Snowshoes By Mark Usyk

I don’t normally drive to a trout stream unless I’m going to fish it. But today it’s the middle of January, trout season is closed, and Mother Nature dumped about ten to twelve inches of snow up here yesterday. Even if I wanted to fish, I couldn’t. Today I’ve driven up here for entirely the same reasons I come up here to fish, minus the fish. I’ve come up here to escape. To get away. To talk things out with myself. Normally when I fish, I’m not talking anything out with myself except how to approach a spot, how to make a cast, or how to get a fly out of a tree. But since I won’t be fishing today, I figure this is the perfect place to have a good conversation with me, myself, and I. Two full CDs of Tom Petty’s greatest hits and then some silence is what it took to get here. Stuck behind too many slow plows, I should’ve been here a long while ago.

I turned off the traction control in the Subaru though as soon as I left the pavement for the snow-covered dirt road and made up a little time in the last couple miles. Old enough to know better, but still to young to care. Or maybe it’s not still too young, it’s just old enough to not care. My eyes are opened. I think the millennials call it woke or something like that that. I see things for what they are today. My eyes are open.

Two days ago I was sitting in a hospital visiting an old friend, one who’d just found out about how valuable time really is. So valuable that it’s priceless. You literally can’t buy more of it. “Do what it is you want to do” he said. “Whatever dream it is you want to follow today, follow it now. Later on and someday might not be there tomorrow. Do what it is you want to do, seriously. I’ve always known this day would come; I just didn’t know it would be this soon.” That whole conversation is why I turned off the traction control and buried the gas pedal. I felt like it. Damn the consequences. You only live once. And you need to feel alive.

As I strap on my snowshoes, I realize that no one really knows where I am. I lean back into the car, retrieve a lighter from the glove box and stick it in my jacket pocket. At least if I break a leg or something out here I can start a fire. Maybe. If I could find something dry. Then I remember all the receipts in my wallet. I’ve probably only got a single dollar bill in it, but there’s enough receipts in there to start twenty fires. Sooner or later, maybe in a few days, someone would come this far looking for me. Yeah, sure. I lock the car, leave the seasonal road, and head into the woods, my snowshoes pushing the white powder with each step. I’m under a canopy now, surrounded by bare hardwoods and tall pines. I’m happy to leave the car behind.

I push down the narrow trail, the wind blowing through the tops of the trees. But down here at their bases there isn’t so much as even a breeze. The branches all have snow accumulated in piles on them, the trail is nothing more than a white billowy absence of anything else flanked by large tree trunks reaching to the forest’s ceiling and new growth evergreens that look like frozen children standing shivering covered in snow. Here and there fallen branches reach up through the new snow and fallen tree trunks try to hide in my path disguised as long white humps, something like speedbumps in a parking lot. And with snowshoes on, they do slow me down slightly, the bigger ones anyways.

The stream, one I know like the back of my hand is choked with ice and snow. Besides the wind above the treetops and the occasional birds, the water cutting it’s way around rocks covered in snow and under the ice doing it’s best to seal it off from the rest of the world is the only noise out here. That and the crunching under my snowshoes. I push ahead, it’s a completely different world up here this time of year.

I think about what it must’ve been like for the first hunters and trappers who made the decision to make their livings…and more accurately their lives, up here. As I’m walking I imagine the modern plastic snowshoes strapped to my modern boots would have been wood and rawhide, and my boots more moccasins. I’d have a pack basket on my back full of heavy furs, and a rifle in my hand. My clothes heavy animal hides and thick fur. This walk would not be so easy, and it wouldn’t be so carefree.

I’m here now because I’ve found the time to enjoy the outdoors. Back then… I’d be doing all I could to beat the outdoors and live to tell about it. I wonder how long I would’ve lived back then as I continue down the trail. A bird explodes ten feet above my head from a branch, its wings thumping a hundred miles an hour, probably a grouse by the sound of it. I jump a bit and my heart skips a beat. “You’d probably have shot yourself in the foot, blown a big old musket sized hole in your moccasin. You wouldn’t have made it that long out here I guess.

The stream keeps my attention when I’m not scanning off through the forest. The hardwoods are dull browns and grays, the pines are the only real color, and that’s only a dark green. The forest floor has no color, only white. Except for the stream. The dark tinted Adirondack water contrasts with the ice attempting to cover it like a slash of brown paint on a clean piece of paper. In the deeper runs and pools the water appears almost black flanked by the white ice. There’s no bottom to be seen. But in the rest of the stream there isn’t only ice above attempting to cover the water, but there are layers of ice below the surface. Where in the summer I study the rocks on the bottom as I fish, today in the winter I’m studying the ice formations underwater. The tea colored water flowing over the ice gives it a yellow stained look. It’s hard to describe but looks like something an artist would attempt to paint.

I continue to walk, asking myself how far I plan to go. “As far as I want to before I feel like turning around. Maybe to the end.” Random thoughts are popping into my head now, I guess simply because I have nothing else to think about. Or maybe it’s because it really is just me, myself and I up here. And this is where you can find the hardest questions and the easiest answers. And know because of the solitude that they’re honest answers. There’s a spring making a small pool of crystal-clear water in the middle of the trail. With the pebbles, pine needles and sticks covering its bottom as it cuts down off the side of the trail disappearing under the snow to only become a trickling sound it reminds me of what the stream looks like in the spring. I continue moving down the trail.

I think about my friend, all the things he said, the stories he told, all the things that came to light in his mind and were probably still coming to light as he weighed and measured his life. I think about my own life. I know part of a positive life is forgiveness. And that there are people and things I need to forgive. I know I need to. Apparently I’m not ready yet. My mind fights with the notion still. It doesn’t let go easily. I wonder if it ever will.

I look ahead at the fresh snow fall, not a track to be seen. Just an almost perfect rolling cover of white. I look behind me at what my snowshoes have done to destroy that perfection. It’s no different than when I go out on a lake in the early morning when the water is like glass. I hate to move. To move a paddle. Both the noise of the paddle displacing water and the ripples that it sends out disrupting the mirror like reflection of the trees and sky makes me feel like I’m ruining a masterpiece. The tracks in the snow, I did that, and I’ll have to look at them the entire way back.

I wonder if I’m the only one who thinks about stuff like this. I’m standing on a large flat rock overlooking a small set of shelves that could be considered small waterfalls. The water is still moving too hard here to allow ice the form. Pine tree branches hang close to the water, snow weighing them down, causing them to reach down closer as if thinking about touching the water but not completely convinced yet it’s such a good idea. The exposed roots that are encapsulated in ice just at the water’s surface are probably what’s giving them their second thoughts.

Mark Usyk is the author of Reflections of a Fly Rod and Carp Are Jerks, both books full of stories about life, where fishing happens. If you enjoy his blog, you’ll enjoy his books. They’re available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and signed copies are purchased on this web site…