Nothing refreshes me, body, soul and spirit, like being outside in the woods and marshes. I had a good dose of nature today.
I have a fascination with the beavers here on our wetlands. (I feel like I’ve said this before, at least once.) Today I was dressed well enough and had no time constraints so I went off the track into the woods to make my way to the beaver lodge – not that beavers live in the woods, but the wetlands are complicated. The water flows into ponds that have fingers of marsh that spread out into all the low places in the woods. I could see the beaver lodge from the path but to go directly to it would mean crossing a bit of ice with occasional open spots. I like to stick to the wooded areas around the edges.
The path, and I was surprised to see that it was an obvious trail, led through the most awesomely beautiful snowy wonderland. There were a lot of animal tracks, but a person with their dog had left prints as well. It’s kind of special when I get to go someplace that I know not many people have gone. I could hardly stop taking pictures.
We’ve had some storms in the last few year which have taken down a lot of trees. In addition to that the high water levels have killed trees, and the beaver have chewed a few down too. The woods look like they’ve a rough time of it, but even that has a beauty, in that life and death are there, entangled with each other. The starkness of winter leaves it all visible.
I found the lodge. I walked out on the ice. I even found a place that looked like it might be an entrance into the watery world below the ice – a dark hole, under a log at the edge of the marsh with open water and lots of animal tracks. Could it be where the beaver come and go? I was looking for tracks that might look like a beaver tail was dragging behind, but I couldn’t say for sure that I saw any.
The lodge is quite a large structure, a mound that can be seen from quite a distance away. On the way there I crawled into the fort built by the survivalists in the burn pile. There was snow in the entrance but further in it was dry and cozy looking. I imagine it could look a little like that in the beaver lodge. I hope they are in there, safe and warm.
Winter is awfully long here. I don’t know what beavers do in the winter, but it’s probably eating and sleeping for the most part. I hope they don’t get bored…
Shirley gave up trying to sleep, swung her legs over the side of the bed and cautiously made her way out of the room, in the dark. It was kind of early to be getting up, but that was happening a lot lately, and not just to her.
She found her glasses in the bathroom, wandered out to the kitchen and punched the button on the coffeemaker until the red light popped on and the noises started. She checked the digital thermometer, the third step in her routine, then opened the blinds on the kitchen window. Thirty-five degrees, and everything outside had that dark, wet look. Something was falling out of the sky. She could see it reflecting light from the string of Christmas lights she’d arranged on the patio, but it was hard to tell if it was rain or snow. Probably rain, but the temperature was dropping. They wouldn’t be seeing a sunrise today.
She and her husband had recently moved “up north” to the family farm in Wisconsin. Her mom was not liking being alone since dad had died. Her brother Dennis and his wife lived close but they were in a different stage of life, with younger children and an expanding business to deal with. It made sense for them to pack up and go help. It made more sense in the summer than in the winter, but oh well…
She and her mom, more often than not, found each other about this time in the morning and had the first cup of coffee of the day while watching the sun come up. Mom, especially, had a fascination with the sky and clouds and would raise the blinds on the east windows, wanting to see what would happen out there that day. They would talk, solve world problems as they jokingly called it. Shirley also had the sky watching disease and usually jumped up three or four times to step outside and snap pictures.
That’s why the photo gallery on her phone was predominately orange, red, pink, purple, with sunrises and sunsets. They were all amazing pictures, but how could they not be? It wasn’t her talent that made them amazing. She was not yet a photographer. She was also not yet an author. She was not yet a grandmother. “Not yet” was kind of like her title of nobility. She was not yet a lot of things, but most importantly she was not yet dead. She was going to make the most of that one.
A while later, breakfast out of the way, she was over at her brother’s place of business. Her brother was an entrepreneur and owned a small awards and recognition company, doing most of their business online out of a neat, up to date building only a short walk away from her mom’s condo. The prospect of getting some employment there was part of the reason she had made the move north from Florida to live with mom.
She was in the learning phase of making plaques for a sports team. Being “not yet” a proficient worker and having just made some wrong cuts, necessitating a complete do over on a print job, she was glad to stop when her sister in law came in the shop.
“Are there some packages here for us? Dennis said they were here but I don’t see them in his office.” M.P. said as she took off her gloves and outer layer of winter armor. She fished her cell phone out of her pocket and started flipping through photos.
