Have you heard of the “January Thaw?” You may get it where you live too, but it’s a fairly regular and welcome visitor in Wyoming. Two weeks ago we had the “chinooks,” warm high-velocity winds, that howled around the houses and broke trees in the forest. In fact, this year’s chinook set a record for the highest wind our part of Wyoming has seen since records began sometime back in the 1880sâ€”128 miles per hour! The Chinook scoured the roads clear after two days, then as they stopped the snow began, a light snow with only about two inches. THAT was followed by temperatures in the 50s and today it could be in the 70s. Animals that had been laying low for weeks are out, like us basking into the sunshine. Herds of a hundred elk or deer, moved from the aspen groves and into the meadows to graze in the warmth while they can. We know it can’t last, that February and March will be our heaviest snow months, but for now we’re hiking and cross country skiing in short sleeves.
Last night I went for a walk in the light of an almost-full moon, with only a tiny cutout at the bottom that kept it from being a full circle. Thin clouds hurried across the sky, but it gave the impression that the moon itself was racing along instead of the clouds. It has only been a few days since the last storm dumped more than a foot of snow, so the landscape was clear and moon shadows lay dark across the bluish whiteness. Sparkles like sequins covered the snowfields and on the willow branches, where tiny, flat crystals of ice were mirrors. In fact, I knelt in the snow and looked closely at one of the sparkles and was surprised to see a light shape exactly the same as the moon. I looked at another and it was the same, complete with a little cutout at the bottom. If you’re out on a moonlight night have a look yourself. That glittering snow is really the reflection of the moon. What a fun discovery.
Winter’s arrived at the Ranch. The past two nights the temperature dipped to -15 degrees and there are about 18 inches of snow everywhere with more promised later this week. Daytime temperatures rise into the thirties and the bright sun makes being outside a true joy.
Last Saturday we had an important job to do; we needed to select and cut a Christmas tree. Justin has been training his riding horse, Solito, to pull a sleigh, a hundred year old cutter that he bought a couple of years ago and restored. He decided that pulling a Christmas tree would be good for Solito’s training, so on Saturday the family set out on a tree expedition.
Lissa carried one-year-old, Kenna, who was bundled in a cozy back-pack. Christine, now four, bundled too, and wearing her pink riding helmet, rode her horse Big Enough. Laughter and childish chatter echoed across the river as the little party waded along through the snow, checking out one tree after the other until finally they found the perfect one.
Justin and Christine cut down the tree and tied it to Solito’s harness traces. It made a pleasant swishing sound as they plowed downhill. Pictures were taken and finally the family headed back home where the tree has been decorated and graces the living room.
Our day began with more snow and a blue gray light exactly like the day ended yesterday. Birds were active, scratching around under bushes and perched on dead weed stalks, eating seeds then letting the fluff drift away in the wind.Â As I drove toward Hubbell House I was surprised to see an adult bald eagle perched in a cotton wood right amid the cabins. I was with Debbie Salisbury, our Head Housekeeper and we stopped our truck to admire the beautiful bird. We’d only paused for about five seconds when the birddropped from its perch and soared toward the kids’ fishing pond. From out of nowhere a little bird appeared and began to chase the big bird, diving and pecking at its head. The eagle ducked each time the little shadow birdattacked but made a complete circle of the pond. I thought it would fly off but instead it made another circle, still with the little bird harassing it.Â As we watched, the eagle dropped lower and as it skimmed over the surface.Â It gracefully spread its talons forward and snatched a fish from the surface of the water. We thought the show was over but it turned and flew toward us, passing about thirty feet overhead with a fourteen inch trout, then disappeared toward the river.Â In the cold, the bird feeders are filled in the morning, empty in the afternoon, reminding me of information I recently read in Holdfast, by Kathleen Dean Moore, that chickadees stash seeds under bark, flaps of branches, in crevices on tree trunks and rocks, remembering hundreds, even thousands of places. The hippocampus, memory-storage area of the brain, she says, grows in the fall to accommodate those memories. As the winter passes, and the storage areas shrink, so does the hippocampus. It’s not a case it seems of use it or lose it but rather, used it, don’t need it for now.
We are still busy, finishing up various projects from the summerÂ setting out plans for the winter. This morning I found myself thoroughly engrossed in some project or other and barely moved at my desk for more than an hour. I’d started early, when it was still dark, and couldn’t see outside, but wouldn’t have seen any movement anyhow. The phone rang, shaking me to attention, and when I stood up to talk I looked out the window right into the eyes of an eight-point (four tines per side) buck only six feet away. I’d seen the same fellow in the willows yesterday; his antlers still orangey-red from dried blood where he’d just rubbed off the last of his velvet. They must still be itchy though, because he was scratching them in the branches of the tree. He saw me and watched back with a casual and unconcerned air. I went back to work while he scratched and stared in at me for more than half an hour before he got up, stretched and walked away into the willows. When we close in the fall, my annual ritual is to turn off all the outside lights. This year, the very next night after the lights went out the compound was busy as animals reclaimed their territories, so it seems we’re in for another winter of critter-watching.