Friday, January 2, 2009

A Snowy Day on the River

 January 1, 2009

   New Year's Day 2009, new snow, blue sky, and cold, cold, cold -- cold enough to keep that new snow fluffy and dry, perfect for a walk in the woods at my favorite place on earth:  the forested banks of the Hudson River at Moreau Lake State Park in Saratoga County, New York.
    I've been exploring this stretch of the river for over ten years, by canoe and on foot, in all seasons and weathers, keeping a journal of all the plants I could name and animals I have seen (or found signs of by their tracks and scats and calls), and I've learned that there's always the chance I will find something new each time I visit. 
     For one thing, the terrain is always changing.  This section of river lies between two dams,  Spier Falls upstream and Sherman Island downstream ( a stretch of about three miles), and the water level changes several times a day, creating a shoreline that is sometimes a mud flat, sometimes completely  immersed up to steep rocky banks or flooding back into the woods.  Both banks of the river are forested mountains that come straight down to the shore, the trees overhanging the water.  Approaching the Sherman Island dam, the shoreline grows ever more interesting, as the river runs around islands and past rocky promontories and into quiet coves and occasional marshes watered by tiny rills that trickle down from surrounding hills.  
     It's that stretch of the river I'm visiting today on snowshoes, to start this record of a year in the woods and on the water.

    We enter the woods at the  end of Potter Road in Moreau,  taking a path down to the river and a rocky point I have named Bear's Bathtub for its large depression about ten feet across and six feet deep that fills up with water from time to time.  No water today with the temperature around 15 degrees (F) and the river here completely frozen over.  But it's not safe to walk on today.  With the rising and falling of the water levels, the ice breaks at the edge and water comes over the top.  Also, ice is formed at varying water levels so the shoreline is a jumble of broken shards and  plates -- not a pleasant place for a walk on the ice.   
    But many creatures have walked on the ice today or last night when the snow was new-laid -- mostly coyotes I'm guessing, leaving prints like those of large dogs.  There are places in the woods where many prints all lead in the same direction,  and we follow those to a large hole in a pile of rocks that appears to be a den.  More prints lead through the woods to a promontory I call Rippled Rocks Point that juts out into the river, a sun-washed spot where lowbush blueberry and black chokeberry thrive in the summer.  Today the rocks are covered with snow, revealing the path of the creatures who apparently congregated here today or last night, on this high open platform of ice and stone, exposed to the sky and the profile of mountains rising above the far shore.  Do coyotes howl at the moon?  There was a beautiful crescent moon last night, sharing the early evening sky with a brilliant Venus.
     Other prints we found were those of a mouse, like trapunto stitching across the snow as it wandered about a bit before scurrying to safety beneath a fallen log.  Also, red squirrel prints.   I had hoped to find signs of otter here, near open areas of water near the shore.  I had seen their scat on rocks out in the water last summer and their tobogganing trails through the snow in winters past,  but today I didn't.  We did see a hunter, though, hoping to bag a coyote.  Why? He said he wanted to make himself a coyote suit to wear while hunting.  I didn't tell  him where we had found the den.

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