Marooned

Last January was a dream of a winter. By the middle of the month we had a foot of standing snow and I was out every bright, sunny day on my snowshoes. Birds and animals flocked to our feeders–32 American tree sparrows, 62 mourning doves, 40 dark-eyed juncos–along with a button buck, two cottontail rabbits, and nine gray squirrels. After still another foot of snow, a field sparrow appeared for several days and, of course, the usual song and white-throated sparrows, American goldfinches, northern cardinals, blue jays, black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, red-bellied and downy woodpeckers, and a pair of sharp-shinned hawks made regular appearances.

It was cold too. On January 10 the thermometer stood at three degrees below zero. The porch, doors, house, and trees popped and crackled in the cold, which reminded me that the Iroquois had called January’s moon “The Moon of Popping Trees.” Our stream steamed in the cold and hundreds of ice sculptures–shaped by the weather–stood in the middle of it. Some were clear as glass; others were opaque; many were half clear and half opaque. All were as fascinating as any modern sculptures I have seen in museums. Curtains of ice hung from branches spanning the stream. Water that had been flowing out of our road drains had frozen in mid-flow.

At last we were having another winter of deep snow and cold. This time we were prepared. After the hard winters of the early nineties, when we had been snowed in for several weeks, my husband Bruce had bought a secondhand bulldozer and a new tractor with a 78-inch front end snowblower. Never again would we be trapped, he told me confidently. As February stormed in, leaving us with still another foot of snow, Bruce kept busy snowblowing the road and shoveling off our roofs.

Then our dream of a winter turned sour. On the sixth of February a sleet storm coated the snow with several inches of ice. Bruce went out in mid-afternoon, hoping to run the tractor down and up the road to make tracks in the slush before it froze, and found the barn doors blocked by a three-foot-high wall of sleet that he and our son Dave had to shovel open before he could get to the tractor. Then Bruce put chains on the tractor’s back tires and started down the road. He didn’t even make it a quarter of a mile. The sleet had slid and blocked part of the road. Only the bulldozer could clear it.

The following morning it took Bruce almost two hours to warm up the bulldozer so it would start. He enclosed the machine with a large tarp and fired up a small kerosene torpedo heater. Finally, the bulldozer coughed asthmatically and Bruce took off. A mile down the road, the bulldozer quit. We were sealed in not only by ice but by our bulldozer that blocked the road. I couldn’t even showshoe because the ice was treacherous. Instead, I basked in the sunshine beaming through our bow window and gazed through dagger-like, foot-and-a-half-long icicles at the bird feeders. That was when the first pine siskin of the year put in a brief appearance.

In the meantime, Bruce walked down the road to meet our hunter friend Troy Scott, an expert mechanic, who had clambered up and over the ice slides to meet him at the bulldozer. Troy diagnosed the problem as a broken constant velocity joint in the drive train. He was certain he could fix the machine as soon as he could get in the replacement part that had to be ordered from the dealer, but it would take several days. Despite Bruce’s big machine purchases, we were once again marooned as we had been back in the nineties.

Knowing that staying inside was not an option for me, Bruce obligingly spread wood ashes from our house down to the guesthouse, especially where a spring had suddenly erupted and frozen in our road near the barnyard. From there I followed the frozen, rough, dozer tracks down the road to the bulldozer.

Six deer ran up from the depths of the hollow. They pranced like ballet dancers on top of the frozen snow, but several times they broke through where the ice had softened in the sunshine. A seventh deer stayed near the stream and curled up in an area previously dug out by deer either for food or shelter or both. Farther up the road I saw six more deer and near the fork in our road two more–15 deer in all.

But conditions were bad for wildlife. The acorn crop had been sparse and the ice and snow covered up what little food there had been except for the black birch seeds that sifted down and attracted birds and animals. Our bird feeders continued to be mammal feeders also.

The following day I again picked my way carefully down the icy road. As I neared the bulldozer, I saw a deer lying on the road. Slowly it rose to its feet and galloped awkwardly toward the machine, its right front leg dangling uselessly. It continued on beyond the bulldozer and disappeared. I counted four separate piles of deer scat on the road where it had found refuge.

Because Waterthrush Bench was engulfed in frozen snow, I was reduced to using the bulldozer seat as a wildlife-watching perch. That day I spent watching a fox squirrel that clambered down the steep slope to dig near the stream. Then it climbed up to the road toward the bulldozer and back down to the stream, looking for any seeds that might have fallen on the snow. It continued on across the stream and ascended a sugar maple tree, moving cautiously as far out as it could on a thin branch, but it couldn’t reach the dried-up pair of seeds dangling at the end.

