The first light of this day is a few minutes old when I turn off the road into the Breeze In. Vowing not to visit a store until I need more groceries, I have not set foot in one in over a week, but this morning a cup of decaf and a doughnut are calling. Several cars in the parking lot give me pause, but don’t deter me from pulling in.
I turn off the truck, pocket my keys, carefully fold my designated orange bandana and tie it over my face and mouth, pull on my gloves, then look up. A gentleman on the sidewalk opens the door and holds it for a couple leaving the store. They smile and thank him. He nods. Inside, three people queue directly behind one another to place their orders. Behind a recently-erected plexiglass shield, two gloved employees fill cups, bag donuts, and ring up sales. Another person joins the line. Not a single customer is wearing gloves or mask. Not one. I think about the comforting smell of coffee, then take off my gloves, pull down my mask, retrieve my keys, start the truck, and pull back onto the road.
Warm wet snow is falling around me as I follow my own two-day-old, partially snow-filled tracks into the forest. Water drips from drooping hemlock boughs, pockmarking a fresh layer of white in an otherwise still and quiet wood.
Alone, I make my rounds, checking the usual hangouts for American dippers on the creek, and bear tracks along the trail. Coming up empty, I venture on. I want to explore something new.
At a juncture, I take a trail I have not walked this winter, and seldom visit in summer. A connector path to a trail system that is popular with dog walkers, it is also popular with spring bears. I have more than once heard tell of Canus domesticus v. Ursus Americanus run-ins here that did not end well for the canine. True to its reputation, though there are not a lot of tracks here, there appear to be as many pets as people using the trail.
My boots sink into snow softened by the warming weather. I posthole up to my knee a couple times, but remained undeterred. The snow is steady, and I remove the bandana that is still around my neck to dry and drape my camera, but it is quickly soaked and more effective at keeping equipment wet, than dry. I am glad my camera is weather sealed.
The world opens when I near the river. Shifting flows and sandy glacial deposits have slowed forest succession here. I like the view, but not the wind that comes with it. Were the conditions a little different, I might find a place to sit down and watch a while. It is easy to imagine an otter galloping and sliding on the snow, or a bear exploring his way to the river, but I keep moving.
Soon, the trail winds back into the sheltering woods, but I am drawn by some color in the snow and turn into the sharp wind, toward the river, to investigate.Iron-stained bear tracks, the size of large saucers, form a straight path from the river back toward me. I trace the route away from the bear, toward the river bank where I startle a pair of killdeers who noisily escape in opposite directions. The bear appears to have crossed the shallow water and sat down for a spell before moving on. I’m pretty sure I’m looking at my first positively identified black bear butt print in the snow, though the view through squinting eyes and soaked glasses could be deceiving me.Scuttling back to the trail where the bear tracks disappear into the thick, I take what turns out to be short-lived refuge in the woods. I knew this was coming, but was not prepared for how fierce the wind would be when I got here. My five layers of wool are enough, but barely. For the first time this morning, I feel a prick of cold on my chest as I lean into the wind blasting across the lake. Walk has become trudge.
A confused menagerie of tracks follow a cross-country ski route along the lake shore. A large canine print begs closer investigation. Two summers ago I cast a wolf track not far from here, and on the same day found wolf scat loaded with beaver fur, but this print turns out to be from a large dog.
Though I have only been on the trail for 90 minutes, I take advantage of a familiar route directly back to the parking lot. Snow has soaked through my jeans and woolies, camera looks like I pulled it out of the lake, and gloves are saturated and chilling my fingers. Overall though, I am not uncomfortable. My base layers, in fact all my layers, except for jeans and gloves, are wool, and I know that as long as I keep moving I will be fine, but all this wet, blowing snow has me thinking again about that cup of decaf.
I pull my waterlogged face mask out of my pocket and hang it on the rearview mirror, and toss soaked gloves on the passenger seat. When I turn onto the main road, the truck rocks with a gust of wind driving ever heavier snow, and I am glad to be sheltered by glass, and warmed by internal combustion engine.
I am thinking about that black bear sitting by the river, undaunted by wind and wet, shielded and warmed by his own weatherproof coat, as I drive past the donut store, parking lot full of cars driven by people without any proper protection. I will not be stopping.
Spring is here, and with the ice melting and the snow turning to rain, my mindset must change as well. Wool is a great inner layer, but rain calls for waterproof pants and jacket, and a cover for my camera.
As for that protection hanging from my mirror, well, in a very real sense, that mask is testament to an altogether different winter—one that might not end any time soon—and that simple first line of defense against the dangers of this dark season we are all trudging through, is more important than any rain jacket. Yes, the calendar tells us summer is right around the corner, but this pandemic winter may keep going for another season or more. Until it does end, no matter the weather, I will wear my mask. And the next time I am out by the river, like the bear, I will be dressed to leave my butt print in the snow, or the mud, or whatever conditions the season throws at me.