I picked my way upslope, over rocks and hummocks, past straggly spruce and gnarly hardwoods. Once atop the ridge I looked around and tried to figure out where I was. I’d lived on this land for 16 years, but I’d never set foot on this ridge before. Dense young growth had blocked an old trail, forcing me to detour up this unfamiliar slope. My left eye was still stinging from being slapped – right on the eyeball! – by a springy young spruce tree I’d pushed past to gain the slope. (Note to self: add safety glasses to hiking kit.)
It was mid-November and the brilliant autumn leaf display was over. The treed highland slopes were mostly dull grey with occasional patches of deep conifer green. Not the time of year favoured by most hikers. But what November hiking lacks in the ‘ooh’ colour factor, it makes up for with other charms. To me November is a window of opportunity. If the fall foliage is a brilliant drapery, November is when the curtains are pulled back to reveal hidden forest treasures. A yellow birch growing out of an ancient granite boulder. A secret woodland creek leading up, up, up to a stand of old hemlock. A gnarled beech tree stretching outward and upward for the sun.
This window in time, between leaf fall and snow fall, is ideal for exploring the highlands. A month earlier I couldn’t ‘see the forest for the trees’, so to speak. But now the fall foliage had morphed into a colourful carpet and I could see for miles. Miles and miles, as the song says. I glimpsed the Atlantic Ocean beyond bared branches, far below to my east. To the west and north ranged the Cape Breton Highlands, rifted by narrow river valleys. I’d walked those valleys, visited the waterfall that I could hear roaring as it plunged over the edge of the highland plateau on its way to the sea.
When the deciduous trees drop their leafy veils they reveal their bones, as it were. Along with bark and leaf, a tree can be identified by its branching structure, its dendritic DNA. The white birch on the left is easily distinguished from its neighbouring red maple. You don’t really don’t know a tree until you see it buck-naked in all its bare-limbed glory!
I made my way along the ridge, pausing to look way, way up at towering hemlock, white pine and yellow birch. Old growth forest. Minutes later the ridge ended, sloping away on three sides. I stopped and tried to relate my lofty lookout to those many valley walks. And to fit it all onto the topographic maps I’d been poring over. It’s been 16 years since I worked as a geophysicist and got paid to work with maps, but I still love them. Love that birds-eye view – which is exactly what I needed, standing there and pondering my position. And speaking of birds …
I caught a movement just below me. What was that? Broad brown wings, a large bird flying away downslope, navigating the dense forest with ease and in absolute, deadly silence. A barred owl! Magic.
I watched the owl vanish into the forest below with the sense of wonder I always feel when I’m lucky enough to see one of these beautiful birds. Barred owls are sometimes active during the day, but this was the third time I’d seen one while out exploring – more sightings in 3 weeks than in 16 years of traipsing around these woods. And each in a different area, each flying away down a different hillside. Atheist, rationalist, scientist me had a fleeting thought: Is the barred owl my guardian spirit?
I made a few forays down the slope where the owl had flown, hoping to rediscover an old trail my son found years earlier. But unlike that owl I have to explore on foot. And at 64 I’m more old goat than mountain goat, so it was slow going. Days are exceeding short in November, as our planet hurtles through space towards the winter solstice, and nights are deadly cold. There was a chill in the air as the sun, far to the southwest this late in the year, dropped towards the highlands. There would be many more exploratory hikes, extending well into December (although no more owl sightings, so maybe not my guardian spirit after all?). Those forays enabled me to connect online topographic maps to on-foot real topography. But on that November afternoon, it was time to head home.
The fall foliage display doesn’t end after the leaves fall. It just morphs from flaming drapery to crazy carpet, enjoyed here by my much-missed husky cross, Tundra. Keep your red carpet, Hollywood – we prefer to stroll on a carpet of red maple leaves!
Sue McKay Miller
December 29, 2020