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Sniffing and tracking on a nature retreat for women

Email|Print| Text size + By Diane E. Foulds
Globe Correspondent / March 27, 2005

HUNTINGTON, Vt. -- After months of relentless snow, you can't help wondering how wild creatures cope. Do they sleep the winter away, like bears, or just stick it out, like most of us bipeds do, venturing into the cold only for essentials, and then with great reluctance?

Nature tours are not very common this time of year, and the mere thought of winter camping made me shudder. But one option had a certain appeal. It was a women's retreat in Vermont, sponsored by the Vermont Institute of Natural Science, a guided glimpse into the tricks of animal survival. The best part was the lodging: We would be sleeping in a yurt. A rustic one, admittedly, but it was heated. And we'd be in a prime location, a secluded forest by a field that looked down over a stunning stretch of the Green Mountains.

On the appointed day, nine of us showed up at the VINS North Branch Nature Center in Montpelier. We were a diverse bunch, ages 34 to 69, a mix of educators, horticulturists, and writers, plus two trained naturalists who would act as our guides.

First stop, bear country. We parked at the Mad River Glen ski area in Waitsfield, donned our snowshoes, and followed a logging road into the woods. We were lucky: It was cold but beautiful. Sunlight twinkled on the snow, and the sky was an astonishingly deep blue. Everything was plumped in white.

Our wildlife guide, Sharon Plumb, rallied our attention. Watch for beech, she said. It's the bears' favorite tree, a smooth, gray-barked species with nutrition-packed nuts.

We spotted one, then a second, each with distinct claw marks up and down the trunk. Some enterprising breadwinner had climbed up to shake out the nuts.

Being women, we were interested in the ways we differed: How bears give birth in their sleep, painlessly. How the cubs are the size of pups. How a mother can self-abort if she hasn't sufficiently fattened up before the winter snows, and how, come spring, she sends her young into the branches of ''baby-sit trees" to keep them safe while she forages below. Arboreal day care. I loved hearing about bear graffiti, how they mark their territory and let their significant other know they're around with tooth marks on trees. They tilt their heads and chomp.

I was ready to do some chomping of my own. It was past noon, and my toes were beginning to ache with the cold. We tramped back and headed over the mountain. Our destination was the Maple Wind Farm in Huntington, a livestock operation that runs adventure tours under the name On The Loose. It was at the end of a country road, a 150-acre wilderness about 11 miles from the tip of Camel's Hump, Vermont's fourth-tallest peak.

Tugging our gear on sleds, we trekked into the woods, a caravan of backpacking penguins swishing across a frozen Sahara. Our yurt came into view like an apparition. It was the size of a small cabin, but round, with a cone-shaped roof and icicles around the rim. A plexiglass sculpture coated the door handle, presumably the inspired creation of a previous camper. In fact, it was ice.

I had expected the yurt's interior to be like those in Mongolia -- carpeted, colorful, and textile-draped, with homey pictures on the walls. But no, this was America, and it was pure efficiency. It had 10 bunks with leatherette mattresses, a kitchen counter with propane burners, a woodstove, a wood floor, and a canvas ceiling.

We wrapped our hands around steaming tea mugs. When our toes had thawed, it was back outside. We were going sniffing.

Susan Sawyer, a naturalist in love with Northern vegetation, plucked a twig from a black cherry tree and held it up to my nose. It smelled bitter, like green tea. A yellow birch twig had a wintergreen fragrance, but the balsam poplar positively stunk. The dung odor was deliberate, she said, a built-in insect repellent. We peered at all things stick-like through hand-held lenses. I never knew twigs had scales, that buds were so diverse (basswood buds, for example, look like mice in football helmets), or for that matter, that some trees come male and female.

''Twigs have so much character," Sawyer exclaimed. ''First of all, they're a record of the growth of a tree. The trunk expands incrementally, grows out every year. But the twig grows up and out. I look at this ash twig and see that it grew about a foot last summer."

When we had finished sniffing trees, we put our noses to the ground. It was sunny and still, ideal for stalking. We spotted heart-shaped footprint clusters, the work of a snowshoe hare bounding leapfrog style, hind-feet first. We also found fisher tracks, spaced two over two, following them to the brook. It was half frozen, gurgling in various pitches. We watched as a large white bubble trapped under darkened ice split in two and bounced on itself like a lava lamp. When it reconnected, we cheered.

We were bonding.

We huddled closer together as the mercury dropped. At sunset, the shadows vanished. Left in a monochromatic world, we shucked our snowshoes and trooped indoors to a candlelit dinner served on plastic dishes. Then we settled in for an evening of scratching, pacing, and conversation. One camper zipped into her sleeping bag, grabbed her flashlight, and read. Others sat by the woodstove, soaking in the heat. Though unwashed and unkempt, we were dry, warm, and as tight as squirrels in the hollow of a tree.

Just before bedtime, Sawyer remembered the kinglets. The little humpbacked birds loiter year round in the treetops singing ti-ti-ti in a high register. They hatch chicks the size of bumblebees, and dusk is when to spot them.

''They twitter at night to find each other," she said. ''They don't make it through the night unless there are three of them to huddle together."

I passed on the offer. The wind had started to howl, and my sleeping bag was flimsy, not the down-filled nests everyone else had. I pared down to my long underwear, put on my socks and hat, and zipped myself in. But sleep didn't come. Nature called during the night, necessitating mooning expeditions in the knee-deep snow. I added another layer on each return. By morning, I was fully clothed inside my den.

The temperature had dipped to 5 below zero. By 8:45 a.m. it was back up to zero, though underneath the snow, it was a balmy 23. Sawyer had stuck a thermometer there to measure the difference.

After breakfast, we hit the trail, snowshoeing single file up the mountain. A recent snow had left the evergreens frothy, and everywhere were signs of nocturnal wanderings. A fox had sauntered by and relieved himself in the snow (it smelled skunky). A few snowshoe hares had also been on the move. They eat their own droppings, since their nut and twig diet isn't fully digested the first time around. It was one habit I didn't much envy, though I must admit, our own species has its own share of culinary quirks.

Take Sawyer, for example. She sliced open a goldenrod gall the size of a shallot. Embedded inside was a tiny larva, eurosta solidaginis. It looked something like a sesame seed, but close up, there was no mistaking it: This was a maggot. She showed us the little tunnel it had plowed through the pith, an escape hatch it would use come spring. ''They're quite good to eat," she muttered, ''full of sugar antifreeze."

Skeptical, we taunted her, then stared in awed revulsion as she stuck it in her mouth and chewed.

In the end, we discovered how abundant life is, even in winter. In a weekend, we had only scratched the surface. As a parting gift, Sawyer beckoned us over to a shrub at the edge of a field. It was a one-act play pressed in snow.

A partridge had swooped in the night before, leaving a plaster-of-Paris-like likeness of its lower extremities. It had shuffled to a bush, burrowed under the snow, and roosted. It had left a mound of fresh droppings, then prepared for takeoff. One step, two, three, liftoff. The last trace was exquisite: The scalloped tips of two outstretched wings dipped ever so lightly into the snow. It had landed, parked, and flown, and so, we felt, had we.

Diane Foulds is a freelance writer in Vermont.

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