Warmer temps signal change of seasons
By Mitch Mode
Special to the Star Journal
Comes a time when change rides in on swirl winds and uncertainty looms as storm clouds over the land, casting shadow and in the shadows, doubt and foreboding. In it all, the ponderous upsetting of season. In it, this year, the grudging unlocking of winter that has overstayed any welcome to the seemingly boundless energy of springtime. Comes a time; comes a time of change.
Spring is the oddest of seasons, a tantalizing glimpse in late February; snowmelt on the eaves, a hint of muddy scent, sun with renewed warmth. Then March and a rodent as seer, proven false so often as to wonder why one pays it any mind. Then first robin; old wives say it’ll get snowed on three times.
In some years March is it, springtime! Trees pushing budding, rivers running open and snow dark with decay.
But March can also bring false hope. Snow comes and snow stays, robins get snowed on lord knows how many times and springtime is a concept not a reality. March becomes a sulky span that weighs one down for promises implied but not delivered. Comes times that March begins in snow and ends in snow and optimism sours to despair. Spring? Hardly.
Spring, that odd season that defies any clear logic or schedule, will come at last, will come, this year, in mid April. Will come as if to remind us that nature follows no schedule; that nature moves at a pace we cannot predict or understand or approve.
Easter morning and the stage was set: A long-suffering season of snow and cold behind us; a forecast for surging temperatures ahead. On Easter morning one could see with clarity that spring was nigh and that the next week would tip the balance from snow and chill of remnant winter to snowmelt and birdsong and gentle warmth of springtime.
I did what one does on a Sunday morning in early April with snow still deep in the woods and the promise of spring on the morning breeze. I drove the truck to where the plowed road ended, parked it, unloaded gear and began to ski.
I have long since learned to ignore the whims of fickle nature and to take what one is given. I have spent March days past on the saddle of a bicycle when spring came early; paddled open water when ice out came ahead of tax time; skied when snow held fast and late; cut firewood on brisk days too raw and chilly for much else. One takes what one is given. So on this Easter morning I skied; why not?
The thaw weather of the previous days had settled the snow, firmed it up and smoothed it out. The freeze temperature of the night had frozen it and left a crust atop the snow thick enough to hold my weight. “Crust skiing;” that wonderful time when nature’s alchemy delivers enough snow to ski on and enough crust to bear weight.
I ski in the early days of winter on thin snow and marginal tracks. I ski into the darkness of January, bundled up against the bitterness of freeze. I ski long days and short. I ski the craziness of the Birkebeiner with thousands of others. But I will tell you this: My favorite time to ski is in the early days of spring with crust skiing conditions under a warming sun.
Crust skiing is off any marked ski trails, through the woods, across lakes, down the old logging roads that criss-cross the woodlands of the north. Crust skiing at its best is an exploration of the woodlots and the hills and valleys of northern Wisconsin. There are no boundaries. There are no established trails. It is skiing at its most basic; skis and snow, and one goes where one wishes. It is skiing with joy on warm spring days without care or goals.
On this day I skied down a meandering logging road that I know from grouse hunting, ducked and dodged downed trees left after the last storm. I stopped at an overlook high above the Wisconsin River; the river rushed over shallows, the sound of moving water filled the air. I snapped a shameless selfie, sent it out. “Easter egg hunt. Not finding any,” then skied on.
I took a fall in soft snow avoiding a downed balsam and twisted my knee badly, thought, “I should quit.” I should have. I did not.
I skied a few miles in upland woods then down to low country, picked my way through tag alders along a small creek. The creek has a name but more, a charm and a spirit. I found a place I could cross and then skied to another road, wider, a ribbon of swan-white, unblemished snow. Two miles along the road, then a left turn to the river again.
Goose call and swan in flight; a flock of mallards took wing. The river flowed without pause, slate blue and powerful. My knee hurt bad when I walked. I used my ski poles as canes.
It was warming now and in that a concern; the crust softens in warmth and loses support. I’d taken off my hat and unzipped my jacket and now skied with some urgency. I was a few miles out and if the snow softened too much I’d be in trouble.
Backtracking the old road, crossing the small stream, struggling with slow skis up a narrow pathway to a wider road. The truck ahead, quarter mile out, reflecting sunlight. The last yards on wetted snow. Then stopped; the tips of the skis resting on mud and gravel.
I took the skis off with no expectation that I’d use them again this year. Limped to the truck. I drove with the windows cracked, fresh air in the cab. The truck thermometer read 51.
Comes a time to call it good on a season. Comes a time to move on. Comes a time; comes a new season. Comes spring.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.