First Hard Freeze

November 22, 2008

When the first hard freeze arrives, there's really no point in resisting. It's better to acclimatize and harden against the cold like an evergreen. That "cold to the bone" chill of early winter freezes fingertips and nostrils, an old familiar feeling.

These last few weeks of autumn feel more like early winter. It won't be warmer anytime soon I tell myself with grim resignation. And so the new winter begins.

Last Thursday, I accompanied the Forest Society's Director of Land Protection, Brian Hotz for a reconnaissance hike along the headwaters of the Ashuelot River in Lempster, an 1,800-acre tract of land the Forest Society is working to conserve.

The Bean Mountain tract located off the Lempster Mountain Road is vast, deep and nearly silent. Ice-rimmed brooks thread through lowland spruce, fir, tamarack bogs and beaver ponds. The higher hillsides are cloaked in hardwoods: beech, birch, maple and oak.

By November, the woods, while open to the sky, are devoid of all color. Even the few remaining resident birds – chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, juncos and woodpeckers – are plumed in black, gray and white.

In the spare, slanting sunlight, frozen apples cling to bare branches near the open cellar of a long-abandoned farm. Rotting boards nailed to a wolf pine growing along an old pasture wall are all that remain of a hunter's deer stand overlooking a former orchard.

Gathering waters of the nascent Ashuelot River remain open only by the grace of gravity. The swift current cascades over ledges while ice festoons limbs tangled below a waterfall. Overnight temperatures in the teens sealed the quieter stretch of river upstream that had once been a beaver pond.

A hidden doe, bedded-down out of the wind in a sun-dappled meadow, burst from the sedges and bounded into the river, shattering ice like glass. She splashed, lunged and fell, rolling onto her side before gaining her hooves and bounding away into the woods on the opposite bank. We stood stunned at the sight.

In an open patch-cut, leafless blackberry canes and withered ferns conceal the cut stumps amid thickets of young white pines. A maze of old skidder trails leads ever deeper into the remote backcountry. A cow moose and her calf, spooked by our appearance, trotted across the clearing and disappeared into the brush.

High above us on the hillside, icicle stalactites overhang the exposed rock ribs of Bean Mountain. The new ice seems almost a novelty, but the biting wind is unforgiving.

Autumn is nearly done. The time for winter preparation grows short. In the high, lonesome hills of Cheshire County, winter has already arrived.