Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o Katie Rohman at email@example.com.
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January was certainly was a month to remember. We started with temperatures quite a bit warmer than normal; even a record-setting 40 degrees for Jan. 4. Several other days were also in the 30s. The average for the first half was about 20 degrees — nearly 10 above the normal.
According to the calendar, winter began with the winter solstice of Dec. 21. It will end at the time of the vernal equinox March 21. As we travel through these days of the cold season, we might note that the first week of February is halfway. At this time, we are midway through winter; some Northlanders are looking beyond the second half. Noting this middle time I believe is the actual reason for the Groundhog Day story to be Feb. 2.
The snowpack in the woods is 8-10 inches deep and it has been here without any additional snow for a couple of weeks. That means it has undergone some changes as the temperature has fluctuated from the 40s to below zero. At sites, the snow is very crunchy. I see lots of animal tracks out here in the woods, but I do not see much variety.
The late December snowstorms gave us wet flakes that coated many of our trees. Spruces and other conifers held the cold covering well, often bending, but not breaking. The deciduous trees mostly kept the snow, too — some broken branches, but for days after, the woods had a white look, a reminder of the storm. The weather changed and with warming and windy days in the next weeks, most of the arboreal snow has fallen. We now look out at a bare woods again. It is a great time to take a closer look at the trees and see that they are not really so bare.
The thermometer reads 15 degrees below zero when I step outside on this clear calm morning. So far this winter, this is one of the coldest temperatures that I have seen here. With no winds, the walk is silent. Only the crunchy snow beneath each of my steps and an occasional crack from a tree in response to the subzero conditions. But it is not the cold that catches my attention as I wander through the predawn darkness.
Before Dec. 1-26 was mild (temperatures nearly equal to November) and dry. The light snows of 2.5 inches gave about a quarter-inch precipitation. This lack of snow and mild temperatures had its impact as I noted on a recent walk. In a field, I saw voles (meadow mice) scurrying about; usually, they are under the snowpack. In a nearby woods, a snowshoe hare was easy to see as it hopped among snowless plants. On the ice of a swamp, I found the trail of a muskrat seeking another site for food and shelter.
Like many in the Northland, I maintain bird feeders during the winter. Typically, I begin in October and continue through the cold season. Unless it is very snowy, I cease in April. Though we feed birds, it is more for our sake. Unless conditions are very brutal, the local birds, so well-adapted to northern seasons, can survive without our handouts. (I prefer to call it a feeding site instead of bird feeder since three kinds of squirrels — gray, red and flying along with deer and raccoons — take meals here, too.)
Perhaps it is the onset of winter. Perhaps it is the type of weather that we have been having that allows us to see far into the surrounding forests. Or maybe it is just the holidays, but I find that as we enter this new season, we tend to notice the conifers — the evergreens — more than usual. These trees, often quite large, are with us all year, but during the chill of winter, when deciduous trees are without their leaves, we are likely to see greens of other trees. To the south of us, the deciduous trees, often called broadleaf trees, prevail.
Mid-December is now upon us. Weather conditions at this time can be rather impressive. It is not unusual to be very cold — well below zero. (Now is when the rivers often freeze over to last. Some say that this is the beginning of winter.) This has also been the time of significant snows. Though some years temperatures may be mild and snowfalls easy to cope with, but we still have the other aspect of December: darkness. We are at the time of early sunsets — about 4:20 p.m. — and late sunrises — nearly 8 a.m.
Thanks to the warmer temperatures and rain at Thanksgiving, much of the snow cover that we had earlier in November had dissipated. (The 44 degrees recorded Nov. 23 tied Nov. 3 for being the warmest temperature of the whole month. Rains, also on that day, provided nearly one-third of the monthly precipitation.) Suddenly, the ground cover of snow we had was gone. And lakes that were coated with snow-covered ice had water puddles on the frozen surface. I found only patches of snow in the woods — much less than earlier. Despite this, November was colder than normal.