JANUARY 1, 2009 – The evidence is compelling. I squat to examine one of the bowl-shaped depressions in the snow. There are two of them here, interconnected by a series of deep posthole tracks. Black hairs are glued to the surface of the concavity, which is faintly icy and a little discolored from having thawed and refrozen. A warm body lied here overnight. This was a bedding area.
The other depression is very similar. Between them is a dense network of prints, tracks crisscrossing and circling one another in an unintelligible pattern, as if there were multiple individuals here sleeping through the cold winter night just a few yards from each other, shuffling around in an awkward dance before settling into the snow. I also find yellow pee holes and piles of brown nuggets, ovoid and faintly woody, bearing a trace of frost.
Whoever made these prints, they are gone now. They had bedded down in the midst of a hardwood forest, on a patch of ground with a slight down-tilting slope surrounded by a thin patch of hobblebush and spruce saplings, the latter weighed by the snow into penitent positions that will last until March. This spot is maybe twenty-five, thirty yards off the trail, and had the tracks not led me here I never would’ve stumbled across it. The tracks loop aimlessly around this space, and I cannot tell the older ones from the most recent. I circle the patch myself several times, looking for the outgoing tracks that will tell me where the makers eventually wandered. Some of the tracks loop outward only to return to the bedding area as if they were electrons in failed orbits. The whole web of tracks is like a street map of a small city with uncontrolled sprawl — there is no single arterial exiting outward, straight through the suburbs, so each little residential street must be investigated.
A few minutes pass before I find what I’m looking for. The surprise is that only one set of tracks leads north beyond the bedding area. I had been picturing two animals lying there last night, getting up at the first hint of dawn this morning to stretch their long, spindly legs before setting off in search of browse. This assumption had been based on the complexity of the tracks, and the observation of the two body depressions in the snow. But this makes sense, too. After all, I had followed only one set of prints in, and so logically only one should lead out — the trace of a single restless animal that had gotten up at least once in the middle of the night to move to a new position, perhaps circling like a dog until settling on the perfect spot.
But I need to be sure I am following the tracks in the right direction. The actual prints are deep within each posthole, and they are too obscure to read. The snow is soft and deep, and with each step the animal took the powder collapsed loosely into the hole once the hoof was removed. Even my own snowshoe tracks are little more than messy, alternating ovals in the glinting surface, made as if by a sluggish person shuffling lazily through the woods. If this were a milder day, with temperatures up into the thirties, the snow would be moister, more solid. It would be an artistic medium receptive to whatever anyone wished to inscribe in it, including a detailed mirror-image form of every paw, hoof, and snowshoe inserted into it, as if all were records to be preserved for posterity. In those conditions, I’d be able to see the direction of the toes, and I would know with certainty which way along these tracks was forward and which was back.
Another copious pile of scat lies in the path, only moments since the last pile. I have seen plenty of these nuggets over the years, and there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever what left it, but I take a closer look anyway. There is no frost on these, unlike the others. These were dropped here this morning, hours ago at the very most.
Each of the posthole prints is accompanied by a scuffmark across the surface of the snow, and each one points in the same direction along the sequence of tracks like the tails in a parade of comets. Because they are so consistent I realize they are a clue that, if interpreted correctly, could reveal the direction the animal was traveling with the same certainty as a well-preserved track. So the question now is this: are these leading marks pointing forward, or trailing marks looking backwards toward the source?
All right, let’s think about this. I try to visualize the long, black legs punching into the snow with each step, the entry clean and straight. Walking through a snow-filled forest like this would be a routine action, and not a cause for stumbling or sliding. This is a creature born to this environment, one who sees the deep January snow not as an impediment to motion but as a form of natural security, something to be enjoyed because it will slow the advances of any potential intruders and ensure solitude. But when the hoof is lifted out of the snow for the next step, it is a forward action that results in the toes dragging briefly across the surface. This is the mark that I am seeing now. The scuffs point the way I need to go.
