Photo by David C. Olson

Connecting with Nature in Winter

It’s true, winter is a time where we can value silence and the crisp winds. We make the case for getting outside and exploring the winter landscape, through many recreational activities.

Photo by David C. Olson
Photo by David C. Olson

Thoreau speaks of the winter as the “finest days of the year.” Winter is a time to value silence, to feel the crispness and sting of faraway winds. Winter is a time for reflection and serenity. Winter brims with beauty, both subtle and brilliant. Snow lying on branches, frost interlacing prairie and sky, ice crystalizing on water into fantastic patterns; these are sublime visions for the tired mind. Winter is a time to slow down. Winter is pure and cleansing. Winter is the time of shortened but intense light. Winter is not a time to go in, but a time to stay in touch with nature in her “off season.”
Jim Roberts, a retired Rockford pastor, has discovered how to remain connected to the natural world throughout the changing seasons, even in the depths of winter. Roberts has adopted a spiritual practice that he calls ‘singing up the sun.’ He begins each day by spending a few meditative moments in his backyard, paying close attention to nature’s offerings.
“No matter what the weather, I go out and sing to greet the rising sun, and then I listen, smell, touch and look for the changes that the arc of the sun and rhythm of the seasons bring,” he says. There is nothing more invigorating, Roberts says, than standing quietly while being kissed by falling snowflakes.
He marvels at the cloud of his breath in the sun’s first rays, the fantastic design of hoar frost on the dry husk of a milkweed pod, the sandpaper sound of wind rustling the clinging curled oak leaves above.
“By being out each day,” Roberts says, “you can really experience the subtle shifts created by the cycles that sun, wind, snow, trees, flowers, birds and humans are all part of.”
For Roberts and many other engaged seekers, winter offers abundant gifts to stimulate the senses and nourish the soul.
Beyond your own backyard, this region’s abundance of public trails, parks, preserves and nature centers offers diverse opportunities to experience nature. Environmental educator and ecologist Greg Keilback, of Winnebago, Ill., finds that winter offers some of best opportunities for wildlife observation.
“The lack of leaves and the die-back in vegetation reveal many wonders, fascinating signs of the life that exists all around us,” says Keilback. “Winter’s bare branches make it the best time to observe bird nests and other animal homes that now become visible.”
It’s fun to try to identify the type of bird that built the nest by learning shape, form, placement and the materials used for building. Some nests are tiny, intricately woven creations. Others are minimalist constructions of a few twigs placed precariously across supporting branches. Look carefully for the tiny nests of hummingbirds, and see if you can find the Baltimore Oriole nest hanging like a fuzzy pouch from a high branch. White-faced hornets’ nests are also revealed in naked trees. These exceptional examples of natural engineering appear as marbled teardrop-shaped balls hanging from tree branches.
Keilback relishes snow cover for tracking wildlife with his 7-year old son. “Throughout the winter, on warm days, we may notice some animals out and about that are dormant during the winter, but are not true hibernators,” Keilback says. The animals that are active leave tracks and signs in the snow that tell the tale of their activities. “It’s challenging and fun,” says Keilback, “to learn to identify the tracks of skunks, chipmunks, raccoons, squirrels, weasels, otters, owls and lots of birds.”
Expect to see deer tracks in forest preserves, as well. Raccoon tracks are easy to identify, due to their finger-like paws. Look for the tracks of mice and other small rodents on top of the snow, or evidence of their tunnels as bumps in the snow. Sometimes it’s easier for a small animal to go under the snow, rather than to try to trek across the top, where there may be predators like foxes and coyotes. These canines grow a thick layer of fur that keeps them insulated from the snow. Look for their four-toed tracks with claws, just like a dog track.
Avid birder Mike Eickman, of Harrison, Ill., says winter bird watching is highly rewarding and a fun way to cure the winter blues. There are more than 30 species of birds that are commonly viewed throughout the colder months, when it is easier to spot birds and study them without obstruction. Eickman looks forward to this season so he can find northern species that that are not here during other times of the year.
“Great spots for bird watching are along the rivers, especially when part of the water is frozen, but enough is open to provide food and water for the birds,” Eickman says. Look for areas of good cover and trees with seeds.
“Klehm Forest Preserve is a good bet,” says Eickman, “because of the many fruit trees that provide necessary survival nutrition for birds.” Eickman says some of the common birds seen in our region’s winter woods are the Dark-Eyed Junco, Mourning Dove, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, White-Breasted Nuthatch, Downy Woodpecker, Red- and White-Winged Crossbill, Evening Grosbeak, Pine Siskin and Black-Capped Chickadee. Listen for Great Horned and Barred Owls calling at dusk.
“In open fields and prairie areas,” Eickman suggests, “look for Horned Larks, Short-Eared Owls, Lapland Longspurs, Snow Buntings, Red-Tailed Hawks and Rough-Legged Hawks.” Some of the top winter birding locations, according to Eickman, are Rock Cut State Park, Severson Dells Forest Preserve, Blackhawk Springs Forest Preserve, Oak Ridge Forest Preserve, Nygren Wetland Preserve and Aldeen Park, in Winnebago County, White Pines State Park in Ogle County, and Lib and Distillery Conservation Areas in Boone County.
In LaSalle and Jo Daviess counties, bald eagles are the stars. These birds are easiest to find when they feed on fish in the open rivers. Local organizations, including the Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation, plan trips to the Mississippi River to watch large numbers of eagles fishing, most often in the open waters near locks and dams. Several communities host bald eagle festivals in January, such as the Quad Cities Bald Eagle Days, Quincy (Ill.) Great River Eagle Days and the Dubuque (Iowa) Bald Eagle Watch.
