Sharing with Friends

To appreciate the beauty of a snowflake it is necessary to stand in the cold.


This is the second post from our January trip to Yellowstone. After spending a few days scouting the northern range of the park and hanging out with some Montana friends, a group of eight NC friends flew out to Bozeman for the start of a winter adventure. We picked everyone up in our two 4wd rentals and were off to the park and our wonderful lodging at Elk River Art in Gardiner.

The dining room and living space at Elk River Art lodge. The place is spectacular and overlooks the Yellowstone River (click photos to enlarge)

After settling in, we drove the Old Yellowstone Trail to see the hundreds of ungulates gathered in the lower elevation sagebrush and grassland flats along the river.

A Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep ram that has seen some battles over the years. This guy had the most banged up set of horns I have seen on a ram in the park, the result of many head butts with rivals during the rut.

The next morning we headed into the park early, with temperatures below 10°F (I believe the coldest we experienced with our friends was -13°F and the highest up near 20°F). Though snow was predicted, we were thrilled to have some sunshine on our first full day in the park.

Barronette Peak in all its winter glory

Bighorn ram on the cliff above the road at the Confluence (where Soda Butte Creek flows into the Lamar River)

Our first snowshoe hike was at the place Melissa and I had encountered the two bull Moose a few days before. No Moose this time, but the scenery (and tracks of so many animals) was amazing

Everyone doing great on snowshoes (those in the know say if you can walk, you can snowshoe)

The day proved to be a wildlife bonanza with lots of Elk, snowy Bison, and a threesome of River Otter fishing below the Lamar River bridge in Little America, where a crowd had gathered to enjoy the antics.

Two of the three otters popped up on the ice for a photo

The otters were very adept at catching small fish and making quick snacks of them

A gorgeous Coyote paused to check us out as it traveled toward the road in Little America

The next day brought snowy conditions and more wildlife sightings, including what for many was the highlight of the trip. We were hoping for wolves and went up to the Nature Trail parking lot where Melissa and I had seen some of the Rescue Creek pack a few day earlier, but no luck. We then saw some cars stopped near Blacktail Creek, and rumors were that wolves had been heard. We drove down to the pullout at Wraith Falls on a hunch that Melissa had and as we pulled in, the one person there motioned for us to be quiet and listen…howling! And it was close!

The six wolves of the Lupine Pack on a ridge across from Wraith Falls

We stayed with these wolves for a couple of hours, watching them interact and howl, probably the best howling I have ever heard. The pullout is small so we were with a relatively small group of wolf-watchers. Rick McIntyre (the “wolf guy”) stopped in and Melissa went over and got the scoop on who was who in the pack. It was wolf watching at its finest.

Heavily cropped image of four of the Lupine Pack running across the hillside

I put my phone on a spotting scope and was able to get a few images and some video of the wolves howling…

— Two of the wolves join in on a chorus of howls from the entire Lupine Pack. Turn volume up to hear them (the wind was shaking the scope a bit and you can also hear wind gusts and the crunching of snow as someone walks nearby)

After some quality time with the wolves, we headed toward Silver Gate at the northeast entrance for a talk with our friends Dan and Cindy Hartman. Dan shared some of his amazing stories and films of local wildlife, focusing on the incredible diversity found in the nearby Beartooth Mountains. On our way, Melissa spotted a Red Fox near a group of bison, so we parked and got out hoping for a better look. It went in and out of view along a ravine edge and briefly appeared in the open for a photo.

Red Fox on the Blacktail Plateau

After spending some time in Silver Gate, we headed back toward Gardiner with a steady snow falling.

Barronette Peak has a different look during a snow event

These conditions make you realize what a bottleneck the winter is for all the wildlife in the park – they must all find ways to persevere through these difficult months.

This Coyote has a leg injury and has been nicknamed Limpy on social media from photographers in the park. It is probably becoming acclimated to humans and may, unfortunately, be begging for food from passing vehicles as it patrols the road.

