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In Our Own Backyard...Winter wonderland - plague or playground?

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Columns Cloquet,Minnesota 55720
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In Our Own Backyard...Winter wonderland - plague or playground?
Cloquet Minnesota 122 Avenue C 55720

So is anyone sick of talking about the weather yet? It seems to be the sole topic of conversation everywhere we go — how deep the snow is, how cold the temperature is, how slippery the roads and sidewalks are…. Around our house it went from “Why isn’t there any water coming out of the faucets?” and “The dog’s paws are frozen and he won’t poop” to “What’s that dripping noise?” and “Holy cow — why is our car sliding sideways down the road?”

0 Talk about it

And since it’s only mid-January, chances are we haven’t seen the last of it — by a far sight!

It would be easy to get bogged down in a good old-fashioned case of cabin fever right about now (and I confess I’ve done just that more times than I care to admit). But one has only to look outside and see how the natural world is adjusting to this seemingly endless winter to realize that there’s always a way to get through it.

The other day I had just filled my bird feeders when I looked into a nearby maple tree and saw seven fat blue jays perched on branches in close proximity to one another. Their chests were puffed up to twice their normal size, and their heads were hunched down into their bodies like defensive tackles getting ready to go after the quarterback. I watched the birds in fascination for several minutes as they sat there and shivered, and then I guiltily realized their tree was the staging area for the feeder — and I was smack dab in their way.

Another day, I spotted a red squirrel literally explode from the foot-high drift atop the railing of the deck. It seems he had created a tunnel through the snow all along the railing, using it as cover until he was right under the particular bird feeder he had his eye on.

During the recent nights of ever-increasing moonlight, I looked out the window on my way to bed late one night and spotted two dark shapes on the ground under the bird feeder. They were long and low, with tails half again as long as they were, and I studied them for some time. When my eyes finally grew adjusted to the moonlight, I realized it a pair of red foxes who had overcome their customary shyness to go after the black oil sunflower seed and bits of suet under the feeder.

Many an afternoon I’ve spotted deer at that same feeder, gleaning the seeds that the hungry birds have carelessly dropped on the ground. Though I’m certain the deer would have much rather have something more substantial, they were foraging for what they could get in the deep snow, and I admired their ingenuity and tenacity.

As my husband and I skied across the lake on Sunday, the snow told yet a further story. Deer tracks meandered along the shoreline, stopping under every cedar tree where the does and fawns had browsed on the low-hanging branches. The impression of wing marks in the snow told the tale of how some raptor had dropped down out of the skies on some tiny, unsuspecting creature who happened to emerge from its snow cover at the most inopportune time.  

At the far end of the lake, the tracks of a four-footed creature scurried every which way in a seemingly haphazard manner. Upon closer inspection, I recognized the tracks of the otter, with the familiar tail drag between them. The otters are fairly high profile in that area during the summer but a sighting is far rarer in the winter, though I suspected they were still around. And sure enough, the tracks showed how they had skittered this way and that, as though they were playing rather than hunting. I could see where one of them had crossed the small channel and the tracks ended at a round pool of slush, where I imagine the otter must have either grabbed a morning snack or perhaps slipped beneath the water to go for a swim. Other tracks led up the frozen embankment, round and round in big, circling loops and back down to the small natural dam leading to the next lake. I had to grin as I spotted the smooth track where the otter had playfully slid on its belly in the snow from the upper water to the lower. 

As we turned our skis toward home, we left behind the quiet channel and the riotous explosion of tracks. I had a hunch that the otters were there somewhere, perhaps watching us, and I knew it wouldn’t be long until they came back out and recaptured their playground once again.

Wendy Johnson
(218) 879-1950