“Claire flew back from Duluth last night, in a small plane. A friend of hers rented the plane for a week and he needed to get in some hours for his next level. She took some great pics from the air of the Christmas lights in Bentleyville. Oh, and did you see what Dennis found back in the meadow yesterday?” She stopped her searching and held out her phone.
On it was a picture of the meadow behind the barn and the large brush pile that had been growing there for over a year. There was a rather large, rounded out hole showing in the pile.
“You wouldn’t believe,” she went on “someone made some kind of fort there. It looks like they’ve been making a fire outside too. Dennis can’t figure it out. No one has seen anyone out there. He was thinking of burning the pile, and what if someone had been hiding in there?”
Shirley Not Yet looked at the photo. “I was just out there a day ago. I didn’t see anything like that.”
“That’s what Dennis said too. It’s really hard to see if you stay on the path. The entrance is on the other side.”
“Did it look like anyone was staying there?”
“No, nothing was in it except a cup. But there had been a campfire outside, so someone had to have been there for a while.”
Shirley had made a few forts as a kid, but not usually in winter and she certainly never thought of starting fires and hanging out. It sounded like more of an adult thing. The thought of an unknown adult spending time in the meadow where she frequently walked was… unsettling, maybe. Likely not dangerous though. She decided to go out and have a look.
Incognito, that was the focus. If you blend in, don’t get noticed, make use of what’s around you, but be careful, you’ll be safer. It had only taken about three hours to build the shelter. After pulling out a bunch of debris from the pile, he had found the pallets and even a sheet of old plywood. He’d made four “lean tos” and put them together with the plywood over the top. Water would run off and it would stay dry inside. Piling the brush around the outside hid everything. It was perfect. Done close to dusk, no one had noticed. The fire was kept small and smokeless.
All of his life he’d had opportunities to practice survival. It was kind of a passion with him. Well, who wouldn’t want to survive?
Although it might sound like I’m complaining, I’m calling it explaining. Northern Wisconsin is a special place, with special conditions that are a bit extreme at times. I’m happy to be here and I’ll deal with it…
I know it’s winter everywhere in this hemisphere, but it’s like REALLY winter here. It’s only 16 days away from the shortest day of the year. They seem shorter than I remember.
I think my sister-in-law has detected some seasonal affective disorder craziness going on and has offered me a light box. I need to read up on SAD. There is definitely a shortage of light here, “up north”. It’s been overcast for the last week or more, and it’s almost like the sun never comes up. It looks like dusk even in the middle of the day. By 4:30 street lights are coming on and by 5 it’s pitch dark. This makes for a pretty long night.
I miss the colors of fall, spring and summer. It’s not that snow isn’t pretty because it can be stunning.
But many days are so gray, in all directions, that it’s hard to believe there are that many gray things in the world. Here at Par Place, we are not in the woods so there is a lot of sky visible. On cloudy days half the field of view, from the horizon up, is varying shades of dirty white, soft gray, to angry gray. The other half almost mirrors the same shades, with the snow and a few dark green pines thrown in once in a while. Some days a light sprinkle of snow falls constantly. Several days this week there was wind, steady wind, coming off an iceberg somewhere north of here.
One of the windy nights, we were awakened by a noise, repeating itself at random intervals. I tried to figure out what was rapping on the outside wall of our bedroom, until I remembered a clothesline I had coiled up and hung on a nail. It was worth waking up to see the night sky, with the clouds and the moon, and the wind.
So, I’ll borrow the light box. I’ll walk on the treadmill if I can’t get myself outside. I’ll try not to stay up too late at night, reading (which I’m prone to do). I will keep busy with all the things I’ve heard people do here, in the winter, in the house, in the dark. I’ll wait for December 22, when the days start getting longer.
I’m not sure where rivers come from, someplace hidden, but I know that if it were not for them, there would be no lakes and maybe even no oceans. I hold them to be a little less scary, most of them having at least two shores visible, sometimes more if there is an island in the middle. They seem to be self-cleaning if left alone. Sometimes they become shallow enough that the bottom can be seen and there is no fearsome, endless descent as in the sea. Another wonderful thing about them is their motion, always on their way to something and wanting to take you along, which is mostly a good thing. Sometimes not.
We were visiting our hometown for a family reunion and one of our bonding activities was a river trip. The Namekagon runs past our town in its own valley, one of the nation’s Wild River Refuges, and we have often gone down sections of it in boats, canoes, kayaks and inner tubes. This time I was in a short, one person kayak, which because of its lack of length and directionality, was more like a teacup floating along on the current.
