Barrens, but hardly barren

Russell Wangersky
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Up high over Small Point, heading back on the high ground that will soon be barrens and the brown-stick winter of brush, the small close-woven copses of spruce. On foot on the kind of bog-bike trail that isn't through bog, where the travel of the wheels has worn the ground away to mica-rich sparkling beige gravel and small stones. It's like its own false creekbed, except sometimes it even becomes a creek when the water's high.

On a sun-bright Monday at the end of December, much of that water's frozen, alternating between the jelly-roll of fat-lipped ice at the edge of faster open water, and the entrained air swept under the ice and caught there in heavy-fingered lobes.

Now, not everyone likes the barrens.

Maybe it's the oppressive weight of their simplicity: the way that you could draw their profile, from furthest horizon to the closest bend and swale, with maybe seven pencil lines. The way they stretch out in front of you, working through the shallowest of colour changes, even the closest things somehow featureless.

And maybe it's just the way you have to let your eyes hang.

People who look for birds will know what I mean: there's a way to let your eyes go wide, looking at nothing in particular until something moves, and then pulling in tight to focus on that one movement. Perhaps the barrens are best appreciated the same way, in an uneasy combination of the broad and the particular.

There's the big empty, and the closer-up little crowded - but you don't see the second part at first.

Small wonders

On the thin layer of snow, with the wind holding off now for a few days, the travellers have started to make their presence known.

At least two bog bikes have gone in, different tires, one trailing the wide-buttoned tracks of a short-gaited dog. Occasionally, rabbit tracks cross the open path on the diagonal: the prints close together where the rabbit waited under cover, looking before it leapt, then the long bounds where it traversed the open ground.

The bog bikes come back, separately, engines growling, and you hear each one first from a distance, the sound changing as the motors work up the short hills and hide around corners.

The second one has the dog back in its wire-mesh cage on the fender, the shotgun in a soft case with a rubber foot, tied across the back rack. No sign of rabbits now. The driver nods, but the dog is silent, and you imagine it too tired to lift its head, tuckered from the work of sorting out the way rabbits meander.

The bikes crawl downhill, pulling the sound down behind them like they have captured it in long trailing bags and are taking it home with them, purpose unknown.

Small signs

Here on the edge there is a small scratch of double paws, tiny leaping bounds through snow that would be chest-deep on this vole or maybe smaller shrew: a quick brave dart out into the open, and a loop back almost immediately to a straw-bound hole on the side of the path.

Eighteen steps of partridge, real partridge, the footprints clear with their telltale serif finishing touches, that curved scimitar-shaped featherline that trails each step and serves no purpose beyond the elegance of design. At what would be the nineteenth step, the delicate touch of wingtips in the snow on both sides, so clear that you'd swear you can hear the clap of the wings or the rush of air through feathers.

A tangle of boot prints back and forth along the side of the track, a vector of tracks heading into the brush - a hundred metres along, and the same tangle again, and it's clear that if you tracked your way in along the same route, you'd find a more heavily used path for rabbit through thick underbrush and the bright deadly silver of a hanging slip.

Then there is something that walks like a cat, single-file, but might not be - there's not enough pattern left at the front edge of the track to look for the dimple of claws. Still, the line looks dainty and un-dog-like.

Small nests of chickadee footprints where the birds have been picking the seeds out of the grass that still pokes up through the white, and then, when you roll the edges of your hat up over your ears for a moment, the sound of the chickadees themselves, and they're high and flitting, worrying the seeds out of the brown hard nubs of the juniper cones with their beaks. There are other birds, not as brave, that you can't see, but there are occasionally chirps and peeps that leak out from the dark spots under the crowded tuckamore, and though it's early in the winter, many of the alder catkins have been raided, leaving dusty fugitive dark-brown seeds dainty on the snow beneath.

Then the sun is just two fingers above the horizon and there is only so much daylight left, only so much time to find your way back before the barrens wink tonight to moonless night.

Going back along your own route always shorter than going in.

Turn once to look at your own trail: boots coming downhill, both ways, lost and found again.

Later, outside again, a night so cold and still that sudden sounds rush towards you and startle, hurrying to find some shelter in your ears.

Tomorrow, another brilliant day.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram's editorial page editor. Email:


Organizations: The Telegram

Geographic location: Small Point

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