Walking at dawn during the winter has been a great experience that I have enjoyed for years. It is not unusual to step out of the house into a frigid Northland temperature of subzero or to negotiate a route through newly fallen snow. Some mornings, snow is still falling and may be accompanied by strong winds.
However, the walks are not canceled and each venture in the winter morning offers more into the insights of Northland nature. During the first half of January 2021, the walks continued, but under different conditions.
Temperatures were far above normal and with this pattern, the month could be in contention for one of the warmest Januarys on record. Not once in the early weeks of the month did the mercury dip below zero. On the other side, 40 degrees was also not exceeded — something that has happened during other years in this first month.
We have been having a repetition of cloudy (sometimes fog) and mostly calm days. Not what is expected at this time of year, but I find that such days are good for walks and offer plenty to see and hear.
Calm with clouds or fog are great conditions for hearing what is happening in the early morning. Just as bird feeders settle in with the usual birds, so too it is along the road. Each day, I listen to the sounds of the local crows and ravens as they fly over open country. In woods, chickadees, nuthatches or blue jays call as they begin the day.
And there are the woodpeckers. Tapping and pounding on trees to dislodge a breakfast is a regular sound, but nearly every day, I also hear drumming from some woodpeckers — usually hairy woodpeckers. Such is the proclamation of ownership done by these birds, more common in late winter.
Roadside tracks reveal the activity that happened when I was not here. Tracks of deer, squirrels and mice are seen daily. Some of the routes often used I call trails. Snowshoe hares and coyotes in addition to deer show these paths.
And there is other news. Recently, I noted fox tracks that included a scent marking. (Many canines begin breeding in January.) But for about a week earlier in the month, it was the trees that demanded attention.
For several days in succession, my morning walks were greeted by forests, swamps and roadside plants that were coated with crystals of frost. Apparently, temperatures in the daytime were warm enough to allow for vapors to rise from the snowpack (sublimation). They formed droplets in the air we call fog. These droplets settled onto the branches of numerous trees and in the cooling temperatures of early mornings, they formed frost.
This condition of “frozen fog” is often called hoar frost, but what I was experiencing on these days, was a bigger build-up of crystals, some nearly one-half inch long and often in a spiny arrangement — a formation known as rime.
Rime is not that unusual. We see some most every year, but as the day warms in sunlight and winds pick up, it usually dissipates. But for several of these January days, it did not warm enough for that to happen, and they remained cloudy or foggy and calm. Walking here was like going through a fantasy forest. Whether seen from a distance or close up, the trees' cover was a delight.
This unique situation was not what we expect in early January, but still a welcome delight to behold.