On February 2, Ground Hog day—or Imbolc, or St. Brigid’s Day, if you follow the ancient Celtic calendar—I took my first walk on the Millrace since the Polar Freeze hit. I was amazed to see that, while I’d been hibernating, others had been frequenting the race.
The ducks, for instance, were happily swimming in a patch of water underneath the bridge near the Goshen Dam pond. So I asked Paul Steury, local naturalist and colleague at Goshen College, Holden Caulfield’s memorable question from “Catcher in the Rye”: “Where do the ducks go in winter?” As I remember it, Holden keeps asking this question of taxi drivers who take him through Central Park in his winter ramblings in New York City.
“Wherever they want to,” Paul answered, to my surprise. When pressed, he said ducks thrive wherever there is an open patch of water, even if that water is very cold. Apparently, their migration patterns used to be more predictable, but like humans in our changing world, they’re making a variety of choices.
I don’t know what keeps the water flowing under the bridge warm enough not to freeze—the current, underground heat, a heating conduit?—but I’ll add this question to my research list. Of course, if you know the answer, please add your comments below. Research is a collaborative adventure!
Tracks from humans and other animals—dogs, rabbits, others—also marked the crusted snow. I even spotted some humans crunching along the path on this sunny and warmer winter day—well into the teens above zero. Goshen resident Carol Good-Elliott, an Environmental Educator at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen College, reports sighting muskrats swimming in open patches of water along the millrace and says she’d put money on the possibility that mink hunt along the water’s edge. She also identified a variety of birds that feed on insects and the seeds and dried fruits of millrace plants all winter long: juncos, song sparrows, tree sparrows, chickadees, tufted titmice, cardinals, bluebirds, robins, white-breasted nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, brown creepers, and tree sparrows, among others. Red-tailed and Cooper’s Hawks feed on the mammals brave enough to hang out during the winter.
Although it’s prohibitive for most bikers, the snow has made it possible for cross-country skiers to travel to and from work on the Millrace, if they’re warmly dressed. I haven’t seen anyone on snowshoes yet, but Carol reports running on the race weekly throughout the winter (until the path became a skating rink) and snowshoeing through the woods at Rieth Interpretive Center.
It looks like we’re in for more winter—Lent doesn’t even begin until March 5—but meanwhile, beneath the snow and frozen ground, mother nature is harboring the flower seeds with tough casings that require alternating freezing and thawing weather in order to crack open. Something of the same process potholes require. Thank goodness I’m not covering that story.
Meanwhile, not only is winter a season to hibernate, but also to tell stories. Native Americans believed that the animals couldn’t hear them as well then, in case a story would accidentally offend one of their fellow creatures. From my winter perch I’ve been researching a story on the safely dead Mastodon skeleton that was unearthed in 1867, when work on the millrace was underway. Stay tuned for a few such winter tales as you await harbingers of spring.