We were pleased that our friends seemed to enjoy watching bison as much as we do, so we spent time every chance we had to just sit and watch these amazing animals as they plowed their heads through the snow seeking the buried grasses.

A Bison near Soda Butte wading through snow up to its belly

Bison use muscles from that huge hump to their necks to swing their massive heads back and forth through snow to get food underneath

A lot of effort for a meager mouthful of dried grass

We did another snowshoe hike at Junction Butte where the Yellowstone and Lamar Rivers meet. Our trail had fresh Coyote and Bighorn Sheep tracks leading the way. Toward the end of the trail it looked as though the sheep had bounded away through the snow, perhaps as we approached.

The Yellowstone River at Junction Butte

On our last day of driving the northern range (the only road kept open for regular vehicles in winter in the park), we saw a crowd of tripods and big lenses pointed to a ridge line near the road. I had to pause because of stopped cars and managed a couple of photos of what was causing the traffic jam – two magnificent bull Elk had bedded down not far from the road were silhouetted against the gray sky.

One of two nice bulls bedded down just above the road

The next day was our trip to the interior on a snowcoach, always a highlight of any winter trip.

Standing in Hayden Valley with our transportation to the interior, a Xanterra-operated snowcoach

A common sight in winter – Bison using the road for easy travel, requiring your car or a snowcoach to pause and let them pass

The task of the winterkeepers in the interior is to cut huge blocks of snow and push them off the roofs of buildings to prevent collapse under the weight of the several feet of snow that falls each winter. At Canyon, we saw a work in progress – note the clean edge of the cut snow on the roof and the huge pile of snow blocks tn front of the building.

The so-called “Murphy tree” (I assume named for renowned Yellowstone photographer, Tom Murphy) stands against a sea of white in Hayden Valley

We all were awestruck by the delicate beauty of snowflakes falling on our jackets and gloves

Tons of delicate crystals add up to impressive snow depths (and she is tall!)

Along the rivers we saw several species of birds including Bald Eagles, American Dippers, Buffleheads, Mallards, Ring-Necked Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, Canada Geese, and the elegant Trumpeter Swans.

A pair of Hooded Mergansers photographed through the snowcoach window

Trumpeter Swan along the Firehole River

The groomer is what keeps the interior roads passable for snowcoaches, snowmobiles, and even Bison. Behind and to the right of it is the Visitor Center at Old Faithful and to the left is the historic Old Faithful Inn (which is closed in the winter)

Our time in the interior was filled with cold temperatures, fresh snow, wildlife, and the incredible thermal features for which our first national park was established back in 1872. I enjoy the thermal basins more in winter because the crowds are non-existent, and you can hear the features hissing, splashing, and plopping amidst the increased steam.

— Dragon’s Mouth is a bizarre hot spring in the Mud Volcano area of the park. The feature is in a cave on a hillside. Bubbles of gas and steam from deep in the ground explode against the cave’s roof causing a booming and gurgling noise along with pulses of hot water and steam on the surface. Other names for the feature over the years have included Gothic Grotto and The Belcher. The Crow believed the steam and sound to be the snorts of an angry Bison.

— My favorite thermal feature is the mudpot known as Fountain Paint Pots in the Lower Geyser Basin. Mudpots are similar to hot springs but have less water. Hydrogen sulfide gas from below interacts with surface water and microorganisms to weather the surrounding rock to mud. Gas and water vapor from below push up through the mud causing the bubbles and plops on the surface.

— Along the trail at Fountain Paint Pots, we came upon Fountain Geyser erupting. It shoots up to 50 ft in the air and continues for more than 20 minutes.

