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For the better part of this new year, snow has been either on the ground or in the forecast. In the city landscape, the streets look enchanting for a day or so and then devolve into a dirty mess. This sort of snow is unappealing for an invigorating walk.
|A snowy path in Inwood Hill Park|
The forest, on the other hand, has managed to stay enchanting throughout each bout of winter weather. The presence of owls and hawks, bright red cardinals and sweet chickadees, and brown squirrels and black squirrels transform the woodlands into a fairy tale.
|An Eastern Screech-Owl at home in the winter forest|
I've spent much of the whole pandemic year, going back to March 2020, in the woods of Inwood Hill Park in Northern Manhattan. While I have been accustomed to walking through the park in spring, summer, and autumn, I've never managed to engage with the deepest parts of the forest when a lot of snow was on the ground. Last winter there wasn't much snow anyway.
|Eastern Screech-Owl, a better view of the camouflage|
This winter, the presence of a Barred Owl and recently an Eastern Screech-Owl made me want to venture into the snowy woods for a little adventure. Beyond the birds, I have found in the winter forest a thrilling escape from the slushy piles of discarded snow on Broadway.
|A Black-capped Chickadee lands on a favorite log.|
When I first ventured into the woods, I found the atmosphere refreshing - light and clear, and it smelled good. The more I walked, the more acclimated I became to the brilliance of the light. On a sunny and cold day, the brightness of the snow made me wish for sun glasses or those blue-tinted ones for skiing. I have thought about skis and snowshoes, too, and hiking poles, but I find that I enjoy practicing my own balance along the uneven snowy paths.
|A Red-tailed Hawk surveys the scene|
Let's talk about motivation. Why should anyone want to venture out into a snow-covered forest? My list began with a yearning to see owls and a general enjoyment of a good winter landscape. What followed was a sense of renewed vigor in winter walking that I had not experienced before this year. I never felt unsafe in any way, I might add, because the birds attract birders, and several recreational walkers like myself provided some camaraderie. When I first arrived at the place of the Eastern Screech-Owl, I ran into five or six birders with tripods as well as four NYC park rangers out explaining the forest and birds to anyone that asked.
|Red-tailed Hawk, showing a movie-star profile|
I would now like to discuss footwear for walking winter trails. For my earliest snow walks, I wore a pair of well-worn snow boots. These boots were fine in terms of traction, but they were too loose around the ankles. This caused two problems. First, I sank into some deep snow, allowing the snow to spill into the boots. I had to sit down on a log and shake to snow out. Second, the boots didn't have enough (any) ankle support, so a careless slip could have sent me to an emergency clinic. Fortunately, I didn't experience a sprained ankle.
|A fluffy male Northern Cardinal|
I've owned a pair of fancy hiking boots sitting in the closet for a few years (aspirational thinking), and they've never been properly broken in. So, I dusted them up and laced them to get this process started again. If you don't know, lacing up hiking boots benefits from a few adjustments. Go on the Internet and look for videos about lacing, noting the ones about surgical lacing. If you are already wearing surgical masks, you may as well make these sorts of ties on your boots. A well-fitted boot means less slippage, less visits to an orthopedic specialist. Also, I recommend wearing some merino wool socks with extra padding.
|Northern Cardinal. Look at that red!|
So, now I enjoy walking the winter forest in proper hiking boots. Yes, they are a bit heavy, but the weight adds to the overall sense of vigor as well as a more sure footing. Yesterday, while walking uphill, I was startled by the high whistle of a nearby soaring hawk, and I was glad I didn't fall down.
|A snowy path leading to higher terrain|
Walking uphill on the snowy stepped trails of the forest is easier than the downhills. Taking a step up, I can pull my body up and forward, testing my footing. Going downhill is more nerve-wracking, because of the danger of slipping and the pull of gravity. Walking up and down snowy terrain does involves careful concentration and balance. In this way, a walk in the snow-covered landscape necessarily becomes intentional and focused. This is good.
|Watch those downhill steps!|
A walk in the winter forest reveals that there's nothing "dead" about the dead of winter. If anything, the snow shows off the life that finds a home in the winter woods. I'm glad I don't feel the need to wait until spring.