As we drove to the trailhead, a full moon still hung in the sky. The temperature was a balmy twenty-three degrees or so, just a day after I registered minus six during the night at my house.
Those crispy temperatures meant that the trail was in the best condition we’d ever seen!
The numerous mudholes were frozen solid, most of the tree roots were buried, and the snow on the board walks was firm. There had been quite a lot of foot traffic on the trail in the days before our walk, so the trail was well-packed with crunchy snow but not icy. We never had it so good!
Hordes of pine siskins pried into spruce cones, chattering all the while, and swarmed from tree to tree. A dark mystery bird sat for several minutes in the top of a spruce, poking carefully at something in the uppermost whorl of branches. If I had to guess, I’d say it could be a pine grosbeak, but it flew off before I could make out any color or pattern.
Lunch in the John Muir cabin was a relaxed but quick affair. It was one of the shortest days of the year, so there was little time for dawdling. The view from the cabin windows was familiar but still spectacular—over the snowy meadows to the channels, where dark islands set in a bronzy sea.
The previous day I had prowled around some of the ponds in the Dredge Lake area. The recent cold temperatures had kept the soft snow in prime condition for checking animal tracks. Snowshoe hares must have been having a party—their tracks were everywhere, sometimes creating a hare highway from one thicket to the next. The tips of small willows showed signs of nibbling.
Mice had been more active than they were on the day just after the snowfall. Their delicate traceries ran from log to stump, or branch pile to grass tuft. I find these trails very beautiful. A shrew trail, even smaller than that of a mouse, ran from one tiny hole in the snow to another. These holes are only about the size of a dime. And in soft snow, the stubby-legged shrews often plow a wee furrow in the surface, as they make their way to a hole. There were tracks of squirrel, a porcupine, maybe a marten, and several weasels that zigzagged among prospective mouse or squirrel holes. Dog tracks were numerous, of course, but I found one set of canine tracks that could have been a coyote.
In the open areas, hoar frost had accumulated on the snow-laden shrubs. Some twigs were encased in a load of white that must have been five inches in diameter. Frost flowers had grown in dense gardens wherever snow did not cover the ice on the ponds; many of the crystals were at least two inches tall and almost as broad. Hoar frost clung to old footprints and ski marks, almost filling the depressions. All the frost and snow on everything certainly makes the short days brighter!