Warm winter disrupts progression of seasons
By Mitch Mode
Special to the Star Journal
I build a fire in a sense of ceremony; one step follows another in an order that is part efficiency, part ritual. There is a right and proper manner about all this. Crumpled newspaper first; it has a fragility about it, a vague feeling of brittleness. Two sheets, kneaded in my hands like bread dough left to rise. The flat sheets of newsprint take new form, mimic a rugged landscape with rise and valley, lie on a bed of ash. Then cedar; an old shingle split with cold steel of a Swedish-built hatchet. The hatchet drops, the shingle gives to thin slivers of orange-brown and the sweet scent of cedar released like an exotic spice.
I love cedar for campfires, the fast burning rise of flame in dried firewood, the glow of ember and most of all the aroma of cedar that lifts in the night. At times when camping I find cedar, a downed tree of the diameter of my arm and from that saw to length the firewood for that evening. The cedar campfires are special.
On this day there is no cedar to burn save for the splits for kindling that will burn fast and hot and give birth to the fire in the woodstove. I lay the cedar crisscrossed in a web over the loft of ragged newsprint.
I turn away from the stove and use the hatchet to split some cut-offs of pine, scraps from the workshop too short for much use in wood projects but useful for the woodstove. I split them, set them aside and turn back to the stove.
I light a match and touch it to the edge of paper and flame flares. The stove door is left open just a tad and the draft of air is drawn into the stove and over the paper and the cedar takes fire. I can hear a low murmur of flame consuming wood. I give it a minute or two and then add pieces of the pine. The cedar in blaze brings heat to the pine and in a few minutes the fire is going strong.
Small pieces of wood are added, and I watch the flame rise in a fury and when the time is right I slide in a piece of oak, cut and split two or three years ago, dried and aged under cover, and now ready for the stove. After it begins to flame I add more oak. The fire rages and the heat in the shack begins to rise.
The morning has been dreary, a sullen day under heavy cloud but now the sun is breaking through and the day comes alive under the bright sun of January. The trees and underbrush heavy on this day with rime ice, the white shards of it catch the sun and shine bright and one is stunned by the beauty of it all.
The shack has warmed by the time Sally and two friends arrive. We visit for a while then walk into the brilliant day of high sun and blue skies and the crystalline rime ice. Bella runs ahead, seven months old and running free and easy and with the unfettered joy of a puppy coming into her own. There is no snow of any consequence; walking is easy. The temperature is mild, there is a feel in the air of late winter instead of the bitter cold of January.
After Sally and our friends leave I load my shotgun, call Bella and we walk one last time for grouse; the season ends at sundown. In the final hunt of the season there is a certain feel of ceremony and ritual as there is in the making of a fire.
There is, in both, a manner of preparation as one makes ready. There is, in both, an underlying feeling that there is a right and proper way to accomplish the task at hand and that alone can bring satisfaction. At the end of the building of a fire one expects warmth; at the end of a hunt of the final day one expects a closing of the circle of the hunt season and an emotional warmth of the memories.
We hunt, the two of us, in the thinning light of a lowering afternoon sun. We push through the thickets on this last afternoon, dodge the long spikes of the bare thornapple trees, skirt the edges of thick pine and bramble. The snow is ankle deep at best, not enough to slow us but enough to give me pause.
It is, after all, January and in January one expects snow and one expects cold. On this day there is neither. There is a right and proper progression to the seasons. All seasons have a tension about them, an uncertainty that appeals to us and energizes us. January tantalizes us in a manner; the bitter cold tempers us, the snow challenges us. We are better for it.
This season that is missing. The forecast ahead shows no sign of change, only a monotony of days in the 30s.
On this afternoon of the last hunt of the year I miss the drama of the season, miss the cold days that bring chill but bring also the appreciation of warmth. I miss the days of swirling snowfall, the heavy shroud of falling snow that draws in the edges of our horizon and leaves the wonderworld of fresh snow. I miss the diamond glitter of new snow on a frozen dawn.
On this afternoon I miss the season of winter, true winter, winter that defines our lives in Wisconsin.
We do not put up any grouse on this last day of the season. We return to the warmth of the shack. Sun sets to the west.
Daylight dims. I shut the stove tight, lock the shack and drive back to town.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.