Writing in the Snow

Qali Growing up, I would hear people quote this statistic: “Eskimos have more than a hundred words for snow.” Actually, I still hear people rattle off this little ‘fact’, especially in winter.  However, there are a lot of problems with this statement, not even including the fact that the indigenous people of North America’s tundra and Arctic regions are known as Inuit, not Eskimo. No, what really grates on me about this blanket statement is the implication that it’s somehow weird to have so many words to describe one thing.

When it’s something that makes up a very large part of your daily life during a significant portion of the year, why wouldn’t you take the time to describe it as accurately as possible? The English language has several words for rain: showers, downpour, drizzle, sheets, so why not snow, especially in light of the fact that it sticks around a lot longer than its warm weather counterpart.  Actually, as a Canadian, I’m surprised that we, as a population, haven’t developed more words beyond flurries, blizzard and slush to describe this white stuff that blankets much of the country for four to six months out of the year.

To do that, we have to turn to other cultures and languages. While the true count is well under one hundred, many Inuit dialects have several useful words to describe the incredible variety of snow that we can encounter throughout the course of the winter.  For those of us who live in forested areas, one handy word to know is qali. It refers to the snow that builds up on the branches of trees, glazing limbs in white and making it look like someone attacked the woods with a decorator’s bag full of royal icing.

I was lucky to have learned several Inuit terms for snow as part of some of my undergraduate university courses and like many people who study winter ecology, they’ve been part of my lexicon ever since. So, it took a bit of digging to figure out where the word qali comes from. According to William Wonders, who wrote the book Canada’s Changing North (2003), the word originates from the Kobuk Valley Inuit of northwestern Alaska, along the edge of the treeline.

Qali can range in thickness from a light dusting that could almost be mistaken for hoar frost to heavy globs of wet snow that drag beleaguered limbs to the ground under its unrelenting weight. All along that spectrum, it has a significant impact on the ecological community.

Many winter residents are affected by qali. Spruce grouse and squirrels that regularly feed on cones often find themselves driven down to the ground by a particularly heavy layer of qali. The snow-covered branches can be hard to navigate, forcing these species to search elsewhere for food. On the other hand, qali can make some food more accessible. With particularly heavy wet snows, the qali that builds up on young birches, willow and aspen pulls the flexible branches down, bringing the young, tender tips within reach of hungry cottontails and snowshoe hare. These contorted trees may also provide shelter for a whole host of wildlife.

You might not have ever realized it, but if you live in an area that experiences snow, qali has likely affected you at some point and I don’t mean that moment when you accidentally brush up against a laden branch and send an unwanted shock of snow pouring down the collar of your coat. I’m talking about more significant impacts. Qali can be very heavy and often trees buckle under the weight taking down whatever else is nearby, which is some cases are power lines. I know I’ve spent the odd cold, snowy night in the dark, waiting for hydro to be restored.  These qali-broken trees also open up the forest floor to new growth, creating pockets of mini forest succession and driving the forest cycle on a smaller scale.

Snow is an amazing thing and qali is only one small facet in a dizzying array of diversity, which thanks to northern cultures, we’re able to describe in accurate and imaginative ways. So, next time you take a winter walk surrounded by white, take a moment and discover that variety for yourself and maybe even create your own words to describe it.

 

Diving into things

Northern Hawk-owl We’re heading into owl season around here, my favourite times of year. Of course, after nearly 15 years chasing these denizens of the dark around in the forest, I may be a little biased.

Actually, as soon as the snow blankets the ground, I go into owling mode, scanning tree tops and hydro poles for distinctive silhouettes. This heightened awareness comes from the knowledge that winter and early spring are the best times to spot one of the more unique members of the Order Strigiformes.

I’m referring to the Northern Hawk-owl (Surnia ulula). Their name alone suggests that they may be something a little different. They’re actually quite aptly-named. Unlike most of their fluffy, almost stocky cousins, these smallish owls are really quite streamlined, with relatively small heads, long tails and slightly more narrow wings. They’re also diurnal, hunting during the day, instead of exploiting the darkness like most other owls.

