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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Big Sleep

Waiting for Warmth to Return

By Tamia Nelson

January 25, 2005

Once upon a time, and not too long ago at that, many country folk thought that chipmunks migrated to warmer climes when winter arrived. It was a reasonable conclusion. As the days got shorter and nights grew colder, the little ground squirrel's spirited "Chip!" vanished from the woods and fields, and no striped sentinels stood watch on moss-covered stone walls or river banks. The frozen world brooded in lonely silence, waiting for warmer days. Then, months later, as the snow retreated, the chatty watchers reappeared, joining the high-flying geese in heralding the return of the sun to the north. Soon the news was on everyone's tongue: "The chipmunks have come back!" And people marvelled at the wonder of their great, unseen migration.

This wasn't what really happened, of course. The chipmunks couldn't "come back." They'd never left. Chipmunks are homebodies. They don't pack up and head south when winter closes in. They hunker down, instead, retreating to their burrows and curling up on thick beds of dried, shredded leaves. While we humans shiver and slide and shovel, the chipmunks sleep soundly, untroubled by the need to go places and do things. A time to every purpose, they seem to say.

Maybe they know something. After all, chipmunks have been around for 35 million years, give or take the odd million. That's a lot longer than we have, and they've learned a thing or two in the process. When the days grow short, their bodies tell them it's time to turn in. And they do. Funnily enough, humans often feel the need to nest up through the long winter months, too. We stay in bed till the last possible minute, yawn through the workday, and then doze fitfully after dinner, waking up only to go to bed again. But for all that, we've lost the knack of sleeping through the season.

We make the best of it. We party, for one thing. Midwinter festivals enlivened the long northern nights from earliest times, and they remain important today. Or we join the geese in their southward trek, following along in wide-body jets and Winnebagos. Or if we must stay at home, we revisit our summertime haunts, skiing or snowshoeing through the white drifts that now disguise familiar landscapes. And we — we paddlers, that is — wait, patiently or impatiently, according to our temperament and inclination. Wait for the spring of the waters.

But spring won't be returning to the Adirondack hills anytime soon. The temperature's in the single digits, and wind-driven snow is lapping over the window sills. So let's pull our snowshoes down from the wall and go for a stroll.


A few minutes later, and we're walking along the River, through a woods that bears the scars of a century of catch-as-catch-can logging, not to mention a recent ice-storm. The naked branches of maple, ash, oak, and birch are silhouetted against a milky-white sky, but it's not a monochrome landscape. Copper-tinted leaves cling stubbornly to the many beeches, and islands of green identify stands of hemlock and cedar. Looking down at our feet, we see the footprints of a galloping gray squirrel that crossed the trail earlier. No sleepy-head, he (or she). While his striped cousins drowse away the winter in their underground burrows, the gray ghost makes do with tree holes, and forages daily for half-remembered caches of nuts and seeds. It's a hard life, and a busy one.

Meanwhile, the chipmunks slumber on, subsiding into a chilly torpor not too far removed from the last stages of hypothermia. But the chipmunk's torpor is a hypothermia with a difference: it is life-giving, rather than life-threatening. Bears, too, sleep through the cold months, though their winter quarters may be no more elaborate than a hollow under a sheltering spruce. Unlike bears, however, chipmunks don't "bulk up" in the fall. They store their winter food in their burrows, rather than on their bodies. Then they drowse fitfully, waking now and then to snack. Is the chipmunks' long, interrupted sleep really hibernation? Not according to most biologists. Then again, few biologists agree on what exactly constitutes "true" hibernation. Naturalist Lawrence Wishner may have the best solution. He speaks of "restless hibernation." That's probably the best approach.

