The Character of Snow

This piece was written by me many years ago for a local newspaper and originally entitled “Frozen Friend, Frozen Foe”.  It was later rewritten.  It is interesting to note how much my writing style has changed over the last ten years.

Late in the month of March, I bend over and run my hand through the coarse snow. The large sugar-like pieces fall apart into individual nodules and look like diamonds as they pile on the ground from my tilted hand. Although the snow is presently granulated, it came with with all sorts of consistencies this winter; powder, sticky wet snow, snow mixed with sleet. And now it has been homogenized together through the winter months through the processes of freezing and thawing, glazing on sunny days, and packed by driving winds during storms. The snow is holding on with one last gasp before it melts to its final stage, liquid.

Snow has character. I think about how difficult it is to recognize the different faces of snow. There is snow that is so fine, so light, and so dry that it cannot stick together. There is snow that is so wet and so heavy that it sticks to everything, acts as an anchor to branches on trees and human feet, and can be a real burden for those trying to travel through it. Snow can freeze and become ice-like. Unlike ice, a slight change in temperatures can turn it into a soft pudding that really has no discernible structure. Frozen snow can be sharp; so sharp it can cut through skin or hide. The character of snow may determine how difficult it is for wildlife to adapt to the winter world. Dry snow is an excellent insulator and can actually protect animals from cold conditions. Insulation translates into energy conservation, the very factor that may determine which animals (and plants) may live or die, and can actually decrease the need for an animal to forage. Wet snow can worsen the effects of cold by soaking the pelt and allowing the cold to reach the surface of an animal’s skin. This will aid in lowering a warm blooded animal’s body temperature. The resulting need for energy to stay warm increases the need to forage. This can use even more energy as it is expended in search of food.

In mid winter, snow reflects the sun, keeping the earth cool. Animals living beneath the snow’s surface, like the meadow vole, travel on well used trails foraging the day away in a relatively comfortable, although very dark, environment.

The animals that live in New England are well adapted for the snowy winters found in this part of the world. The ruffed grouse grows combs on the side of their feet each winter to help it walk on top of the snow; temporary snow-shoes so to speak. The short tailed weasel has a pelt that turns white. This excellent camouflage helps the weasel from being seen and makes it a more effective predator. Similarly, the snow shoe hare also has fur that turns white, allowing it to blend into the snowy background and evade predation. The hare also has specially adapted feet that are large and enable it to stay on top of the snow and use less energy in its travels. Lynx, a very effective northern New England predator, also have large feet that enable it to move about quickly in the snow when capturing prey.

Animals with hooves, like white tail deer have a difficult time in deep snow. Generally their winter strategy is to yard up on south facing hemlock groves where the snow is, for the most part, intercepted by the evergreen branches reducing the snow depth on the forest floor. The dense conifer stands also serve as an effective wind-break form northwest winds which can stress deer populations and make them use more energy. Hemlocks frequently have low branches. These branches can be foraged, providing food for the deer, lessening the need for travel in search of food. Traveling for forage seldom works well for deer. In deep snows the energy migrating often exceeds the energy gotten for the food that is found. Even short migrations in search of food can raise mortality rates in deer herds. Deer traveling in deep snow may also be more susceptible to predation. Often lynx, coyotes, and other predators have superior mobility in deep snow conditions.

Another character of snow is that it can supply good shelter under the right circumstances. Conifer bows bend when covered with snow and can create small coveys where wildlife can escape from the elements.

In my travels through the wilds earlier today I came across a meadow where there was a natural winter hide-away. An area of multiflora rose and barberry stood adjacent to a pine stand. The covey of multiflora rose and barberry were located on the northwest side of the pine thicket. Blowing snow had piled up against this dense, thorny shrub area. The weight of the snow had bent the rose and barberry bows so that they created a snow covered tunnel through one side of the meadow. Peering in from one end I could see many deer tracks entering the opposite end of the tunnel. The tunnel was almost devoid of light except for the light coming through the openings. It looked like the deer had recently weathered a cold night and some freezing rain in the quonset shaped igloo that created a place safe from the elements.

