A Weekend in the Winter Woods

Finally! Finally it feels like winter in Minnesota. After months of mild, snowless, unexciting days, we’ve been blessed with adequate accumulation of the white stuff and now a small stretch of days have bowed to sub-zero temperatures.

For many, sub-zero mercury is a good reason to stay inside. Although I can’t blame the sentiment, it didn’t work for me. A cold but sunny, beautiful weekend sounded to me like the call of adventure.

After a late sleep on Saturday and a couple cups of French press, I bundled up, purchased my annual ski pass, and headed north to my favorite acreage in Itasca County. At five below zero, the air was crisp and pure; but the wind was biting.

tallpineThe cold burns my face.
It lets me know I’m alive.
It purifies me.

Two parallel tracks pull me deeper into the woods where I follow the paths of others
yet find experiences of my own

Methusalan pine
stands sentry over his trail
solemn as I pass

The great thing about skiing in the woods at sub-zero temperatures is that everyone else is staying indoors. I don’t have anything against other people (in general) but when it comes to being in the woods, I don’t want to see them or hear them. Two back-to-back afternoons in the frigid forest left me alone with the Creator.

As I emerged from lowlands darkened by dense balsam firs, a sudden movement caught my eye. Swiftly and silently a large owl alit from his perch and flew down the trail ahead of me, only to disappear around the bend. As I came into the light among the bare poplars, I startled him again and he led me down the trail a second time. Never making a sound. Never disturbing a branch. He disappeared into the thicket and I didn’t see him again.

dense firsthe tightened walls of balsam fir
obscured my sight of trail inferred
when ’round a bend, a flat-faced bird,
whose perching peace my presence stirred,
and from his branch, in silent whir
he flew through thicket undeterred
and disappeared with motion blurred
into the brush unseen, unheard.

From deep, dark swamp, to open woods, where naked aspen let the light pass unobstructed. There along the land near a lake, aspens had fallen left and right; felled by a beaver. a destructive, productive, constructive beaver. I had seen his work before, in the autumn when I passed that shore and saw the timbers scattered and strewn. I had seen the beaver himself in the pelt, but I imagine now he’s resting in lodge. Foresters had come and gone wielding chainsaws to clear the trail. With messes of timbers there was no dispute on which cut was man’s and which the beaver’s. Clean slices verses rugged chews. The saw was more efficient, but the incisors made for better interest. Tall pines stood on the open shorelines, unattractive to the palette of the paddle-tailed rodent.

I followed the waterline with my slipping steps, until the trail pulled me away again into the wood.  To pass through balsams once again, and then through birches catching light, until again I found the lake, to where I stopped to take a breath and sit on the bridge that crossed the creek.

And as each day drew to a close, the sun set low to touch the trees and cast their shadows, creating paths and patterns across the snow-covered ice.

tracksonlakea late sun sinks in the cold.
tracks meander through penumbrae
that pull from stately pines
on lawrence lake.

apexes of pine silhouettes
retreat from the sun
as it sinks into the cold
and the blue shadows lengthen.

Before the sun could disappear completely and leave me stumbling on my slats through the dark, I called it a day and began the final stretch. Unexpectedly comfortable, now  at 10 below, I spread my toes to climb the hill. Red pines climbed up the slope on my right, which looked down to the lake.

norwegiankingsdwarfed by Norwegian kings
as I ascend to their throne
and stand in awe of their greatness

they rule with silence
speaking only in whisper
when the wind provokes

Two days spent all alone on skis: just me, my Maker, and a skin-biting breeze. I could have stayed inside, but to seek adventure is to be alive.

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