A ranger once told our group that no matter what you came to see in Yellowstone, you really came to see geology (since it determines everything else we see on the landscape). I think people may come to Yellowstone for many reasons. The fantastical thermal features, the amazing abundance and diversity of wildlife, and the simplicity, beauty, and quiet of a snowy scene are some of the many wonders we all shared and came to appreciate in this magical place called Yellowstone. I can’t wait to return…

— A snowy scene from the interior of our favorite park, Yellowstone

Winter Wonderland

Through the weeks of deep snow, we walked above the ground on fallen sky…

~Wendell Berry

I alluded to this trip in our last post when I whined about missing our “big snow” at home while we were away. Well, we were away in our happy place, Yellowstone. And, even though it is experiencing a relative snow drought this winter, there was still plenty in most places. We were asked by a teacher friend at the NC School of Science and Mathematics last summer to lead a winter Yellowstone trip for high school juniors and seniors. With the ups and downs of Covid, we were unsure about the prospects for making the trip happen, but, eventually, it came to fruition with all participants fully vaccinated and everyone agreeing to adhere to Covid protocols before and during the adventure. Melissa and I went out a few days early to scout things out and make final arrangements for lodging and meals. Melissa managed to find lodging in a hostel so we were isolated as a group and we had all our meals but one catered to minimize being in crowded indoor spaces. I will admit we were both a bit nervous about our first flight since the start of the pandemic, but, we were careful and everything turned out fine.

This is the first of a few posts about the trip. We had a nice mix of snowy days and bright sunny days, so we experienced both the quiet beauty of snow falling from gray skies and the glistening allure of diamond dust. That latter phenomenon occurs when a ground-level “cloud” of tiny ice crystals sparkles in the sunlight. Diamond dust usually occurs only in temperatures well below freezing. It is one of my favorite atmospheric conditions in Yellowstone in winter.

Below are a few of the scenic highlights of the trip…

Lamar Valley (click photos to enlarge)
There’s always more snow in the northeast portions of the park
Icy morning in the interior (on our snow coach ride to Old Faithful)
An all but frozen Soda Butte Creek
It was a very good year for Snowshoe Hares. Their tracks were everywhere! (pop quiz – which way was this animal going?)
The group on a snowshoe hike on the Thunderer Trail
Rime ice on trees along a waterway impacted by a thermal feature
The steam phase of the eruption of Steamboat Geyser, the world’s tallest geyser. The impressive water phase had happened the day before our trip to the interior. The water phase can be major or minor in length, with the geyser height in a major eruption reaching over 300 feet. The steam phase can last from a few hours to several days. Over the years, Steamboat has been unpredictable in its schedule with intervals between eruption ranging from 4 days to 50 years. The largest number of recorded eruptions in a year occurred twice, with 48 eruptions in both 2019 and 2020. This is the first time we have ever seen Steamboat erupting and it was a thrill!
The nearby Cistern Spring is believed to be connected to Steamboat Geyser. Cistern’s discharge increased in 1965, when Steamboat’s major eruptions were becoming less frequent. This surge in heat and water was so great that all vegetation immediately south of Cistern was killed, The water level in Cistern changes when Steamboat erupts.
The Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone as seen from Lookout Point. This waterfall is 308 feet high and, in winter, the ice mountain at the base of the falls can be over 100 feet tall.
Old Faithful geyser erupting. The beauty of this winter sunrise sighting was that only four other people besides our group were there to witness it. In summer, there can be several thousand people crowded on the boardwalks viewing an eruption.
Rime ice on trees in the Upper Geyser Basin

One of my favorite thermal hikes is the Fountain Paint Pots Trail where, in a short walk, you can see all four types of Yellowstone’s thermal features – geysers, hot springs, mudpots, and fumaroles. My favorite are the mudpots. They are like a natural double boiler. Water collects in a shallow, impermeable depression (usually due to a lining of clay). Heated water under the depression causes steam to rise through the ground, heating the collected surface water. Hydrogen sulfide gas is usually present, and certain microorganisms use the smelly gas for energy. Microbes help convert the gas to sulfuric acid, which breaks down rock into clay. The result is a goopy mix where the gases gurgle and bubble. Minerals, like iron oxides,color the mudpots leading to the name “paint pots.” I find myself taking a ridiculously large number of photos here on every visit, hoping to capture an unusual shape as the mud erupts.

