The beach in winter

beach in winter

We went down to the beach on Sunday, on Lake Huron. Conan’s grandparents lived their final decades in this village, and their house has been kept as a family cottage. The kind of cottage that features Arts and Crafts wallpaper and antique lamps. Winter might be my favourite season on this beach, but I love all of them, maybe with the surprising exception of summer days, when the beach is a crowded jumble of towels, umbrellas and swimmers; on those days I prefer to wait until evening to visit, bobbing small in my red swimsuit among the big waves as the warmth drains out of the water, then sitting west-facing on the sand to watch the huge and incandescent sky while the sun sets over this lake that feels like an ocean.

Once last summer I sat here after dark and watched lightning on the horizon. At night the waves appear to trace the edge of the lake instead of moving towards the shore. That particular night, the waves jolted across the edge of the dark water like a white serpent, moving with the electric sky. I sat on the beach and felt the pull of the endless lake. From where I sat I imagined the water not as cold, but as warm and dense and heavy, with a surface as smooth as silk. I wondered if there was gravity to a vast body of water like this, something that lures you to want to walk in and never stop walking. Like the pull of standing on a cliff edge and holding yourself back from the voice that says that you can fly, that you could jump right now and soar above the valley. That maybe it’s worth a try, all prior evidence to the contrary.

But now it’s winter, one of the coldest days of a cold winter. There are no other people in sight. As we walk and slip down the snowy path to the beach, we look ahead and see that there is no separation between the beach and the lake. The snow is pristine, the beach still after a night of fierce wind blowing from the west. We had walked towards the water the previous afternoon, when the rest of the village was still calm, and found ourselves at the top of the slope pushing against a wind so bitter that our temples ached, our lashes froze, and there was nothing to see or feel but the swirling, stinging snow. Malcolm turned back, and I stayed with him, but Conan and Lachlan pushed on down to the beach and found shelter behind a snowdrift. A shelter from the wind that the wind itself had created. The storm blew in across the lake, and by the time we had walked home and lit a fire, the wind howled around the house.

The day after the storm, there are no human tracks at the bottom of the slope. Our previous day’s descent has left no trace. I see only the narrow, undulating trail of a small canine with furry feet, who has left some pungently smelling urine as its calling card. I stop to examine the trail, wading through the deep snow to puzzle out direction and gaits and whether maybe, just maybe, on this Valentine’s Day weekend, there had been two foxes on the beach instead of one. But finally I am drawn to follow my family towards the lake and on to it, on to the huge icy drifts formed by that west wind that howls across the frozen water. The landscape is unearthly, like the surface of the moon; or at the least like the frozen Arctic, where ahead there is only white snow and sky, and all of the obstacles are internal. The line of drifts has been carved out like sand dunes, the lake side hollowed into gigantic and perfect snow forts; but the snow is also a layer of meringue over the beach, swirled and crunchy. The snow’s surface is polished with silver, patches of frost that catch the sunlight as if someone has dripped silver glitter paint across the beach.

The next day I drive by myself to a small conservation area, strapping on my snowshoes, which at first feel awkward on the trail packed by boots and cross-country skis. It doesn’t take long to step off the human trial onto a deer trail, and I follow it east over deep snow, criss-crossing other deer trails from all directions. Ducking under cedars, dodging around tamaracks, stepping over fallen branches of all kinds, I follow the deer trails into a cedar swamp, where the trails are many, pellets of scat lie in large piles, and I count at least nine deer beds close together. I’m happy to find this. These cedars house a deer yard – where the deer choose to spend the cold months, nibbling on conifer boughs and staying out of the wind. I see that the cedars still have plenty of nourishment to give: they are not browsed out of reach like some I have seen this winter. I circle around the swamp, conscious of the deep dips in the snow where I know there is likely to be moving water underneath, and I find myself back on my own snowshoe trail. And I follow it back as the sun dips down below the treeline.

A few nights ago I had a version of my most recurring dream. I was packing a backpack, putting things in and taking them out, trying to pare down to the essentials. Sometimes boots are important in the dream, the right boots to walk for as long as is needed. I don’t know exactly what these dreams mean, but they have been with me for all of my adult life. My new snowshoes give me the same deep satisfaction as the bag packed right, the boots that will carry me where I want to go. They give me the freedom to roam. They make me feel that I am ready.

The previous weekend, in Algonquin Park, I wore these snowshoes on a group weekend of tracking and trailing. There were many things that happened that weekend, among them a significant encounter with two moose, but the snowshoes taught me something else. Near the end of our first day, we pushed back towards the road through another snow-covered swamp. It was hard going to break the trail, and this time we all took turns, each person taking as long as they could before stepping off to take a breath. When it was my turn, I looked ahead of me, and saw that there was no right way to go, no way that was any easier than another. Every option would involve dodging boughs, pushing through dense branches, stepping awkwardly over obstacles in deep snow. I tried to trust my instincts, to find the clearest way, but so often my path seemed to me awkward and circular, deviating from any possibility of a straight line; my way forward, a struggle, as I wrestled with everything in my path. When I was ready for a rest, I slipped to the back of the line. And now, suddenly, the path was no longer a set of difficult choices; it was simply a fact. The path was in front of me, and one foot in front of another, without any thought, I could follow it.

The way forward is never obvious when you are breaking trail. You orient yourself in the right direction, and then try to find the clearest way ahead. There is some exhilaration in the struggle. Like the perfectly packed backpack, the beach still and pristine after the storm, the deer trails that all lead to the same place, the perfect trail emerges after the fact. And then it is a blessing to be on a trail that just is; to drop back to the end of the line, put one foot in front of the other, breathe in the quiet and stillness, to trust the path you’re on and the people on it.

I have learned to love the winter and what the snow reveals.

beach in winter 2

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