Another problematic character of snow, for wildlife, is its ability to conceal food. This problem can be heightened when the snow thaws and then freezes, creating a hard, physical barrier that is difficult to penetrate. When acorns, seeds, and nuts cannot be found, other forage like plant and tree buds, bark, and evergreen ferns may become accessible and valuable food crops.

As I return home I come to the edge of our homestead. My children are building a fort along the edge of the driveway. This is, perhaps, one last winter activity on this March day that will soon be replaced with balls, bats, and baseball diamonds. In an area near where they are building their snow fort I can see the red handle of a long lost snow shovel, likely left behind when the snow fort was first built, and soon thereafter buried by a new snow storm. This artifact is a reminder that there are lots of treasures to be found as the snow melts away.

While the deep snows whither under the strong March sun, humans and wildlife alike will be celebrating spring. Many of the wild survivors of winter will soon give birth and bring the next generation to a region where four seasons gives us a special reason to enjoy each and every day.

I will cherish the last days of winter and the beginning of spring. The stark landscape gradually turns green. Cool air yields to rising temperatures. And each day is more beautiful, and different, than the day before.

  • Guy

    Hi Bill

    I found this post really interesting and I love the shot of your bloodhound, what a beautiful dog.

    I posted some trail camera shots you might like.


  • Anonymous

    Much new information here to me about the snow.  I especially like the hide-away provided by the snow and the ruffed grouse growing snowshoe feet.  Never knew.  I like your dog standing on snow.  A good dog I know.  

  • Wild_Bill

     I’ll be sure to come on over to your site for the trail camera shots!  I love these.  Cooper, my male bloodhound (I have another, female, named Adia) is a big boy, weighing in at about 130 pounds.  Adia is a big girl at 120. They are wonderful dogs that help me to “see” the natural world through their incredible sense of smell.

  • Wild_Bill

     Snow is wonderful.  Not as much as I would have liked to have seen this year, but we will take what we can get.  Isn’t amazing the adaptations animals and plants make to live in harsh conditions!

  • Barbara

    Trusty Cooper – wonderful shot of him, and of all the winter world. Snow has been sparse this year and today I believe the last of it will be gone from this valley in central Ontario except maybe for the ski hills. 

    And birds that were here eating at least 12 quarts of seed a day are sitting in the trees and carrying on conversations, not needing the ready food source. Daffodil noses are poking through the earth amidst the last of the crusted snow…and in reading your piece about snow, I learned about grouse feet – had no idea. But have seen many deer yards this winter because snow or not, the winds have been grueling. Most recently, lots of tiny deer feet too not much bigger than a fifty cent piece, or a loony in my country. So my big dogs don’t get off the property much. They’re too good at tracking and the fawns would be at risk… they’ll be happy when the snow has been gone for a long time… not me though, this year I only got to ski and snow shoe for a few days in the past couple of weeks… oh well there is always next year, and I love spring. Loved this piece Bill – old or not – your writing is always full of information, easy to read and has a lilt to it that I certainly enjoy. Your love of the environment and dedication to its protection is evident in every word. Congratulations on your award, well deserved… and on this lovely piece with great photos that remind me of what winter looked like on a couple of days only this year.

  • Annie

    I agree, your writing style is much different now. Nice to see how much more comfortable you have become with your words and descriptions.

    Old article or not, it’s still a wonderful look at something we all take for granted. Snow is snow. But then, as you point out it is but like everything in nature, it’s different each time we see it. We need to just stop and take a look.

  • Emily

    I love this, Bill. It’s fun to get a glimpse of you years ago–what you were thinking about and caring about. A slightly different writing style, perhaps, but still the same man who loves the world and the people around him. Thanks for sharing!

    (PS: We’ve had 60-degree days recently in Minnesota, and even though this has been the strangest and easiest winter I can remember, I’m aching for spring. I love hearing the birds again.)

