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Here’s a helpful tip for surviving the harsh winters of northern Minnesota and the upper mid-west, actually, the entire Midwest this year, look for the simple wonders of winter. They are there and they will keep until you find them because they’re frozen. Well, so long as you find them before the spring thaw. Here’s a few simple winter things I found recently, that entertained me.
The other day, at the crack of dawn, our dog, June, started barking like crazy at the front door. I hushed her, “Go back to sleep! Whatever it is outside that’s bothering you, is meant to be outside. It’s okay.” I assured her. A couple hours later when I went to shovel the snow, there were deer hoof prints coming up the steps and onto the front porch. I’ve never seen that before. There was no doubt in my mind this deer was coming to raid the bird feeder - until her plot was foiled by our trusty guard dog sounding off.
This morning when I went out to shovel the new snow off the front stoop, there were hoof prints again coming up the steps and onto the porch. This time the deer made her way across the porch where the bird feeder hangs. Her efforts proved fruitless as the chickadees don’t take long to empty the feeder each day when I refill it. The doe left hungry. The small birds do however spill quite a bit of sunflower seed on the ground below the feeder. In this environment, no source of food goes to waste. The grouse that lives under the pine trees would claim this fallen bounty as her meal.
The hen made a neat little trail where she had come out from under cover, making her way across the top of the powdery snow, leaving a channel behind. The imprint was shaped perfectly by the bird as she plowed her breast through the snow, just like a boat pushes its bow through the water. In the bottom of the track there were marks left by her feet. It looked like she swam through the snow to reach her destination where she cleaned up all the spillage. There was no path going back to the pines though; I supposed she took flight on her return. Perhaps she was scared off by the guard dog inside.
When I let the fearless guard dog out to do her morning business, she ran down to the driveway. I wish she wouldn’t do that, as she leaves unsightly yellow circles in the driveway under the new snow. I have a place cleared for her to go in the yard, but apparently, she thought the snow in the uncleared driveway was less deep than the yard. Maybe she just wanted a change of scenery today.
A couple hours later, after my morning coffee and filling the bird feeder, I went out and started the snow blower to clear the drive. Our driveway is rock, and if the snow blower catches them, it can throw those rocks pretty fast and far with a fury. I have to be careful which way the snow chute is pointed to avoid windows, the house and cars. The rocks make quite a racket when going through the powerful machine.
Making my way down the driveway near the edge of the grass, I shot three rocks together, out with the snow. They landed up in the yard. I watched the rocks and thought I was going crazy as they continued to move sporadically up the hill in the yard! “Rocks can’t roll uphill like that. Why didn’t they sink into the snow?” I asked myself. As I continued to watch it occurred to me, those weren’t rocks - they were voles! A vole being a small mouse like animal with a stubby tail that burrows into the ground – or a redneck on the game show, Wheel of Fortune: “I’d like to buy a vole.” Okay, that was a really bad joke, let’s get back to the story.
The voles apparently weren’t hurt when they went through the auger, the chute, then airborne to their landing spot. Almost immediately they started to burrow back under the snow, but not before a raven swept down to the ground snatching one on his way by. It was really cool to see and as I said, no source of food goes to waste up here, especially in the winter.
I continued to make my way up and down the driveway. With each swath I turned the direction of the chute to pile the snow where I wanted it. At the end of one pass, when I turned the machine around, I noticed two new yellow circles. “June!” I hollered toward the house, as if she would hear me and know what I was scolding her for. I try to keep the snowblower set to a level where I can get the snow but avoid throwing rocks. That doesn’t always happen and I threw a few more…wait a minute! Those weren’t rocks, they were frozen… I again shouted toward the house, “June! You’re not funny! And don’t even try to blame the cat, because Edgar hasn’t been out here!”
