K2, the two and a half year old Hungarian Kuvasz, and I were watching Credit River freezing rock solid right in front of our eyes during an early morning hike in February. The temperatures had plummeted to well below freezing. As the main river bed was solidifying, we heard the sounds of ice slabs rubbing each other as if someone was drilling a concrete floor.
Some water spilled over and started making its separate path on the snow covered ground. Then those shallow streams of water began to solidify into thick ice blocks. It was as if we were watching a glacier forming in Ontario’s Peel Region of all the places.
Overestimating the load bearing capacity of ice blocks, I prodded K2 to move on. Suddenly, a block of ice gave in. It was like a sinkhole forming in the Karst country. I feared that we would drop into freezing waters of the river. I took a sigh of relief as we fell on a layer of flat rock solid
Maintaining a safe distance, we carefully followed the river bed over slippery ice. A few km downstream we saw water oozing out again from under frozen ice trying to form the river again. Three mallard ducks landed on waters of what had become river again further downstream of us. They started wading toward us. K2 looked bewildered at their audacity.
I murmured, “Wow! The water must have been well below freezing. These must be the resident ducks willing to take on the challenge of severe winters when their cousins migrated down south to warmer climates.”
We reached a lonely snow covered section of the Trail. Turning a bend along a frozen lake, we met this lady with leash in her hand calling her dog that was no where to be seen. It had been off leash and had taken off after a rabbit. The lady was searching for it for past half an hour. I tried to help but kept thinking of the risks. It could have fallen into frozen patch of any of the several ponds in the area that probably yielded under its weight, lost its way in the forest, or challenged by livestock guardian dogs of nearby farms. I would never take that risk with my dog.
Why hike in winters in the first place?
Well for one, you can’t pack up your travel bag and head off like a snowbird to a warm destination for 3 months. You would be better of making friends with winters rather than treat it as an adversity.
K2 and I love winters and snow. Winters offer us opportunities to explore nature in ways that normal people don’t. Besides, the first official week of winters has a prime Christmas and holiday feel to it in any case. When I hike with K2, we are both in admiration of shimmering decoration lights of distant houses along the trails and K2 especially stops to listen to Christmas carols being played in countryside stores.
Observing the overlooked features of wildlife
Wildlife photography in winters is tricky, but presents a unique opportunity to observe hardy resident wildlife species that won’t migrate south.
Resident bird species impress us. K2 and I look forward to seeing them. Those ubiquitous starlings, crows, and Canadian geese routinely give us lot of company, sometimes giving alarm calls and at other times, choosing to ignore us.
We are now seeing more and more of northern Cardinals, black capped chickadees, goldfinches, nuthatches, hairy woodpeckers, Goshawks (red-tailed hawks), sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk, etc.
All of these birds are thriving, probably because the winters are not as cold as they used to be, and equally importantly, because more people are putting bird feeders in their backyards.
More surprising is the fact that some insects even survive snow and icy conditions. During one of our hikes over snow in late February at a section of Bruce Trail in Duffrin County, we observed baby earwig type of insects that froze when they noticed our presence. Or is it that the insects had gotten the feeling of oncoming spring?
Snow also offers us opportunity to observe tracks made by various animals – American mink, raccoon, rabbits, white-tailed deer, coyotes, etc. K2 loves to smell the tracks and, sometimes, he and I follow the tracks for hours on end to determine where those lead us.
It is amazing to see how, all of a sudden, deer trails start and disappear in the dormant winter forests. Even more amazing is how, for their own protection, a herd of deer followed us, keeping an eye on us all the time till we hiked out of their range. They were probably doing it out of curiosity in this case, but something they would do due natural instinct when a real predator moves into the territory.
Otherwise, deer grazing in the snow covered open areas look very elegant.Their hair becomes brownish in the winters to enable them to mesh in the bush or in an uncovered portion of ground.
Winter is a safe season to be in bear territory for they are hibernating. If you do see a bear in winters, however, then it means you are in lot of trouble. That bear has been woken up from its winter sleep by an unexpected natural or unnatural event and is going to be thoroughly agitated. As far as I am concerned, I will keep bear spray readily available.
Wolves and cougars are another story. They are active in winters and looking for meal. I would never venture in their territory all alone with K2.
Trees and plants
In the day time, the icicles forming over the branches of trees look beautiful, sometimes beautifully reflecting all seven colours of sunlight like a prism does.
Hopefully, winters will remain what they used to be; giving us snow, snow storms, and freezing temperatures; often.