This is too good. I am on the trail. I have seen plenty of hoof prints before, but never in the winter with such a complete set so perfectly exposed for anyone to find. In the summer I might find a partial set in a muddy piece of trail, like a story with no beginning or ending, telling me that something had been through before me but not where it had come from or where it had gone, nor even by how much time I had missed it. But this is better. These tracks are proof that the animal has been here very recently, and that I am moving towards it. They won’t simply fade away into the clutter of last year’s leaves. If I follow them in the right direction, from oldest to newest, I will find their maker. I don’t see how the odds couldn’t be in my favor. I am growing increasingly confident that today, the first day of 2009, is going to be the day I spot my first Adirondack moose.
What an unexpected turn of events, and to think that I had wavered this morning on whether I even wanted to even come here. Knowing there would be clear skies and good snow conditions, I had wondered if maybe I should seek out some mountain vista instead. While eating breakfast this morning, I began to reconsider the idea of exploring this more obscure place, where I thought there would be nothing to see but vlies, streams, and trees — nothing that I wouldn’t enjoy just as much on an overcast day. But no, I can now see that I had made the right decision. This is going to be so much better.
I started at the Stoner Lakes not much more than an hour ago, with the intent of following the old logging road to Hidden Vly. Some of my hikes have a clear objective — to follow a specific route to a specific destination — but in this case Hidden Vly was less of a target than an excuse to revisit this area, which I’ve explored only a few times before. There is nothing there that even I would consider especially enriching. It is simply an opening in the woods, long and thin, with rows of hemlocks on either side. It happens to have a good trail leading to it, but otherwise Hidden Vly is just one grassy meadow in a landscape where such features are commonplace, like a star in a night sky full of them. I knew it alone wouldn’t hold my attention, and that my interests would wander throughout the day — but this is the whole point. Wandering.
From one rise in the trail, after climbing out of the valley where my car is parked, I glimpsed through the trees before me the rolling horizon of the wilderness interior. One of the benefits of winter is that when the leaves are gone the forest holds fewer secrets. Rather than simply being enclosed by your immediate surroundings, you are often more aware of the greater landscape through which you wander. So there they were, the hills and valleys of a place apart, a country so foreign to humanity that the vast majority of it will never come here. It was at this height-of-land, like so many times before, that I felt the familiar stirring in my blood — the sense of standing on the edge of something big and full of potential, of places I have been and places I have never been, places where a breeze is the common language and a running stream is the most valuable currency, where possession of a few key items and a measure of grounded self-confidence in your abilities is enough to make you feel like you have some measure of control of your life; no highways, no people, but a place just as essential to modern culture as banks and art museums.
There was a brief thaw a few days ago, so the old December snow had settled and hardened, becoming the base for the several inches of new snow that fell yesterday. The base kept me from sinking too deeply, and the fresh surface was just the right amount of soft, cushioning powder.
These were perfect snowshoeing conditions, and I was enjoying the trek along the old logging road. But my progress had been arrested long before I ever made it to Hidden Vly. When I first saw the moose tracks, they were cutting across the trail from right to left. They were like the deep shafts that deer typically make, but with a much larger diameter. Because the snowfall had been heavy yesterday morning and would have buried anything more than a day old, I knew that these tracks had to be quite recent. This was more than just a passing curiosity, like a large burl on a yellow birch that you admire as you pass. These tracks were something that required a deeper investigation.
With all of my time spent in the backcountry, it has been an ongoing run of disappointment that I have never seen a moose — but this is not for a lack of being where the moose have been. I have found tracks and piles of scat in valleys and on mountain ridges, near lakeshores and in deep woods. Once I even followed a fresh set of tracks for miles down a main hiking trail, from Glasby Pond to the streets of Wanakena. The prints had been vividly preserved in the thin November snow and led right past my parked car; while I had been camping in a lean-to the moose had been cutting through the trailhead. Not all of the tracks I have seen have been that taunting, but nevertheless it always happens that I am in the right places at the wrong times.
It all ends today, though. I now proceed up the moose trail carefully but expectantly, sure that I am not alone in these woods. The tracks will guide me right where I need to go. It is a matter of being observant, of stopping to listen, of scanning the brown woods ahead for signs of anything out of the ordinary. Will it stay still long enough for me to get the camera out when I do see it? Will I get to be that lucky?