Despite June’s unsightly deposits, I thought to myself, how lucky I am not having to clear this driveway with a shovel. The snowblower was making quick work of the project. Soon I was done and headed into the house to warm up. I was pretty pleased with my accomplishments for the day. It wasn’t until after dark when I remembered an outdoor task I forgot to do – an important one too – checking to see how much fuel is in the LP gas tank. I would be leaving town in the morning, and having plenty of gas is critical. The last time I checked, the tank was at thirty-five percent, which should be fine, but that was a couple weeks ago. With the recent frigid temperatures, I’m sure the furnace has been running more than usual. I needed to be sure I wasn’t going to run out of gas while I was gone. The last time I walked to the gas tank, the snow was up to my mid thighs, tonight I would put on show shoes to go check the level.
I went to the basement and brought up a pair of snowshoes. I put them on at the front door, where the entryway rug would keep the cleats from scratching the wood floors. With the netted contraptions securely fastened to my feet, I grabbed my coat, hat and gloves. I wanted to make sure I was dressed nice and warm before heading out into the dark night to make my trek across the big back yard. Speaking of the dark…where’s my flashlight?
You know the story; you just get a little kid all bundled with multiple layers of clothing, coats, scarves, mittens, hats and boots and then they announce, “I have to go to the bathroom.” That’s exactly how I felt as I looked all the way across the wood floors to the kitchen where the flashlight sat on the counter. I didn’t want to get undressed. “No problem,” I said to myself, “I’ll just get on my hands and knees and crawl across the oak floor.
I would have to hold my feet up high behind me so the long snow shoes wouldn’t touch or scratch the floors. Wearing a heavy down coat, a hat and gloves, crawling across the three throw rugs that laid in line across the wooden floor was very difficult. My jeans kept catching on the rugs, trying to drag me down. The knee bent at a 90° angle is perfect for crawling…unless you have a 30” contraption strapped to each foot. This was not an easy task. As a matter a fact, when I fell from my hands and knees, flat on my belly to the floor, I admitted it was an impossible task.
I laid there pondering the predicament I had gotten myself into. In front of my face, were two heavy, gray shipping blankets that were waiting to be taken to the basement. I was thinking, “I really don’t want to remove the snow shoes, but I don’t dare walk on the wood with cleats! It’s not worth risking damage to the floors. There was only about seven feet of bare wood flooring between the throw rugs and the ceramic tile kitchen floor. I could use the packing blankets, lay them over the oak floors and walk on them, protecting the floors and saving me the hassle of removing and replacing the snow shoes. That’s exactly what I did, easily recovering my flashlight from the counter, then returning to the front door. I was pretty smitten, with my genius thinking.
With the flashlight tucked into my pocket I stepped outside crossing the porch to the top of the seven steps. Great! How was I to go down the steps wearing snow shoes? I thought, life must be a challenge for Ronald Mc Donald and all the other clowns with their huge shoes. Again, genius stuck. I side stepped downward with my foot parallel to the front of each step. It was going slow, but well, Thinking I had this under control I tried to pick up the pace. On the last two steps I tripped and landed in the snow bank at the bottom of the steps. Trying to push myself up was a real challenge as my hand kept sinking into the snow.
I finally got back up on my feet, climbed over the mound of shoveled show, and made my way into the yard toward the LP tank. It was a beautiful walk through new uncharted territory. There were no tracks in the snow, not even from animals. With each step, the snow shoes pressed down through the six inches of powder snow on top, then the wide shoes became stable on the snow below. I kept thinking what it must have been like for early explorers and pioneers to travel through such conditions. It was probably a couple hundred feet to the tank; nothing compared to what people used to travel on snow shoes.
When I reached the tank, I was surprised how low it was to the ground. It wasn’t really any lower than it was in the summer, I was just standing on top of snow that deep. The tank sits below two pine trees. I keep the branches on these trees trimmed up, so I don’t have to duck when mowing around them. The tree branches also seemed really low tonight, but again, it was the snow I was standing on combined with the weight of snow accumulated on the branches. The heavy snow caused the branches to bend downward toward the ground. The branches were really with all that snow on them.
I walked under the branches and bent over, brushing the snow away to lift the lid that covers the valve and gas gauge. I took off my right mitten then reached into my pocket for the flashlight, but it was not there. I frantically searched all my pockets with no success in finding it. In my brief panic, I dropped my mitten and it filled with snow. Oh brother. I pulled out my cell phone; an old flip phone so it does not have a “flashlight app.” Holding the phone close to the gauge it provided just barely enough light to read the numbers on the dial. 20% remained, as I suspected, I would need to order more fuel.
