Feeling at home in the woods

Posted Feb. 17, 2011, at 11:17 p.m.
Kathryn Olmstead’s chocolate Labrador retriever, Lucy, eyes fox tracks in the snow during a recent outing.
Kathryn Olmstead’s chocolate Labrador retriever, Lucy, eyes fox tracks in the snow during a recent outing.
I place the wide toe of my snowshoe into the snow left by its narrow tail.
I place the wide toe of my snowshoe into the snow left by its narrow tail.

The snow is too deep to ski so I set out on my snowshoes to open up the trails near my home in Caribou. The snowdrifts are up to the windowsills and I look down into the living room as I round the house.

The trail made days ago is a slight depression in the snow, invisible in spots. I fix my eyes on familiar trees, bushes and openings in the woods in order to stay on the hidden trail. To stray is to sink way over my ankles, even on snowshoes.

I know the fox appreciates these trails. Her fresh paw prints and her skunky scent tell me she has come out to say “Thank you,” but she watches me in secrecy. I can see that she, too, sometimes sinks when she leaves the trodden path.

What’s this? A new trail through the hardwoods? The latest snowfall has covered the underbrush creating an opening that did not exist before, allowing me access to unexplored places in the woods. Branches I could not reach in the fall brush my face, even after I knock off hunks of snow with my ski pole.

The second time around my “perimeter trail” and through the woods on connecting loops I reverse direction to flatten the trail evenly, placing the wide toe of my snowshoe into the snow left by its narrow tail on my first trip. Sunlight glistens on the dusting of new flakes and the consistency underfoot changes in the time it takes me to finish all the loops in my trail system. Snow under the tall pines packs quickly. Deeper snow in the fields is soft with unpredictable drifts of firmness.

My chocolate Lab, Lucy, bounds ahead of me in the trail, her frosty face smiling as she races back to me, then gleefully tunnels and rolls in the snow.

I unzip my jacket, throw back my hood and take off my mittens as warmth inside meets the midday sun on my face. Chickadees flit from branch to branch, their winter call the only sound, but for an occasional whoosh of snow dropping from tree limbs.

Is this world real? How can so many people in the world face danger every day while I absorb this majestic winter landscape in northern Maine? Am I as safe as I seem among the animals, trees and birds of my backyard?

How blessed I am to live where I can step from my door into nature and feel at home, among friends, walking on snowshoes two feet above the earth. I breathe in the cold air deeply and pray for those who would consider my world a dream.

I make no tracks down the hill over the open field that was once a garden. When the crust hardens I will want to sail trail-less on my skis across the wide sweeping slope, free to make new tracks with every run.

Maybe tomorrow.

Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She may be reached by e-mail at kathryn.olmstead@umit.maine.edu.

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