December’s White Shadow: Along the South Branch, December 2017

Article and photos by Joe Mish

Portrait of a sycamore branch with a fox in the background. Female fox was so intent on her early morning hunt, I was able to get within 30 paces before she noticed me.

Snow follows December like a lazy white shadow that lingers in the bright light of day. A shadow of some substance that accumulates to measurable depth, can be blown about by the wind and reveal hidden secrets of elusive wildlife.

The stillness of a cold overcast day can foretell the coming of December’s white shadow, soon to arrive. The first flakes drift slowly to earth as the shadow begins to appear. A single snow flake landed intact on my wool mitten, suspended on an errant fiber. The intricate artistry nature expressed in this one crystal represented the beauty of uncountable trillions more. The hidden beauty, however, is often lost as the shadow deepens.

Falling snow covered me and my canoe as I sought safe harbor in a narrow slush filled stream bordered by high banks. The canoe was stabilized in the slush and I felt comfortable adjusting my gear to warm my hands. As I sat hunched over the snow began to build, essentially hiding me within its shadow. Suddenly a large male mink came loping through the deep snow, intent on crossing the small stream. My snow-covered boat must have been a welcome bridge to avoid the icy water. Just as the mink, now four feet away, was about to jump into my boat, he suddenly caught my scent and retreated into a nearby groundhog den. This was a unique situation, where I saw what happened and then in hindsight, was able to read the story the tracks left in the snow. It was like being at the scene of an unfolding drama and later watching it in a news report.

Mink trail in the snow and tracks in the mud.

I followed fresh fox tracks one morning not realizing how fresh they were. With the wind in my favor and dressed in white coveralls, I walked along observing where the fox stopped to sit, waiting for sound or scent to betray the location of a mouse under the snow. Apparently, nothing materialized, as the fox continued on its original straight-line path, stopping again to listen for a scurrying mouse hiding deep within in December’s white shadow. Here at last were telltale signs the fox made an attempt to catch the elusive rodent.

From a sitting position, it shuffled its hind feet and leaped several feet ahead, going air born before landing and stomping around and stabbing its face into the deep snow. The absence of blood or fur suggested the effort was futile as the fox continued on, heading toward a large pile of tree branches deposited along the riverbank by a previous flood. I looked up from the tracks in the snow to see the fox a moment before it saw me. I had only a split second to react and get the camera focused. We were only thirty steps apart as I digitized the suspicious fox staring back at me. Neither of us moved for a long moment until the fox slowly turned, began to walk away and then stopped to pee. Perhaps she was expressing her displeasure at having her hunt disturbed and left her scent to reaffirm ownership of her home territory.

Fox tracks in the new snow with strands of straw colored grass bathed in the contrast of subtle light changes would make a fine Christmas card from the fox. The tracks convey a signed message that translates even to those who aren’t conversant in the language of ‘fox’.

December’s telltale shadow is an open book even the wind uses as a message board. Capable of producing destructive storms of biblical proportion, the wind shows its gentler side, using a single blade of grass to whimsically etch it thoughts in the snow.

December owns the darkest days of the year and when the moment of darkness is greatest, at the instant of the winter solstice, it gives birth to light as day length begins to increase. Light or dark, December’s shadow is not far behind, casting a trace of white.

Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author.