And about ghosts
But our most memorable and perhaps horrifying experience came from hiking late at night under full moon in extremely windy conditions when we encountered ghosts, or for those scientifically inclined like myself, extra-terrestrials.
K2 and I were about to enter a forest from a trail going over a vast field of snow that was reflecting moonlight beautifully. I was sure that I saw someone wearing a long robe standing at the edge of the woods looking at us. However, in a fraction of second it disappeared. I knew the exact position where it was and had my evidence of someone’s presence when K2 started sniffing the area vigorously.
When I am hiking with K2, I completely trust his senses and let him lead me although he is always on leash. When on the trails, he sometimes picks scent or a sound, which of course I wouldn’t have, and when I allow him, he usually leads me to a point of interest, such as a group of people having a get together or people playing with another dog, etc.
However, I was perturbed at his behaviour on that particular night. All of a sudden he raised his head up and looked in couple of direction in alarm and after few alarm barks wanted us to get out of that place. That left me scared.
I still believe that I had seen someone at the edge of the forest. I have tried to provide a scientific reason to myself regarding that matter and I am willing to give benefit of the doubt to my scientific mind. I may have seen a stump of a tree, a post, or something that looked like a human figure at that critical juncture of time. Another plausible argument is that it could be a competitor playing the game of geo-catching.
Besides, there are so many solo adventure hikers and trekkers who have not reported any super-natural phenomena. On the other hand, I have friends who have seen super-natural phenomena and I pray to God that I never experience it.
Overlooked features of snow
Every now and then, we would encounter a stream formed by melting snow. While I get busy taking pictures, K2 likes to splash in it. This is always followed by his rolling in the snow. Since snow is a good absorbent of water, this is his way of squashing out and getting rid of excess water from his fur. This is essentially the same reason why polar bears roll in snow after getting wet. It is a strange coincident that neighbours used to call K2 polar bear cub when he was a puppy.
When it snows, snowflakes deposit on my sleeves. They come in many shapes, but they always have 6 points of a hexagon. Hexagons are nature’s preferred shape for making crystals. It is not a coincidence that beehive cells are also hexagonal in shape.
On one occasion, the snow fell so heavily that observing snowflakes became a luxury that could not be afforded. Soon the snow was ankle and then knee deep. I gasped for air as I plodded ahead. Readers may be aware of dog skijoring where one or more dogs are harnessed to pull a person on skis. K2 loves dog hikejoring. When the snow gets deep and hard to negotiate or when there is a steep ascend, he is a willing partner to pull me for long stretches, giving me a breather to take pictures as we move forward. This was a time that I called for help and K2 gladly obliged me.
Winds and flurries
What if it is snowing and it is windy? When that happened once to me on Bruce Trail in Caledon Hills, it felt like my face was constantly being barraged by bee stings. Sometimes, I had to walk backwards with K2 leading the way. How does he fare in a situation like this? Not very differently! He has a same characteristic Kuvasz posture all the time – tail in a low curve and head stooping low as if sniffing the snow for a hidden edible treasure.
Hiking on snow or ice
Hiking on a path covered by snow or ice calls for different tactics. Soft ankle deep snow tends to give firm footing, but if it gets deeper, more energy is consumed to take steps. In knee deep snow, it becomes difficult for K2 to make the path, in which case I take the lead with snow shoes on.
Trudging ahead in deep snow is energy consuming effort, but hiking on slippery ice is very risky, something that I would like to avoid, but it is not always possible to do so. Ice and a lead dog are not a good combination.
While hiking with my nephew Ammar and son Rayyan on an icy section of a trail at Belfountain Conservation Area in the Caledon Hills, I unintentionally let K2 lead the way down the slope of a ridge and soon regretted the decision. K2 pulled a bit more than he himself wanted and I slipped over the double edged instability elements of nature – rocks and ice covering them – slapping me with a bruised skin on several parts of my body.
Keeping your dog on leash has its disadvantages that I am discovering slowly and gradually. For example, you should never allow your dog to lead on descends. It should always follow your lead.
The lady and her lost dog
It was one of those routine hikes in extreme weather that turned out to be classical snow and ice traversing experience for K2 and me. The grounds of conservation park, all grassy in the summers, were covered with blocks of snow or mini icebergs. The trails were covered with at least 15 cm (6 inches) of snow and ice mix.
I tried to help the lady find her dog for an hour or so, but in vain. She told me she was going to call her family members for help. At first sight of the reinforcement, I begged my leave. Some 200 meters down the trail I looked back finally at the search party. They were heading off towards the treacherous grounds I had traversed earlier. I wished them luck in all sincerity and in decibels that only K2 could hear.