The tracks take a meandering course through the trees, suggesting an animal that has been slowly wandering in search of browse. I stop to look ahead frequently. Since I left the bedding area, the woods have quickly changed from hardwoods to shady spruce, a beautiful and sheltered forest nestled in a low spot amongst the hills. Phosphorescent-green lichens adorn the scaly brown trunks of the trees around me. I see the bright sky through the green-and-white canopy above, and the tracks ahead in the snow, but I see no movement. I can’t tell — am I alone in these woods, or am I sharing them with something unseen, something that has not yet seen me? The latter possibility instills a tension in every muscle in my body that is not otherwise being used for walking. I imagine that at any moment I may see something more, something big and dark and moving slowly and expertly though the deep snow, something that has been born precisely to that action. A branch snaps in the cold air, a tuft of snow falls to the ground, and I want so much for it to be the sound of a moose that is now so close that I could see it at any moment.
The thing had voluntarily walked through some tight spaces between the spruce trees, which now catch and scratch at my wool clothing as I try to pass through. It’s hard to imagine an animal so big choosing to pass through gaps so tight, when the forest itself is so expansive and imposes so few limitations. Even a small moose would be bigger than me, and I am not inclined to walk between some of the trees this thing had walked between, or under the overhanging branches that I know will snatch the hat off my head. But the moose had purposefully sought these spaces out, perhaps to feel the scratch of the spruce bark against its hide — and now here I follow in hopeful pursuit.
Piles of scat still occasionally sit on and beside the trail like cairns to mark the way. They have no dusting of snow on top, like some of the first ones I saw today. Those had frosted over in the cold night air, unlike these bare nuggets I see now. That makes these very, very recent. I take this as a further sign that I am following the tracks in the right direction. What a disappointment it would be to realize I have come so close, only to find too late that my notions are backward and so is my direction — that I have spent all this time going to where the moose was, and not where it is now. There is enough evidence to convince me that I’m right, so it’s interesting that this little bit of doubt remains, like a recurring fear that perhaps I am misleading myself with wishful thinking.
A small stream flows through these woods, and we have already made our acquaintance. A few minutes ago — just moments before I first came across the moose tracks — it had intersected the logging road while I was still following it to Hidden Vly. It was not a big stream, just a trickle of dark water waiting patiently for spring, winding between vertical banks of snow like a scale model of a river trapped between the sheer walls of a canyon. In the summer a stream like this might be completely dry, and even if it wasn’t dry then you simply took a quick hop from one side to the other without much further thought. The amount of water in the channel today was not that great, but it posed an obstacle because it was still unfrozen. The snowy banks would offer no structural support; get too close the edge, and I knew they would collapse under me and spill me into the water. Then for the rest of the day ice would be clumping onto the wet metal frames of my snowshoes, glomerations that would continue to grow like unkillable weeds no matter how many times I stopped to chip them off. Who needed that kind of grief?
Where it crossed the logging road, the stream was too wide to simply step across. I detoured off the trail to look for a better alternative, going upstream because in theory the watercourse would get smaller in that direction. Finding a large log to use as a bridge would probably be too much to ask for, so I stopped when I found a spot where the snowy banks were close together, where the chasm was a relatively narrow slit that I might be able to span in a single, ambitious stride. I stood near the edge of the stream to assess both sides of it — the point where I would push off with one foot, and the point where I would land with the other. My lead foot took a bold step through space, and my right hand grasped the trunk of a maple sapling that stood conveniently nearby. I pulled myself onto the far side of the stream, stumbling forward away from the bank before any of my fears could be realized.
The moose tracks that I am following now approach a lower portion of this same little channel of water, which is flowing northwest. The tracks stop shy of the creek, as though the moose had thought to cross it but then paused to reconsider, much the way I had. Not liking the prospects any more than I did, the moose had also veered upstream. Now I turn to follow, even though I think I already know where this is going to lead. There is yet another depression in the snow where the moose had come to rest again. This one is near a looping bend in the stream, which is now blocking progress on two sides, ahead and to my right. This spot, however, had not been occupied as long as the other bedding area. The moose had stopped, sat or lied down, and then had gotten up without making the same fuss it had done before. It was a creature completely at ease in its setting, subject to no one’s schedule but its own.