I don’t remember how I got close enough to the willows on the bank to get caught in them, but it was a place where the current quickened and was strong as it bent around a corner. Leaning a bit to avoid getting hit in the face, I lowered the edge of the teacup enough on the upriver side to allow the flow into the boat – the death knell of staying upright on the water. We, the teacup and I, flipped.
There are only split seconds in which to discover whether you will stand or swim, hang onto the boat or onto the paddle. It is exciting, so much so that you may not even notice injuries incurred on the rocky river bottom. I stood, a little more than waist high, in the cold, swift and amazingly strong stream, choosing to hold onto my boat. Like a sail catching the wind, the kayak caught the water and only the overhanging branches kept us from going quickly downstream. It took an adrenalin rush for me to wrestle the boat upright and walk it to more shallow water where I could empty it.
By this time, others were aware of my predicament and were watching for my paddle to float past. We regrouped and continued our trip.
I remember this incident because it is the only time I have capsized (unless there is another that I have truly forgotten). I remember it because of the large bruise, scrape and painful lump on my shin that took a couple months to heal. I remember it because of the miracle of going back and finding my camera, catching the sun and glinting among the rocks on the bottom. I dried it out and it still worked, sort of. I remember it because of all the gorgeous pictures on the digital card that I still have and enjoy.
The river meant no harm. We just had an experience together.
When has nature given you an adrenalin rush experience?
I am under my usual three or four blankets, listening to the transistor radio I bought with money from my first real job. It is too early to be up, still pitch black and I can tell it’s cold. I am hoping to hear that school is canceled – for the whole day, which it will be if the temperature gets below -30 degrees F. Somehow, someone figured it would be okay for kids to stand out waiting for the bus if it was only -29 degrees. It’s not that the cold bothers me that much either, I just don’t want to go to school. Finally, the weather guy says it is -32 and starts listing the area schools and organizations that will not be asking people to come out. My school is among them. I am glad.
Cold. Long. Cold and long. And very cold for a long time, six months almost. On mornings like the one above, most smart people stayed home and concentrated on staying warm. Those who had to go to work would put their cars in a garage or have a contraption attached to their oil pan that could be plugged in to keep the oil warm enough to circulate. Antifreeze was a given. Tires would be frozen with a flat side. Those who hadn’t prepared might find their water pipes frozen. I remember having to remove ice from the cows watering cups in the barn, and often the large water tanks would have an electric heater attached. Weather like this was hard on the animals but if they were in the barn, their bodies supplied enough heat to keep them safe. Cold nights meant we got to take a quart canning jar filled with hot, hot water up to put at the foot of our bed under the covers.
And the snow. Some years there was snow in November. Some years it never melted until spring and the banks along the roads were higher than the cars making intersections dangerous. We never had to hire someone to plow our driveway at the farm because Dad always had either a tractor with a bucket or a bulldozer to do the job. He would push the snow back as far as he could knowing the piles would get larger and larger as winter moved on. They were snow mountains to us kids and a never ending source of fun. Winter forts could take hours to build. We would cut blocks of snow or roll snow balls if the weather made the snow sticky. Our forts not only had walls, but they had tunnels as well. We would hollow out holes big enough for several of us to crawl inside.
Winter clothes, everyone had them. Mothers knit scarves and for the younger kids, mittens connected with a long string threaded through the sleeves of our coats. Mittens were always getting lost, and soggy wet. Babies had snowsuits and as they outgrew them the “hand me down” would go to the next younger one. Boots were worn over shoes and thick socks. Our house had an unheated hallway where all of this winter gear hung on a row of hooks – sometimes the wet things froze and were icy the next time we got into them. There was panic on mornings when we saw the school bus coming before we had everything on.
One of my favorite winter coats was beautiful tan wool with a soft raccoon fur collar. I remember it because one night our dog cornered a skunk by the house and it saturated everything we had with it’s odor, including our sense of smell. I wore it to school that morning and it wasn’t until everyone started asking where the skunk was that I figured out it was me. I had to call mom to take me home. The wool and the fur in the coat held that smell for a long time.
