by Gerry Rowan
There’s been a steady light snow all day. By early evening, about 8 inches of light powder lay on the ground. It had been a windless day, and the snow had piled on tree branches and even twigs—little ridges of snow that would collapse under their own weight and then begin building again. The landscape around Bradys Lake, in State Game Land 127, Monroe County, looked like a postcard-perfect winter scene dusted with tiny, shimmering specks of mica. A kitsch image had it not been for the bite of the cold and the snow on our faces. A silent world, with nothing moving—not even the wind. The temperature was in the mid-twenties, and in the calm, keeping warm was not a problem. The action of cross-country skiing was enough to generate plenty of warmth.
We had come to the lake ready for whatever conditions we encountered. We were dressed to hike but had both snowshoes and cross-country skis in the truck. Little snow cover meant hiking; really deep snow, snowshoeing; and a foot or so of snow, skiing. With about 8 inches on the ground, cross-country skiing it was.
We braved the 3 miles of unplowed road leading from the highway to the parking lot next to the lake. Since it was late January, we were sure the lake had frozen into as safe surface. After all, the lake was originally built as an ice-harvesting lake for the New Jersey Central Railroad. A prime prerequisite for the location of an ice-harvesting lake was that the local climate be cold enough to freeze the lake surface at least a foot thick by January.
We poled our way up the lake and into the stream at the upper end. All was frozen solid. The upper end of the lake broke into a low-lying, shrubby, beaver-dammed area of bog and dead, waterlogged trees. The beaver dams had flooded the bog, drowning and eventually killing any trees the beavers hadn’t cut down. Over time, the bog will silt up and exhaust the beavers’ food supply. The beavers will then move on, and the dams will eventually fail under the pressure of the spring rains and drain. The rich, silted soil will sprout a whole new generation of scrub trees and cranberry. In time, the beavers might return and repeat the cycle.
The stream meandered in broad S-turns through a vast wetland that was nearly as large as the lake. In any season other than the dead of winter, getting into the heart of this wetland would be impossible. The thick, warm-season vegetation—a tangle of scrub oak, highbush blueberry, white birch, sweet fern, and rushes—would make the wetland impenetrable. Old stream courses meandered through the wetland, leaving little ribbons of water where they were not expected. Now they were clear streaks in a sea of scrub. The ground was mossy and soft. This was mostly sphagnum moss—virtually impossible to walk on without breaking through and plunging a foot or more into the murky water underneath. Beavers had dammed the stream in several places. These dams would make it impossible to navigate the stream in the summer by kayak or canoe.
A vast, blanketing silence had spread over the landscape along with the snow. The world was closed for the season. The falling snow limited the visibility and shrouded us in a blanket that cut out virtually all sound. There was an intimateness of the fog, of the snow, and silence. We poled up the lake in single file, not speaking. The only sound was the rhythmic swish of our skies breaking the snow with each lunge forward. Swish, swish, swish—a pattern that became our mantra. The repetitiveness of the activity became automatic, freeing our souls to be somewhere else. A meditation on the depths of winter.
We skied as far as we could; then, around 3:30, we decided to break away from the wetland and head back down to the lake. We stepped out of our ski bindings and hiked from there, following the track we’d broken earlier to avoid breaking a new trail. We kept a watchful eye on the clock so we’d be back to the truck by nightfall. We knew that by 6:00 it would be dark. Best to be back in the truck and heading home before nightfall. After all, we still had to renavigate the road back to the highway, and there had been at least an additional half a foot of snow since we’d parked at the lake. Even with a 4-wheel-drive truck, driving might be a problem—with the snow too deep, the truck would ride up on the compressed snow and lose traction.
Suddenly, off to our west, came a yelp, yelp of something. It didn’t sound like a dog, but what was it? The yelps were answered by another call from the woods. Then several yelps, followed by a howl. Could it be coyotes? No! Impossible—there are no coyotes in Pennsylvania. Unsure of what was shadowing us, we pressed on a little faster. With the day fading, any unfamiliar sound was a little unnerving. As we proceeded down the lake, the yelps and howls paralleled us. Not close enough to be seen, but close enough to let us know we were intruding on their turf.
After 15 or 20 minutes of listening to the dialogue of protest to our west, I began distinguishing different howls. I guessed there were 4 to 6 coyotes shadowing us down the lake. It was unsettling to know we were being shadowed, just out of sight. The coyotes were put off by our presence but not brave enough to be seen. Being seen could mean being shot, and they were certainly too smart for that. We were now sharing the woods with something new, and that something was really smart and crafty.
Coyotes have since become friends on the trail. Never near enough to be threatening, but never far away. When they first showed up here in Pennsylvania, there was fear that they’d negatively affect the deer, rabbit, grouse, and turkey populations. There doesn’t seem to have been any negative impacts on these species; I do think they’ve affected the frog, mouse, and squirrel populations. For me, they’ve become symbols of the wild outdoors.
They were with us all the way, even as we loaded our skis back into the truck. I broke out a small, gas-powered camp stove, pumped the piston several times to build up a little pressure, and struck a match to the pan of the burner. The hiss of the burner and the light it threw were welcome in the cold dampness of the falling night. I poured about a quart of water into an old tea kettle, set it over the fire, and scooped heaping tablespoons of chai tea into 2 big mugs. This old stove had a familiar smell when burning; it smelled like dinner was on its way. When the water boiled, I divided the tea between both mugs. We sat there on the tailgate of the truck, enjoying the tea and thick slices of fruitcake—heavy with rum—at the end of the day on the frozen lake. Sitting still meant immediately getting cold. I washed the mugs with snow and packed them into the truck along with my old stove. We shed our gaiters and changed into fresh, dry socks and hiking boots rather than our ski boots.
With the truck in 4-wheel-drive low range, we pushed snow ahead of us at times but made it back to the highway without incident.
Keystone Trails Association