Once back on its feet, it had circled around to resume its course downstream — crossing its own tracks, and now mine as well, which have been following faithfully beside it. As I had approached the stream this second time I had seen the crisscross and knew that it meant that the moose had made a loop to the left. I could skip it and follow only the outgoing set, a shortcut guaranteed to get me closer to that which I was following. But a nagging superstition urged me to follow the long way around the loop anyway, as if missing a single piece of the moose’s trail might deprive me of some crucial clue, something I might need to know in order to find it.
No matter. I have crossed the dual tracks and I am proceeding in the direction that I know the moose is traveling. I know that it had trudged past this same stream earlier today; maybe I missed it by minutes, or maybe hours — but if it was hours, then it hasn’t been many of them, certainly. How many times have I come this close in the past without knowing it? How many times have I shared the woods, thinking I was alone? Does any of that matter, the way things are looking today?
The moose did not have to go far downstream before it found a place to cross. Here the far bank rises up a sharp little knoll capped by shady hemlock trees, but more importantly there is a shelf of snow and ice that is starting to form an adequate bridge across the flowing water. The moose had stepped across it without incident, its tracks forming an uninterrupted, alternating pattern all the way up to the top of the knoll. I step across too without hesitation. If the ice bridge can hold a moose, it can hold me.
There has been a lot of meandering in these tracks, like I am following an individual with no particular destination in mind. But it must be going somewhere, however indirectly, and I have been trying to guess where that might be. It is heading closer to a large, nameless vly immediately north of the Hamilton County line, a place that I have explored a few times during previous winters. It’s a large, sprawling wetland that is part open space and partly filled with black spruce, the type of place that can be fun to explore on snowshoes but would be dismal at any other time of the year. The black spruce had caught my attention on one of those prior visits, because that tree species is so rare in this part of the Adirondacks. There had been no mistaking them for red spruce, which you are far more likely to see; these had the dark stems, candle-like profiles, and clusters of aging cones that distinguish black spruce trees from their brethren. I remember them growing thickly over a large portion of the wetland, but nowhere else in the surrounding forest.
So, is that a place a moose might want to go? That’s the closest landmark, and the tracks have been wandering ever closer since I first picked them up. The vly was a pretty place as far as I am concerned, but a moose wouldn’t be out here just to admire the scenery. It seems like these interior woods here would offer much more shelter and browse. The vly would be an exposed and barren expanse of snow, full of drifts and channels of soft ice. I see little point in speculating in its intentions, though. Wherever the moose is going, I will find out soon enough.
Clearly its destination — if there even is one — is a mystery to me that will hopefully be revealed in due time anyway. My destination right now, wherever it should end up being, is a spot close enough to see the moose, but not close enough to scare it off too quickly. It’s not like I want to run up and hug it. I just want to see it, and maybe even get a picture or two. I know it’s not going to just hang around and pose for me. It will bolt when it sees me, just like a deer. All I want, best-case scenario, is a moment when I see it and it doesn’t see me. Barring that, I’ll settle for a glimpse — one just long enough to make out its gangly features and its toothy antlers, or the feminine lack thereof. Seeing only a fleeting shadow through the distant trees, and nothing more, would be too much disappointment.
This latest meander, across the creek and up the knoll, has now pointed its course well south of the vly. It’s like the moose is leading me back to the logging road I had followed in. If it continues in this direction, we will cross my original snowshoe tracks from this morning. And if that’s the case, then I really am only just minutes behind it.
The snow in this hemlock grove is a little thinner, the surface gritty with short green needles and little specks of bark. The thicker evergreen canopy here kept much of the recent snow from reaching the ground, trapping it high above in the trees like funds held in escrow, to be released in small amounts as certain conditions are met. It has been coming down in tufts that pock the otherwise smooth blanket with little impact craters: shallow, erratic holes scattered around the predictable postholes left by the moose like acne on young skin.
Hold on — what’s this? The tracks are making an abrupt stop. No — they’re not stopping, they’re doubling back to the right, making a sharp V-turn in the snow that seems strikingly out of character. If all of the meanders up to this point have suggested a casual, unhurried, and perhaps even indecisive pace, then this sharp turn suggests precisely the opposite. What happened?
The incoming tracks that I have been following were set relatively close together, laid by an animal that was in no particular hurry. Other than the meanders and occasional pause, the moose’s pace has been consistent ever since it woke up this morning. But the outgoing set leading away from the hemlock grove is spaced far apart — the long, bounding strides of an animal running. It is like the moose had sensed danger and bolted in the opposite direction, away from an intrusion that warranted no curiosity, no cause to linger and scrutinize.
