Winter Wildland Walk — 2012
by Chris Hume
On February 5, 2012, the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists explored nature in winter at the northern-most corner of Drummond/North Elmsley Township, Lanark County. A group of 15 insatiable naturalists set out at 10 am. The journey began on a snowmobile trail which met an old concession road that lead to an abandoned farmstead. Veering off this road (before reaching the farmstead – which was another ½ km away) into a marshy area, we walked across the ice over a provincially significant wetland, following a winter deer path.
photo by Neil Carleton
A couple of us were looking for animal tracks in the snow along the way and managed to take photos—some wild turkey tracks and muddy otter and porcupine tracks. At one point along the concession road we stopped to observe a porcupine high above us in a basswood tree. We could see where he had been snacking on a maple branch nearby (it was white where the bark was gnawed away). He had his prickly back to us and could very well have been snoozing in the late morning sun.
When we eventually made our way out onto a frozen beaver pond, we stopped to admire an Osprey nest—a large aggregation of sticks way up on the limb of a dead tree. Osprey are down south right now, but they will be coming back to the nest again this summer. Mature Osprey lay an average of three buff-coloured eggs—one every three to four days! We also learned that their feet have four talons and that the two side talons can reverse when the Osprey dives to catch its prey—feet first! It is the only raptor that plunges into the water.
We headed into the Hemlock Grove across the pond. Here we learned the difference among three evergreen conifers: Balsam Fir, Hemlock and White Spruce. The secret is first to put them in alphabetical order. The needles (leaves) on the first 2 are arranged in 2 dimensions—the needles protrude from either side of the twig. Balsam needles are longer than Hemlock needles. The 3rd species, Spruce, has needles arranged in 3 dimensions—the needles protrude all around the twig. We also learned about the Tamarack or Larch, which is a deciduous conifer—it has cones, but it loses its needles in the winter and new needles grow in the spring.
We continued to hike through the Grove, where the snow was firm and the going easy. Breaking out of the Grove, we came across a very large Beech tree almost two feet in diameter! It probably was verging on 200 years old and even had bear claw marks in its bark. Bears love to climb Beech trees—sitting high up in the branches—munching away on Beech nuts.
Finally it was time to build our winter campfire and have lunch. The first step was to gather large branches and arrange them in multiple horizontal layers, building up from the snow. Then kindling was arranged carefully on top of this platform along with some bark and thin branches. Here we picked up some winter survival savvy—take time, prepare the campfire well, and use only one match to light it!
Photo by Neil Carleton
We also learned how to make bannock and cook it over the open fire on a green branch with the bark peeled away. After refueling our bodies, we pulled the fire apart, doused the large logs in the snow and heaped snow on top of the smaller smoldering logs. (Our snowshoes come in handy as snow shovels!) When we left the clearing it hardly looked like we had been there at all!
On the hike back we heard a commotion in the air and stopped to watch three Ravens chasing a Bald Eagle! It never ceases to amaze me what can be discovered along the trail when I go on an MVFN winter wildland walk. Tucked in my pocket is a hickory nut—a special memento from a great winter adventure. Why don’t you join the outing next year?