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Midwinter thaws offer scents, sights

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By Sylvia Brockner

What happened to the January thaw? Something I have always looked forward to just didn’t happen this year.

I have always enjoyed that warm spell that magically happened around the end of January. Because I am sick of winter by then, I revel in the warmth of the January thaw. Even though it never lasts more than a day or two, it made you believe that spring would come. January has passed with no thaw, and Feb. 2 brought bitter cold and sunshine, which of course promised us six more weeks of winter. Certainly no self-respecting groundhog would be out and about in the snow and cold we have had lately.

However, today the weatherman is predicting that the coming weekend, Feb. 9 and 10, will be up to 45 degrees, followed by more snow! Perhaps this is the January thaw that I have been waiting for, just a few weeks late, but I will enjoy it anyway.

It is not so much that I dislike winter. It is a matter of age. I used to love winter. I often chose to walk 6 miles home from work just to enjoy the first snowfall of the season. I used to enjoy tobogganing, ice-skating and winter hiking, but when one gets older, two things interfere with such activities: One, you feel the cold much more than you did when you were younger, probably because your blood circulation is not as good as it used to be; and secondly, you become overly cautious because bones break so easily. Ice has accumulated everywhere this winter, and it is a real threat to anyone who is handicapped or has recently broken a bone. I am more cautious than I used to be and do very little winter hiking now.

Some things that I can still enjoy are the sights and smells of a midwinter thaw. Today has been a bit above freezing; the sun is warm and bright. Icicles are dripping from the eaves and the south side of the trees. There is little wind today, so the icicles are straight, but when the wind blows, the chill factor freezes the drops almost as rapidly as they form, and the wind blows the drops to one side so that the icicles begin to curve like the blade of a scimitar.

One of the great pleasures of a late-winter thaw is the wonderful odors that are wafted to your nose. Damp air and mist seem to transport odors over great distances. Odors that have been locked in ice all winter are suddenly released. You need only to step out in your yard to smell the first signs of spring. Decaying aspen leaves release their pungent odor when the sun shining through their bare branches and trickling melt water free them of ice. The same factors bring us the first smell of sun-warmed earth. Just step on a clump of fringed sage, and you are surrounded by the odor of Thanksgiving. Less-pleasant odors such as elk and deer droppings and horse manure also cling in the warm, damp air but soon disappear when they dry out.

The most unpleasant odor on a warm damp winter night is that of skunk. If it is far away with just a faint scent in the air, it is a rather pleasant announcement that the first skunks have awakened and are up and about. If it is close by, there is no more cloying, repulsive odor. I smell skunk much more frequently in the spring than I do in summer. Skunks may be more nervous when they first emerge and so are more easily frightened. As they acquire more familiarity with their territory and learn the trails and escape routes, they perhaps become less nervous. Or it may be that the squabbles and fighting over mates and territory cause more springtime firing of their scent glands.

Skunks are fairly common, for few animals want to deliberately antagonize a skunk. However, great-horned owls have been known to kill skunks, especially when they have a nest full of hungry young to feed. Other predators, such as immature cougars that have not learned the art of capturing their own food and are hungry, may take on a skunk, but they soon learn the terrible consequence. As a rule, skunks will go their own way if you just leave them alone. They do not like to fire their defense weapons unless it is absolutely necessary.

It will be at least two months before we smell the pleasant odor of daffodils and tulips in bloom and yet another month before the sweet clove scent of golden currant fills the air, but at least the damp smells of February tell us spring is on the way. Dare I say that the twigs on the streamside willows looked a brighter orange as I drove into town today, or was it just wishful thinking — it’s supposed to snow again tomorrow.