  • Wild_Bill

     Thank you Emily.  There is a bit of personal history in this, and a glimpse of who I was, I kind of missed that part when I posted it yesterday.  And yes, even though it wasn’t much of a winter I still was able to go ice fishing a dozen times, and I now will look forward to spring as we are about to have a whole week of temps in the fifties.

  • Wild_Bill

     Observation is everything when it comes to understanding what something really is.  Snow is kind of like the weather, if you don’t like it, give it a moment, and it will change.

  • Wild_Bill

     Thanks Barbara.  Light snow year here as well.  We still have snow cover but with a week of warm weather ahead I expect it all to melt save the snow plow piles.  I will welcome spring as it will return me to lake fishing and wandering in rich green woods.

  • Barb

    Your explanation of the many faces of snow rings true, Bill. Often, people think of only one entity when they think of snow, but it can have so many different personalities. Our snow pack this season is below normal in Summit County, CO, though we’ll certainly continue getting storms at high altitude throughout April and May. In spring, if I want to navigate the back trails, I have a short window of opportunity between freeze and thaw. I like seeing your frosty trees.

  • Wild_Bill

    It is true that unless you spend a lot of time in the white stuff many would not understand just how different one type of snow is from another, but the important part is to just enjoy it.

  • sandy

    I never thought in all these years, about the how hard it would be for animals to get through the hard crust on the snow. I know that deer do travel on the crust to reach food.  One night years ago, I saw by the light of the moon, a row of deer walking single file across our back field. It was bitterly cold, and I have always wondered where they were headed. 
     Can you tell me how turkeys winter? We are just starting to see small groups out in the open. Do they yard up like deer? We are snowless once again. 64º here today, but I did hear reports of flurries in the mountains tonight. 

  • Wild_Bill

     Turkeys form moderate sized flocks, tend to stay on the south side of hills, and forage through the snow for acorns, beechnuts, birch seeds, and a variety of other seeds.  They roost at night, awkwardly I might add, and wait for the warmth of the next day.  They are in general a pretty darned tough bird.

  • Out Walking the Dog

    Lovely piece, Bill, but the whole concept of snow almost seems exotic this year. Here in the city, we are having 60-70 degree temperatures, flowers are out and trees are budding. Only one real snowfall this winter, and it was very mild.

  • Wild_Bill

     Strange winter indeed, even my friends in Minnesota report and unusually mild year.  Who would’ve thunk?

  • Ratty

    I’ve always thought of the different kinds of snow, but not to this extent. I will next year. This year spring has already come here to my part of the country.

  • Wild_Bill

     If it stays warm here I expect the snow will be mostly gone (except plow piles) by the end of the weekend.  Very unusual for this part of the country.

  • Montucky

    I love your analysis of the character of snow. Knowing and having experienced those things about it can mean the difference of life and death to a man in the back country in winter. And the difference between comfort and stress in any deep winter situation. Interesting, isn’t it that we must cognitively learn that which the wild things know almost from birth. 

  • Wild_Bill

     Yes, given that intellect and instinct occupy the same area of the brain, humans have lost much of their instinctual capacity and must learn what other animals know instinctively.  Funny how things work out!

  • Teresaevangeline

    I have a clear memory of sitting inside a snow fort I had created on the edge of the field in front of my childhood home. The snow looked so sparkly and individualistic I felt as though I was sitting in a field of diamonds. I felt like the richest girl on the planet. :)  

    We had a late, short winter. I wasn’t snowbound one time, and I sort of miss having that calming and peaceful experience. But, I am enjoying the sounds of spring, even the chores are relaxing.

  • Anonymous

    Alright, Bill, you been quiet enough.  Give your readers a few sentences.  

  • Wild_Bill

     Not sure what you mean Jack.  Since this post there have been two more.  Or are you referring to something else?

  • Hiking shoes

     thanks for nice posting…i will visit your site again..

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