Less light, much colder air, nothing blooming, dark when you leave, dark when you return home; winter seems like some kind of punishment. Payback for those long warm, sunny days filled with blooms, dining outside, and dozing in the shade after mowing the yard. I decided a long time ago that I just don’t like winter.
Fall is great, colorful foliage, brilliant skies everywhere, anticipation of the holidays and parties with friends, walking through the mall watching all the shoppers and the long lines of small children waiting to talk to Santa; all this makes me happy. Then along comes January and the next major family get-together holiday, with more than one day off, is Easter. We have Presidents’ Day, Valentines Day, and the day of recognition of our great and contemporary hero, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But the big family celebration, a get-together with food and more than one day off, for that you just have to wait until Easter, which is all the way on the other end of winter. And, Easter is a little goofy because unless you are an astronomer, nobody really knows when the next Easter will be. Go ahead, without a calendar, just try to determine the date for next Easter.
After Christmas and New Year’s Day, there we are, right in the middle of winter, in January; cold dark January, with February following close behind, it’s depressing. But this year it was different, not as depressing as I had feared. Nope, two things gave me hope that life does exist after Jan. 1. Two days in January that made me glad we have winter. (I can’t believe I actually said that.) And here are the stories of those two days.
Most Januarys, I visit Lake Mattamuskeet in eastern North Carolina to observe and photograph the waterfowl that go there in large numbers. My favorite is the Tundra Swan. North Carolina is the southernmost overwintering area for this far-traveling fowl and North Carolina’s only native swan. This year I went in mid-January, near the end of my first day I drove to a smaller lake, Lake Pungo, where I found those swans in abundance last year. This year, no swans, but I did see wildlife, at the bottom of this story is a photo. It was very late in the day, nearly dark, and I had to adjust my camera to its most light sensitive setting to capture this image. Now here is the story of how this photo happened.
I had been advised that the subjects of this photo might be present before I went there last year. This location is extremely remote and accessible by high clearance vehicles only. It is about a 20-minute drive down a very muddy and rutted dirt road. Last year there was one other 4WD vehicle there when I arrived. But the horn was blowing in short bursts, and I could see the owner running back up the trail from the observation point toward the noisy auto. He was frantically trying to stop the alarm system — he could not, it was broken and he finally drove away with the alarm system still activated. Well, of course, no sensible wild animal would have come from the safety of the woods to a location with so much loud noise. It got dark, I left seeing absolutely nothing. Darn the luck!
This year after traveling once more the treacherous dirt road, hoping I would be the only person there, I arrive at my destination only to see a large multi-wheeled excursion vehicle and about 15 people slowly coming back up the trial from the observation station. It seemed I was cursed. To see the critters I had come to see, usually requires quite and solitude. With a bus full of noisy people my hopes seemed crushed. After these slow, noisy, old people (some must have been in their late 40s!) finally got back to their transportation, I thought — if they will hurry and leave now, perhaps there is still a chance I’ll get a view of the critters I had come to see. They did not! Suddenly they all jumped off the bus and started running back down the trail, they talked noisily and jumped around, but the subjects of this photo seemed unfazed and remained calm while I snapped off this shot. So it seems I know nothing about wildlife!
By the way, I was using a very long telephoto lens.
Not as exciting was Friday, Jan. 19. You may remember it snowed, it sleeted and was cold. Cabin fever had struck me with great force, I was as nervous as a caged coyote. I decided to wrap myself in layers of warm moisture-proof garments and go for a walk. The temps never got up to freezing and it snowed/sleeted about 6” in depth. I was surprised, it was both exhilarating and peaceful walking in that storm. The sound of the tiny ice pellets bouncing off my hooded jacket was comforting because I was warm and dry inside that coat, looking out at a landscape empty of people but filled with nature at its rawest. That was strangely, very peaceful. But the cool air rushing into my lungs was stimulating and made me feel like I could just keep on walking forever, made me feel much younger than my 7.4 decades. I hadn’t intended to walk far, but after I warmed up a bit I just kept going. I walked about four miles, and as happened in my previous story, I also ran into a four-legged creature. This one didn’t want to eat me, but did try to eat my camera. Notice the icicles hanging from his back, and that crazed camera eating look in his eye.
So, guess what. I’ve decided that I like winter — as long as there are bears, snow, and camera-eating horses around, I’ll be fine.
Rod Hunter lives in East Bend and is an avid hiker, biker, photographer and nature lover. He is the past state chairman of the Sierra Club of NC. He volunteers as a court appointed children’s advocate for children in foster care and with Cancer Services Inc. He is a two-time cancer survivor. He has backpacked in Alaska, Arizona, California, Utah, Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Georgia, Virginia, and of course North Carolina.