Nature by Snowshoe

by Mary Clista Dahl

When I saw “Snowshoe Adventure Hike” listed under the events for my favorite local nature organization, I signed up, looking forward to trying something new and different.  Truthfully, although I love nature, I’m not one to venture out in search of it when the temperature drops below forty degrees, so this was a sincere attempt on my part to be more tolerant of winter.

I had never heard of the park where the hike was to take place, so I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it was only nine minutes away from my house.  That is one of the surprising things about nature.  There are so many hidden spots and unknown playgrounds to discover.  On the morning of the hike, my scout son patiently helped layer on my gear, tie my boots and properly situate the ridiculous Perry the Platypus hat with braids, a loaner from him. Thankfully there are no fashion statements for bundling.  I was grateful that it had been the nicest day in many, with no wind or precipitation. mentioned four degrees but there was at least a fair amount of sun.

I found the secluded park and our group.  There were about twenty of us, guided by a soft-spoken, enthusiastic naturalist. The traditional wooden and leather snowshoes that I had been expecting were actually metal and plastic with sharp spikes on the bottom to grip the snow.  I admit to being disappointed at not being able to “strap on tennis racquets” as my friends had teased when they heard about my venture.  No matter, I was there for the ride, not the vehicle.

We started off with instructions from our leader about how to walk, turn, run and get up from a fall in showshoes.  I thought that last part would come in most handy for me, but I didn’t need it.  Then we set off down the trail.  Our first discovery was the Boxelder tree.  Our naturalist pointed out the identifying features and told us how it is often mistaken for poison ivy.  His attention to detail made the lessons more valuable.  He did the same for pines and junipers.  He also taught us how to visually classify groves of trees across acres of landscape by color and the way the branches hung.  His passion piqued our curiosity.

On the edge of a bridge, we came upon a tree totally engulfed in poison ivy.  It was amazing to see the strength and width of the vine and how the tree itself was still thriving as a gracious host.  Crossing the small walking bridge we greeted a Downy Woodpecker and Kingfisher and found evidence on the trees of sapsuckers, which morphed into a fascinating discussion about the eating habits of woodpeckers.  Underneath a railing overlooking the creek below was a small board.  Someone had neatly scripted the caption, “Here is where we let our love flow free.”   The creek banks where they met the flowing water were shimmering with thin ice layers bursting with stunning fern-like patterns. Between the handwritten message and the visual, it made for a happy, tranquil moment; the kind nature is famous for.

Over the bridge we hiked until we came to the edge of a field.  There we were educated on the bordering cattail habitats that are a favored home to the nesting red-winged blackbird.  Our leader also brought our attention to the neighboring phragmites that will eventually crowd out the cattails.  This brought about an intriguing discussion about invasive species.

On the way back we examined several animal tracks in the hopes of finding signs of a wild animal or two.  And although we didn’t come across anything but domestic dog tracks, our guide was able to use these to show us how a fox’s would differ so we would be able to identify properly in the future.

Overall, it was a great way to spend a morning with other nature lovers.  There were some highlights.  Our guide had just returned from an annual Everglades trip with college students.  He shared a scary, yet adventurous account of his and the group’s unexpected encounter with an alligator.  From my perspective, these stories are enjoyed more secondhand than actually experienced.  But there was something exciting about hearing about the Florida terrain and its offerings while we were resting in snowshoes.

Perhaps the greatest gift of the day was watching a set of young boys from our group running and jumping in the snow.  It is a heartwarming privilege to watch children get back out into nature.  And when two of them happily threw themselves face down on the ground and began to shove mittens full of snow into their mouths, it was priceless.