The wonder of woods in winter
LENOX -- For some people, "winter getaway" means hopping a plane to the Caribbean. But for those who actually enjoy cold weather, it can mean getting out into the woods to see how they have changed since the leaves fell. With luck, some snow will cover the ground, outlining the bare branches and revealing, in crystalline clarity, the footprints of the animals who prowl more discreetly in other seasons.
The Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Lenox promises a treat for those who savor the season and its secrets. The 1,300-acre Massachusetts Audubon Society property has a little bit of everything: fields, forests, brooks, and access to a mountain (elevation 2,126 feet) that commands views of Mount Greylock, the Taconic Range, and the Catskills.
This varied terrain creates equally varied habitats -- hardwood forests, fens, ledges, and swamps -- that support 700 species of plants . Wildlife officials report similar variety, including 167 species of birds, from hawks to chickadees.
But the main attraction is a chain of beaver ponds linked by a stream and a series of water terraces on the eastern end of the sanctuary. While it may seem odd today, when angry property owners are calling for more lenient trapping laws to solve their beaver problems, the animals were basically extinct in Massachusetts before the 1930s. They had been hunted, largely for their fur, for centuries.
Wildlife managers reintroduced them at the Lenox sanctuary and in other locations, and 70 years later, beavers have built a village of lodges and the thin-rimmed dams that hold these ponds in place.
Seven miles of well-marked trails, including boardwalks crossing wetlands, make for good hiking and snowshoeing. Summit seekers can forge straight up Lenox Mountain ( off sanctuary property, but the trails are legal) through ledges and hemlock ravines to a fire tower on top. However, beaver trackers will prefer a less strenuous, pond-hugging loop hike that begins behind the sanctuary's nature center, where visitors check in and pick up maps.
The best time for viewing is dusk, when these large aquatic rodents in their thick fur emerge from their lodges to pass the night in furious industry. But their works are everywhere , and the roughly two-mile walk around Pike's Pond, then along Yokun Brook to the string of eastern ponds puts them all on display.
Feats of engineering are not the only attraction. Even with bone-chilling temperatures, the gurgle of water can be heard under the boardwalk and beneath the thin ice of the brook. Winter beech leaves rattle in the wind like frozen socks on a laundry line. The hardwood trees are striking in bare outline, especially against a backdrop of snow.
After Pike's Pond, the trail climbs a few feet to the bank above Yokun Brook and eventually descends again to follow the stream . Scattered stumps gnawed into pencil-point shapes poke into the air, their trunks and limbs floated away for underwater construction.
As the trail makes a final turn toward the nature center, it crosses along the dam of one of the terraced ponds, which are linked by narrow spillways. Were the climate more hospitable to rice growing, these might be perfect paddies. Instead, if the timing is right, a last over-the-shoulder look captures a snow-capped beaver lodge, shimmering like a miniature Mount Fuji.
Jane Roy Brown, a freelance writer in Western Massachusetts, can be reached at regan-brown.com.