the ability to record one’s walks.  I have found it useful when I have sometimes wandered off the trail and found myself confused. For navigationally challenged people like me, it provides the current location and an arrow points the direction in which I’m walking.  I can look for the nearest trail and then turn accordingly such that the arrow is pointing towards the trail and then rejoin the trail.  The app also reminds me of the topographic maps that I had to study in high school.  Especially vivid in my mind are the contour maps.  Gentle slopes have the lines spaced regularly spaced while steep slopes have the lines bunched together.

A panoramic view of the woods

There is a marked difference between the seasons.  In summer and fall there is dense undergrowth, visibility is limited and the trail floor is a jumble of twisted roots and fallen leaves.  Snow blankets the floor in winter.  The tangled mass of roots and leaves are completely covered and with the leaves shorn off the trees, sunlight penetrates through the trees and reflects off the snow illuminating the woods.  However, even in winter, the woods appear differently depending on the weather.  If you walk while it is snowing, the sky is cloudy and there is no sunlight.  The snow falls silently while the light is diffused.    If you walk the day after it has snowed and the day is clear, the sky is an unblemished blue, the sunlight reflects off the snow and the entire area is bathed in light.  The branches of the conifers are weighed down by the snow and every once in a way, you hear a whoosh as some snow falls off and the branch swings back.  If it rains after it has snowed or if there has been sleet and the temperature has dropped, then there are icicles hanging off the branches and it looks like a crystal gallery.  Its when the temperature has warmed for a couple of days and then plunged again that there are ice sheets on the trail.  The gradually melting water fills into imprints left by shoes and freezes again.  It’s slippery to walk and when I do, I use traction cleats on my shoes.

Yeti? Sasquatch? No, it’s just the print of my snowshoe

  One can see different tracks in the snow. Hoofprints left by deer and more frequently, paw prints of dogs. These sometimes veer off the path when the dog goes to explore something that caught its fancy.  Straight lines left by skis, the ski poles make a hole in the ground with a shallow circular depression surrounding it.  Snow tires leave their tread marks.  Hiking boots leave their distinctive prints while snowshoes look like Yeti-sized footprints.  If I observe my progress through the woods when I initially head out, the hiking poles puncture the snow and there is a short line as it is lifted.  As my walk progresses and I’m tired, the puncture is still there but the poles are now dragged along further and the lines left by the tips of the poles are much longer.

Reaching for the sky

Weekends see a lot more people in the woods and I might meet about half a dozen people during my two-hour walk. Weekdays are quiet and there have been times when I haven’t met a soul on a three hour walk.  The woods are quiet except for the swoosh of the snow as I walk through it.  I wish I could say that I am in tune with nature and I’m one with it.  My mind is like a restless monkey and it jumps from one topic to another.  Prompting me to stop and take pictures, thinking of how I will describe the trail to my wife or wrestling with a earworm.  I sometimes stop when I realize that I have been walking with my head down oblivious to the surroundings and look around pausing for a few moments to take in the scenery.  It is a couple of hours of solitude though and while I sometimes can’t resist sending a text with a picture of the trail to my family, it is mostly me and my thoughts. 

A spring house – used either as a source of water or to refrigerate food

It is easy to think that these woods have always been here.  The tall trees, upwards of 100 feet in height would suggest that these are ancient forests,  They are not however.  These were farms and pastures for cattle.  Stonewalls demarcate the boundaries of the owners.  We are so used to the onward march of urbanization where towns and cities encroach on farmland.  New England is one of those states where the reverse happened.  Farming in New England was a hard-scrabble affair given the hilly and rocky nature of the terrain.  When railways made it easier to transport grains from the Mid-West, many farms and pastures were abandoned as their owners either migrated West or moved to the cities and towns in search of jobs. The pastures have been taken over by trees now, however, a few signs of human habitation can be found in the most unexpected places. The wide trail behind my house is a carriage road from the 18th century.  If you know where to look, at one spot in the woods, stonework frames a source of spring water indicating that it was likely used as a source of drinking water or a spring house to store perishables prior to refrigeration.  There are relics from modern times too, an abandoned car at the foot of a hill and a solitary tire in the middle of nowhere.  I am fortunate that the towns in my neighborhood decided to acquire this land and designate it as conservation land.