Immediately I grasp what that intrusion was, what sent it fleeing. I was right all along: I really had just been minutes away from meeting the maker of these tracks, at least for one brief moment. I want to think that there might have been other things that could’ve spooked the moose, another threat that might’ve caused it to run, but I doubt it. There is only one intruder here, and that would be me.
Flumpf, flumpf, flumpf.
The snow is excellent, and I feel like I am making good progress. The snowshoes and the snow are cooperating well, the latter accepting the former in soft, rhythmic footfalls. If there was only the snow and nothing more, this would be an almost unencumbered form of travel. I might be as silent and fleet as the moose, perhaps. But hobblebush, stumps and logs all lie partly concealed beneath the surface, eager to trip me in my rush, and whenever I strike any of these submerged things the snowshoes are like sounding boards, broadcasting my awkwardness in sharp, taunting thwucks to whatever might be listening.
The moose tracks are moving with purpose now — longer strides and a straighter course, no indulgences and no stops or meanders. I have followed them back across the stream, on a northeasterly course by my general reckoning. I haven’t really had a chance to play with the map in a few minutes; it remains folded in the mesh pocket of my pack. We must have crossed the county line by now, not that there would be anything to mark such an imaginary boundary out here, and nothing tangible to be demarcated in the first place. What would the snow care which jurisdiction it had fallen in? But let’s assume that the moose and I are now in Hamilton County. The woods are beautifully open, and the terrain is gently rolling. I stop again to scan my surroundings. I see the gray-brown trunks of gracefully curved hardwoods, some of them speckled with colorful pieces of lichens, each one a column that is half in sunlight and half in shadow. It is a pleasing enough setting, but there is no sign of movement.
The posthole tracks are deep. The moose’s legs are plunging much farther down than mine, and yet it is hardly handicapped. It seems unimpressed by the brush and the pockets of downed wood that its hooves have scraped against in the snow. It has also been smart enough to avoid that large wetland with the black spruce, where the snow is probably piled into drifts. That place is somewhere to the left, but as I continue to follow the tracks I can’t even see the opening through the trees. The terrain is sloping down in that direction, and maybe a hundred yards away I can see the dark conifer stands that must flank that area like the outskirts of a city, but the moose knows what’s there and knows that it’s a dead end. Instead, it is keeping to the open woods where it can run faster, deeper into the wilderness.
Or, I should say, it kept to the open woods, for surely now I need to start thinking in the past tense. The enthusiasm that had been growing all morning inside me is now fading like something dissolving in acid. I had been so sure just moments ago that my streak was about to end, that the new year was beginning on an auspicious note. I had been giddily trudging along in the footsteps of the moose as if it would just be standing there waiting for me, but my quarry had had other faculties at its disposal. It must have been aware of me long before I had known of it. When I had been trudging up the logging road earlier, still unaware that I was even sharing the woods, the moose had heard me, or smelled me. Its oversized nose must have worked the cold air to assess the foreign odor, its ungainly ears stiffened at the obvious sound of a human coming closer. And then it bolted, setting off at a run in the opposite direction without any further hesitation. I never had a chance.
Yet I follow anyway for the moment, because a part of me is reluctant to let go of the notion that I might still get a chance to see it. Wiry twigs of hobblebush reach upward all around me, their fleshy buds like crab pincers closed tightly for the season. The sun is shining without hindrance — it really has been every bit the bluebird day that the weather forecasters promised — and its light is casting intricate blue shadows across the snow. Lingering beech leaves are backlit against the glow, bronze skins left to dry and rattle over the winter. The tracks, that long perforated line in the snow, lead from the sun into a shady glen and then up the next knoll, a line without end.