I closed the lid, shook as much snow out of my mitten as I could, put it back on then tried to turn around to head back to the house. When I lifted my foot, it felt like something grabbed it from below. Was it more voles? Were they still mad about the snowblower incident earlier in the day? I had a brief vision of a herd - hundreds of voles - taking a man down in his own back yard, carrying him off to their vole village and sacrificing the one who was responsible for their cousin being swept away by a raven.
Fortunately, it wasn’t angry voles that held my foot. When I went to lift my left foot, the back of my right snowshoe was on top of the back of my left snowshoe. Anyone who has walked in snowshoes has experienced this. It can easily cause you to lose your footing and fall down. I avoided the fall by grabbing the tree branch above to steady myself. It worked; I didn’t fall down!
Unfortunately, grabbing the branch and moving it, caused the snow to fall from the branch, onto the person below – that would be me. I had to gasp for air under cold, white tidal wave, like a swimmer coming up for a breath. Do you remember the scene from the movie Grumpy Old Men, when the snow fell from the roof, showering the IRS agent at John Gustafson’s front door. I knew exactly how the agent felt – and even more!
You see when I let go of the branch, it sprang upward, hitting the branch above it. That branch sent a second avalanche my way, then snapped upward hitting the branch above, which dumped its snow on me, then hit the branch above…they went upward the same way dominos fall down. I think I cleared the branches, all the way to the top. I had snow all over me, down the back of my shirt, in my shoes – everywhere! Somehow, I could image a herd of voles looking on from a distance and laughing their little fool heads off.
Once the snow settled, I tried to turn to start my way back to the house, but I couldn’t lift either foot. It seems the weight of recent waves of snow coming down on me buried my snowshoes and had me pinned in place. I struggled; I tried to twist and turn each foot without success. I couldn’t lift either foot due to the additional weight of the snow. I thought I could pull my feet from my shoes and walk back to the house in my socks. When spring came, I could retrieve the snowshoes from the yard. There had to be a better solution.
I bent over and began digging in the snow to free snowshoes. Once it was cleared, I was able to easily return to the house with the snowshoes still on my feet. Back near the front porch I very cautiously maneuvered over the mound of shoveled snow where I had tumbled when coming down the steps. Once I was safely back on the shoveled walkway, I wisely bent over to loosen the straps on my winter footwear. Feeling there was no need to try climbing the step while wearing snowshoes, I removed them. While I was bent over, I picked up the flashlight that fell from my pocket when I crashed at the bottom of the steps.
I was going to put the flashlight back in my coat pocket, but my pockets were also full of snow, so I slipped it into my back pocket with my cell phone. I picked up my snowshoes, clapping them together to remove the excess snow, then started up the steps.
Inside the house, June greeted me at the front door. I took off my snow-covered hat. When I took off my coat snow fell from inside the garment. I slipped off my tennis shoes and shook the snow from inside them. There was more snow inside the back of my shirt. I stripped down to my boxers at the front door to avoid dragging snow through the whole house. I went to the bathroom and dried off with a towel before slipping into my warm pajamas.
In the kitchen, I made a cup of hot chocolate, then went to the living room where I pulled a rocking chair over to the fire. I sat in the chair and covered myself with a green, knit afghan. June came over to join me; sitting at my side. As I watched the fire, I slowly rocked the chair, sipped my cocoa and enjoyed the warmth. June spoke, “Dad?” “Yes, Bugs,” I replied. “You forgot to check the mail today.” I didn’t respond. June added, “I’ll go out with you to get the mail, Dad.” I pressed my toes to the floor, giving the chair another gently rock. I sipped my cocoa, wrapping both hands around the warm pottery mug. June said, “Dad, do you think those voles will try to come in the house? I’ll get them if they do.” I rubbed her head and replied, “Shh, June. Enjoy the fire, it’s one of winter’s greatest wonders.”