I will be late for work, having a problem with my car

I have had a couple of minor mishaps – all due to my carelessness.  When I first started walking with the snowshoes, I would pause to take a picture and as I turned around, I would step with one foot on the edge of the other shoe and trip over.  I would also trip over sometimes when a large twig would lodge itself in the frame and I would then step on the other edge of the twig.  Those were early days and I’m used to the shoes now.  However, my predilection for taking pictures has had some side effects. Depending on the pair of gloves I wear, I have to remove my gloves, stuff them into my jacket pocket and then pull them after I have taken the pictures.  I lost my Fitbit on the trail during one of these times.  

Frozen wetlands

On another walk,  I paused to take pictures on the ridge that I had mentioned earlier.  After taking the pictures, I put the phone in the pocket and zipped it up.  I took a detour onto a trail that had not been traversed that day.  It was a lovely day and I kept congratulating myself for having stepped out for a walk instead of wallowing on my couch surfing the web.  In fact, as I walked, I wondered how people could ignore the beauty of nature and be stuck at home on such a day.  The air was fresh, a fresh blanket of virgin snow covered the ground.  The trees reached for the azure sky.  In fact, this was the perfect time to take a picture.  I stopped, unzipped my phone pocket and reached in for the phone.  It wasn’t there.  I probably put it in the other pocket.  Not there either.  In fact not in any pocket.  The phone was barely a couple of months old.

Frantically I retraced my steps, pausing to look for the phone along the way.  The virgin snow and azure sky be damned!  I continued up the ridge trying to make a good pace with my snowshoes.  I stopped at the point on the ridge where I had taken pictures and looked around.  A few people had passed by and I wondered if anybody had picked it up or if the phone had been covered with snow.  I made my way home frantically and turned on my laptop to use the “Find my phone”.  It was there on the ridge!  Now I wondered how long the battery would last with the phone exposed to the elements.  Taking my wife’s phone and leaving my snowshoes behind, I made my way back.  It was a mistake to have left my snowshoes behind.  I sank almost unto my knees at points and the going was slow.  I cursed myself and when I reached the spot, I could not find the phone even though the app showed it was somewhere in the vicinity.  

I looked around and as I did so, an old man came up the ridge on skis.  He was coming uphill and was panting from the exertion, his face red and dripping with perspiration.  I told him I had lost my phone, he grunted and carried on.  After a couple of minutes, he called out to me.  I went up to him and he handed me my phone.  It was by the side, he had spotted it while it had eluded my desperate search.  As I took it gratefully, he muttered that I should really be wearing snowshoes.  “Have some consideration for other people”, he said, “your deep footprints spoil the trail for us skiers”.   I was just happy to get my phone and he did have a point.  I sheepishly muttered that I had left behind my snowshoes hoping to gain speed.  “It is not working is it?” he asked.  I now make sure I pat my pocket a couple of times after I put my phone in.  I have been chastened by that experience!

A stream flows in winter

As I write this, I do realize that these walks are unremarkable.  I am not an outdoorsman, I am just going for walks on what are really hillocks.  When I was a young boy in Bangalore, I used to read stories by Ruskin Bond.  Young boys as old as me traipsing through Kumaon and Garhwal, foothills of the Himalayas.  Forests of Sal, Teak and Deodar.  Limpid blue lakes and flowers.  Stories of the Yeti while eating onion soup at night in a desolate Dak bungalow.  The candlelight threw flickering shadows on the walls as the caretaker of the Dak Bungalow narrated stories of spirits and ghosts that haunted the surroundings.  The protagonists in the story would huddle a little closer while I would quickly look over and be reassured by the sight of my dad reading a magazine.   Then there were those lovely calendars with sceneries of the Swiss Alps.  Compliments of my dad’s friend who worked for Roche.  I would gaze at the snow and wonder how it would be to walk or play in it.  An impossibility for a young boy in the tropics.

I am often reminded of those Ruskin Bond stories and the calendars as I walk through the woods.  There are pines, birch, oak and cedars.  Ferns and wetlands.  Small streams that flow even through winter.  Footprints of deer.  I rarely hear birdsong in the woods, birds are more common at the edge of the woodlands where there are backyard bird feeders.  The woods so calm and serene in the morning I’m sure are intimidating at night.  Hoots of owls and the yelping and howling of coyotes would intimidate urban dwellers like me.  I do enjoy these walks and the solitude though.  Some part of me is still that young boy enthralled by the stories of Ruskin Bond and vistas of Alpine meadows and mountains.  I would have enjoyed these woods even more as a young boy when my imagination could run riot.  For now,  I am an urban explorer content to spend a few hours in the woods but happy to be back home for a hot shower and a delicious meal!

Embarking on another walk

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