There are many cosy corners to curl up in here at the Ladybank Schoolhouse. I prefer the one by the window that looks out into the forest behind us, while Chris, well, Chris likes to move around. Sometimes he sits beside me, reading a book and looking very regal in the “man” chair (these Victorian chairs always come in pairs.) His chair is taller than the one I prefer and has a matching gold footstool. Other times he stretches out on the love seat, phone in hand, headphones on, watching America’s Cup races.
But every day starts with us strapping on our snowshoes and going for a long trek. The schoolhouse is tucked in the corner of a 100-acre farm here in the Grey Highlands which we are free to roam, and we do. We’ve broken a trail to the back of the property, starting right behind the schoolhouse. We have to hop a little creek and make our way through the thick evergreens behind the schoolhouse before stepping over a sturdy fence—Chris has built a snow stile so I can get over it without doing myself injury—and heading out into open pasture.
As I trundle along behind Chris, trying my best to keep up with his long stride, I think about the pioneers who wrestled these fields from the surrounding wilderness.
According to a thick history of Osprey Township I came across in the schoolhouse, they would have travelled along the Old Durham Road—the first major road through the these parts—then followed blazed trails through the bush marking the sideroads, searching for the surveyor’s stake that would tell them they had reached their property. Then what. A hastily built shanty for shelter then the back-breaking work of clearing the trees would begin.
We reach a rubble fence between two pastures, boulders cleared from the fields. They’re tricky to get over in snowshoes, but I manage by grasping the branch of a scraggly maple that has grown up between the rocks. For some reason, it has not shed its leaves. Oak trees are often reluctant to give up their leaves and beech trees will cling to them until the spring. But I’ve never seen a maple with leaves on it at this time of year.
Across more pasture land and into the hardwood forest, where the snow isn’t quite as deep as it is in the fields and our track from the day before is still clearly visible—no plunging off the side into unpacked snow. We see our first set of tracks—a deer has passed this way this morning, early—already the deep indentations are filling in. Where are all the creatures this morning, I wonder? Staying warm somewhere.
Chris strides along ahead of me, making steady progress. I try to stand up straight, take longer strides, but when I do, I lose my balance and have to windmill my arms to regain it. I’m glad he can’t see me. I go back to waddling along like a toddler with a loaded diaper.
I turn back at the wire fence that marks the back of the farm while Chris continues on into a vast wilderness area that the farm backs onto. I notice his pace picks up as he strides away.
I just stand and look at the sun shining weakly through the trees, sometimes making them cast a shadow, sometimes not. Then I carry on at my own pace.
Now that I’m not trying to keep up with Chris I can stop and admire a low bush with a few red berries still clinging to it, inspect a new set of tracks crossing the trail. Something has come by since we passed this way. They’re hard to make out in the fresh powder. A dog? A coyote? A wolf maybe? I’d love to see wolf, I think, as I trudge on.
I’m sure there are still some wolves left here in the Highlands, despite the pictures I’ve seen of men standing proudly with long strings of wolf pelts between them. Of course if I were an early settler making my way home at night through the dark woods and being stalked by wolves, I’d want them dead too. Sometimes wolves would encircle a cabin, jump up on the low roof in search of an opening. A fierce blaze in the hearth was all that prevented them coming down the chimney.
Maybe I don’t really want to see a wolf.
As I make my way through the woods, I stop from time to time and just listen. Silence. Not even the call of a chickadee breaks the stillness. Then a small gust of wind rattles the trees, clumps of snow rain down around me. I carry on.
At the edge of the hardwood forest is a bee yard, the hives almost buried in snow. I put my ear to one and listen. Not a sound. I know that deep in the hive the bees are buzzing their wings night and day to keep the queen warm, but I can’t hear anything. Perhaps the thick snow on top of the hive muffles the sound? I hope they’re okay.
Rather than strike out across the pasture, I skirt the edge of the meadow, which borders a pine forest. There are plenty of tracks here—rabbit and squirrel, for the most part, one tiny meandering mouse. I spot a pile of debris at the base of a pine tree. Bark, I think, but on closer inspection I see that it’s cone scale. Something has been sitting in the branches above my head, devouring a pine cone. Perhaps the squirrel I heard chiding me when I passed this way yesterday.
Then I spot what I realize are grouse tracks. We scared one up here yesterday, though I think we were more startled than the grouse was. I follow the chicken-like tracks until I find the spot I’m looking for. Clearly this is where the grouse took to the air with a great flapping of wings, leaving delicate feather prints in the snow.
I leave the shelter of the pines and head out across the pasture towards the schoolhouse. Out of the corner of my eye I catch something skittering across the snow. A mouse?? I watch its erratic progress. Suddenly it takes to the air. Mice almost never do that. It’s a maple leaf.
What made it finally let go, I wonder, after hanging on through the heavy rain and gusty winds of autumn, the short sunless days of January, the first few blizzards of winter?
How did the men and women who settled on this farm get through the long winters, I wonder. Keeping a path open to the barn would take some time, as would feeding and watering their team of oxen and the family cow, if they were lucky enough to have one. And the chickens, if they had any left. Making bread. Peeling turnips. There would have been some hungry winters, those first few years in the bush. Splitting and hauling wood for the fire would be an endless task. Did they haul water too? Or melt snow? Making candles and carding wool would keep idle hands busy, perhaps piecing together a quilt, if there was any daylight left.
Almost home now. I step over the stile, make my way through the bush behind the schoolhouse, hop the little creek with confidence. Too much confidence. The toe of one of my showshoes catches on the bank on the far side and I sprawl face-first in the snow. Which makes me laugh out loud. A crow sets up a loud call, whether alerting other creatures to my presence or alarmed at my clumsiness I’ll never know.
Not surprisingly, Chris gets back to the schoolhouse around the same time I do, even though he’s covered eight kilometres to my four. I settle in my chair with the history book open in my lap and Chris goes to his “office,” a writing desk in the corner where he has set up his computer.
I’m not sure what he does there, but he’s been talking about gyrocopters a lot lately. A gyrocopter, as anyone knows, is an aircraft that uses an unpowered rotor in free autorotation to develop lift. Okay fine—I had to look it up. He has spent hours researching the history of the craft, studying different designs. I fear he may be developing one of his own.
Oh well. There are worse ways to spend a wintery day in the Highlands.