It’s hard to beat late-winter snowshoeing, although possibly it should be early-spring hiking by now. Even to someone such as me, who has trouble reading tracks and telling one type of animal poop from another, there’s plenty of evidence that the natural world is awakening in the spring sunshine. And for someone of an age when too many friends are shuffling off this mortal coil (an essential part of the human ignition system), it brings the awareness and relief that I too have survived another winter.
On a still, sunny morning I can hear the creek conquering its icy cover almost as soon as I cross the ridge that divides my neighbourhood’s rustic attempt at civilization from nothin’ but bush. At least, I can hear it if I stop labouring through six inches of new snow and press the mute button on my grunting and groaning. I might see a path between patches of open water that suggests an otter is out and about. Once, at this time of year, I watched a beaver waddle down the snow-packed trail and chew on a tree, apparently having underestimated its winter food requirements.
Foxes, who stick mainly to our snowshoe trail in winter like nervous drivers, are free-hiking now, judging by their tracks. An occasional dash of colour on the snow shows their free-ranging pays off.
A couple of sandhill cranes click their way overhead, the second one sounding like it’s complaining that the lead crane will never stop and ask for directions. And there are no farm fields in the direction they’re heading. Apparently crane proliferation is cutting into crop yeilds, yet there’s no open season on the birds. A decade ago I’d see no more than two pairs at time (or perhaps a kinky crane foursome); last summer a flock of more than 60 crossed the sky overhead.
A late-season snowshoer is very likely to encounter moose tracks, as the vehemoths of the bush become more active. A couple of years ago I came across a clearing where five moose had bedded down for the night, leaving belly-shaped depressions in the snow with moosehair stuck to them, not to mention ample piles of pellets. Apparently moose haven’t heard that you shouldn’t shit where you sleep. About a decade ago, while on a long-distance trek, I encountered a snorting moose at too-close range. I saw it had no antlers and was relieved that apparently was a cow, though friends informed me later that bulls often shed their head hardware during the winter. Whatever the gender, it showed little interest in finding out how fast an old guy could climb a tree while wearing snowshoes.