In the winter, these little stealth bombers come out into the open, perching high on the tops of spruce trees or old snags, sweeping the area with their eyes and ears, searching for scurrying rodents. Their sharp-eyed gaze can spot a vole bouncing over the snow up to 800 m away. When they find one, watching them pounce is a sight to behold. Most owls are relatively slow flyers, almost floating to a stop over their prey before they plunge to the ground for the final kill.

Hawk-owls are another matter. They usually don’t slow down. If the vole is on the surface of the snow, they don’t stop at all, snagging the morsel on the wing and swooping up to a perch to settle in with their kill. Their flight patterns are actually more like that of a Goshawk or a Cooper’s Hawk and that, coupled with their daytime habits, likely led to their common name.

These unusual birds are one of the least-studied of northern owls. Most of what we know about them comes from studies done in Scandinavian countries, where banders have worked diligently for decades to understand their owl populations. Here in North America, only about a dozen nests have been studied extensively.  The fact is that they’re hard to work with. Although you can spot them with a fair bit of regularity during the winter, hawk-owls disappear into the bogs and old burns to breed during the spring and summer months, making them hard to find, right at that period in their natural history that we want most to understand.

What we do know is that they like tree cavities for nests, laying their eggs in old woodpecker holes or burnt-out snags.  Like their northern neighbours, the Great Gray Owl and Boreal Owls, their reproductive success and thus their population numbers are likely tied to the cycling abundance of their rodent prey. Indeed, every now and then, large numbers of these birds will wing their way south out of their normal range in search of food, stirring southern birder populations into a frenzy. Still, we don’t really understand the mechanisms that drive them yet.

The scientist in me abhors this unknown and wants to work up a study and dive right into fray, teasing out patterns from the apparent chaos. However the writer in me likes that there are still mysteries left in our world.

Tiptoeing Around the Subject

I was out for a walk in the snow the other day wearing my mukluks, something I haven’t done in a while and I forgot just how much fun it is. Because they have no sole, it’s very much like walking around in your socks, but much warmer and your feet stay dry. What I like about it, however, is how much closer you feel to the world you’re walking through. I spend most of my days in hiking boots, which while they afford a great deal of support, also separate you from the ground quite a bit. Mukluks are about as close as you can get to walking through the woods barefoot, which in -20C, is not something I’d recommend.

Anyway, this little expedition got me to thinking about another set of fun words that don’t likely come up in conversation all that often. They’re words that pertain to foot posture.

Not all animals walk the same way. When we’re talking about mammals, we can usually place them into three categories: plantigrade, digitigrade and unguligrade. Today, we’ll start with digitigrade. Dogs (like the wolf, whose print in in the picture) are digitgrade. It means walking on one’s toes. In digitigrade animals, the heel is permanently lifted up off the ground. Take a close look at your dog or cat’s legs and feet. You’d notice the four toes, then the pad in the middle. That’s not the heel. Work your way up a bit and you’ll find it, a hard lump a few inches up the foot.

Plantigrade vs Digitigrade feet

Dogs, cats and other mammals like weasels are essentially walking on their toes. The reason for evolving this type of posture has to do with increasing their stride length. Pay attention next time you’re running. You’ll notice only your toes make contact with the ground. By getting up on our toes, we lengthen our stride and as a result, can cover larger distances. Digitigrade mammals do this all the time, which is why we won’t be outrunning any wolves anytime soon.

All this from a walk in the woods…

The Joy of Obscure Words

After over 10 years as an academic, I forget sometimes that I’ve accumulated a vocabulary that most other people have never heard of. Every now and then, I’ll throw a word into a conversation or program that will leave people gazing back at me blankly, brows furrowed in confusion.

The thing is, I don’t do it to impress anyone. I use them because there just isn’t another word out there that better describes what I’m trying to say.

Subnivean is one of those words. I figured that since we’re on the subject of snow, (and we’re getting more of it as I write this), it would be a good time to bring it up.

