The wonderful rhythm of life in late winter

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Ed McMackin

Ed McMackin

The spring season brings with it many major events, most of which occur with every spring but, depending on environmental factors, vary in degree, magnitude and influence on the landscape.  Perhaps, in many ways, these events bring on spring.  Snowmelt seeps and flows down slopes into brooks, creeks and rivers and finally into the ocean if it doesn’t end up in lakes, dams and reservoirs or in the ground.  Vegetation sprouts, leaf-out, buds, flowers, and grows.  Mammals come out after a winter of hibernation or sleep.  Birds become more active, often vocalizing from trees and forest, while some birds arrive from the south or the coast and some birds depart for the north or the mountain forests and alpine meadows.  Insects hatch out of eggs, cocoons, and chrysalis and other types crawl out from bunches of leaves, from under bark, hollow trees, and many other secluded and protected wintering locations.  Spring phenomena are too many to count.

This spring season, even though it appears there has been a similar snowfall amount to last year, there seems to be a lot of runoff.  This winter season much of the snow came all at once and hasn’t started to melt until recent days.  Recent rains and overnight temperatures above freezing point have increased the runoff.

During early winter the ground, where it was free or cleared of snow, froze fairly deep before it snowed.  Now much of the runoff is running away to somewhere else rather than soaking into the ground.  Areas under large evergreen trees also froze deep but these kinds of trees will still benefit from the runoff because their roots extend out, just beyond that frozen zone (often called the ‘drip-edge’ or ‘drip-line) where the ground lay unfrozen under a blanket of snow.  Also, in areas that lay bare, frost is coming out of the ground producing mud holes.

Now for many country folk it has meant leaving vehicles at the end of the lane and walking on boards or donning rubber boots to stay clear of mud.  For some town residents, runoff had meant trenching away water that came from the neighbour’s trenches that, in turn, came from their neighbour’s trenches.  If the temperatures remain low then there may be a month of wading and waiting and, if it stays frozen, the runoff will subside and come back later.  (I understand that many basements have become water ‘reservoirs’ – that’s not a bit funny.)  Let’s leave that and get to the bright side.

Much plant life is expected to be more robust and productive, and flowers brighten with this season’s moisture levels being somewhat higher than recent years.  Last year, around March 5, those bright yellow sagebrush buttercups were already blooming but, up to this writing – just before the official start of spring – one would be hard pressed to find many buds, let alone blooms.  You might have found a few blooming in warmer and sheltered spots on south facing slopes around tree drip-lines of some of those majestic ponderosa pines.  Of course, home gardens are now boasting patches of pure white snowdrops and purple and brilliant orange-yellow crocuses.

This spring season, until we get more warm sunny days, those hibernating butterflies will be sunning themselves a little later than some years.  However, I did see one the other day before ‘official’ spring while checking for buttercups (which I didn’t find).  The emergence of those large polyphemus moths may occur in early June rather than mid-May.  (I once read that cocoons of these large native ‘silkmoths’ are found higher up on shrubs when there has been deep snow – or is it the other way around?)

Back in early February a male varied thrush showed up here for a visit, saw all the snow, and left.  But now they call regularly, especially when it is raining.  In the forest, the runoff has exposed much of the forest floor, exposing some of the varied thrush feeding areas.  Flocking juncos have now begun to disperse.

Some people, at this time of the year, do take time out to catch high mountain areas still wrapped in winter.  A friend and several companions recently started on the Bonnington Traverse, a 50km snowshoe or ski trek over the Bonnington Mountains from Bombi Summit, between Salmo and Castlegar, to Ymir.  The would-be four-day trek (overnighting at four huts: Grassy, Steed, Copper Mountain and Huckleberry) was cut short due to foggy and near-whiteout conditions and a coming storm.  After one night, they retreated to Bombi Summit.

But spring actually is unfolding, at whatever pace, testing our patience.