Winter is here and there’s not a whole lot we can do about it. So, like many others I have to find a way to get outside and experience spring’s bounty in its frozen, crystal form before lengthening days and a favorable tilt transform the frozen white to a rushing foam.
Although I came to the Colorado Rockies to ski and snowboard, I became part of the resort exodus thrust on the working ski bums and have had to get pretty creative with my housing. I would still jump at the opportunity to make turns in the Cirque or to drop into Sky Pilot on a powder morning, but a restrictive bank account has limited my resolve to continue skiing my brains out.
Getting out on a pair of cross-country skis has provided me with a whole new appreciation of the valley and its frozen ecosystems. What started out as a quest to stifle cabin fever has morphed into an infatuation with a winter landscape teeming with life. The slower you go, the more you see. The farther you get from the real world, the sweeter the air. For me, an escape into a frozen fantasy is as close as a five minute walk to the trails near the ball fields in Fraser.
Air is what I’ve been looking for and finding. Air that has swept through the boughs of a 200-year-old spruce tree tastes different than the air on US Hwy 40. When you are in the woods on a trail and the wind is pushing the storm over the mountaintops, it swirls and eddies through the fir and spruce and aspen.
Sometimes, when the trees are heavily laden with new-fallen snow, some snow shakes loose and infuses the current with weightless crystals and freshly manufactured pine tree oxygen which creates a blend of chilled vapor that is a profound pleasure to consume. When I feel one of those gusts creaking the trees I often pause and turn my face upward so that I can feel, see and breathe the crystal air all at once. I’m doing oxygen experiments in the Experimental Forest!
I still like to fly through a glade of aspen trees, pointing the boards straight down and feeling the rush of risk, gravity and athletic isolation. But slowing down and smelling the pine trees has shown me a whole world that was once flying by in a green, tan and white blur.
After a new snow, the freeway of life is revealed on the winterscape in the form of tracks. A look to the treetops can reveal ravens, eagles, owls, jays, woodpeckers, finches and even porcupines. You have to look up or you could miss it. This makes me wonder how many close calls I’ve had with a white weasel over the years or how many times I’ve streaked past a great horned owl.
My small dog Chooch has been quick to point out that there is another world teeming just under the surface of the snow. He is easily distracted and plunges his nose into snowdrifts and snowbanks until he can barely see out of his mooshed-up face.
Mountain pocket gophers are actively burrowing, surviving, even occasionally mating right under my dog’s very sensitive nose and it peaks his curiosity. Deer mice do their best to hibernate for the winter but are often disrupted by savage weasels who find great pleasure in biting into their skulls at the base of the neck. Weasels are vicious. Who knew?
One of my favorite animals working the winter is the American Dipper, a small, dark-gray bird that inhabits winter wetlands. These are tiny birds that blend into the rare dark strips of exposed moving water you find in the high country woods. They are hard to see, but if you look close you might find one bouncing down and up, down and up, 40 to 60 times per minute. Then the fearless featherweight will dive to the bottom of the pond snatching protein from an underwater world of suspended animation before emerging from the water seemingly dry and happy.
Dippers, also known as ouzels often travel in pairs and can be seen flying low over the water, landing often. A baby dipper needs just 18 days or so before leaving the nest and flying, bobbing, dipping and diving on its own. These fast learners are also an indicator species. If you see ouzels, the water quality is good. Is it any surprise that they like clean water? People still have a lot to learn from nature.
When I see these things I realize that I am in danger of becoming a birdwatcher, a nature nut or some kind of recluse. These silent respites from the hustle and bustle of human life provide perspective and balance and stability. And I can use all of that I can get right now.
Steve Skinner watched an owl swoop down and haul off a snowshoe hare and found the experience humbling. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.