On the first day of March I found a sure sign of spring on a south-facing ridge high above Lake Superior. Cautiously skiing on my Alaskan snowshoes as I made my way down a steep slope, I came upon a spot of bare ground scarcely larger than my hand.
I looked at the dried up leaves and dirt on the ground and knew spring was coming. Sure, we’d get more snow and this patch of ground would be covered up, but as soon as the sun came out, it would return. And every sunny day it would grow, slowly at first and gaining momentum until, weeks later, the whole hillside is free of snow.
The following morning, I watched a raven fly across the highway carrying dried grass for a nest in its beak. These northern birds, the outsized kin of crows, are early nesters. Somehow, they know spring is inevitable, even though blizzards and below zero nights may intervene.
By midweek there was a warm-up, bringing welcome respite from the bitter chills of January and February. Rivulets of meltwater ran down the hillside avenues of Grand Marais. Ice-covered Lake Superior changed color from Arctic white to steely gray as sparse snow cover melted and pooled on the ice. Spring seemed just around the corner, although in the North in March, we know better.
I followed my same snowshoe path up a frozen waterway on the sixth of March. The snow had noticeably diminished, exposing the black tops of boulders in the streambed. The sound of water running beneath the ice was louder than before. Still, there was nearly two feet of snow on the ground—plenty to preserve my snowshoe sojourns for the foreseeable future.
It was late in the day and the air temperature, near freezing, was beginning to descend. The snow was soft in places exposed to afternoon sunshine and crusted over in the shade. When my yellow Lab ventured away from the frozen snowshoe path, he wallowed in the soft stuff or broke through the crust.
The going had to be tough for the deer. The only fresh tracks we saw were on established winter trails. This is the season when the killing is easy for wolves, because the deer have trouble outrunning them in the deep snow. For whitetails, a late winter snowstorm can extend this difficult and dying time, perhaps by weeks.
Other critters seemed to be getting by. Fox tracks crossed our path. Where there were openings in the stream, we found otter sign. A pair of ravens flying in tight formation passed overhead.
We left the stream and soon discovered the snow was deep in the woods. When I try to leave my snowshoe path and break trail, lunging through the snow proved to difficult for the dog, so we backtracked and followed our path from the week before. Once again we loped back along the high ridge, although now there were a few bare patches beneath the overhanging boughs of balsam trees, rather than just one small place where the snow was melted away. When I dropped down the steep slope, it was easier to take off my snowshoes and walk-slide through shin-deep snow.
As we started back to where the truck was parked, the air temperature dropped below freezing as the sun slipped to the horizon.Now the dog could walk on top of the crusted snow. Snowshoeing was easy on the hard surface and we made good time on the return jaunt.
Although spring has made an appearance, I don’t think I’ll be hanging up the snowshoes anytime soon. As I write this, a winter storm is predicted to deliver up to a foot of fresh snow, followed by below-zero temperatures. Weather of this sort puts spring into remission, but not for long. Soon the sun will start working o regain lost ground, starting with a bare spot on a rdige high above Lake Superior.
I try to spend as much time as possible outdoors now, enjoying this tug-of-war between winter and spring, as do many other people. Some fish crappies through the ice. Some go to work in the sugar bush. At this time of year, what you do is less important than being outside doing it, shaking off a winter’s worth of cabin fever.
Here in the north, ice-out is still six weeks away. Green leaves won’t appear for eight weeks or more. Some may view this between time with impatience. I prefer to savor the slow, sure arrival of spring.