My pace slows; I know each step forward is increasingly futile. The moose must be well on its way to the West Branch of the Sacandaga by now, a mile north of here, if in fact it’s not already there. The Sacandaga is not some little rill in the woods. It is a boundary line that will be far more concrete and effective than the invisible one dividing Fulton County from Hamilton. I know the river fairly well. The closest section, where the tracks seem to be heading, flows for several miles east-to-west through a broad valley. Parts of the forest there are as open as this, yes, but there are thicker areas too, places filled with spruce and tangled webs of fallen trees, as well as sprawling swamps and wetlands that are even more labyrinthine than the one I just skirted. The river itself is wide and deep, carrying the combined output of the numerous other streams and creeks that radiate outward like veins on a leaf. The river will be enough of a barrier that even the moose will pause before crossing it. But if properly motivated the moose would cross, splashing through the cold water if necessary, whereas I on the other hand could not even consider such a thing without risking hypothermia.
At any rate, the moose will tire of running and when it does it will realize I am nowhere around anymore. How long have I been following these tracks? It has already had that much time to separate itself from me, and I will still need another twenty or thirty minutes just to get to the river. The reality is that this is not a fair match-up, this little game of Bill versus the Moose, and it never has been. The moose has long since moved on and forgotten all about me, and perhaps has even already had plenty of time to recover its breath after making this long dash to get away. It may very well be slowly meandering again in some other sheltered glen, looking for browse with no further cares in the world, just like it had been doing before I arrived.
I come to a stop in the little valley, the tracks leading uninterrupted up the next hill. Beside me stands the rotting carcass of an ancient yellow birch, a giant that is slowly being disassembled by the elements. A tall section of the bole still stands, a twisting tower that leans slightly to one side until abruptly coming to an end about twenty feet above me. One side of it still bears a generous amount of bark, scaly and dull gold, but the side facing me has been eviscerated, with a small hole through the crumbling interior revealing a glimpse of the forest beyond. A short distance away stands its twin, another birch of equal girth. This one has not been carved into a hollow shell, though, and when I look upward I see dozens of little black dots peppered throughout its crown, last season’s catkins probably. They are a clear sign that this tree is alive and healthy. Both, for all I know, sprouted from the seeds of the same parent.
I stand between the two yellow birches, more or less; they flank the trail at a diagonal angle, with the living tree slightly ahead of me. I feel my sobriety returning, as if reassured by the coarse texture of their bark. I feel it filling the place left by the giddiness that derailed my morning and sent me on this unplanned adventure. I have stopped, but the moose tracks continue. I know they lead out of this spot to another place in the same forest; and I know that whether that place is near or far, this side of the river or elsewhere, it is a place where I will not be going today. I would not be welcome there, and I would only be a source of stress and discomfort. Let the moose have its space. It deserves it — it lives here, I do not. The air is bitter cold. I take a deep breath and look away.
I emerge from the woods to find a modest expanse of open space, full of light and with little shadow. My eyes squint at the intensity. The sunlight flows unrestrained, reflecting off the snow so brightly that there is no escaping it. Coming out of the shelter of the forest, it is like being assaulted from above and below by something harsh and unforgiving, a judgment from which there can be no evasion.
My mittened hand shades my eyes, allowing me to better see the icy stream that snakes through the place and the small wooded mountains that rise like bumps on the land all around. Some of those mountains may have been the same ones I glimpsed before from the trail, and if so they are much closer now. The vly is almost completely treeless, with the forest coming to a complete halt at its edge with little mitigation, no transition from deep woods to open air, as if the meadow was a place hostile to trees. The one exception is a stand of balsam firs next to the creek, isolated like desperate homesteaders who have settled well beyond the frontier. The sun is bright but offers no warmth; the trees, I can only hope, will block the gentle breeze and its nipping chill.
I need a place to stop, because I have not taken a break since I started this morning. I walk into the shade of the balsam trees where the light seems more forgiving. A few yellowed stems of old grass arc out of the snow, and the brown, withered leaves of some other plant are crumbling into dust. I plant my two trekking poles into the snow and drop my pack so that it stands on its own. My shoulders and waist are glad to be relieved of the burden for the moment. I remove the mittens and sheath them onto the handles of the poles. My skin immediately feels the nip of the bitter air, but I will require the dexterity of my fingers for the next few minutes as I maneuver through the pack, examine the map, and eat lunch. Who knows? I may even want to take a few pictures.
