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december snow


Last year in April, our snow shovel shattered under the weight of a too-heavy load of late spring, slushy snow.  Stores -- even in Duluth -- don't stock snow shovels in April, so I had to clear the additional 40 inches that followed that spring using a garden spade.  The first thing that I did this Monday morning after the Black Friday lunacy had abated was buy a snow shovel.  And the first thing that I did on Tuesday was to use that shovel.

The snow fell so fast that I never managed to clear it completely away: my goal was to keep the level to a manageable height.  We weren't "snowed in" in the strictest sense of the word -- the doors still opened, we could walk (albeit awkwardly) around the yard, we probably could have even taken out the truck if there had been any need -- but there wasn't.  For two days, I beat a trail through the woods along our river: by walking the same route, I was able to keep the snow packed in much the same way as my constant shoveling kept the walkways around our house navigable.

My sister, who lives 300 miles south of here near Madison, Wisconsin, labeled our weather a blizzard, but after experiencing a true blizzard in the mountains of Montana, I wouldn't even call what we had a snow storm.  It was merely a lot -- two and a half feet -- of snow.

When we bought this house, we congratulated ourselves at finding one with a metal roof.  "Ha!" we declared.  "No more shoveling roofs when the snow gets too heavy and deep!"  Yes, the packed, heavy snow just slides down off the roof of our house and garage, unfortunately, it comes to rest in front of all of the doorways.  And in the process, it makes as much noise as an oncoming freight train.

But all negatives aside, the days that follow a snow event are some of the most enchanted of the winter.  The sky is always at its bluest, clean and pure.  The low December sun creates long shadows even at midday, precisely defined and faintly lavender in the new snow.

In cities, the wonder of snow is fleeting as the whiteness quickly turns into gray slush.  But where nothing touches snow except the clean, cold air of winter, the stark beauty of snow transforms the world into a paradise.  Forests become groves of Christmas trees, the branches of spruce weighted by clumps of snow whose whiteness contrasts the dark green needles like a half-tone print.  The spruce seem to grow ten or twenty feet in height, an optical illusion caused by the thinning of their forms from the down-sloped branches.

For the first time this winter, I strap on my snowshoes.  My favorite pair of snowshoes are made in the Ojibwa design: unlike more familiar styles with rounded toes, the Ojibwas use two pieces of ash to form the frame so that the shoes taper to a point both at the tail and at the nose.  The pointed nose acts like a ski tip: instead of forcing the wearer to step on top of snow, the point cuts through the snow.   The Ojibwa or Annishinabe people were native to our area -- and their snowshoe design is perfectly adapted to our snow conditions.

For my snowshoe jaunt, I wear mukluks instead of boots, another gift of the Annishinabe.  Mukluks are tall moccasins made of deer or moose hide in the foot and canvas above, with long laces that criss-cross up the leg.  Inside is a thick, felted wool liner.  The design is simple, yet brilliant: unlike stiff boots, mukluks allow the foot to flex and breathe.  I've worn my mukluks for hours in subzero temperatures and never once suffered from cold feet.

My dogs, however, are provided with neither mukluks nor snowshoes.  After floundering ahead of me for the first mile, they fall behind and lag in my footsteps, allowing me to break trail.  In these cold temperatures, they often hobble on three legs, raising one paw or the other as their uninsulated paw pads chill.

We soldier on.  My goal is the overlook where these riverside hills slide down to the mouth of the Bois Brule River and the big lake -- the superior lake -- spreads to cover the entire horizon.  But when we arrive at the overlook I'm disappointed: in the subzero temperatures, the unfrozen water of the lake steams like a hot spring.  Despite the clear arctic high, a low cloud, born of vapor that the cold air has coaxed from the much warmer water, hangs over the lake, blurring the horizon.

The dogs prance and feint, instinctively aware of the danger that comes with stillness in these conditions.  We turn back, our now broken trail as easy to follow as a shoveled sidewalk, an imprint in the snow that will remain for four or five months, months full of beauty and enchantment, loneliness and danger.