February 16

North Cairn: Dog days of winter drag on

Yet the golden retriever relishes the season.

The dog’s lair says it all.

This has been one hard winter.

Not that I was looking for additional evidence. Even without television, the weather soothsayers have kept us up to date on every storm front moving through every part of the country in which I have friends or family – which includes just about everywhere.

I have been trying for two months to get out of Maine and into Massachusetts for a knee replacement; I have been snowed out on three dates, and as I write I am preparing for the fourth, keeping an eye on the “catastrophic storm” in the South which, it is said, will arrive here and dump 8 to 12 more inches of snow. The constant delay and ennui is taking on existential proportions for me; I am beginning to wonder if I’m not supposed to have this surgery, this winter, with this surgeon, at this particular hospital.

Winter trials can generate that kind of superstition.

The guy who plows my driveway is ecstatic at the news of more snow imminent; me, not so much, even though I am no fading violet when it comes to winter. In fact, I genuinely like it.

I revel in snow, the subdued sound of the landscape; the solitude inherent in being one who braves the cold to witness the blade-like edges of ice and the soft liquid sunsets, to hear the thud of snow shrugged off the hemlocks, the oaks rubbing their arms together and moaning, the shriek of frozen branches at midnight, just before the great horned owl begins hooting in earnest mating; and the squeal of rubber boots on the pack.

But come on. Enough is enough.

I’ve listened as the town of my birth was transformed from the Windy City and Hog Butcher for the World to “Chiberia” – a testament to how frigid the Midwest has been this year. I lived for many years in Michigan and would consider going back, except for specific uncertainties about land use along Lake Michigan and in Manistee State Park.

But after hearing reports from winter-toughened Dutch folk about walking down their city sidewalks and feeling that they were navigating through tunnels, with 8- or 10-foot plowed snow walls on either side, and their worries about how much of Lake Michigan has frozen over, I’m not quite as sure. One-half of Lake Michigan is under ice, a new record; but paltry compared to the 96 percent of Lake Erie, 92 percent of Lake Superior or 74 percent of Lake Huron. Only Lake Ontario comes in with less than 50 percent ice cover at 32 percent. Even so, who’s to say how much open water will be left before temperatures warm slightly sometime after the predicted Feb. 21.

And we’re still almost six weeks from the official end of winter.

The dog, however, has nothing but enthusiasm for the weather, even though it has frequently meant ice marbles between the pads of her feet, slowly defrosted by being dipped gingerly into a pail of lukewarm water or licked while lying in the rim of heat from the wood stove.

She has turned feral in the fallen snow. I let her run for hours in the woods out back of the cabin, and I can keep track of her through her trails in the snow. But often, when she is called in at the end of the day, she either bounds out of the forest as if hiding something in the interior thickets or slips out, more like a wolf or coyote, simply appearing without warning, like a shape-shifter.

The other day I caught her before she had abandoned her hiding place: a natural crevasse in between boulders and downed limbs, big enough for a bed site to shelter a resting deer. From a few feet away it looked untouched, but as I drew closer I saw she had dug out a couple of small caverns into which she could crawl, turn around and monitor pretty much any action that the woods or the driveway might yield.

(Continued on page 2)

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