Sandwiches and warm water bottles await me in the pack, buried deep inside where hopefully they will retain their heat, but now that I am here I need to see where here is. I have been in the unbroken woods for so long now, wandering far off the familiar route, that my orientation has grown vague and unspecific. I only know that I have drifted quite far from Hidden Vly, my original destination, and that I am somewhere between there and the river. I don’t know how far I’ve gone, or even how direct that tangent was. During the chase I had been following only the trail and my own sense of north and south, upstream and down, deeper into the woods and not. That’s good enough to assure me that I know where I am in the most general terms, but I cannot say with certainty whether that mountain over there — the one with the coniferous spire on top that looks unnaturally tall — has a name, or what might be on the other side of it. I may have veered more wildly off that axis than I realize, with the result that I could now be standing somewhere completely unexpected. It’s kind of exciting, in a way, the possibility of being in a place I might never have deliberately considered visiting. Or maybe I was just led in a circle, and I am looking at the hills surrounding Hidden Vly. That’s why when I came to a stop along the moose trail and saw this opening nearby I realized I needed a landmark to place myself on my map again, to reestablish my location in more specific terms.
First I pull out my new ski goggles so that I won’t be overwhelmed by the sun. They fit tightly around my glasses, and the world takes on a yellow pallor. The spruce and hemlock trees surrounding the vly look sickly, the atmosphere looks poisonous. Then I open up my map to see if I can find something on it that resembles these landmarks that I am seeing now. Surely this space must have caught the attention of some surveyor and earned a spot on the topographic sheet.
I step past the trees so that I can get a clearer look at the vly. My nook is located off to one corner, but the wetland widens to the left and right, and then comes to a close again at the foot of the mountains directly opposite me. The creek that winds through it is by far the dominant feature, and its tight meanders trend toward the left side. Unlike the sheltered stream I had seen in the woods, this one is almost completely frozen. The ice is thin and dark, with nubbins of white frost dotted across the surface. Its banks are real earthen objects, and not just soft imitations made only of snow. They are angular formations of soil and grass that have been doing their best to confine the flow of water to a single channel, even if they have not always succeeded in the past. The very existence of the vly suggests that the stream has been induced to rebellion from time to time by overflowing the banks and flooding the surrounding area; and by doing so it has somehow spoiled the entire plot of land for the growth of trees, rendering it instead a permanent opening in the woods.
By the way the vly seems to hook around the trees to the left, and by the size of the creek that wiggles through it, I develop a working theory that I am now standing beside a section of Whitman Flow, the largest stream in the immediate vicinity. There is, indeed, a white spot on the map that seems to correspond well to the general outline of this wetland. As I suspected, I did wander significantly northeast of my original destination. Whitman Flow is a creek that flows for several miles from the south, collecting the outlets of half a dozen small ponds on both sides of the county line as it heads north to the river. I have explored the creek before, but that was much further upstream; this section here is new territory.
This is all good, being someplace I have never been before, and it almost makes up for the disappointment of the morning. But the process of being rebuffed by that moose has made the woods feel somehow lonelier than I’ve ever known them to be. I look at the wilderness around me — the same horizon that had exhilarated me just a short time ago — and now I know there is something missing. I know it because I thought I had been close to finding it, but it had instead held me away at arm’s length and refused to let me get any closer. Now I am left to contemplate the emptiness of this snowy meadow, with the sense that I have overreached in my ambition and transgressed against the agreement that tolerates my presence here, this place where man is only a visitor who does not remain.
But for now here I am at Whitman Flow, my place in the world reestablished with reasonable certainty. I need to forget the morning and enjoy the afternoon. And yet it burns me that I had been so close. I am not old, but I am old enough to know that while the landscape is wide and expansive, time is not nearly as spacious. The future recedes, all of its lines converging on a single vanishing point. Among those rolling little mountains out here, and the valleys in between them, are places that I have never been, and in fact may never go. Some things that are not done now may never be done, and some things not seen will never be seen.
I fold the map and replace it in its plastic bag, my fingers succumbing to the cold and longing to be returned to the shelter of the mittens; sometimes ambition does lead to fulfillment, if that ambition is plain enough. At any rate I should return to that sheltered nook where I left the pack a moment ago and take the opportunity to eat lunch. There will be time for exploration later. I turn and see my own tracks in the snowy surface of the vly, and they lead me back beside the creek to the shade of the balsam trees.