Fall/Winter 2020Non-Fiction

Snowshoeing and Other Endangered Activities – Anne N. Connor

My round bear-paw snowshoes, wood-framed and webbed with rawhide, buoyed me within an inch of the snow’s surface. The snow in the Vermont woods was up to my chest and so dry and feathery that I would slip through it in a heartbeat without the snowshoes. I bounded forward into the fresh ozone scent of powder snow.

An eight-year-old on snowshoes is not a graceful sight; snowshoeing is harder than it looks. Try running around the house with a yoga ball anchored between your thighs and pizza trays tied to your feet, and you’ll get the idea.

Following in my father’s packed tracks was easier, but trail-breaking was special. The slight give of the soft surface, then the firmness holding me improbably aloft, felt like a super-power. Along our makeshift trail, drooping tips of hemlock boughs lay buried under snow that had avalanched off treetops. Cedar waxwings, those forest bandits in black masks and Robin Hood hats, foraged on the bright red teaberries that thrived beneath a snowy blanket.

One day while breaking trail, I stopped short before the pristine, blueprint-thin impression of an owl’s wings. The wings had briefly pressed into the snow on a downstroke, as the owl stooped on its prey; a tiny divot between the wing-etchings marked where the mouse had been. This transient watermark dissolved before my eyes as the sun shifted onto it and was all but obliterated by the time my family caught up with me.

The beloved beauty of the winter world felt eternal, a diamond I could pull from my pocket every year when the leaves fell.

But I would lose that world. The Vermont winter as I knew it is fading, just as the owl’s wing prints evaporated into the sun-drenched sky.

Snowshoeing has become an endangered activity. As freezing rain has replaced snow cover, a winter walk in the New England woods is more likely to involve ice cleats than snowshoes. The average wintertime temperature in Vermont has increased by three degrees since 1895, tipping precipitation from dry snow to wet, from snow to ice, and from ice to rain. Mice have nibbled the rawhide from our snowshoes left neglected in the basement.

Before 1980, Vermont rarely went a year without an inch or more of snow on the ground for at least 100 days. In the years since 2010, the average has been fewer than 50 days with snow cover, lately no more than a dozen days. Disappoinment regularly counters my plans to snowshoe, sled, or even cross-country ski.

Now that I’m in my fifties, I mourn the decline of winter sports conditions less than I did when I was more active. Still, I grieve the loss of the snow, which once kept the winter landscape as healthy and lovely as it remains in my memory. Perhaps I’m more sensitive to the loss of beauty and vigor these days. We often fail to see loss coming, even when we should—we always think we’ll have more time.

The loss of snowpack isn’t just bad for snowshoeing and other winter sports; snow is an insulating blanket that keeps frost from penetrating more than an inch or two below the surface of the soil. Without it, freezing damages deep roots and stresses trees. It protects winter plants like teaberries—and the animals that depend on them.

When I was 12, I was lucky enough to see a red fox pouncing repeatedly at the snow in our Vermont hayfield, intent on the world beneath the snowpack. A white blanket, about two feet thick, protected a network of trails and tunnels used by meadow voles. The foxes, with their keen sense of smell, waited for voles to emerge in search of apple seeds and other prizes—and then they leaped. Sometimes they bounced on the iced-over air shafts to the tunnels, trying to break through. In the spring, when the snow receded, we witnessed ghostly whorls of timothy, spun around the voles’ vacant passageways. The snow blanket insulated more than just tree roots; it protected an entire subnivean ecosystem.

This winter, no grassy vole tunnels appear in the frigid, snowless meadow. The voles have decamped into the house, where my terriers pursue them with gusto. I’ve seen a fox running the fence line on his way to better pickings. The world of the fox and the voles, like mine, has changed, and we’re all trying to make do.

This past year our Vermont apple trees, for the first time, failed to blossom. No sign of pests or pestilence marked our fruitless orchard. Rather, the trees had stood unblanketed by snow for a good portion of the winter, with subzero blasts driving the cold down into the soil and roots. I suspect they were suffering from frostbite.

Anne N. Connor is a Vermont-based science writer with a focus on climate change. Her textbook, Ecological Sustainability, was published in 2017 by CRC Press. Her articles on climate resilience and adaptation have been published in Undark, Vox, and The Scientist, among others. She grew up in New England, where snow played a formative part in her youth and family life. She recently completed a master’s degree in science writing at Johns Hopkins University.

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