Winter hike delivers wildlife tracks and more

It’s a sunny, cold Tuesday afternoon in February, and I’m out for a rare winter hike along the Shenango Trail. I pull in at New Hamburg, four miles upstream from Big Bend, and see not a single tire track in the parking area.

The wind is brisk and the temperature well below freezing, so I pull on my l e a t h e r gloves and yank the stocking cap down over my ears. I’m wearing sunglasses, too, because of the afternoon glare against the fresh white new inch of snowfall.

The first prints I see on the ground are fresh squirrel tracks, heading north along the trail as I move south. I spot another set and yet another, all gray squirrels, I’d guess, judging from their medium size and the grapevine and thicket cover on both sides of the pathway. The bigger fox squirrels prefer mature tall oaks, and the smaller red squirrels often fancy evergreens. The level of food activity indicated by these tracks foretells of wintry weather on the way.

The first live animals I spot are two blue jays fluttering up out of the frozen cattails on my left, their colors miraculous against the stark gray and plain white of the woods and the snow.

They’re just ordinary blue jays, but on this day I really look at them for once and truly notice the astonishing skyblue plumage and the distinct feathering accents of black and white. I shake my head in admiration. Nature’s best handiwork is often in the common things, I think.

I follow a set of squirrel prints over a wooden footbridge across a winding creek maybe 12 feet wide, and I can’t help myself, I search for brook trout in her deep, clear pools. I know brookies don’t live here, but my eye is trained by habit to look for trout in waters that size, because of my 20 years of wild trout forest excursions up at camp in Warren County.

I stay on the trail and hike swiftly against the wind, my eyes scanning constantly left and right to see what I can see. And I see nothing, really, or everything, depending on your point of view. I see that “the woods are lovely, dark, and deep” in the winter, as the poet Robert Frost taught us a century ago. Sometimes in the cold and quiet and solitude, it appears there’s nothing alive out there.

The river runs close by the trailway now, and I notice that it’s muddy brown and swollen and absent of waterfowl.

I always see Canada geese here in the warmer months, but the migrating geese are long gone, and the pesky, fat resident specimens are off haunting Buhl Park and the warmer currents of downtown Sharon.

At the one-mile point, I spot a set of deer tracks, not super fresh but large and deep. I realize that up to that point I’ve seen few living, breathing things. No squirrels yet, despite the abundant tracks, no mammals at all. Only the river, the bare leafless hardwood trees, the snow, the fallen logs, and occasional faint birdsong in the background. I count off the eight sure bird sightings I’ve made: the pair of blue jays, a downy woodpecker, a handful of chickadees, and one lonesome male cardinal slouching on a low branch just above the ground, his scarlet feathering looking like bloody evidence against the snow.

I don’t need to observe wildlife to enjoy a good hike in the woods, I tell myself, but I’m always looking.

I hike another half-mile down the footpath and stop to look around. And then it happens.

I hear a crashing up ahead and spot a big deer bounding up out of the swamp. I get glimpses and good looks among the trees and thickets against the telltale white backdrop.

The deer is bigger than any I ever see up in the mountains, and I can tell it’s a buck, even though it has dropped its antlers for the winter, because of its size, its heavy-chested build, and the majesty of its gait.

The buck stops on the footpath a hundred yards down and looks back at me. I take a mental photograph, and in that way, this moment and this winter hike are preserved in my memory forever.

“The Evening Campfire” from The Herald, February 24, 2008

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