A spire of mud
Intricate patterns in an erupting mud bubble
A combination of spire and bubble
Grand Prismatic Spring from the boardwalk, the largest hot spring in Yellowstone, and the third largest in the world.
I love the incredible sunrises and sunsets in Yellowstone, especially in winter. Here is a flame orange sunset toward the end of our trip.
Melissa looking at wolves at sunrise

The next posts will cover some of the amazing wildlife we encountered during our adventure…

It Really Snowed (and we missed it)!

While I relish our warm months, winter forms our character and brings out our best.

~Thomas H. Allen

While we were away in mid-late January we got our biggest snow of the past couple of years (a whopping 3+ inches I believe). We were bummed to miss it (even though we were off on an adventure to our favorite winter wonderland – more on that in the next post). Snow in our woods is special to us and we relish any chance to get out in it and walk the transformed forest. Luckily, our trail cameras captured some of the beauty and activity in our absence. Here are a few highlights…

— A beautiful capture of some of our resident deer in fresh snow

— A large buck that I haven’t seen yet this year made a couple of appearances after the snow

— A coyote shows the typical “I’m in a hurry to get somewhere” travel mode

— Looks like there are more deer out there than I knew about (how many do you see?)

Looking forward to being here in the next “big” snow!

Snow at Last

Oh winter! One never, never loses the surprise and wonder of new fallen snow…

~Emily Carr

And surprise it was….they predicted it, and it actually snowed! That has been an unusual happening in these parts for over 450 days (I believe I heard the last measurable snow fall in central North Carolina was about 469 days ago). It started about 3 p.m. Thursday and lasted well into the night. The other surprise was how it affected the trees – it was a wet heavy snow with temperatures dropping rapidly, so ice built up on delicate tree limbs. By Friday morning, it looked as though all our small trees were bowing to the snow gods.

Driveway after snow

The view of the lower driveway with trees bending across the road (click photos to enlarge)

tree with crusted snow

Brilliant white branches against a bright blue sky.

Snapped branch fro redbud tree

The redbud trees took a hit with several having split trunks or falling over due to the weight of the snow.

With such cold temperatures (in the 20’s) and a crust of frozen snow on most surfaces, the birds were busy at the feeders out back. I sat for a couple of hours watching their comings and goings before I just got too cold and had to retreat.

Carolina chickdee

Carolina chickadee with a freshly hulled sunflower seed between its feet.

The most abundant birds I saw around the feeding station were pine warblers. They are the most common warbler we see in this area in winter (most warblers migrate out of our area to warmer climates). They can be found at both seed feeders (another unusual trait for a warbler) and suet (the latter is the preferred feeder here). They tended to come into the feeders in groups (typical behavior of winter feeding flocks) and exhibited quite a bit of aggressive interactions at times. I never managed to grab an image as a pair engaged in their brief battles where they fly up against one another, lock beaks, and spiral downward before releasing and chasing one another. I guess it is always good to have higher goals in life…

pine warbler on branch

One of several pine warblers that stayed busy at the suet feeder. This one is waiting its turn as a more aggressive one is feeding.

male pine warbler

A brightly colored male pine warbler looking his best in the snow.

pine warbler

I appreciated the opportunity to take in the subtle differences in color of the pine warblers.

downy woodpecker

This downy woodpecker is a bit aggravated that the pine warblers are hogging the feeder.

ruby-crowned kinglet  with wing outstrecthed

The most difficult subject to photograph – a constantly moving ruby-crowned kinglet.

ruby-crowned kinglet showing crown

Though I saw it many times, I never captured the full extent of his ruby crown when he was agitated because he just would not sit still long enough.

ruby-crowned kinglet

Still one of my favorite winter birds in spite of (or maybe because of) his high speed antics.

