The frigid wind engulfs me as I make my way to the truck. I shiver in my light layers and quicken my step forward. More than anything, I want to turn around and go back inside, light a fire in the wood stove, and bathe in its dry heat. Every outdoorsman faces this dilemma. The moment where the warm comforts of indoors beckon and the idea of spending time in the unforgiving cold is the last thing one wants to do. The comforts of a blanket and a hot fire call like the siren’s song, and yet, at the same time, so do the woods. For those who know the secrets of a trail or stream in winter, they know how appealing it is. Gone are the crowds and noises of summer, both human and animal alike. Replaced instead by a comforting stillness that exudes complete and utter peace. Never before have I experienced such a calm and quiet like the one experienced in the woods in the middle of winter. And so, with these thoughts in my mind, I start my cold truck, shiver again, and pull out of the driveway.
The sparse dusting of snow in my front lawn is in stark contrast to the trail’s coating of fluffy, white powder – a testament to how the valley I’m in is hidden from the sun’s warmth. A layer of ice conceals the moving water in the small stream that must be crossed at the beginning of the trail. The only hint that indeed the stream had not succumbed to winter’s grasp is the sound of its babbling underneath the ice. Once across the stream, I begin to move my way effortlessly up the trail. I have always pursued a way to interact with nature in the simplest way possible. For me, running on trails distills life down to its simplest elements and allows me to connect with the natural world around me like no other activity I have experienced has.
And so, on this cold and bleak day in January, I run on a trail through stands of cedar and grand fir, their tops dusted with a layer of frost and snow stacked at their bases. The deciduous trees have long since dropped their leaves, leaving behind only the conifers to give the forest color. I duck under their branches, drooping under the weight of snow with which they are burdened. Occasionally, I hit one with my shoulder and snow covers my back and falls down my neck. Although cold, it is refreshing as I am now sweating, continuing my run up the mountain trail.
As my elevation increases, the cedars and firs are replaced by Ponderosa pines and Tamarack. The cold mountain air burns my lungs, and yet, at the same time, rejuvenates them. Thoughts of work, chores, and life in general cease as I become engrossed with the winter wonderland laid out before me. The only signs of life are the occasional moose or deer tracks that lead to an area of ground where the snow has been pawed aside, exposing the still green vegetation below. My eyes stay focused on the trail in front of me, seeking dangers such as roots, loose rocks, and uneven terrain. Some sections of trail have been overcome by frost heaving, a consequence of the opposing forces of freezing and thawing. Snow laden dirt freezes and thaws, heaving it towards the heavens and suspending it loosely several inches above the compacted trail below. The loose, frozen earth gives way to my weight as I run over it and threatens to roll my ankle. My pace slows to a crawl in these sections. In others, due to a thick canopy of branches above, the trail remain as I left it in the fall, not blanketed by a covering of snow, but instead a layer of golden pine needles. In these sections my arms pump faster and my pace increases and I leap through the forest with a boyish grin.
Up I go until I come to a sharp switchback in the trail. The valley and surrounding peaks are laid out in front of me like a painting. I stop my watch and soak in the vista. My breathing slows and becomes relaxed. The air is quiet and the forest is still. No birds call. No planes or cars disrupt the peace with their motors. No human voices can be heard. Even the wind seems muted. The sweat covering my face cools and the cold begins to penetrate my thin clothing, but I stand engrossed by the sight of the snow-covered mountains. Finally, after what seems like hours, I break my stare and turn and look up the trail. There, for the first time, I notice that there are no tracks in the snow before me. No person or animal has ventured up this trail since the last snowfall, which was several weeks ago. Do they not know the secrets of the woods in winter? Do they not realize the calm nature exudes in the cold, winter months? Instead, do they sit idly in front of their TVs, afraid to slip away from the warm comfort of their house and out into the snow-covered forests? In this moment, I know there is nowhere I would rather be than here – cold to the bone and yet at peace. I smile, shiver, and continue my way running up the trail.
Author - Kevin Mahoney is an avid fly fisherman and trail runner. When not teaching high school math and science, Kevin can be found combing the streams and trails of north Idaho with his wife and dog.