Do you spend your winters head down, running from warm building to warm car? If so, you’re missing some of the most beautiful landscapes and incredible encounters with wildlife we have in little corner of the world. Besides winter walking, you can snowshoe, ski cross-country and even camp (in a warm tent) an hour’s drive or from your front door. Bundle up the kids on a weekend and get outdoors!
For your first excursion, try stargazing. Clear winter nights provide some of the best views of stars and planets you can get. The vivid planet Venus glows next to the moon at twilight. The three stars on the belt of the constellation Orion were once associated with the Three Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem.
There’s a map of the major winter constellations here. Websites like stardate.org and many hand-held apps help you know where to look. I use the app called Star Walk. You just hold it up to the sky and it tells you what you’re looking at, which make us dads look mighty smart to our small children. In rural areas, you can see everything from your back yard. City dwellers can usually find darkness at the large parks. Binoculars or a telescope give you an even closer look at the heavens.
While you are out, keep an ear open for the hoot of three local species of owls that are in the midst of their mating season. Great-horned, barred and screech owls are all calling in most of our towns this time of year. To hear their calls in advance, go to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds, or get Green Mountain Digital’s Audubon Guide to Owls for your phone so you can play the sounds in the field. To hear how an expert calls in owls for viewing, come to Audubon’s Center at Bent of the River in Southbury, Conn., on January 14 for a full-moon hike. Space is limited so call for a reservation at (203) 264-5098.
When the snow falls, why not try snowshoeing with the family? With modern snowshoes, the sport couldn’t be easier, even for people who have never done it before. Anyone from three years old onward can slip on a pair and keep up.
You can snowshoe anywhere, but it’s especially nice to hike trails in parks that take you away from civilization. Fahnestock State Park in Putnam County, N.Y., or Audubon’s Sharon, Conn., center or are ideal locations. Both spots get snow regularly and carry you into the most peaceful woods imaginable. As an added benefit, Fahnestock rents snowshoes for adults and kids, and provides a small cafeteria with great hot chocolate and vegetarian or meat chili. At Sharon, you’ll find an aviary of birds that have been rehabilitated but cannot fly, including a bald eagle.
Snowshoeing also offers the family a chance to learn about tracking wildlife, such as rabbits, deer, foxes, coyotes, weasels, turkeys, bobcats, mink and – in warm periods – black bears. The snow makes their footprints clear. A quiet observer can get close enough to some of these animals and birds to take beautiful photograph in the soft winter light. There are lots of books and websites that help identify tracks. A great one to start you on is Wildlife Tracking.
The final step to experiencing winter at its best is to spend the night outdoors. Winter camping can be an incredible experience. Ease into it by choosing a weekend when temperatures will not go below 20 degrees. For comfort, you need a mummy sleeping bag, rated to keep you warm in temperatures as low as zero. Mummy bags have a hood that you draw around your head for extra warmth, and tapers from head to foot. Small-volume bags like this one make it easier to maintain body heat. A sleeping bag liner is a good idea. A pad is essential, so you won’t lose heat to the ground. Get a “four-season” tent, which is made of tougher materials than tents designed for fewer seasons.
In the Hudson Valley, the Catskills are filled with fantastic camping opportunities. Get a set of New York/New Jersey Trail Conference maps to find all of the lean-to sites. In Connecticut, get the State Parks and Forests maps.
You may want to try somewhere close-by to see if winter camping is your cup of tea. I suggest experimenting at a place like Ward Pound Ridge Reservation where you can either drive to a camp site or hike in to one.
No matter what you do in the winter, you’ll enjoy yourself as long as you wear layers, keep your toes and hands warm, and carry warm fluids.
There is nothing as beautiful as a snow-lit full moon or the mist rising off the frozen Hudson at dawn. So don’t hunker down inside this winter. Get out and see the sights. I hope to see you there.