I changed seasons this week; it was time. This has nothing to do with any calendar exercise; we all know where that gets us. According to the calendar, the first day of spring was, hmmm, let me check: March 20. Right. How, as they say, is that going for you? Since then we’ve had snow and cold and more snow and more cold, and last I checked more of each were on the way. March 20: first day of spring as the calendar reads; not so much as the real world turns.
My changeover was more practical. I opened the hatch on the topper on my truck and took inventory of the clutter: one pair of backcountry skis; one pair of skating skis; one set of snowshoes; two pairs of XC ski poles. And a shovel. Not that I’d ever get stuck, but maybe I’d run into someone who needed a hand digging out.
So on a dreary evening this week I unloaded the truck. The pair of wide, metal-edged backcountry skis: I’d used them a little over a week ago. The skating skis: it was great skiing only last Wednesday. The snowshoes: snow was up to my knees (when was that? A week ago? Yes, that’s right). In their place I loaded two turkey decoys and miscellaneous blinds and camo clothing, the trappings of spring.
And I thought to myself, this is a weird spring. Stranger still, I had thought the same a year ago.
A year ago, when the temperature rocketed to a freaky 70 degrees on March 14th and never much changed for the next week or 10 days. A year ago, when Sally took her paddleboard out in open water the 14th and I rode my bicycle on dry roads on the same day. The same year when the snow melted and ran off in a day or two; when all records of high temperatures were dashed; when lakes shed their coat of ice far ahead of any precedent. A year ago, when the first day of spring, March 20, baked under a high of 75 degrees.
I put my skis away in March last year. Same with the snowshoes. Winter was mortally wounded early in March, gave up the ghost entirely by the end of the first week or so. And everyone you talked to said, “This is a weird spring.”
A lot of them are saying the same thing this time around. Funny how that works. This year, when the snow lingers and the mornings hold chill, and afternoons just have not broken through and hit 50 degrees and stayed there.
So I put the skis and the snowshoes up this week, though I did not put them so far up that I can’t get them again. I have visions of skiing yet, skating across the snow-covered lakes under a high sun of spring. The ice is thick enough, from what I hear from the ice fishers. Two feet, some are saying, maybe more, maybe less, but it’s not going to melt away very soon. I’ve done that at other times, skiing on a frozen lake in late spring, an act that defies all reason but that is a lot of fun, no matter which way you cut it.
I loaded turkey hunting gear, as Sally has a permit to hunt the first season and I needed to be ready. Truth is she slept in the first morning, this past Wednesday, and I was not one to offer up criticism; it was cold and windy and the birds are nowhere to be seen, at least not in their normal haunts. I had taken the dogs out to see what we could see last Sunday and they put up a lone turkey that flew strongly through the brush like a ruffed grouse.
That was the only turkey we saw, but both dogs thought that it was just fine regardless; they’ve been cooped up most of the winter and they both miss the woods and the running and the hunt, for with them every day is a day to hunt. We walked a wide loop in the woods and field and came to a small lake, and in the thin snow on top of the lake ice we saw the fresh tracks of three more turkeys. A year ago, the lake was open but that was then; this year it’s locked up tight.
On the morning that we did not hunt turkeys, I donned camo clothing and took the camera out. The camo I wore was not the flat tones of brown and green, but the white of winter camouflage, the better to blend in with the snow and the ice that I knew I would find. I sat on a camp stool and draped a white snow camo suit over me.
I was overlooking a wide marsh split by a river. The water was dark and cold; the sky was gray and the dawn had just broken. I heard the wild cry of geese and the whistle of duck wings in flight; there were birds here, not in the great numbers of the big migration, but some early flight birds. I saw heron and goose, goldeneye and scaup, mergansers and mallard. I heard the crazy call of sandhill cranes and saw them in flight, silver birds against the dun color of marsh grass and spruce on the far shore.
I saw eagles ride the wind and heard redwing blackbirds call as if in defiance of the weather. I saw two swans, pure white against the dark water. I was at a dress rehearsal of a major drama that was yet to build to its fullest. I felt as if I was hearing an orchestra tune up before the concert. I was present in the harsh morning of a late winter on a day that the calendar said was spring, but a day that the wind was biting and cold and told me to forget the calendar, to toss its pages to the north wind and be done with it. I took some photos that morning-not a lot of them, just enough to get into the feel of things, to look at the world through the viewfinder of a camera and see what I could see. I was out for an hour, and the wind blew and the temperature never got above freezing. I gave it up and drove home for breakfast and a cup of hot coffee.
It was a morning in April. Baseball season was underway, the rite of every spring. Easter had come and gone; open water fishing season was less than a month away; tax time loomed; a few hardy robins had shown up a week ago. In town the snow was rotting and gray; in the woods it was deep and pure white. The forecast called for more snow, maybe 5 or 6 inches.
It was springtime in Wisconsin.
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