Skiing the lake

Posted: Sunday, January 25, 2009

As we got out of our cars, the car thermometers read minus 19 degrees Fahrenheit. But the Parks and Recreation hiking group always goes on the appointed day. So we put on our skis or snowshoes and set forth. But we didn't last very long: First around the campground (well, some of us did) and then across the lake (well, just partway). The track-groomers had been at work, bless 'em, and the trails were nicely set.

It was so cold and dry that skis didn't glide very well, the snow crunched noisily with every stride, and my jacket crackled with every move. After 20 minutes or so, I had tiny ice cubes on my eyelashes and my eyelids began to freeze shut.

Snow draped over the mountains around the lake. Every tree bore a thick coating of snow. The air was still. The low sun ensured that we cast very long shadows over the snow. As the sun rolled around the southern horizon, it showed its entire self just above the mountains - a sure indication that we'd passed the winter solstice and the days were getting a bit longer. Even a few minutes of sun on the snow was enough to make the skis glide better.

The only creatures moving in the landscape were a few other skiers and a pair of ravens chatting to each other as they crossed the lake.

Some days later we were exploring in the Dredge Lake area. Recent rains had compacted the snow and skis glided very well. There was a hole in the ice next to a beaver lodge in one lake, with a small pile of peeled sticks alongside. Beavers in winter depend on their underwater cache of branches; they usually come out of the lodge to take a branch from the cache and go back inside to eat the bark. In this case, at least one beaver had come out for some fresh air with its lunch. An otter had used this hole too; its tracks ran up the side of the lodge and back down, then into the water.

The downside of this visit was the remarkable frequency of digested dog dinners deposited along the trail; the aroma was pretty pungent too. This is a sorry state of affairs in a popular place used by many folks who don't appreciate the leavings of other people's furry friends.

The upside of the visit was watching a river otter in Dredge Lake. It was lounging in the snow on top of the beaver lodge, grooming its fur and rolling in the snow. After several minutes, it slid into a small hole in the ice and disappeared. Presumably it was hunting fish under the ice. Otters frequently find good hunting in beaver ponds, which often provide fine habitat for juvenile salmon and Dolly Varden.

As we left the otter to its fishing, a raven spoke from the top of a cottonwood. We offered it a couple chunks of chicken jerky, which it spurned. Then it flew off, still talking. I wish I understood raven-speak!

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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