Subnivean is a great word. Once you break it down, it’s quite simple. Sub = under, nivea = snow. Basically, it refers to anything that is found under the snow. Most of the time, it’s used to describe the habits of animals that are found living under the snow.

There are actually quite a few of them. Small mammals, like mice, voles, lemmings and shrews are too small to grow a winter coat of fur when things get cold. That much hair would make walking a challenge.  Instead, they take advantage of a rather ubiquitous source of insulation: snow. The white stuff is an excellent insulator. On days out here when the mercury drops down well below -30 degrees C, the temperature at the bottom layer of snow, right where it’s in contact with the ground, is still hovering around the freezing mark, a much more comfortable temperature for our furry little friends.

That bottom layer of snow is quite a bit different from the rest of the layers above it. It’s referred to as the pukak layer (an Inuit term) and is usually very crystaline, almost like sugar. This type of structure makes it easy for mice and voles to create an entire network of tunnels completely hidden from the hungry eyes of predators.

That doesn’t mean they are completely safe. Predators like weasels and mink can follow them down into the tunnels, while foxes and owls listen for them from above (a story for another day). Still, with lots of readily-available food, shelter and relative safety, being subnivean isn’t a bad way to be for a small mammal.

However, there are reasons to come ‘top-side’ now and then. The pukak layer can be compacted by snow collapsing or from people walking or driving snowmobiles over it, making the substrate impenetrable.  It can also get hard to breathe down there. With all sorts of critters running around in what is essentially a closed environment, CO2 can build up, making it necessary to punch a few air holes to clear things out (above).

So next time you’re out for a walk in the snow, keep your eyes peeled for the subtle signs of our subnivean neighbours.

There’s no Business like Snow Business

I love snow. I still get excited every time I wake up in the winter to find fluffy flakes coating everything in white.

That first fall of snow every year is especially fun. It’s like the world has been dusted with fingerprint power. Suddenly, everywhere you look, the ground is littered with tracks and trails winding through the forest. Looking at all these footprints from the tiniest mouse to the big (but not necessarily bad) wolf, you realize there are a lot more critters in the forest than you were ever aware of.

I actually kind of miss it when all these signs melt away in the spring. It’s nice knowing that you’re not alone on those quiet walks through the woods.

I don’t really know if it’s true that the Inuit have 100 names for snow, but they do have several and we experience all of these different forms up here. There are two types in this picture alone.  The snow floating to the ground in fluffy flakes would be called anniu, and once it settles on the surface, you would call it api.

Unlike large parts of the country, we’ve only had light flurries since the first couple big snows this winter. Personally, I’d like a bit more. It would make snowshoeing more fun, but we had a lot of moisture in 2010 and the ground is already saturated. Unless we have a very slow melt this spring, we’re going to see a lot of flooding. Still, I just can’t help but wish for just a little bit more snow.

Jack Frost Nipping at Your Nose

Frost is pretty much a defining characteristic of this time of year. Winters in the north woods get pretty darned cold. Our daytime highs have been in the -15 to -20 degrees Celsius range lately and the nights have been dipping down as low as -30. It’s the type of weather that takes your breath away, crisp and clear and, once you bet used to it, really very beautiful.

Winter nights in Manitoba can be perfect for creating what is one of my favourite spectacles: hoar frost.  On clear, cold nights, much of the earth’s heat gets sucked up into the atmosphere’s abyss, leaving the surface cooler than the air around it.  When that happens, frost forms, growing in dendrites from every available substrate.

I can still remember my first experience with hoar frost. I was a child and waking up to the world fringed in sparkling white was like walking into a dream.

While it’s gorgeous on a grand scale, it’s equally amazing when you get up close and personal, each tiny crystal spreading out into the air like tiny ferns. Each fragile structure grows as the frigid air can no longer retain the water vapour within it, depositing thin blades of ice at the tip of each branch.

So, if you’re lucky enough to live in an area that freezes from time to time, take a moment and the fragile and ephemeral beauty that is frost.