When the thermometer read ten degrees a few days ago, I looked out the window and wondered what I had gotten myself into. I’d promised myself that, every day or two, I would take an exploratory walk…but that was when the temperature was thirty degrees warmer.
Stuffing myself into my wool layers, I considered the likelihood that I would see little wildlife. Birds and small mammals would be huddled out of sight, trying to stay warm. There wasn’t even any snow on the ground to show animal tracks. So be it, I thought. I’ll go out and watch the river freeze.
Three miles from home, where Nutmeg Road crosses the Baraboo River, I pulled my hat down over my eyebrows and rolled out of the car, feeling like a sausage in all my clothes. At the road crossing I walked back and forth and studied the river below my feet. Here, close to its headwaters, the Baraboo River looks like little more than a farm creek, scarcely ten paces across. Downstream, the river was almost fully – if unevenly – covered with ice. Upstream, where the water moved faster before entering the under-road culvert, the ice was ragged. It clung, in varying shades of gray and white, to one bank and to the branches of a fallen tree.
Walking west, I looked around at a landscape that seemed muted after the riot of autumn colors. The only color left was brown. Or maybe not. As I walked and watched, the shifting afternoon sunlight turned the grasses golden. It lit up the trunks and twisted branches of old oaks and cast their shadows across the ground.
Near a wetland, I paused to examine a gnawed tree and a path made by a beaver – who I suspected was new to the neighborhood. Although our cold snap was only a day or two old, the ice on the wetland was frozen from edge to edge. I pulled out my pen and pad to note the beaver sign and the odd pock marks on the ice, but my pen was petrified by the cold. As I shoved it back in my pocket, “Unh!” a loud noise made me jump. I looked around, wondering what it was. Moments later, “Rrr-rr-rrrr”, the ice answered my question with a long groan. Every few minutes, as I walked, the ice – “Unh!” – grunted again, and every time, I jumped, then smiled.
I paused to photograph sunlight and shadows on one of the limestone outcrops that line the Baraboo River and heard,“KEE-Ee-ee-eer.” A red-tailed hawk reeled overhead in the clear blue sky. As I watched it circle, then soar away to the south, I was reminded of something I often forget: There may be such a thing as a perfect day for a walk, but if we wait for one, there’s a great deal that we might miss.