Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

Winter Exploration January 27, 2011

Yesterday I was working out at the school just as the day was ending. The sky was gray and cold and all of the after-school activities were canceled because of the impending snow.  It was just starting to fall as the buses pulled away, and I decided to stay behind and go for an exploration of the woods behind the school building. I changed my fancy work shoes for heavy winter boots, my ruffled button up shirt for some thermal layers, and headed out into the snow.

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There is a special magic in walking when it is still actively snowing. Everything is hushed and tucked in. Snow slowly covers you as you walk, camouflaging you just like the trees and underbrush. You are alone, but you see the tracks of other animals and realize just how much is going on out here when you are not there to see it.  You think about how many animals must cross this path in the summer and you just never know about it.

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I love looking for tracks. A few years ago I helped track a woman lost in a national park, and it is was a very emotional and, truthfully, exciting experience. I was actually sent to follow those tracks because they didn’t think it was her, but wanted to look at every possibility–otherwise they would have sent someone with more (any) experience!  She had accidentally followed a wash instead of the trail, and in the desert they do look pretty similar. The amazing thing was that you could see in her footprints the moment she realized she was lost. You could just feel it, and know that she suddenly looked up and saw something was wrong. We followed her out across the open desert, where she eventually climbed onto some rocks to try to get a look at the surroundings. We had to circle the rocks carefully to see where she had stepped off again. In the end, it got too dark to safely follow her into a maze-like area of sandstone and we had to go back, but the next morning they sent a helicopter down and found her. She was fine, and did a great job staying safe though out the cold desert night. I never met her but I think I will always remember her name and feel like I know her just a little because of following her tiny footprints over the sand beneath a darkening sky.

Anyway, I highly recommend looking for animal tracks any time you are in the snow, sand, or mud. It can be a great way to learn what kind of wildlife is around even if you can’t see it.  If you live in a suburban area with snow, check the base of trees lining the sidewalk–you will often find a whole series of tracks from squirrels going up and down the tree.

I walked along one of the paths through the snow, plodding my own tracks through the deer and squirrels’. I am always amazed in the winter how an area that was once thick, dense, and lush is now transparent. I stepped off the path and walked easily across an area that was full of growth just a few months ago, and finally came out of the forest into a neighboring field.

There is something satisfying about stepping from a covered area into a wide open one, and I stood looking across the yellow corn stubble into the gray mist of the snow storm that had come down while I was walking.

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I decided to head back.  On the way I found this adorable set of tracks–I knew that animals often walk across the tops of fallen logs to avoid walking through deep snow or thick underbrush, and I love the way the tracks outline this tree against the rest of the snow.

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I also saw this great arch/magical doorway to nature (read more here!). I took some pictures of arches in this same forest back in May, and it is almost shocking to me to see the color difference now.

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Taken in May of 2010

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I eventually broke out of the forest and tromped back to my car. I changed out of my winter boots, shook of my hat and gloves, and started to head home.  It turned out the amount of time I spent exploring was the difference between the roads being just-a-little-snowy and treacherously-snowy. I creeped along and came upon an accident almost immediately. Thankfully, the passengers were fine, and mostly embarrassed about how many people were stopping to make sure they were okay.

I was moved by how many people did stop, putting on their flashers and jumping out into the snow to make sure no one was injured and see how they could help. You see a lot of stuff on the news about the state of the world but I believe that deep down most people do care for one another, and they will do what is needed when that time comes.

It was a long, slow drive but I eventually made it home and curled up on the couch inside my apartment. It was warm and dry, but I knew that out there somewhere in the dark forest, the animals were out and moving through their habitat, covering my boot tracks with their own.

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The Ocean in your Backyard January 16, 2011

Exactly one week ago today I was in a car riding in the sunlight out of Providence, Rhode Island, watching the green of the trees along the road suddenly give way to rocky ocean.

As a Pennsylvania resident, I live close enough to the ocean to visit every once and a while, but I always forget that for some people the ocean is their backyard. And while most of my blog is about finding what is unique and beautiful of your own backyard, every now and then it is good to visit someone else’s! To be honest, I sometimes have a hard time making myself go outside when it is cold and gray out, but last weekend I was so excited about being somewhere new and having rocks to scramble on that the cold registered far below my desire to Explore.

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There was so much to see! Waves crashing on the shore, algae clinging to slippery rock surfaces, shadowy places where snow met the sea, animal tracks carved into a frosty path, shriveled orange and red berries trembling on brittle stems, and a scavenger hunt’s worth of rock formations and textures.

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I also saw something I’ve never ever seen before, which is always an invigorating experience. In this case it was the way the wind pushed the waves back as they were coming in to the beach. It peeled the water right off the top of the wave, sending it back out to sea. The waves almost look like big animals coming in just under the surface, don’t you think?

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I was also astounded to come around a bend in the rocks and find this brilliant green moss/algae/seaweed (any guesses? I am thinking algae) covering the rocks close to the ocean.

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Unfortunately the other pictures I took of this are all blurry! This is because, even though it is silly, I was afraid of having my back turned to the ocean! The amazing power of the ocean frightens me, a bit, and I kept imagining a giant freak wave coming in suddenly while I was absorbed in the green, oblivious to the freight train coming to smash me against the rocks. I think this fear probably comes from not spending a lot of time near the ocean. I kept turning back to check on the ocean like someone walking down a dark alleyway turns to check for stalkers, and as a result this is the best close-up I have of the “algae.”

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Either way, it was a beautiful sight to behold!

Finally, if you are feeling land-locked and snowed in, you can watch this (slightly shaky) video I took of the waves coming in. I was specifically tracking the way they moved into and around the rocks:

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It was an invigorating weekend, and I have to send out big thanks to Julia and Geoff (who once sent in pictures for our first reader photo submission, posted here) for showing me their wonderful “backyard.”

I am going to try to use this momentum to head back out into my own backyard and search for the things that make it special, gray ridge-and-valley days, and all.

What do you have in your own backyard? Is it similar to what I write about or is it a different landscape entirely, like the ocean, or mountains, or swamps? What keeps you inspired to get out and explore your neighborhood? As I learned last weekend, sometimes you have to go away from home to appreciate coming back!

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Update:  In case anyone is interested, these pictures were taken in Beavertail State Park on Jamestown Island, Rhode Island.