Now in the heart of winter in the Blue Mountains, the days are short and wet in the wheat country, and snowy in the higher timber. Aside from the usual chores neglected over autumn and the holiday season, staying active is important to ward off the suffocating clutches of cabin fever and depression in our short and sometimes foggy days of the early calendar year. Of the myriad ways to entertain oneself, the most popular outdoor activities are rather obvious. Ski Bluewood is a prime option. But what about those of us with a high center of gravity? While a fall is inevitable, some of us are far more skilled at falling than remaining upright, myself in included.
Winter hiking and snowshoeing can be just as exhilarating as a swift flight down the mountain. Every winter activity has its hazards, but meeting inanimate objects at speed is much less of a concern on foot or snowshoes.
Time spent in the snowy forest is far different than any other condition, particularly when the wind is calm, the snow is fresh or soft, and a bluebird sky allows the warmth of the sun through the evergreen canopy. Golden rays dance across delicate ice crystals creating a prismatic experience like walking atop cake frosting scattered with glitter.
Amid the winter stillness of the forest, every sound is significant. The pecking of a nuthatch seeking bugs in flaking tree bark. The chatter of chipmunks and red squirrels as they forage while the weather is favorable. The hollow “snort” of a mule deer as it blows its alarm call. And the echo of the raven, cawing as it rides the thermals above the deep canyons.
When disturbed, forest life is quick to return to business-as-usual once things settle down. I recall a glorious morning in the Wenaha with 18 inches of snow in the shadows while the southern faces had already melted clean. An alarmed elk barked in the canyon below, so I settled down to try to spot it. The deafening silence of the forest erupted into a bustling community only minutes after I ceased lumbering through the middle of the busy lives scurrying about.
Snowshoe hares are a gem of the Pacific Northwest, residing in our Blue Mountains. Their massive tracks crisscross mountain meadows, seemingly competing with those of the mule deer. They remain motionless amid the dappled shadows of vegetation much of the day, feeding largely at night to avoid detection. But on a lucky occasion, a hare can be seen with a little time and patience in an area where they are active.
The American red squirrel is our native chatterbox with the bushy tail. With a tie to evergreens, they are as western as spruce grouse, feeding on cones and other parts of pines and firs. It doesn’t take long for these speedy critters to appear if you take a short break. They have little fear of humans and are quite mischievous. On many occasions, these boisterous rodents have dropped debris on my tent at the first light of dawn, chastising me for camping in their domain. They often clamber closer to cast squirrel obscenities at the intruding human, presenting photo opportunity, perhaps posing atop an overhead limb.
These warm January days with temperature in the mid-40s present a prime opportunity for a family outing or a peaceful solo stroll to gaze upon the grand panoramas visible from some of the local mountaintops. When venturing into the snowy wilderness, its good practice to carry a backpack with water, snacks, and an extra shirt and sweatshirt or jacket, in case you end up wet.
The winter forest is also a prime for photography and journalism to record observations of fur, feather and landscape. Winter photos can be dramatic but are often overexposed due to the snow’s reflectance. If you carry a point-and-shoot or mobile phone, post-editing filters or exposure adjustments are likely needed. If you happen to carry something more sophisticated like a single-lens reflex (SLR) camera with adjustable aperture and shutter speed, be sure to take a few early test photos and dial in your desired exposure before setting up to capture that magazine cover-worthy image of a chipmunk with bulging cheeks or a grouse that flushed onto a nearby limb.
Winter nature hikes are fun for everyone. Exercise, tranquility, and the beauty of our natural world are soothing and refreshing. Grab your camera and boots, and immerse yourself in the soul replenishing inspiration of our natural winter world.