Written by Doug Hoy.
We were welcomed to a cozy cabin amidst pines and bedrock by three generations of Thomsons. Eleanor and David offered to guide us on the trail system they had developed over the years, and we followed them into the bush. We wound through snowy corridors past trees shattered by storms. Our guides glided easily ahead on skis, as we snowshoers followed behind like a giant GoreTex caterpillar, slowed by downed timber that Eleanor somehow levitated her skis over.
The trail opened onto beaver ponds and meadows among rocky, pine-covered outcrops. We tramped willy-nilly over flooded terrain that in summer would be passable only by moose or beaver. In some ways, winter is the best time to go into the woods. It definitely lets you see who has been walking where. A number of tracks gave away the Snowshoe Hares, weasels, and Mink that invisibly surrounded us. On one smooth expanse of snow, a Fisher had written a story for keen tracking eyes – a sedate set of tracks heading in our direction, and hurried footprints bounding away from us.
A discussion arose about mammal tracks and tricks – how many put their hind feet first, reversing the track, and how some can confuse us by stepping in their own tracks (easy to do with four feet, but not possible for us bipeds).
Bird life was scarce. We heard only a few chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and the distant croak of a Raven – typical sounds of the northern forest.
Botany never fails though, so we examined and discussed the trees around us, their bark patterns, phyllotaxy, needle shape and arrangement, and the laundry of dried leaves that gives away the identities of oaks, beeches and ironwoods all winter long.
Many tree trunks had been drilled with Yellow-bellied Sapsucker latticework, some with remarkably large marks. We were assured that the growing trunks had expanded the marks beyond their original dimensions – no giant sapsuckers here. We used the same explanation for giant bear claw marks on a big poplar. No bear could be that big, but we hurried on our way nonetheless.
Lunchtime had come and gone when word came down the line that no, we weren’t lost exactly, but the trail seemed to be. Some muttering about retracing our steps, until we were told to look for blue markers on trees. One was sighted, and then another, until we had the right bearing back. A narrow but picturesque ravine gave our snowshoes a good workout until the cabin reappeared.
After such a workout, lunch and Sheila’s apricot bread were devoured and washed down by mountaintop well water. We swapped stories and, with Jan’s urging, Sheila recounted adventures during her long and rich life in wild places. We marvelled at the list covering one cabin wall of all the places she’d paddled a canoe in.
The fresh air, long hike, and warm fire had some of us drowsy so we gathered our gear, and snowshoed back down the snowy road to the cars, refreshed in body and soul, grateful the Thomsons had shared their mountain retreat with us.