Finally, it pulled the tips of the branches forward with its front paws while hanging on to the branch with its rear ones and ravenously ate the seeds. Then it climbed still higher and again tried to retrieve seeds, but it was too risky, so it backed off. The squirrel seemed to know its limits. It tested branch after branch and rejected most. I almost cheered every time it successfully gleaned a few more seeds. Sometimes the seeds broke off and tumbled to the ground. After incredible acrobatics, the squirrel climbed back down the tree to the ground, searched for, and ate the fallen seeds. Only once did it stop to groom its tail, its reddish breast and belly gleaming in the sunlight. Unlike the freeloading gray squirrels at our feeders, that fox squirrel was on its own.

When I returned home, I discovered that Bruce had spread still more wood ashes at the edge of the icy veranda so I could get safely back over the ice hump formed by dripping, four-foot-long icicles. He had also smashed down all the icicles, which had hung like swords of Damocles, threatening everyone who passed under them.

The next day Bruce not only re-ashed my trail down past the spring-caused sheet of ice near the barn, but he also drove the tractor with chains on down to the bulldozer and roughened up the road for my walking and his. Bruce and Dave walked into town and later returned with our mail and groceries in their backpacks.

In mid-afternoon, I watched from our bow window as six deer picked their way carefully up our road, occasionally sliding on the ice, and then continued on Guesthouse Trail to the ridgetop. Ten minutes later, two more deer came from the direction of the powerline right-of-way along the flat area below our house and fought over an abundance of apple tree sprouts. The smaller deer deferred to the larger and tried to graze on our one multiflora rosebush that provides cover for the smaller, feeder birds. The larger deer went on to the next apple tree and browsed it also. The former owner had planted both trees 35 years ago. They rarely produce any apples and those they do are tasteless to us, but the deer like them. Then the larger deer joined the smaller at the multiflora rosebush. They spent that night bedded down on the open macadam road strip below the guesthouse and the next day wandered slowly up the flat area to lie down again. They seemed to be exhausted and trying to conserve their strength.

Once again Bruce knocked down icicles and spread ashes at the end of the veranda before I ventured out for my walk down the hollow road. A winter wren popped out from the stream bank and two white-throated sparrows foraged for black birch seeds on the road. I edged around the bulldozer, following a maze of deer tracks and scat, until I reached the last steep section of what had been our road. Ice drifts rippled off Sapsucker Ridge and created frozen waves that only the surefooted, like Troy, Bruce, and Dave, could navigate. I, on the other hand, retreated to Waterthrush Bench, which Dave had shoveled out the previous day. It was much more comfortable than sitting on the bulldozer. I even had a footstool of frozen snow.

Friday the 13th was a lucky day for us. It was the eighth day of our imprisonment and we were freed. Troy arrived with the constant velocity joint as Bruce drove down the hollow road in our car with our torpedo heater and tarp. Again it took awhile for the bulldozer to warm up, but, in the meantime, Troy fixed it. Then Bruce cleared the rest of the road.

I had taken my usual hollow walk and stopped to watch the men working on the bulldozer. But it was the first day of the Great Backyard Bird Count (see February 2002 column), and I was busy counting birds. I only saw three chickadees in the hollow, but when I reached the house, I looked out at the feeders and spotted one goldfinch and the pine siskin. Just as I was thanking the siskin for appearing on the GBBC, another small bird landed on the ground. It was a male common redpoll, the only one we saw the entire winter. He stayed for a couple hours, feeding on the ground and at the feeders.

Bruce finally returned from bulldozing the road open in mid-afternoon. But all was not well. He had pulled up a road grate by mistake. Even though he had been working carefully, it was impossible to see it under the ice pack. He and Dave went back down the road to plug the open drain with bricks and cover it with a temporary “bridge” of plywood so we could drive out.

On Valentine’s Day we rocked and rolled our way down the uneven, icy road but we made it. No need even to put chains on our seven-year-old Nissan Pathfinder. Although we were able to get out by car and on foot down our road, I still felt marooned because I couldn’t walk my favorite trails.

For two more weeks the icy road continued to be my daily walk. Sometimes it was so slippery that I walked down holding on to the more surefooted Bruce. Other times, after an inch of snow, I could navigate the road by myself. But the rest of the mountain remained a sheet of icy snow until the end of the month, the longest we have ever had such conditions. Usually a couple inches of snow covers the ice after a week or so, but February remained stubbornly dry.

“How do you get out in the winter?” people often ask us after they see our place.

“Not easily,” we say, especially after a winter like last year’s.

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