The photo above was taken by Lynn Okenka
Adventures in winter hiking
By Steve Linenfelser
It’s that time of year; winter has officially arrived. We’ve enjoyed the holidays, getting together with family and close friends and now we are faced with about two months (or more) of cold, snow-filled days. If we’re not careful, we can experience what is known as “cabin fever,” which is that feeling of being cooped up inside and going a bit stir crazy.
Often with colder weather people tend not to want to venture out, and perhaps on really cold days, you shouldn’t. Yet, Michigan is blessed with lots of parks and nature trails that offer a beautiful landscape of snow-covered pine trees and that crisp, cold air. Another benefit of being outside in the winter for allergy sufferers is there is no pollen in the air. There are no pesky mosquitoes or disease-transmitting ticks. If you take advantage of it, it is great exercise, and you may get a chance to see some wildlife or at least the tracks that they left behind.
Several years ago, before my dad Bernie passed away, I came up with a way we could both take winter walks together. My dad had two hips replaced, and when he was in his late seventies and early eighties it was difficult for him to walk through deep snow, so I came up with a plan.
Snow Cones, photo by Leonard Ryzka of Manitou Beach
I got out a shovel and spent about three hours digging trails in his backyard and through his woods. After feeding the birds in the morning, he would take a stroll along the trails. On weekends when I wasn’t working, I’d join him and the smile on his face as he enjoyed “checking out the lay of the land” as he called it was well worth the effort, I put in creating the winter wonderland of trails.
Now, I admit that took a LOT of effort to do, so the next time I used his snowblower to make the trails. Even if you don’t have a huge backyard, if you just make a few winding trails the next morning you’ll discover that the wildlife has used your trails.
Squirrels, rabbits and even deer don’t like plowing through the snow any more than we do, so it’s fun to spot their tracks. Birds like to hop through them as well. I remember one time watching a group of sparrows hopping along on the ground, on the trails I had made, and a sharp-shinned hawk came flying down and captured one for its meal. Hey, everyone’s gotta eat. (more below)
Another fun thing to do when you’re out adventuring in the snow is identifying the different types of wildlife tracks. One crisp January morning my dad and I found rabbit tracks along our path that started out hopping along the trail and eventually appeared in the snow. As we continued to follow them, we noticed behind them was a predator that apparently was chasing it. As soon as I saw the tracks, I knew what they were.
They were the tracks of a coyote. How did I know they belonged to a coyote and not a dog? Coyote tracks are consistently about three inches long and more oval-shaped, whereas a dog’s tracks are rounder. Coyotes also have very sharp, pointy nails that are close together whereas a dog’s nails are blunter in shape. Incidentally, fox tracks are similar but are smaller, about 2 to 2 ½ inches in length. The heel pad on a coyote has a center lobe that sticks out and foxes have an inverted v-shape pattern to their heel pad and are much more petite.
Rabbit tracks have a repeating set of four tracks that form a triangle. The rabbit tracks showed that the rabbit left the trail and ran on the snow because its large pads on its feet and lighter weight allow it to hop on top of the snow whereas a coyote has to plow through deep snow. My dad and I followed the tracks and they ended at a brush pile. It seemed that the bunny had escaped the coyote’s jaws and was able to stay safe inside the brush pile.
One winter several years ago while living in Grayling, Michigan I decided to go all out. I went to Hartwick Pines state park and asked a ranger at the station where there was a great place to hike? I wanted to go to the most remote trail, so he suggested an area that would fit the bill.
Photo by Lynn Okenka
He offered me snowshoes to rent but he stated that if I gave him my driver license there would be no charge. He explained that this way they knew who was out on the trails in case someone got lost and by giving him my driver’s license I would surely return the snowshoes. Snowshoes work great in deep snow, so I set out that cold, breezy Saturday morning. About an hour into my hike as I walked along a remote trail through thick pines, I suddenly was startled by a loud crashing noise. I looked up and about forty yards away a doe was crashing through the pines. It stopped for a split second when it saw me, looked right at me looking terrified as if to say “help me” then ran off.
About two to three seconds later I was stunned by what I saw. A large, black wolf was chasing the deer and when it saw me it stopped and starred me down for a few seconds. I have to admit, I was both a little scared and excited as I was looking right at this beautiful apex predator. I then scrambled wildly to get a picture of it before it finally ran off chasing the doe. Later when I returned to the ranger station one of the rangers nick-named the wolf “Midnight” because it was all black and they only saw it at night.
So you have a choice this winter. If you start feeling the winter blues, get outside and do a little exploring. There are many trails in both Lenawee and Jackson County to hike and who knows what you’ll see. It’s easier to spot deer and other creatures against the snow filled background and it’s great exercise, you don’t have to worry about getting cabin fever and for that matter, COVID-19. If you do make a trail, just remember to use a snow blower. Believe me, it’s a heck of a lot easier.