The snow is stubbornly clinging here on our north-facing slope, but temperatures are supposed to rise to 50 degrees later today, so I imagine it will all be a memory by tomorrow. Snow in the Piedmont is an excellent metaphor for life – enjoy it while you can.

Winter in the Woods

There is nothing in the world more beautiful than the forest clothed to its very hollows in snow. It is the still ecstasy of nature, wherein every spray, every blade of grass, every spire of reed, every intricacy of twig, is clad with radiance.

~William Sharp

Road out front

Our road during the snow on Wednesday (click photos to enlarge)

The quiet beauty of a winter snow storm…this is one of the true blessings of living in the woods (and of loving cold weather, since you don’t mind getting out in it…in fact, you can’t wait!).

Under the branches close view

The view from beneath a snow-covered branch

I love the winter quiet of a snow storm…and the simple beauty it imparts on everything it touches. The patterns of branches, the trails of woodland creatures, the shapes of trees covered in white…all mesmerizing, magical. This snow lasted all day. Toward the end of the storm we went for a walk in the gray stillness of our woods, and felt lucky to live in such surroundings.

The house in snow

The house the morning after the storm

A brilliant blue sky greeted us the next morning, with a chilly 14 degrees on the thermometer. A walk in the woods seemed the thing to do (after filling the bird feeders, of course).

Road with diamond dust

The road out front with the air glistening with falling ice crystals

What had been a gray sky and a black and white landscape of patterns and shapes was now a glistening white, with the air full of tiny diamonds every time a breeze shook the snow-covered branches.

View through the woods to house

A view of the house through our woods

We walked the property boundary, taking in the scenes of a forest transformed by a sculptor working with powdery white clay.

Wind dust

Snow falling from limbs


Snow burst

The wind started blowing and the tree branches began to shake their white blankets, releasing a snow burst of crystals that sparkled as they fell.

Beech strains

A beech hunched over with its burden of snow

Our woods

Melissa walking through the winter wonderland

We ended the day with a perhaps too late attempt at sledding the big hill just down the road. The sun was already melting the lone tire track down to gravel, making for a few scrapes down the hill. Not as fast as previous snows, but still not bad.

Snow bear

Snow bear

This morning we went out and decided to make some wildlife in the yard. If only we had the time and could get to Pungo and see some real snow bears!

Crow pattern in snow

Snow crow in black and white

The real wildlife, especially the birds, have been very active since the storm. A group of American crows stopped by this morning, no doubt looking for some of the scattered seed. They are wary, so when I walked by the window they all took off, including the one that was brave enough to land in the yard. We checked out the track trail and tried to decipher what had happened. Look at it and decide for yourself before reading further to see if you agree with our conclusion.

I think the crow landed on the left side of the image, leaving a deep imprint of its body when it hit the snow (and a wing tip print on the far left). It then hopped up and turned to the right, leaving some wing tips seen at the top of the image. It took off from a position facing the right edge of the image, leaving two deep footprints and a sweep of its wings on both sides as it leapt off the snow. Let me know if you conclude something else.




Changing Weather

Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.

~John Ruskin

We have had a variety of “good weather” lately, including a brief return to winter white yesterday morning. It had been predicted for several days, but when I awoke, it was just cloudy and cold. As I sat sipping some coffee, I noticed the first few tiny flakes. There was soon a dusting covering everything but the stone steps and gravel driveway, which must have retained enough heat to prevent the snow from sticking.

forest after a brief snow

The view across the road after the “snow” (click photos to enlarge)

Spring has arrived a few weeks early this year so many flowers are in full bloom that would normally just be flirting with opening. It made for some odd sights as we walked the property. But, by the time we finished the walk about an hour later, the skies had cleared and almost all of the snow had melted. March in North Carolina…

Junco in redbud with snow

Strange photo partners – a dark-eyed junco and redbud flowers, with a dusting of snow

