Its arrival takes weeks, but spring is on the way

On the first day of March I found a sure sign of spring on a
south-facing ridge high above Lake Superior. Cautiously skiing on
my Alaskan snowshoes as I made my way down a steep slope, I came
upon a spot of bare ground scarcely larger than my hand.

I looked at the dried leaves and dirt on the ground and knew
spring was coming. Sure, we’d get more snow and this patch of
ground would be covered up, but as soon as the sun came out, it
would return. And every sunny day it would grow, slowly at first
and gaining momentum until, weeks later, the whole hillside is free
of snow.

The following morning, I watched a raven fly across the highway
carrying dried grass in its beak for a nest. These northern birds,
the outsized kin of crows, are early nesters. Somehow, they know
spring is inevitable, even though blizzards and below-zero nights
may intervene.

By midweek there was a warm-up, bringing welcome respite from
the bitter chills of January and February. Rivulets of meltwater
ran down the hillside avenues of Grand Marais. Ice-covered Lake
Superior changed color from Arctic white to steely gray as sparse
snow cover melted and pooled on the ice. Spring seemed just around
the corner, although in the North in March, we know better.

I followed my same snowshoe path up a frozen waterway on the
sixth of March. The snow had diminished noticeably, exposing the
black tops of boulders in the streambed. The sound of water running
beneath the ice was louder than before. Still, there was nearly two
feet of snow on the ground – plenty to preserve my snowshoe
sojourns for the foreseeable future.

It was late in the day and the air temperature, near freezing,
was beginning to descend. The snow was soft in places exposed to
afternoon sunshine and crusted over in the shade. When my yellow
Lab ventured away from the frozen snowshoe path, he wallowed in the
soft stuff or broke through the crust.

The going had to be tough for the deer. The only fresh tracks we
saw were on established winter trails. This is the season when the
killing is easy for wolves, because the deer have trouble
outrunning them in the deep snow. For whitetails, a late winter
snowstorm can extend this difficult and dying time, perhaps by
weeks.

Other critters seemed to be getting by. Fox tracks crossed our
path. Where there were openings in the stream, we found otter sign.
A pair of ravens flying in tight formation passed overhead.

We left the stream and soon discovered the snow was deep in the
woods. When I try to leave my snowshoe path and break trail,
lunging through the snow proved too difficult for the dog, so we
backtracked and followed our path from the week before. Once again
we loped back along the high ridge, although now there were a few
bare patches beneath the overhanging bows of balsam trees, rather
than just one small place where the snow was melted away. When I
dropped down the steep slope, it was easier to take off my
snowshoes and walk-slide through shin-deep snow.

As we started back to where the truck was parked, the air
temperature dropped below freezing as the sun slipped to the
horizon. Now the dog could walk on top of the crusted snow.
Snowshoeing was easy on the hard surface and we made good time on
the return jaunt.

Although spring has made an appearance, I don’t think I’ll be
hanging up the snowshoes anytime soon. As I write this, a winter
storm is predicted to deliver up to a foot of fresh snow, followed
by below-zero temperatures. Weather of this sort puts spring into
remission, but not for long. Soon the sun will start working to
regain lost ground, starting with a bare spot on a ridge high above
Lake Superior.

I try to spend as much time as possible outdoors now, enjoying
this tug-of-war between winter and spring, as do many other people.
Some fish crappies through the ice. Some go to work in the
sugarbush. At this time of year, what you do is less important than
being outside doing it, shaking off a winter’s worth of cabin
fever.

Here in the north, ice-out is still six weeks away. Green leaves
won’t appear for eight weeks or more. Some may view this between
time with impatience. I prefer to savor the slow, sure arrival of
spring.

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