Mother Nature has been active this year, pummeling the mid-Atlantic region with storm after storm. Some have dumped snow, some have brought rain and some have coated everything with ice. Our lives have been impacted many times already this winter, as we suffer through inconvenience of horrible driving conditions and traffic jams, business and event closings or postponements, shortages of snow shovels and ice-melt and milk/eggs/bread during the storms. So why is it that we’re all supposed to eat French Toast during inclement weather, anyway? Kidding aside, we humans feel so much impact from Mother Nature, don’t we?
But really, all we do is hole up in our cozy-warm homes with cable TV, internet, on-demand movies, microwave cooking, cellular phone service, endless hot water and a thousand other conveniences, as we wait for the weather to pass. There aren’t usually too many really major issues in our lives on bad days, unless you consider boredom a major issue. And if that’s all you have to worry about, you’re doing all right! Of course, it can get a little worse when the power goes out (no TV, gasp!), or if we lose heat (an excuse to snuggle up with someone special?!) or our pipes freeze (hey, people in some countries don’t shower for days…), but usually it’s just a matter of time before things are back to normal and we’re right back into our crazy lifestyles. Come to think of it, maybe bad weather is a good thing once in a while, just to slow us down and help us realize how good we have it 99% of the time.
In the natural world, bad weather is a whole different situation – it can run the gamut from slight nuisance to life-threatening for all the creatures that are out in the elements every day. Out on a recent JTX snowshoe tour, our group encountered a small animal moving around just under the surface of the snow. We could follow his path because he was pushing the surface of the snow up as he traveled underneath, a little moving hump of snow that we all watched with fascination. Every so often, the little gray, furry rodent would emerge from the snow, look around, then dive back under and keep on his way. Seeing him out there got us to thinking a few things about animals in the snow:
1. we probably threw his world into a tizzy as our 14 snowshoes clomped about atop his white-covered environment; and
2. now that we know he’s alive/active, how was he living with over a foot of snow on top of his world?
Well, you say, a foot of snow isn’t too hard to deal with…. but this little mole (that’s what we assumed he was) is only 1 ½ inches high, so the snow is 8 times taller than him – that would be like humans dealing with 40 feet of snow! We’d have to tunnel through like he does – wouldn’t that be fun! And we think a bit of slush is inconvenient driving… imagine going everywhere in a solid white tunnel. And for this little guy, the 12 inches of snow is covering up everything he needs to find in order to live. He’s got to deal with all that snow and make his own tunnels while trying to find food just to exist, in addition to finding his way around. And it’s not just him, but every animal that’s out there in the cold – whether it has hoofs, paws or wings, animals that stay active during cold weather have an incredible amount of inconvenience to deal with when Mother Nature unfurls these difficult conditions on the area.
On another snowshoe tour, a teacher was discussing a recent lesson with her young students which identified animals that live in their local (New Jersey) woods. She was
hoping to have some great Jim Thorpe area sightings to relate back to the class, but we weren’t so lucky that day. However, we did see a lot of evidence of animal activity: dozens of tracks across the top of the snow(squirrel, rabbit, bird, mouse) and some down into the snow (deer), some across the snow from tree to tree (squirrel, chipmunk). On other snowshoe hikes, groups have found the above plus wild cat and dog prints in the snow – likely bobcat, fox and maybe coyote. Knowing there is this much life out in the winter woods is refreshing – the woods are not ‘dead’ for the season – but it also brings up the struggles mentioned above. All these animals have to function out there with a foot or more of snow on the ground, which has to be a huge challenge to their survival. There were many spots where we saw evidence of that struggle: squirrels dig down through the snow to try to find food; deer scrape away areas of snow to get at whatever undergrowth they can find, tiny tracks atop the snow made zig-zag patterns with little depressions where the animal stopped to look for something, then eventually returned the same way it came, probably empty-handed. Each set of tracks is a reminder that life doesn’t stop in the winter, and that many other creatures have it far worse than we do when the weather is bad.
Yesterday, a test-hike for a scheduled snowshoe trip reminded me that some conditions are even more difficult for the animals. I strapped on some ‘shoes and started off across a familiar trail, but the conditions made it far from normal (the next day’s trip was postponed). I was actually walking atop the snow on a thick layer of ice that accumulated from our last storm – my 180 pounds were not even breaking through the crust in many places. If I wasn’t breaking through the crunchy barrier, how is a 2-pound squirrel supposed to do so? How long will it take a thin-legged deer to clear an area to forage for scarce underbrush? And how many scars will the jagged ice leave on its legs. Will that mole ever be able to come atop the whiteness, or will he have to stay below until the ice melts? As it does melt, will reach a point when the deer and fox break through on every step, making the most simple task incredibly difficult?
In the past, severe ice storms have contributed to localized population decreases in wild animals – they can’t find enough food and starve, they get injured by the ice and can’t function, they fall and slide down mountainsides which breaks bones or necks – horrible thoughts, but true and purely natural. And even if we look at less severe weather – snow for example – the impact is still huge on the animals that have to endure it: the deer, squirrels, fox, chipmunks, birds, moles etc. They’re fighting for their lives every day that there’s snow on the ground, in ways we can’t even imagine.
So next time you’re mad that you can’t go anywhere due to inclement weather, stay home and enjoy your conveniences while remembering how rough it really is out there for others.Tom Loughery
Tour Operator the Jim Thorpe eXperience (484) 225-1209