Ruby-crowned kinglet

A ruby-crowned kinglet was busy at the suet feeder

Columbine in snow

Wild columbine with snow crystals

Columbine bud in snow

Maybe I should stay closed

Phlox and snow

The first phlox are rethinking their opening

Red buckeye in snow

Red buckeye about to open

Unfurling painted buckeye and snow cruystals

Painted buckeye bud beginning to open

Christmas fern fiddlehead and snow

Christmas fern fiddlehead

Unfurling fern fron in snow

Unfurling with a blanket of snow

Bottlebrush grass in snow

Bottlebrush grass seed head from last season bent over with the weight of some snow

Spider web with snow

Bowl and doily spider web with snow. These were the last places the snow melted and as we returned, the woods looked like someone had dropped white rags everywhere in the low branches. Perhaps having the cold air swirl all around these little snow platforms allowed them to retain their wintry prize a little longer.




Memories Of The Snow that Wasn’t, But Still Is

Snow has made everything earthly clear and quiet.
My mind is simple and patient.

– Tuomas Anhava, Finnish writer

The predicted big storm fizzled once again. We certainly live in a region in which weather forecasters are challenged to get it right when it comes to predicting snowfall. Of the predicted 5 to 6 inches, with some maximum predictions calling for up to a foot of snow, we actually had about 2 inches of white stuff fall here in the woods – about 1 inch of sleet, and 1 inch of snow.

snow scene

Snow scene in the woods on the far side of the property (click photos to enlarge)

But, no matter how much or how little, snow is always magical (and sometimes maddening). This storm combined with some very cold temperatures (it got down to 7 degrees here one night) so things have not melted at all until yesterday’s high of 38. The biggest problem we have here are the hilly roads that invariably turn to ice-covered ski slopes (great for sledding, not so much for trying to go anywhere in a car).

busy squirrel intersection

Busy intersection on the squirrel highway

For us, it is always fun to see what is out and about, moving in our woods that we might miss were it not for the repository of tracks left behind. It was shocking to see how many gray squirrels inhabit these woods based on all the tracks…more work for the resident red-tailed hawks for sure.

deer tracks

Deer tracks

The wanderings of the local deer herd are along their usual well-worn trails, especially just outside our deer fence, down in the ravine, and up on the south-facing slope.

deer digging for acorms

Deer have been digging for acorns

This being a good mast year, they have made the rounds and dug beneath some of the large white oaks throughout the property, with most of it happening on the south-facing slope on the far hill, where the ice accumulation may be less.

Rabbit tracks 1

Rabbit tracks

Our yard bunny is still around, though I haven’t seen it in quite some time. Hoping it will be selective once the spring wildflowers start to emerge, but that seems a far off possibility right now.

raccoon tracks

Raccoon tracks

A lone raccoon has been at the huge hollow tulip poplar near the house, and it, or perhaps another, crossed the hillside over to a neighbors woods. I am surprised we have not seen it beneath the bird feeders, looking through the discarded seeds for a snack.

fox tracks

The typical pattern of fox tracks

We found a set of canid tracks inside the fence (they had crawled under the low bar of the side yard gate). Once inside, there were places where the pattern in the snow resembled that made by a cat, but these tracks had claw marks. Not sure whether it is a red or gray fox (both live in these woods), but I am betting red, since their numbers seem to be increasing.

gnarled foot crow track

Unusual bird track

Among the many bird tracks, there was one set that stands out. It has a normal three toes forward, one toe back print, and then one with just a depression with one toe back.

club-foot crow

Crow with deformed right foot, with the front toes curling backward

We recognized it as the track trail of an American crow with a disabled right foot that we have seen the past two years. It is generally with another crow (presumably its mate), and seems to manage just fine.

pine warbler

Pine warbler

The activity at the feeders has been frenetic, with American goldfinches, dark-eyed juncos, purple finches, and pine warblers mobbing the seed and suet, along with the usual appearances by downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, and a ruby-crowned kinglet.

fox sparrow

Fox sparrow doing what they do in thick cover

The hermit thrush has stopped by to grab some suet, and we had a rare visit by a fox sparrow, though it was reluctant to get out in full view, preferring to scratch through the snow and ice in the thicket of wildflower beds out front.