Rick Barton, a nature photographer and outdoor guide for Rocktown Adventures, in Rockford, relishes winter’s opportunities to explore the little-known treasures in local natural areas. Snowshoes are essential gear as he treks to his favorite spots, in Blackhawk Springs Forest Preserve in Rockford, Nygren Wetlands Preserve in Rockton and Lib Conservation Area in Belvidere.
“What’s really exciting,” says Barton, “is that snowshoes and skis allow us to get into some of the more wild and remote areas of the preserves that people might not discover when it’s full of underbrush.”
For an invigorating workout, Barton enjoys skiing, but for really observing what’s going on in the winter landscape, snowshoes are the way to go. “Snowshoeing allows me to stop and listen and photograph my surroundings,” explains Barton. “If I’m cross-country skiing, it’s for exercise and I get lost in the activity.”
For those who would like some instruction before setting off into the winter terrain, experienced instructors are available. Rocktown Adventures offers instruction, rental and guided group outings utilizing cross-country skis and snowshoes. Barton has introduced hundreds of people to snowshoeing and sees a growing interest.
“Families who want to go beyond winter hiking really enjoy wearing snowshoes because they don’t take much time to master, and once they get the feel for walking in them, they feel a sense of freedom to go places where there is a lot of snow.” Women get special winter treatment by Rocktown Adventures, which kicks off a Women in Winter Wednesdays series in December.
“Women are notorious for making sure everyone else gets to have neat experiences, but they don’t always make time for their own adventures,” says Kevin Versino, manager at Rocktown Adventures. Activities include both day and night cross-country skiing and snowshoeing at Sinnissippi and Aldeen Touring Centers. These two-hour events will take place most every Wednesday, and include an instruction component to help women increase their knowledge as the season goes along. The Women in Winter Wednesdays season culminates with a road trip to the Southern Kettle Moraine Forest Nordic Trail, about 50 minutes from Rockford. In addition to breaking trails, Rocktown Adventures will have a few evening events at the Rockford store focused on women and outdoor adventure.
In Beloit, Welty Environmental Center also offers instructional programs such as their Winter Sports Primer in December. “Getting outside and getting moving is the best cure for cabin fever,” says Lena Verkuilen, educator at Welty. These events begin with lessons on dressing for safety and comfort, and the basics of cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and winter hiking, before the group hits the trails in Beckman Mills Park. Welty’s winter programs emphasize the beauty of nature.
“Especially at the holidays, life can get way too busy,” says Verkuilen. “We invite people to come out here, take a deep breath and be inspired by winter’s quiet marvels. It teaches you to love winter.”
For those seeking more strenuous exercise, regional parks offer longer trails over challenging terrain. Verkuilen recommends the skiing trails in Rock Cut State Park, and the trails in the Kettle Moraine system in Wisconsin.
Fifteen miles of groomed cross-country trails at Rock Cut State Park wind through rolling terrain in scenic woods and prairies. Trails groomed for both classic and skate-style skiing offer glimpses of Pierce Lake, where you may see bald eagles. Both skis and snowshoes can be rented at the Rock Cut concession shop. To the west, in Jo Daviess County, the trails at Wapello Land & Water Reserve and Buehler Preserve are favorites for cross-country skiing.
If you’re winter hiking, remember to be considerate of cross-country skiers. Some trails are groomed specifically for skiers, and hikers are asked not to use them when snow conditions are good for skiing. If the trail is a shared one, please take care to walk on the side of the set ski track.
Winter also offers a chance to contemplate our region’s farmlands in repose. Angelic Organics Farm in Boone County is blessed with beautiful farm fields, old-growth oak savannas, a meandering section of Kinnikinnick Creek and forests. In winter, when snow blankets the land and the fields and trees are bare, life on the farm becomes simple.
This is where Jessie Crow Mermel finds a peaceful and calming connection to nature. An on-farm educator at Angelic Organics Learning Center, she savors the season when the vegetable production is over, the educational programming slows and a quiet settles over the land.
“There’s comfort in the simplicity of the white horizon line, where the snow greets the blue sky,” she says. The farm, she says, feels “like a blank canvas, offering the opportunity to reflect and build dreams for the future. The quiet of the forest and the fields creates an opening to listen to inner wisdom.” Mermel loves to watch the snow drift and blow as the wind pushes it over the fields, howling softly, blowing away the thoughts that clutter her mind.
Although programming slows down in the winter, there are opportunities for the public to spend time on the Angelic Organics Farm. A week-long Mindfulness Intensive program is being offered this January.
“People can use the quiet, reflective nature of winter on the farm to practice mindfulness skills,” says Mermel. “This week will allow time both outside in nature and inside.” Folks can also come for a self-guided tour, witness the winter splendor of the farm and give the farm animals some attention.
Jim Roberts was standing outside on a cold November morning when a milkweed pod burst open with an audible pop. He was watching on a December morning as that milkweed pod, its downy seeds long since flown, slowly filled with fluffy snowflakes. He will be there each day, watching winter snows melt and moisten the earth, and shriveled stems crumble and blow away in spring winds, until one June morning, a tiny green emerging milkweed shoot will catch his eye.
Author’s Note: Thank you to Greg Keilback for contributing to the opening paragraph of this story.