Welcome to winter – the season of snowshoes

Welcome to winter – the season of snowshoes

The snows of winter arrived early this year, even before this week’s storm that covered The Last Green Valley in significant inches. Despite the recent arrival of the white stuff, winter actually starts Dec. 21 at 5:02 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. Welcome to the Winter Solstice when throughout the Northern Hemisphere we experience the shortest amount of sunlight and the longest darkness of the year. In the Southern Hemisphere, it is the Summer Solstice and the longest day.

The word solstice comes from the Latin words for “sun” and “to stand still.” Winter Solstice is when the Earth’s axial tilt is farthest away from the sun and the sun’s daily position in the sky is the lowest. From here on out the days will get longer and the sun higher in the sky. The slow countdown to spring has begun.

This solstice is extraordinarily special. For the first time in 400 years it coincides with what astronomers call the Great Conjunction, when Jupiter and Saturn get as close as possible in our night sky. The Great Conjunction happens every 20 years, but Monday’s Great Conjunction is even greater than most. Not only is it on the solstice — a special event in its own right — but these two planets have not been this close in almost 400 years. Even in 1623, the year these giant planets last got this close, most people could not see the conjunction. It was actually last visible in 1226. Here’s hoping for a clear night. You’ll want to turn off Christmas lights and revel in our wonderful night sky for at least a few minutes – you will not see a Great Conjunction this close again until 2080, and that one won’t be on the Winter Solstice.

For some of us in New England, winter is a time to bundle up, stay inside by the fire or head for warmer climates. But it’s really a wonderful time to get outdoors for daytime adventures and nighttime stargazing.

Winter brings out the old, flinty Yankee in me, and I am happy to get out and experience the cold, ice and snow. Being the youngest child of four I got an early start at all the outdoor winter activities my older siblings were doing. I happily tagged along to ski at a local hill that had been fitted with a single rope tow. I dragged sleds and toboggans up any hill we could find. I laced up skates as soon as the neighborhood pond froze over and I’ll never forget the first time I strapped on snowshoes.

I was 15 years old and had traveled to New Hampshire with my parents for a winter weekend at my grandparent’s old farm. I always enjoyed exploring the woods surrounding the old place and when my dad handed me an old pair of snowshoes I happily strapped them on and ventured out.

The snowshoes were several decades old, made of steam bent wood with twisted animal hide stretched between the wood to provide the padding for walking on light snow. The bindings were cut leather straps that covered the toe and attached behind the ankle to keep the heal movable for lifting and walking. It doesn’t take too long to get used to them as long as you remember to keep your legs further apart than you normally would when walking. Taking along a ski pole also helps for added stability in deep snow.

That day the snowshoes made it possible for me to walk through and on top of the deep snow that had fallen earlier in the week. I was able to get to places I had yet to explore, such as thickets and dense groves of hemlocks and pines. During warmer seasons it was best to stick to the trails, but in snow-covered winter with snowshoes I could go most anywhere with ease.

I came upon the fresh tracks of a fox and followed them in hopes of catching sight of the elusive animal. This way and that way through the woods, over stone walls and frozen streams I followed those tracks until they headed into a thick hemlock grove. I crouched down to push through the low hanging branches, still following the tracks into a small clearing surrounded by hemlocks. That’s when I saw the hole in the snow and forest floor. It was about 10 inches wide and the fox footprints headed straight into it. I had found its winter den, a discovery I wouldn’t have found if not for my grandfather’s old snowshoes.

I backed off from the hole about 15 feet, cleared the snow off a log, and sat down to see if the fox would appear. Before leaving the house my mom had wrapped a few cookies in a napkin and slipped them into my coat pocket. I sat there and ate the now frozen cookies and waited and waited and waited some more.

After 30 minutes it was obvious the cagy canine was not going to make an appearance. And why should he? In the fading light and advancing cold, he was nice and warm in his cozy den. Following my tracks, I trudged out of the hemlock grove and back through the woods to the main trail leading to the house. I was just about as satisfied with tracking the fox to his den as I would have been had he poked his head out of the hole and said hello.

Wintertime and snowshoes allow us the opportunity to get off the trail, get into the woods, and see and experience a natural world usually unseen. So for me I am hoping for lots of snow this winter. I now have snowshoes of my own, and they’re out in the barn just waiting for the right conditions. Maybe this time that fox will finally make an appearance.

If you have favorite winter season memories, feel free to share them with me. I hope you’ll join me in appreciation of this beautiful place we call home — The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. Together let us enjoy it, care for it, and pass it on to the next generation.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org


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