Christmas fern frond

Christmas ferns

Walking in the winter woods is such a treat – the serenity and quiet, the small details of texture frozen in time, and the signs of life unseen.

ice in creek

Ice patterns in the creek

The intermittent stream below the house seems more intermittent than ever, but an ice artist left some unfinished work in one of the few shallow pools.

ice face

Ice art

The woods may be quiet after a snow event, but they are watching, and waiting for the sun to finish its work, until the next time. For us, we anxiously await both the ability to be able to get out of the neighborhood, and the next chance to experience this…

First Snow

When I no longer thrill to the first snow of the season, I’ll know I’m growing old.

~Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson

I have to admit, that describes me. I love snow and winter – I know, I am outside the norm on this one, but I do. And my first snow of the season happened over Thanksgiving, in the mountains of Virgina, at my parent’s home near Damascus. Actually, it happened on the way up the day before Thanksgiving. It had been raining when I left Pittsboro, then turned sunny, and then I started to hit snow near Boone as I climbed in elevation. Somehow, driving in it is a bit less thrilling, mainly because of concern about the other drivers out there. But when you have the chance to walk in it, to watch it fall from the sky, to see it start to turn the world white – that is a thrill.

Sycamore in river

Sycamore trunk with a light dusting of snow (click photos to enlarge)

There was little snow when I first arrived in Damascus. But it snowed overnight, and was lightly snowing on Thanksgiving morning, so I headed down to the river after breakfast to just be in it. Unfortunately, the big flakes that had been falling as we sat at the table and ate, turned to tiny specks of ice, and then disappeared altogether, about the time I headed out. But a quiet walk in fresh snow, even a light snow, is rewarding.

Sycamore over river

Tree leaning out over the river below my parents’ house

The next night it snowed again, replenishing the light covering on the ground that had melted the afternoon before.

Dad's barn

Dad’s barn surrounded by a light dusting of snow and an incredible sky

Every morning when I am there, I grab a cup of coffee and head up the long driveway to get the newspaper. A nice ritual that allows me time to appreciate the early morning light, the birds, and the sky. There is an old barn near the road that, although my folks think is perhaps due for repair or replacement, has always appealed to me. It seems to fit the landscape so well and speaks of hard work and the passage of time. I frequently stop and take a picture or two with my phone because it is such a quintessential rural scene. The first morning there was patchy snow on the ground, but the second morning added some high, thin clouds, and that made all the difference when viewed in black and white.

The snow melted quickly Friday with the bright sunshine but I could see nearby mountains still covered in white, especially the aptly named Whitetop Mountain, the second highest peak in Virgina. So, the next morning as I was heading hone, I took the longer route through the mountains, hoping to see a bit more of a winter wonderland. The winter mood was certainly in evidence as I drove because of the workers busily harvesting Christmas trees to be shipped to market. There must be thousands of acres of tree farms in these mountains, a phenomenon of the past few decades that has significantly altered the landscape and local economy. When I reached the gravel road up to Whitetop, I could see that it was much less white than the day before, with most of the snow and ice that had been coating the trees now gone. Plus, the steep winding road was very icy, so I opted for another location, nearby Grayson Highlands State Park.

snow in woods

Snowy woods at Grayson Highlands State Park

The road up into the park had been scraped and temperatures had reached the mid-forties by late morning, so travel was easy . But there was still a good amount of snow on the ground – at last, real snow.

Picnic table with snow

Picnic table at Massie Gap

Arriving at the end of the open section of road at Massie Gap, I found a half dozen other cars and bout 6 inches of snow on the ground. This is my favorite Virgina state park and one of my favorite areas in the eastern U.S.

