Like Old Man Winter

I decided to take a cold morning hike into the wildest corner of my valley. If every country and suburban district had a designated, well-preserved wild location (an idea prescribed by H.D. Thoreau, but dutifully ignored), the Big Ravine would be my valley’s Great Beyond.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The day before I’d seen propitious sign that told me to take the plunge. A young golden eagle soared in the buffeting winds above the Big Ravine. A group of ravens dined on a whitetail carcass along the Ridge Road.

An early 70s boogie-blues album played guitar riffs in my head as I walked up the road. Occasional listens to a vinyl record like “Looking In” by Savoy Brown helped to keep an old rambler trekking. During my college years I toyed with checking out the contents of my skull, and now, so many years later, I was looking into wintry folds of the earth for similar reasons. Applying my limited skills at self-effacement, I tried to forget myself for an hour or two.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Following a short and chilly hike along the road I took a turn at wood’s edge and began to “disappear.” I was looking forward to immersion in a place where, in likelihood, no human had walked since the deer season several months earlier. The snow-covered, icy banks at the lower ravine quickly put me in my place– sliding on my ass to the amusement of a squawking jay. The sound of water bubbling under the ice reminded me to take it easy. Crawling from the big woods with a broken ankle wouldn’t help my self-esteem.

To aid my focus, I wanted to locate a smaller gully entering from the west.  The gully wasOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA a possible link to the stately evergreens I could see from way back at the house. The gully I found was smaller than expected. Near its opening at the Big Ravine, I nearly exploded from my winter jacket. I saw someone, and he didn’t look to be a hunter.

In my decades of regularly bushwhacking the local forests, I can’t recall ever meeting another human being. Ironically, on a day when I’d set out to escape the human condition, I bumped into someone who’d been watching my cumbersome ascent. Standing on opposite sides of the wooded brook, we raised our walking sticks as if in salute, as if to banish the possibility of witnessing a phantom.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The young guy introduced himself. He lived in North Carolina but his father’s long-standing camp was situated up above the evergreens along the snowed-in, seasonal road. He was visiting the camp because his father, hospitalized near Buffalo, had serious health issues. The son and his brothers were reviewing the 200 acre hunting site, trying to decide what to do with it in case their old man passed away. The sale of the standing timber, alone, could bankroll a first new home in North Carolina.

I had introduced myself as a long-time valley dweller out to “turn himself around.” I feltOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA a long way from the fellow’s money considerations, but I liked listening to him in a forest setting. We acknowledged that we were probably the first “two-leggeds” on the hill since last November.

Climbing onward by myself, I had a stroke of vision. The winter sun shone brightly overhead. Spring would arrive in a month or so. I saw myself in the eyes of the young guy, as he might have seen me in the moments before I actually knew he was there.

Who’s that? Old Man Winter with a walking stick? With gray hair sticking out beneath a fishing cap. Old Man Winter plowing uphill on the edge of the ravine. Looking for a subtle exit from the year. A geezer looking for a place to lie down on the snow and fall asleep. With nobody noticing. Looking for the soft wind, for the grass beneath, and the first birds settling in the trees…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA great red oak tree welcomed my exit near the summit. Beyond it stood a camouflaged dome tent with a sleeping bag stuck in the zippered door. I wasn’t about to check out the interior, to possibly slipping downward for a snooze. Instead I thought of the late, great folk guitarist, Bert Jansch, and the Scotch lyrics I’d review when getting home.

Oh if was a branched tree/ I’d be the oak tree fast and strong/ To win your gentle heart….[from Tree Song]OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The February Man still wipes the snow from off his hair and blows his hand…[from The January Man]

It was best to keep on rambling, looking in, I thought. It was best to keep what friends I had, and not be Old Man Winter.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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10 Responses to Like Old Man Winter

  1. Ken G says:

    There are times I wonder if I like your story, or if I like being reminded of bands I haven’t thought of in over 35 years. I’ve noticed too that as I get older, me and ice don’t get along as well as we used to. That is one hell of a tree!

    • I don’t know, Ken, sometimes the story grows with help from the old music. Sometimes it grows because I’m simply old and the music keeps me feeling young. At least, that’s what the big oak tree’s sayin’!


  2. Junior says:

    Which ravine are you referring to? Of all the candidates I thought of, something in your description wasn’t able to add up for me. That is quite a tree, though.

    • Bob Stanton says:

      Hi Walt, for some strange reason I was able to quickly start typing after clicking on the reply button below Junior’s comment, and it seems to have took. (!???) I went for a winter stroll yesterday in my local State Gamelands and had an unexpected encounter myself. I climbed a ridge that straddles two of my favorite small streams and ambled along until the wind got the better of me. On my return trip, I rounded a corner on the access road not too far from the parking area, and about fifty yards distant was a group of ten to fifteen folks I assume was a local outdoor club. The funny part was that they seemed to be totally unnerved by my sudden appearance and beat a hasty reroute through a stand of hemlocks, with many furtive glances in my direction, as though they’d just seen a Sasquatch. It gave me a good chuckle. Usually I don’t get that reaction unless someone is watching me destroy a buffet or salad bar!

      • Bob, Welcome back to direct line communication! Glad you’re able to make it through. I too had to chuckle at the anecdote about the group’s apparent response to Sasquatch. It’s amusing to think about the way we solitary ramblers are occasionally seen as suspect when the public has the good fortune to encounter us. If we’re not carrying some kind of a rod or weapon then we’re obviously unstable, so head for the cars!


    • Junior, The description is deliberately a bit nebulous, but you would know it as the uphill walk behind the “Bates” place. Yeah, red oaks grow to impressive size, especially if they’re too ugly for the saw!


  3. thosnut says:

    Yea. I love the last big tree at the end. I’m sure that tree could tell its own stories of human encounters in the woods in all the different seasons.

  4. Puget Keith says:

    I would like to ask that big tree just how many different people it has seen in its long life. I have no idea how old a tree of that type and size might be but could it be as old as 200 years? Maybe a mere sapling when your area was first settled?

    • This oak is an odd one around here. I know of several larger ones in the area but they’re located along old property lines where owners “valued” them for being sentries or markers, or where actual ownership was in dispute. But this oak stands in the “open” so to speak, and I think it’s been spared because of its distorted shape, of wood unable to be used commercially. That’s my take on it, so yeah, I’d say this one has seen and heard a lot, perhaps since the days of first white settlement.


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