Bears aren't true hibernators, either. At least that's the view of most (but not all) biologists. Like the chipmunk, bruin also wakes from time to time. Female bears even give birth in their dens. But theirs is a hungry winter. They don't eat. This has obvious consequences. Though bears do it in the woods in summer, they don't do it at all in winter. That can't be very comfortable, and chipmunks — who snack throughout the long winter months — certainly can't put off attending to nature's call till spring. But as anyone who's watched a chipmunk groom herself knows, they're also fastidious creatures. What's the answer? Simple. Chipmunks build en suite toilets adjacent to, yet apart from, their sleeping chambers. In the chipmunks' tidy and well-ordered world, there really is a place for everything.


Continuing along the trail, we pass a recent overflow and spot the disconcertingly human handprints of a racoon in the now-frozen mud alongside the River. Like the gray squirrels, racoons are active throughout winter, though they've been known to doze in their tree-hole or rock-crevice dens for several days when the weather's really awful, surviving on stored fat. The River beckons, but it's too cold for us to stand and watch the icy mist roll up over the lip of Curtain Falls. We move on, instead. Soon we've left the River behind us and are skirting a meadow. As our snowshoes carve a wavering path through the powder, woodchucks slumber soundly under our feet. While their smaller cousins the gray squirrels must forage constantly though the winter months, we won't see any woodchucks out and about till long after Groundhog Day. They waddle fat and happy into their burrows in the fall, only to emerge as skinny shadows of their former selves in spring, wakened from a deathlike sleep by some as yet unknown internal summons. "Deathlike" is no rhetorical flight of fancy, by the way. A hibernating woodchuck's heart beats no more than four or five times a minute.

But the winter fields aren't slumbering. The new fallen snow has traces of active, questing life. Scores of tiny prints like miniature squirrel tracks wind circuitously between rotting logs and weedy tussocks, often disappearing into tunnels beneath the snow. White-footed mice and meadow voles don't sleep through the winter, and although they build up some fat in anticipation of the hungry months, they've still got to work constantly to gather enough food to keep their internal fires burning bright. Their tunnels — some are hollowed out of the snow; some woven from the stalks of meadow grasses — make it easier, offering secure highways between nests and food stores, safe from the pitiless eyes of roving predators. On the coldest nights, these protected ways are opened to all, and mice, normally the least sociable of creatures, congregate in chambers lined with shredded bark, huddling together for warmth and even exchanging places so that everyone gets to spend time in the cozy center.


Our trail now turns back toward the woods. The thick forest duff buried deep under the snow furnishes a rich foraging ground for hungry creatures like mice, in addition to providing shelter for overwintering toads. Cold-blooded in fact as well as name in winter, toads survive the coldest months in something not far removed from suspended animation, protected from freezing by a sort of biological antifreeze. Far above their solitary, slumbering forms, colonies of hibernating bats roost upside down in tree cavities and under loose bark, waiting for the return of warm weather.

Suddenly, the trail ends at an iced-over pond, where a blanket of snow insulates a beaver family's lodge. The pug marks of a coyote circle the lodge again and again, but it's obvious that the coyote left hungry. The thick walls of the lodge are all but impregnable — the only entrance opens into the near-freezing water beneath the ice. This is no obstacle to the beavers, though. They go and come all winter, an invisible but active presence in a frozen world, fetching fresh branches from their underwater larder and endlessly patrolling the dam that keeps them safe. As the beavers swim home with their dinner in their jaws, they pass above turtles and frogs, buried in the ooze at the bottom of the pond, just like their terrestrial kin entombed alive in the duff of the forest floor. And like the toads, the turtles and frogs also wait for the returning sun to free them from their chilly prison.

But that day is not yet come.

We're back indoors now. It's night. Outside, a freshening breeze sculpts the newest drifts. Inside, a fire crackles in the hearth, and we cradle mugs of hot cocoa in our hands. I don't know about you, but I certainly don't feel like clearing the ice from the eaves or shoveling the path by lanternlight. I just feel sleepy. It certainly would be nice to hibernate. Or at least to have the choice. And maybe some of our remote ancestors did. There's evidence to that effect inscribed in our genes, at any rate. Of course, we've lost the knack today. But the chipmunks haven't. Along with many others, they sleep soundly beneath the snow. Waiting. Waiting for spring.

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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