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January thaw: Animals, people re-emerge after cold subsides

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D.S. Pledger
January 18, 2014

The opening chapter of Aldo Leopold’s famous Sand County Almanac is titled “January Thaw” and seemed to be an appropriate thing to be reading early this past week when we finally came out of the deep freeze.

After enduring subzero temperatures, even the high 20s might seem like a thaw, but when we actually reached the low 40s Monday, I got out my old copy of the almanac.

“Each year” Leopold begins, “there comes a night of thaw when the tinkle of dripping water is heard in the land. It brings strange stirrings, not only to creatures abed for the night, but to some who have been asleep for the winter. The hibernating skunk, curled up in his deep den, uncurls himself and ventures forth to prowl the wet world, dragging his belly in the snow. His track marks one of the earliest datable events in that cycle of beginnings and ceasings which we call a year.”

Indeed, the January thaw is the first event of the new season. Wildlife begins to stir again, if only for a short time, and the great horned owls actually begin nesting.

Leopold describes a walk in the winter woods, searching for bands of chickadees, seeing what young pines the deer have browsed or “what muskrat houses the mink have dug, with only an occasional and mild digression into other doings, January observation can be almost as simple and peaceful as snow and almost as continuous as cold.”

Our two-day mini-thaw was a brief but welcome reprieve from that cold.

Squirrels, which have been almost unseen for a month or more, were out in numbers, rummaging around trying to remember where they buried last October’s hickory nuts.

We didn’t notice any skunks, but the possum that dined on pears under our pear tree last fall was back again.

Why a wild critter would frequent a yard where two Labradors live is beyond me, but I suspect it’s because possums aren’t terribly bright. This time it was looking for frozen apples on the ground and, when accosted by Yellowtail, it confused the barking canine by promptly curling up in a ball and “playing possum.”

I picked it up by the tail and deposited the comatose marsupial on the other side of the fence, where I hope he stays for the rest of the winter.

Besides allowing the woodland animals a few days to roam around, the thaw provided me with the opportunity to do some things that had been impossible during the cold.

One was getting an inch of ice off the driveway that’s been there ever since the ice storm back in December. Once the temperatures rose and the sun came out, I made short work of it with a scraper.

Another golden opportunity lay in a small portion of the roof that was cleared of snow by the sun. The patch of bare shingles happened to be in the exact spot I needed it to be in order to clean out the chimney. Our stove isn’t as efficient as it should be, and the creosote builds up fast, so cleaning it is something I do every month or two. I let the fire go out, got out the ladder and gave the flue a good brushing.

In spite of what the calendar says, we’ve probably reached the halfway point of our cold winter weather. I’ve always contended that season actually starts the beginning of December and lasts about 100 days. By the second week of March the worst of it is certainly over, and some years the skunk cabbage is already poking up through the melting snow by that time.

I’m certainly not saying that spring is on the way—it’s not—so let’s just hope that Winter, Part II isn’t as bad as Part I was.

D.S. Pledger is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at maus16@centurytel.net.



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