“In life, it’s not where you go, it’s who you travel with.”
The woods were as still as a wind chime inside a closed window, save for the crunching of our snowshoes. The two of us were also silent, enjoying shared space without need for much conversation after so many years together.
Deep vanilla drifts blanketed the untrodden trail ahead and the air filled with swirling sucrose. Though we were far from the ski slopes, evergreen branches appeared blasted by snow guns, but the snow burdens were from Mother Nature. Branches formed natural gallerias overhanging the path and we had to duck our heads to pass through. He cleared wayward branches for me and broke track. I thanked him and he said there was no need.
At times, we came to more open areas with ice-glazed, knee-high brush sparkling in the sunlight and glassy shards clinging to naked branches at eye level. I turned my face upwards to bask in the light and he got out his camera and crouched to capture the crystallized beauty.
Above us, a winter branch gave no camouflage to a lone hawk perched upon it, though they were of similar hues. I took a grab shot with my cell knowing the image would not do the bird justice. No worries though. I knew his SLR shot would be well composed, sharp and artistic. My expertise was taking candid shots of him, a photo record of the photographer rather than an art form.
Further along, white birch tree trunks seemed caught in the midst of a skin peel without chemicals. Underneath they had the smoothness and sheen of legs encased in support hose — an arboreal beauty regime! Then, as if to remind us of mortality, we passed a dead birch, its bark loosened around a decayed trunk. Death seemed to have struck standing up while half-dressed.
He stopped to shoot the Sharpei-like folds of ice in a stream before we ventured across and I stopped to collect old man's beard and lichen for an art project. The beauty of natural objects struck us both but we incorporated them into our sensibilities in different ways.
We kept moving along the trail, our muscles still working with little effort. It felt good to be alive.
The trail continued to meander like rabbit tracks in the snow and many animal prints, including those of snowshoe hares, were stamped on the snowy surface. We pointed them out to one another, deep melon-sized ones, narrow hooves, paw prints, scratches, etc. and we guessed at their provenance — moose... deer... bobcat... wild turkey? We noticed scratchings on tree trunks and made cursory searches for fallen deer antlers and moose racks buried in the snow, despite assuming they were found by scavengers in late autumn. Fresh scat, from pea-size scatterings to piles of pecan-sized balls lay in stark brown relief to the whiteness and we laughed, remembering one child's long-ago giggling fascination with a booklet of animal scat descriptions.
After a while, the trail led to a frozen cove of the big lake. Stepping out onto a green-painted wooden dock sitting at an odd angle due to frost heaves, we felt the glacial bite of wind on our cheeks and tucked our chins further down into our thick fleece neck warmers. The vast expanse of glaring white snow-covered ice revealed none of the life the water harbored in summer. The striped and speckled, black and white loons, the skittish longhaired mergansers and elegant wraithlike herons had gone to milder climes for the winter season.
We ventured out onto the ice alone, confident that weeks of sub-zero temps had made it solid. As we turned west toward the main part of the lake, our warm breath became visible as it expelled into the cold air. We wouldn't spend too much time out there where there's no protection from wind whipping up mini storms on the surface in fits and starts — just long enough for him to get the shot he was seeking.
We passed wooden boathouses, their ramps pulled up and poking out of drifts and faded summer cottages with hoary screened porches. Every so often, we checked one another for white patches on our faces, a sign of frostbite. Each time we found none, we trudged further out.
At the point where the cove joined the main lake, the mountain came into view, a skiing behemoth commanding the eastern shore. The slopes formed a pattern of curves and lines and I mentally identified the ones I liked to ski while he captured the lights and shadows with his lens.
We were startled from the peace of observation and composition by noxious fumes and belching motors. Four snow machines raced past, a blur of colorful cabs, padded snowsuits and jet-black blades and helmets. We watched till the roar quieted to a hum and they disappeared into the distance.
Standing still had made the chill set in and we each gave a shiver and turned toward the cove again. All the way back, we heard the alternating roars and hums as the machines whizzed across the ice to and fro. It was only after we reached our entrance point to the land trail and slipped back into the woods that quiet was obtained again.
Out of the wind, we paused for an energy bar and realized we were sweating, despite the cold. We finished chewing, swigged some water and energized, took the hillier loop back, challenging ourselves.
As we came round a curve, he signaled to me and pointed to a small deer poised in a shaft of light. It seemed frozen in time, studying us with intense brown eyes for several seconds; then it turned and leapt away. We watched the bobbing white tail recede into the forest and disappear.
We smiled at one another acknowledging the magical moment, then moved on, frosty pink cheeks warming, muscles working, spirits high, glowing, contented, feeling young.