In the Northern Wilds, everyone has a favorite month. Given the dramatic change in seasons, perhaps two or three. Sometimes, you may not recognize a favorite month until you are experiencing it. The weather in any month may significantly change from one year to the next.
That said, the transition months of April and November are least likely to make any one’s list of favorites. April is sometimes referred to as “mud season” as the melting winter snow is absorbed in the soil in preparation for the typical switch from winter to summer. On the other hand, November spans a time that is neither autumn nor winter. In some ways it spans a bit of both seasons, often in the same day. A sunny and mild afternoon may suddenly sink into a freezing evening as the sun, with little fanfare, dips below the horizon. While the shortest day officially occurs just before Christmas, it signals its arrival in November.
November typically delivers more snow than rain, but that doesn’t make it winter. The snow that arrives in November is a substance all of its own. In the Northern Wilds, there are two reasons for this. The first reason is because the ground, at least for most of the month, is still unfrozen. This causes the snow to change texture over time, usually melting a day or more after it falls. The second reason is Lake Superior. Air temperatures are warmer near the open water. As you move inland, gaining elevation and distance from the lake, snow depth and the texture of the snow changes. Often this may occur as you simply walk up hill and away from the lake.
The trouble with November is that it generally lacks the consistent snow and cold necessary for winter activities like snowmobiling, skiing and ice fishing. At the same time, it is too cool and snowy for most warm season activities with the exception of hiking—even that is limited due to the presence of deer hunters in the woods. Perhaps the only outdoor folks who truly enjoy November are deer hunters and Lake Superior storm watchers.
The storm watchers are less interested in the snow and cold than they are in the big waves that may accompany them. Lake Superior can be especially grouchy in November, when the collision of cold Arctic air with warm, moist air from the Gulf creates strong winds that blow across the lake. Such was the weather that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald.
For deer hunters, snow not only leaves records of the crossings of whitetails and other creatures, but also creates a backdrop in the densely vegetated forest. Without that backdrop, a deer may pass a hunter unseen.
While no two years are the same, the first snows of deer season, which begins in early November, are often fluffy dustings ranging from barely a ground cover to a couple of inches. Such snows are a blessing to still-hunters, a vanishing breed of hunters who slip through the forest on their feet, pursuing deer on the animals’ own terms, rather than waiting in an unseen ambush from a tree stand or box on the ground.
The snow tells stories of the forest; not just deer tales, but the comings and goings of other creatures as well. The passing of everything from red squirrels to wolves is visible in the snow. Often these tales are as interesting to a hunter as those of the prey the hunter seeks.
The best snows for still-hunters are the ones that fall during the cooler hours of the night and then cease around sunup. Any tracks seen in such snows are bound to be fresh; “smokin’ hot” as some say. Often the deer that made them is not far away. Some hunters will follow the hoof prints hoping to “track down” the deer, especially if the tracks are fresh. Rarely is this technique effective. A deer won’t survive if it allows predators to sneak up on it.
Often, new snow becomes soft and starts to melt once daybreak’s chill dissipates. By lunchtime, dawn’s fresh tracks are simply spots where the snow has melted away. Fresh tracks made at midday may look old in an hour. During the afternoon, snow will disappear from sunny spots. Overnight, the remaining snow may freeze and be crunchy at sunrise. If the temperature climbs during the day, the melting process begins again.
If the weather is warm when the snow falls, it will be soft and sticky when it hits the ground. Sometimes inches of heavy, wet snow will cling to branches and tree trunks, reducing forest visibility to zero. In such conditions, the best place to be is indoors, waiting for the snow to fall from the trees. More often a dry snow will land in the branches and then drop to the forest floor with the arrival of a slight breeze.
As the 16-day hunting season progresses, the cold of the coming winter creeps closer. Inland from Lake Superior, the snow is more likely to stay and perhaps accumulate. Deer trails, tracks left by animals travelling back and forth, start to appear. Usually these are made by the same deer marching back and forth. With colder temperatures, the snow is generally more winterlike, though it may still melt away from places exposed to the sun.
Down on the ridges rising from Superior, the snow remains temporary or nonexistent. While the sun continues sinking closer to the horizon, even at midday, with the assist of the Lake’s warmth, it is able to melt the snow. Less snow falls near Superior, often delaying the arrival of winter. There may not be much snow on the ground near Lake Superior well into December.
The lack of snow makes a difference for deer and other creatures that spend the winter in the Northern Wilds. While few deer exist more than a few miles inland from the Big Lake, those that do take advantage of the mild conditions. When whitetails were more abundant, there was a noticeable migration of inland populations to the lakeshore in late November.
Eventually, the Northern Wilds surrenders to below zero temperatures or knee-deep snows that announce the arrival of winter. Nevertheless, it still may be weeks before winter’s grip is firmly established with the arrival of safely frozen lakes, snow depths sufficient for grooming ski and snowmobile trails, and snowbanks piling up along roadsides. Once winter takes hold, everyone knows the mud season of April is far, far away.