Haw Orchard Mtn

View of Wilburn Ridge

The trail up from Massie Gap reminds me more of Montana than an eastern mountain trail. There are large rock outcrops, open grasslands, and scattered patches of Red Spruce. The shrub layer is almost entirely huckleberry, and is a favorite hiking spot in August when the tasty fruit ripen.

Red Spruce

Even though temperatures were rising and the sun was bright, it still felt like winter as I hiked up the trail. The wind was blowing and had that unmistakable bite to it as is so often the case in these highlands. As I walked my eyes turned to the ground and those intricate details that only wind and snow can create, ephemeral sculptures and miniature landscapes that often go unnoticed unless you happen to be walking in a stiff wind, head down to protect your face from the stinging cold. Below are a few photos of the patterns created by wind and snow.

Snow at Massey's Gap 1 Snow at Massey's Gap Patterns in snow patterns in snow 3 Patterns in snow 1

The walk was a great way to gain perspective, to think, to appreciate sensations. The writer and naturalist Edwin Way Teale summed up my strange love of winter nicely…

Of the four seasons, spring entices, summer makes you welcome, autumn gives you a lingering farewell, but winter remains aloof. We think of it as harsh and uncompromising. We speak of the dead months, the night of the year, the return of the ice age, the winter of our discontent. Yet, paradoxically, in its own way, winter is a time of superlative life. Frosty air sets our blood to racing. The nip of the wind quickens our step.

Here’s to many more walks with quick steps and racing blood…


The Last Snow?

What good is the warmth of summer without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.

~John Steinbeck

Over the weekend I made a quick trip to my parents’ home in southwest Virginia . Like many regions in the East, their area has had a long cold winter. But, I am one of those strange few that likes cold weather. And this was the first year in several that I did not get my snow fix by spending time in Yellowstone, so I was happy to see a few flakes start to fall on Monday. This might be my last snow for this winter (although as I write this, I am hearing about chances for a wintry mix in portions of the state later tonight). It began slowly, about mid-day, then picked up in intensity.

The snow starts to fall

The snow starts to fall (click photos to enlarge)

I did not have my camera on this trip so I grabbed my iPhone and walked down the hill toward the river below the house. This is the South Fork of the Holston River. One of three major branches of the Holston River, the South Fork flows over 100 miles through the hills and valleys of southwest Virginia before joining the North Fork near Kingsport, Tennessee. This serene waterway forms the back boundary of my parents’ property and provides a glimpse into the former wildness of these mountains amidst the current patchwork landscape of pastures and wood lots.

Looking downriver

A large tree leaning out over the river

I love the quiet and the starkness of a snow, especially along a river. Black and white images appeal to me in these settings, helping to define the world into its basic shapes and patterns.

Leaning tree along South Fork of Holston River

A closer view of that same tree

Geometric shapes in the trees above the river

Geometric shapes in the trees above the river

Snow also helps bring things into focus. A beaver-chewed tree trunk that might blend into the scene under normal conditions now jumps out of the landscape like a monument to the work of a master builder.

Tree cut by Beaver

Tree cut by Beaver

And the edges of a fallen leaf suddenly make your eyes notice the detail in their pattern.

Leaf in snow

A closer look reveals many beauties in the snow

Walking upriver beyond the riffles, the river gets quiet and silky. The snow is falling harder, a burst of larger flakes that are eaten by the river, but gather on the dark branches and the sleeve of my coat, causing me to pause and admire their delicate beauty.

Above the riffles

The river is smooth and draped in trees above the riffle

I stood quietly on the bank of the river…It was so peaceful watching the snow fall as the river rushed toward a destination far beyond this tranquil scene. The early naturalist and writer, John Burroughs, described what it is like to have a small river flowing near where you live…One can make a companion of it; he can walk with it and sit with it, or lounge on its banks, and feel that it is all his own. This snowy river gave me a glimpse of that feeling, and it reminded me of the powerful connection we all have to water and the landscapes that embrace it.