This past week I took a hike on the Northville-Placid Trail along the Chubb River in Lake Placid. I had to reenter a whole series of data points from our summer of field work into a GPS unit, after the original unit was broken this fall. It is one of those unfortunate realities of field work, but it did give me an excuse for a nice hike.

It was a crisp, clear day, complete with fresh snow and Wren and I were excited for the chance to hike. We set out and I stopped here and there entering the GPS points as I went. Judging by the footprints in the snow, not many people had been hiking on the trail since the snow had fallen. Bird life was generally quiet in the woods as is usual for this time of year, but soon after we started, we did flush a hairy woodpecker along the trail.

Otherwise we saw and heard nothing, and I found my attention drawn to the fresh white canvas of snow where white-tailed deer tracks crossed or followed the trail. Here and there lines of mouse or vole tracks created necklaces of tiny tracks in the snow – the product of the rodents scurrying back and forth along their runways. There were also fox tracks, the maker of which would have liked to make a meal of those mice.

Hairy Woodpecker
Some hairy woodpeckers will spend the winter in the Adirondacks. This one was photographed in my yard this summer.

As I stopped to enter another GPS point, the silence of the cold woods was broken by the tapping of a pileated woodpecker which soon after called loudly in flight. Wren and I stood and listened for another minute, but heard nothing more. Then, just as we were starting to walk again, a ruffed grouse flushed from a tree above us – startling us both out of our concentration with the loud fluttering of its wings. We hadn't even noticed it sitting there.

I continued on entering points, and I soon found we were following both coyote and fox tracks along the trail. Snowshoe hare and American marten tracks also crossed the path, and our list of mammal tracks began to grow. As I was descending into a low, balsam-filled area, we spooked another grouse which, as they so often do, sat until we were right on top of it before it flew – once again startling us as a result. The winter woods may often be silent, but they are not without life.

I snapped a few photos at the stream crossings, but knew I needed to keep moving. December days are short and I was going to run out of light eventually and I wanted that to happen on my return trip. That way I'd be closer to the car and would have all the points entered so I wasn't hunting for them in the dark. Even if you are well prepared with food, water, lights, and warm clothes, it's best not to plan on winter hiking in the dark, after all.

ruffed grouse - larry
A ruffed grouse in the snow. Photo courtesy of

After hiking in a few miles and entering all the points, we turned around and retraced our steps – more quickly now that we didn't need to stop to enter GPS points. The Northville-Placid Trail along the Chubb River also has its share of low wet areas and stream crossings which in winter can offer slick footing and cold, wet feet if you aren't careful. So as the light began to dim, I took my time negotiating such obstacles as I hiked back out.

As the shadows grew in the woods and I stopped to pull out my headlamp to have it ready. Besides our own footsteps, it was a quiet walk back to the car as Wren and I paused and listened occasionally to the stillness. A beautiful array of stars was poking out above the trees as we legged the final stretch to the car, and I stood in the parking lot taking in the splendid sky for several minutes before we drove off. We had one more stop to make – appropriate after a cold, snowy December walk through balsam stands in the woods. It was time to go buy our Christmas tree.