I gave the day enough time to make up its mind on what it wanted to be. In the dark before dawn a spark of a star shone, a pinprick of light, white against black. But dawning brought clouds and haze; no sign of star, none of sun. I waited. I was patient. By mid-morning, the cloud was breaking and blue sky was spreading; then no clouds, all blue sky. Sunshine.
At that time, I left the house. The day had made up its mind and I would ski this day under sun, and I liked that. We’ve had days of cloud and gloom of late and in that we have become gloomy ourselves, as if the cloud has become part of who we are, as if the grayness of the days has spread to our souls. The sun looked good and it felt good, and that was enough.
I’d have skied under cloud; I don’t mind that. Skiing is not about the weather-it is about opportunity. But I missed the sunny days on skis and now, in mid-March, I expect them. I expect sun on high; I expect snow to gleam white as if lighted from within that thick blanket that covers the ground; I want the temperature to rise and I want the sun bright in my eyes; I want to squint my eyes against it. In March that is what I want; that is what I expect.
So on this day I would ski in the deep snow, abandon the packed trails for the untracked backwoods, ski on wide skis instead of the thin race skis. I wanted to leave the truck alongside the roadway, turn my back to the road and go, simply go, into the woods on my slow-moving skis for no other reason than it seemed a good thing to do.
I skied up a long hill and down the other side, and I was away from it all. I was alone. The snow was fresh, the gift of a late season storm that left an honest 6 inches in its wake. Late season, you take that for what it is, which is a bonus. In this season, when good snow came late, you appreciate it even more.
I was in no hurry; I dawdled. I pushed up hills, let the skis run on the downside. The wind was in my face for a mile or so, then I turned and looped south and the wind was behind me and I forgot about it. Movement ahead: deer. I stopped; the deer paused. There was a moment where we connected in a straight line of sight, a moment when the deer considered me, evaluated me; threat or no threat? Then they decided and moved out, loping in the deep snow but moving well the way deer do when they have energy, when they have life.
One never knows this late what the deer will show. In other years, times when snow came early and the cold took hold of the land and all that lived there, in those years the deer would be weak and ragged by now and you knew it was a matter of time for some of them. These deer looked healthy and that was good.
They were the only deer I would see. On that day of sun and warmth and new snow, I would not see another deer, would not see grouse or, along the river, ducks or eagles. It was a quiet late winter day but there was not much happening in the woods, not much in terms of wildlife to see or birds to hear.
Our backyard has been another story. In our yard has been drama. On Sunday, a day dreary and damp and chill, the type of chill that goes deep and stays, on that Sunday we saw a small bird near the feeder. It was puffed up against the wind, feathers spread, head tucked under its wing, trying to stay warm. It did not look well and when it flew it was obvious that it was weak.
The small bird landed on the snow. It was wobbly and I had the thought that the bird was chilled in the damp day and that it was dying. I watched it and then called to Sally. And we did what you can guess we would: We went to the yard and Sally tossed a jacket over the bird and we carried it inside. It was that weak.
But we thought we could warm it, let it dry off and perhaps, against all odds, it would revive enough and we could release it. We did all that. Put it in a dry box with scraps of towel and locked it in a warm room away from dogs and cat and left it alone. It would die outside, that much was certain.
It died of course, died in the warm house, in the quiet of the box and the towels, it died as certainly as if we had left it outside. I picked it up; a small bundle of feather, lighter than a memory, fragile as eggshell, turning as cold as the day outside.
Two days later, a drift of feather on the wind, dove feathers, and that afternoon a large hawk in the tree next door and all the birds took cover. We found more feathers; the hawk had killed. And one day after we saw it on another dove, mantling over the bird, feathers on the snow and near the bird a splash of bright red blood.
This is what we had in the backyards of the neighborhood, but in the backwoods, on my skis, no such drama, no themes of life and death, not on this day. On this day, the change of the season was at hand as if the high tide of winter had reached as far as it might and now was receding, ever so slowly, and when it has fully ebbed, spring will stand proud.
I skied along the river where shelf ice tilted steeply where it had fallen to the moving water. The days of ice are numbered, as are the days of snow. Twelve months ago, the weather turned in a flash of heat; temperatures this week a year ago hit 70 and I watched in dismay as the snow melted and turned to water and the rivers ran high and full. A year ago this week, I stacked the skis in the corner (I did not put them up; I felt I would ski again; after all, it was still March). I put the skis aside that week a year ago and got the bicycle down and rode on a day of 70 degrees and sunshine with remnant snow along the roadside.
I never used the skis again. The bike stayed out and I rode into the season.
This year I skied and that is how it should be in the middle of March. But I skied with the knowledge that it can change overnight and that what seems certain may well be shown to be not so, and what we assume to be true may be proved a lie. I skied along the river and then cut back into the cover of woods. The snow was softening under the sun; I could feel it change beneath my skis, could feel the snow go damp, could feel the turn of the season in the feel of the snow on that day.
The days of snow are numbered; the ski season is a fragile thing now. There is the breath of spring on the breeze, the warmth of spring on the sun, the look of spring in the longer days.
I skied to the road, bent to take the skis off and walked to the truck. I was warm; the sun was hot on my face. Everything looked like winter; everything looked like ski season. But I heard a bird sing, I saw snow melt on the road, I smelled the damp scent of leaf duff. The tide of snow is going out; the time of winter is fading. Spring waits; change is at hand. And soon we will ski no more. And soon spring will rise and the tide of season will turn once again.
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