Though it’s natural, in late February and early March, to anticipate the coming of spring, yet I relish the bracing quality of such truly wintry days as remain to us. “Winter comes to make walking possible where there was no walking in summer. Not till winter can we take possession of the whole of our territory.” I was able to confirm for myself the truth of these words, which Henry David Thoreau wrote in his Journal on February 13, 1859, on a recent walk at the Nyquist-Harcourt Sanctuary in New Paltz. After a week or more of freezing weather, the marsh along the oxbow of the Wallkill at the Sanctuary was solid enough to walk on. I took advantage of this chance to see the brushy bank of the oxbow from the water side, meandering along its shoreline among the cattails and clumps of sedge.
Fierce cold and a biting wind kept other walkers away, so I had the marsh all to myself that day. I became aware of a seismic quality in the ice I walked on. There were cracks snaking along across its surface, which sometimes widened into seams like faults in the earth’s crust. I felt the ice flex underfoot, and heard it groan, belch and boom as the ice masses in these “fault zones” strained against each other and the shore. There were moments when I wondered if walking here was really a good idea, if the ice was really thick enough to support me safely. But driven by curiosity and reassured by the thought of how shallow the water probably was this close to shore, I pressed on a bit further.
Soon I came upon what looked like the impressionistic watercolor of an animal track. It could only have been a muskrat that used its squat, sleek body and long, flattened tail as a brush to daub the record of its passage in brown mud upon the ice. This track led from under a clump of elderberry, where the water remained open, across the frozen white surface of the channel. I stooped to examine the elderberry shrub, and found that many lower twigs had been cut off cleanly, at a precise 45 degree angle. Such neat pruning is the mark of all rodents, including muskrats, reflecting the chisel edge of their razor-sharp incisors. Muskrats may, instead of building thatched lodges in the middle of a marsh, dig elaborate burrows into the bank. This seems to be the case with these muskrats, who paused for an elderberry twig snack near their den entrance. I guess the poison (hydrocyanic acid) found in all parts of the plant except the ripe berries doesn’t bother them.
I felt privileged to have been granted a glimpse into the life of the muskrat, one of our more common wildlife species, but secretive and enigmatic all the same. Finding more and more of their tracks, and walking where they had walked, I felt a renewed sense of amazement at the pluck and hardiness of these little creatures, who must somehow find sustenance in the twigs and plant stems that poke out of the snow and ice, or form hummocks in the frozen marsh. Farther ahead I saw these hummocks, like a village of small grass huts, rising from the shallows where I have watched muskrats swimming and feeding in the spring. Some of these low domes might actually be muskrat lodges, while others may just be their winter feed piles.
Back on the actual path that loops around the sanctuary, I was struck by the desolate beauty of the scene. A swath of clear ice formed its own graceful meanders in the stark white expanse of snow crust. Reflections of blue sky in this ice mirror were crossed here and there by the slender shadows of trees. In the distance a northern harrier came into view, flapping its long wings once and silently gliding, like a gray ghost, out of sight.
Where the trail turned right, the channel’s course straightened, running parallel to the course of the Wallkill River proper off to the west. Here I found many strange and fanciful ice formations, including one that resembled a gaping mouth, with an ice “jaw” heaved up from the ground and icicles for teeth. Another looked like an ice cave, whose mouth, big enough for a small child to enter, was ringed by the stems of saplings. I envisioned entering this cave and descending into an underworld of frost, with ice palaces and “frost beings” like those in Nordic mythologies. The cold might have dulled my wits, but it quickened my imagination!
I stopped on the wooden footbridge near the sanctuary entrance to listen to the chortling of red-winged blackbirds, the same sound that greeted me at the start of my walk. Their ringing “chonga — reeee” is for me the most reliable harbinger of the coming spring. Though I also heard the cardinal’s “birdie birdie birdie,” and the Carolina wren’s “tea kettle tea kettle tea kettle,” I place more trust in the red-winged blackbird’s pronouncements. Snow and ice may still cover the landscape, he tells us, but a new season is just around the meander.