It's a sunny, cold Saturday in January, and I’m out for a hike on a fire trail here in the State Game Lands near Warren, Pa. The prospect of hiking alone in the woods on a still and silent day interests me.
I get a hundred yards in quickly, then stop and look around. Everything, the big oaks and maples, bare as skeletons without their foliage, the hemlocks heavy with snow, the trout stream running parallel with the trail, all stand stunned and silent on this brisk winter day. There’s a slight cold breeze, and temperatures are well below freezing, so my breath makes opaque vapor in the air. I pull on my leather gloves, yank the stocking cap down over my ears, and button up my coat.
And listen. I appreciate the audio pleasures of rolling waters over rocks and the distant knock-knock-knock of a woodpecker on a dying hardwood. Also the visual gratification of the trout stream rambling past boulders under the dark green hemlocks and white pines, and just the great timeless ancient presence of the forest.
I begin to walk slowly toward the west, along the steep mountainside, where I can see a long ways up to the great boulders deposited there by glaciers thousands of years ago and the vast black and white of bare trees against the pure white ground.
The first snow prints I see are fresh squirrel tracks, heading east along the trail as I hike west. I spot another set and yet another, all gray squirrels, I believe, judging from their medium size, smaller than the fox squirrel, larger than the red. The level of food-
searching activity indicated by these tracks foretells of more wintry weather on the way. But I’m dressed for it, and my Jeep is four-wheel drive.
The first live creatures I see are two blue jays fluttering up out of the streambed in the hollow on my left, their coloring miraculous against the stark gray and plain white of the woods and the snow. They’re just ordinary blue jays, but on this day I really look at them for once and notice the sky-blue plumage and the distinct feathering accents of black and white. I shake my head in admiration at the beauty of commonplace things in the outdoors.
I stay on the trail and hike slowly against the wind, my eyes scanning left and right to see what I can see. And I see nothing, really, or everything, depending on your point of view. I see that the woods are “lovely, dark, and deep” in winter, as the poet Robert Frost taught us a century ago. Sometimes in the cold and quiet and solitude, it appears there’s nothing alive out there. But the moment I think that thought, a gray squirrel scampers across the trail, and five minutes later, another one follows. Wildlife in the winter woods is spare but vital.
I walk another hour and see several more birds, a set of coyote tracks, and squirrel prints everywhere. At the one-mile point, I spot a set of deer tracks, not super-fresh but large and deep. I realize that up to this point I’ve seen few living, breathing things. Just the two squirrels, despite the abundant tracks, and no other mammals at all. I count off the eight certain bird sightings I’ve made: the pair of blue jays, a handful of chickadees, and one lonesome male cardinal hunkering down on a multiflora rose branch just above the ground, his scarlet feathering looking like bloody murder against the snow.
I don’t need to observe a lot of wildlife to enjoy a good hike in the woods, I tell myself, but I’m always looking. I hike a short ways down the footpath and stop to look around.
I hear a crashing ahead and to my left and spot a large deer bounding up out of the streambed. I get only glimpses among the trees against the white background as the animal quarters toward me and the trail. This deer is big for a mountain deer, and I can tell it’s a buck, even though it has dropped its antlers for the winter, because of its size, its heavy-chested build, and the majesty of its gait. It takes a few more jumps away from me, toward the west. And then it’s gone.
DON FEIGERT is the outdoors writer for The Herald and the Allied News. His latest book, The F-Troop Camp Chronicles, and his earlier books are available by contacting Don at 724-931-1699 or email@example.com. Browse his web site at www.donfeigert.com. Or visit Leana’s Books at the mall.