The Natural Enquirer: A winter walk
Come along with my grandchildren, John and Ashley Long, and I as we walk in near dawn light across a frozen lake in the Wisconsin Northwoods. We are here, tucked away from well-traveled roads, to explore the essence of the season. Winter comes up crisp and silent at one moment, blurred and blustery the next. It kindles mind and spirit to respect the true tests of life: tenacity, resiliency, survival. We walk steadily through the whiteness, moving forward toward a tree line, the horizon, a narrow ribbon of deep, uneven gray. We walk near the shoreline, enjoying a magnificent awakening daylight of muted hues. It is glorious to be here.
We have come to this place during a special in between time when quiet reigns supreme. Hunters have been gone for several weeks and it’s a bit early for snowmobilers to be out in full force. Here and there on the lake we spot an ice fishing shanty, but it is the silence and the lack of other people that attract us to this frozen place.
The sun slowly lights the eastern horizon; first, a thin break in the pewter clouds, then a brightening orange line of open sky just above the trees. A gentle snowfall begins. My buddies and I blink away the flakes, searching for signs of the living, while examining the beautiful, lacy hexangular snowflakes on our sleeves. We get closer to the line of trees at water’s edge. Felled birches, alders and aspen hug the shoreline. They look like piles of matchsticks, the handiwork of beavers who live on this lake. In a small bay we can see their lodge fronted by a mass of brush, their winter staples.
We know this place well in warmer weather. It is very different now, with roughly sculpted ice two feet thick beneath our feet. A blanket of crunchy snow covers the ice, but in patches where the snow has been blown away, frost roses dot the ice and smudges of green and brown peek through. We know this frozen oasis is drumming with life beneath the ice cover. The beavers shared this lake with a pair of loons, an occasional blue heron, a family of mink and a multitude of fishes, frogs, turtles and dragonflies. Near the bank, we take shelter from the light wind and turn our backs to the shore. Even through the ice and snow, we can spot the place where we stopped in the boat only a few months ago. There, the loons watched over their chick in the cool water. A huge dead tree was a favorite perch of a hunting bald eagle. Frantically scurrying whirligig beetles and delicate water striders zipped wildly on the water surface, interrupting the otherwise glass-like smoothness of the lake.
Near here, a pontoon boat ride at dusk brought us face-to-face with countless mayflies and midges. We had shut down the boat’s motor and drifted, listening to the faint clicking of hundreds of pairs of dragonfly jaws feeding on mosquitoes and midges. No matter the time of day or night, there were always hundreds of tiny insects dancing just above the lake’s surface and along its border, good fodder for dragonflies, swallows, bats and several flycatchers, too.
How different things are today! The flakes fall almost straight down in a slow sprinkle of diamond reflections, coating everything everywhere we turn. A heavier snowfall days earlier draped the bare branches and evergreens. Now, chickadees and nuthatches flit silently about among the pines, stirring up puffs of snow in search of tender insect larva and eggs. Then we spot a soccer ball-size grayish sphere hanging in an aspen tree: an abandoned bald faced hornet’s nest. It is suspended from a branch slung low over the lake’s edge. The nest’s occupants have long since succumbed to killing frosts, but not before producing a handful of new queen hornets that quickly mated, left the nest and now hide in protective crevices waiting out winter. Only at this time of year can one be excited to find and study a hornet’s nest up close. Last summer as we boated past this very spot many times, we never noticed the hornet’s nest, hidden from our view by the leaves of the birches, alders and aspens lining the lakeshore. Next summer, the queens that survive this killing cold will begin the paper making cycle all over again, stripping away slivers of worn wood, mixing it with body juices, forming the paper-like material and crafting a well-engineered nest for a future brood.
The numbing cold gets to us and we start to head back. On this sub-zero morning, we marvel at the strength of whirl-a-gigs, water striders and wasps that can endure these brutal conditions. Nature can outwit the elements; it takes people to break the fragile connections among lake creatures and the interconnections of lake to shore.
The silence urges us not to speak, but to listen and observe. In this special brand of quietness you can almost hear the noises of life yet to be, now muffled by ice and cold. It’s good to walk with your buddies through the cold, back to the house and the warmth of a well-stoked fire, the TV and a bowl of fresh popcorn. We do not have to converse to appreciate the experience. Breathing the crisp, fresh air brings optimism about nature’s capacity to survive, in one form or another. The frigid winds hold an inner warmth and a heightened awareness that we too are woven into the rugged tapestry of land, sky and water. In every tree, in every snowflake we see the wonder of God’s creation.
As we approach the icy shore, we notice a pair of red breasted nuthatches eating bright red winter berries, reminding me of a favorite passage from an old film that I used on my school lecture circuit: “And when Seer Winter finally stills nature’s realm in whiteness, the glory of God’s gift continues, a sign to all mankind that another spring is on the way and the miracle of new life will be repeated soon.” (Anonymous)
Peter Dring is a retired nature biologist and phenologist who lives in the Land O’ Lakes area. To comment on this story, visit the “Outdoors” section of StarJournalNOW.com.