The Winter Woods

When summer is in full swing, we often head out into the woods on a moment’s notice, pausing only to grab the camera and our bag of birdseed and binoculars and magnifying glasses. Fall is mostly the same, with perhaps an extra pause for a sweater or a light jacket, and maybe rainboots and splashpants if we suspect the woods will be mucky. But winter? Winter demands preparations.

Winter in Ottawa is cold. But it can also be mild, or wet, or overcast, or brightly sunny… in short, winter in Ottawa is somewhat unpredictable. Going outdoors, then, requires a little forethought, a lot more clothing, and a close eye on the weather forecast.

This year, winter seemed to come late despite the first snow arriving before Halloween. It wasn’t that we didn’t have snow, though we didn’t have much. It was that it didn’t get very cold. Somehow, it doesn’t feel like winter has truly arrived until we get our first day of -15 or colder, or until the snow is piled at least 30 cm high in the yard – neither of which happened until well into the new year this year.

Around new year’s, blessed with a day that dawned overcast and boring but nice and mild, we decided a walk in the woods was in order. It was our first woodland walk where there was enough snow on the ground to transform the landscape in a truly dramatic way, and the oddest little things caught the kids’ attention.

The creek hadn’t completely frozen over, but large shelves of ice had formed, thick enough that you could walk on them, if you were careful (don’t worry – the creek is barely knee deep here). K was fascinated by the fact that the water level had dropped, so much so that there was a good handspan of air between the surface of the water and the bottom of the ice.

Their cousin who was staying with us for a few days was intrigued by all the animal tracks that were evident in the snow, asking after this one and that one and wondering where the animals that left those tracks were now.

The world changes when it is covered with snow and ice. Even half frozen, with yellowed stalks of grass and brown stems of plants still poking their heads through the snow in fierce rebellion, the woods are no longer the brown rustling warm space of autumn or the green whispering twittering chattering canopy of summer. The winter woods speak of silence and stillness, of gently rounded edges and hidden treasures, and of landscapes so foreign as to seem alien.

And we, in our brightly coloured snowsuits and hats and scarves and mittens… we feel like space explorers discovering the wonders of a far away landscape that we can only touch through layers of protection.

The woods in spring bring out feelings of excitement and growth and renewal, with mud pies and tiny flowers and baby animals everywhere. The summer woods stretch out long and familiar in our minds, nourishing that part of the soul that craves a connection with the natural world. The autumn woods bring peace and contentment, and laughter as the crackling leaves underfoot are so easily kicked into swirling tornadoes of delight.

But the winter woods… The winter woods are a window into mystery and wonder. The winter woods are the seat of the imagination.

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