By Shawn Perich
Transitions can be abrupt. February’s endless subzero temperatures caused the open expanse of Lake Superior to freeze over. The ice cover held for a couple of weeks. Then a wind came from the southwest and the ice disappeared overnight. As is often the case, Superior is the last body of water to freeze over and the first to break up. Here in the frozen north, it’s one of the earliest signs of spring.
The weather seemed to change as abruptly as the ice. February’s subzero chill gave way to a comparatively balmy (so far) March. The warmup triggered what can only be described as late winter urgency. Truckloads of wood are rolling out of the woods as loggers hurry to get their winter’s work to market before spring weight restrictions are placed on the roads. Resort and tourist-related business owners scurry off to sunny locales for a warm respite before they begin their annual preparations for the busy summer season.
Outside, the earliest of birds are beginning to arrive. The first ones I notice are the bald eagles, which work their way up the Lake Superior shoreline. They are followed shortly afterward by crows, which announce their arrival with raucous calls. Out in the woods, the winter critters are already busy preparing for spring. Common ravens and owls are beginning their nesting. The breeding season for foxes and wolves is nearly over.
The sun’s power grows stronger daily. Even when the daily temperature remains below freezing, the sun is still able to melt the snow from exposed hillsides and openings. The days are noticeably longer, too. I am always cheered by the arrival of daylight savings time, because it greatly extends my opportunities to be outside, especially during the week. It’s great to be able to end a long work day with a couple of hours outdoors.
I enjoy being outside so much at this time of year that my dinner time gets pushed back. It’s after 8 p.m. before I sit down to supper now, and it may be even later in another month. Some say you shouldn’t eat dinner so close to bedtime, but I think the fresh air and exercise I gain by being outdoors helps balance it out.
I’m sure the dog agrees. Throughout the dreary days of winter, he is mostly confined to romps around the yard during the week, getting long walks only on the weekends. I suppose we could take walks in the dark on winter evenings, but I don’t do so for one simple reason. The dog runs free on our walks. In the dark, I have no way of knowing if the neighborhood wolves are in the vicinity.
One night during January, I saw a wolf cross the road just beyond the edge of my property when I was coming home from work. Minutes later, I let the dog out. Doing so felt a little strange, knowing at least one wolf was nearby. In February, I was backing out of the driveway to go to work one morning when I spotted a wolf standing on the edge of the road a couple of hundred yards away. I paused to watch the wolf and it paused to watch me. Even though I wasn’t going that direction, I decided to drive toward the wolf and chase it away. As the thought crossed my mind, the wolf cleared the snowbank with a single bound and disappeared into the woods. I’m not sure if the wolf had ESP, but it sure seemed like it did.
For those of you living elsewhere, yes, we have snowbanks up here. While Minnesota has suffered through a snow drought, here in Cook County we have a deep blanket of snow. How long it will last this year is anyone’s guess. Three years ago, the snow disappeared in March during a freak warm-up. Two years ago, we received over four feet of snow in March and April. And last year…well that winter is still fresh on everyone’s memory.
Even if March remains balmy, it’s unlikely all of our snow will disappear this month. But unless we get a big dump, and we may, the snow should go fairly quickly, due to the snowless conditions elsewhere. Winters linger in the years the prairies are covered with deep snow, because the white stuff reflects sunlight. When the fields are bare, the sun’s warmth is absorbed, aiding the spring warmup. That’s likely what will happen this year.
I hope it does, because I’d like to be able to spend a few weeks roaming in the woods before green up. Back when there were more moose, those weeks were devoted to looking for shed moose antlers. While I’ll likely wander through the same country, I really won’t expect to find any antlers. If I’m lucky enough to stumble upon one, it will be a special prize.
Fortunately, I still have a collection of moose antlers, nearly all of which were found more than a decade ago. I saved a few extra large ones, as well some that I liked the shape or the coloration. I really don’t know what I’ll do with them. Sometimes, I just look at them and feel sad about what we’ve already lost. While it involved many hours of walking, I used to find about a dozen moose antlers every spring. At the time, there was also a market for moose femurs and skulls. I found a surprising number of moose skeletons, too.
Although nearly all of skulls I found had the snouts chewed off by wolves, I’m not sure how the moose died. I do know that I once found more dead moose in a year than I see live moose in the same places today. The disappearance of our moose was another abrupt transition. And for me, spring just isn’t the same without them.