Thursday, February 7, 2019

Winter Woods Road

Just outside our front door, there’s an obscure labyrinth of paths that leads through the field and into the woods behind our house. These passageways are never so clearly traveled as during the winter months, when markings in the snow reveal the passings-by of critters large and small, human and non-human, often furred but sometimes feathered.

A happy pup on the Woods Road
As often as I can, when there is snow covering the ground, I head into the woods with the dog, who wiggles in full-bodied, happy anticipation of the smells she will sniff and the squirrels she might chase. Usually I travel by ski, but if the snow is deep and untracked, I wear my snowshoes. I may enter the woods from the edge of the road or the front yard, on the path just below our springhouse or at the back corner of the field.

However I get there, my main route is along what we call the Woods Road, a traverse built years ago through the forest by my husband’s grandfather. Because I have traveled this road in all seasons for many years – including when my children were tiny and, therefore, moved at a dawdling pace that allowed for more careful observation – I am familiar with the places where game trails intersect the old road, where the squirrels sometimes stash their winter cache of food, which trees the pileated woodpeckers favor in their search for tasty insects.

During the snowy season, the Woods Road becomes an open canvas, one shared by many travelers. Here and there, other paths enter the road from neighbors’ yards, and for a stretch, the road will be leveled by wide snowshoe treads, or marked for a ways by slender ski tracks. Sometimes I am the first one there after snowfall, leaving a trail for others to follow if they’d like, although the Woods Road is broad enough to accommodate more than one track.

Perhaps it’s because I can see more clearly what’s been sharing the road – if only in space, not time – but it seems there is more condensed travel along this route in winter. I like to think we human woods wanderers are helping the creatures who live in the wilder part of the neighborhood, packing out a trail so they may travel more easily during the hard winter months, finding food, evading would-be predators.

Once, a few winters ago, I was startled by a snowshoe hair who leapt across the trail in front of me. More often, I find the hares’ distinctive footprints hopscotched across the Woods Road. Also there are the split-heart-shaped tracks of deer, as well as prints from foxes (often), bobcats (more rare) and wild turkeys (by the flock).   
 
Game cam snap of resident porcupine
The porcupine trails are easy to spot; the needle-spiked critters seem to feel no need to hide their travels. If the snow is deep, a trough forms through it where the porcupines shuffle from den to
hemlock grove and back. If it is shallow, their pigeon-toed footprints show the way they have gone. They also leave the nipped tips of hemlock boughs along the ground and yellow birch trees with large patches of gnawed bark.

Where the wild ones go on either end of their Woods Road travels, I have little idea. Often, I look for tree hollows that may house barred owls or sleeping raccoons. I wonder where the deer bed down during the short winter days, until they come to our field in search of old, frozen apples. I imagine there are bears denned up somewhere not too far from our home.

The Woods Road leads down from our house to an old bridge over Bowen Brook, where in summer the thirsty dog pauses to drink, and children have been known to dip toes into cool water. From there, the dog and I follow the road around the bend toward the idle sugar house, up through a boggy area only easily passable when it is frozen and hard, and back toward home.

We come to the woods in all seasons, soaking in the quiet there. In spring, we revel in the unfurling of new leaves. In summer, we welcome the coolness of the shade. In autumn we find wonder at the vast colors of the trees. And in winter we look for glimpses of the forest’s secrets revealed along the Woods Road. 

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the February, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.