Keeping warm was and is still a science in progress. My earliest memories are of an oil burning stove in our living room. It sat on a protective mat of some kind (??) and had a stove pipe going up into a chimney. Mom or Dad would turn open a valve on the oil line and we would wait a minute until there was oil in the chamber, then light a match and drop it in. We spent a lot of time close to the stove. Windows that were away from the heat would get ice on the inside from humidity and our curtains would get frozen into the glass.
We also had a wood cook stove to warm the kitchen. The wood pile was most often outside under the snow. We would pile sticks of wood on our sleds and carry it up to dry next to the stove. It was not our favorite chore.
There is a lot more that could be said about Wisconsin winters and much of it is good and beautiful. I wish everyone could experience the felt safety and awe of watching a white-out blizzard from a warm, snug house. I wish I could adequately describe the way new snow glistens on the morning after, or the way light and shadows look completely different when the sun is low in the sky all day long. Snow really does crunch underfoot. The woods are really quiet when there are no leaves rustling and all the animals (almost all) are asleep. But it is cold, and extreme, and white, and beautiful in it’s own way for a very long time, and there are some who choose it for exactly those reasons (and some who tolerate it in spite of, just sayin’…)
It doesn’t last long but is all the more beautiful for it’s transitory nature. We drove slowly, turning down every beckoning lane that showed color. This is the north woods at it’s finest and our celebration of the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles.
At one time there was only one tree on the hill, an old white pine that stood guard alongside a lane that connected the fields. It was tall and imposing, standing out on the landscape as one looked north from the farmhouse to the horizon. I grew up looking at that tree, running to it for thinking time, listening to the constant, soft brush of wind through the pine needles. I would have liked to have climbed up in it but there were no branches I could reach. It was a refuge.
One year there were cows in the field. My father had sold his milk cows but had a herd of young cattle that was like a band of unruly teenagers. They would run the fence line looking for a place to go under, over or through the barbed wire. They had a great deal of energy and, something that most people don’t realize about cows, they had a crazy curiosity. Anything unusual within their sight would start them on an approach path, faster and faster until they were running in a stampede, a kind of mob mentality as I remember it.
I was visiting the tree one day when the cows were in that field. They saw me on the hill and came rushing up to investigate. Cows in a large group are intimidating. They’re big, heavy animals and they mill around, eyes wide and hot, moist breath sniffing at the object of their curiosity, all the time ready to bolt if startled. I flattened myself against it’s trunk and the tree and I were engulfed in the herd.
It turned into a magical moment. As long as I was still the cows took turns pointing their wet noses at me and milling back into the group. I was the vulnerable one with only the tree at my back for protection. They were the free and dominant ones. Eventually they were satisfied and trotted off in a different direction. I still felt the awe and wonder of it as I watched them take off. I feel it again as I remember.
The tree was hit by lightning a few years later during a storm. Its twisted, split and broken frame lay on the hill for several years before it rotted away.
Hayward, Wisconsin is a place where it snows. The flakes were flying as we drove into town last Thursday for Thanksgiving. The white blanket covered the ground and the fallen logs where we walked through the woods the next day. Every gust of wind through the branches of the pines sent snow raining down all around us. At first, the cold was frightening but as I stayed out in it and worked up a sweat, I got used to it. Now, four days past Thanksgiving, it is snowing again and this time it’s a storm big enough to deserve a name. Cleon.
Our trip into town proved the roads were icy with wet slush. The sky is one solid, gray cloud that descends down to meet the horizon, cutting the visibility to about a quarter mile. Variations on muted gray, black and white with a little brown thrown in are the only colors nature has today. Things would seem dull if it weren’t for the colored lights and Christmas decorations up and down the streets. Hayward is a small town, a very small town, but it is the only real town in quite a large area of forests and lakes. And it is large enough to have a Walmart, which was a very busy place today.
I grew up here, in the country outside of Hayward. I left and came back after I was married. My children were born while I lived here and although I’ve been away again for more than twenty years it is still very homelike to me. My parents and my brother and his family still live in a development on the edge of town, on land that once belonged to my grandfather. We visited Hayward last June when it was all shades of green, brilliant blue skies, fields full of flowers, flowing rivers, and more than it’s share of the world’s mosquitoes. Now it is different. It is white, very quiet, dark a good deal of the time, and there are no mosquitoes at all.
It is really quite magical to be able to stay in one place and have it change all around you. You would think you had been transported. I’m just sayin’ I am glad to be here for this first big snow of the year.