Last week I found myself strolling across a blanket of fresh snow that had fallen on the campus of Hulbert Outdoor Center. I criss-crossed, meandered and then turned in circles as following the footprints left in the snow from our local wintering residents – red squirrels, raccoons, black-capped chickadees and shrews to name a few. Campers, school groups and families have long since bid their farewells to Lakes Morey and Fairlee, the vibrant greens of summer and fiery oranges of fall are now just memories as various shades of white dominate the landscapes of the Aloha Camps. Just this week, the last sections of open water on Lake Morey were closed off by the growing surface ice, leaving no room for the large groups of mallards and merganser ducks that had been socializing near the waterfront.
Staff have spent the past couple of months closing down buildings, insulating windows and packing away just about everything, from arrows to Viking ships, all in preparation for the approaching winter season which officially begins this evening! Today is the Winter Solstice; a day in which the earth’s axial tilt is farthest away for us Northern Hemispheric inhabitants. Simply put, today is the longest night of darkness, and the shortest day of sunlight of the year for those us living north of the equator. And just like the wildlife of the Alohas who help make this place so magical, we human inhabitants are ready for the start of winter.
From a first glance of the quiet campuses, it may seem like The Aloha Foundation has flown south with the migrant birds, but upon closer investigation, one will spot the life rustling about, for example, small footprints in the snow. Often time, we take our cues from the animals living and moving throughout our properties.
Animals who spend their summers amongst our campers find that their warm summer home has become cold and dark; come winter time, animals must decide to stay or go. Many of our most vibrant and melodic birds such as Vermont’s state bird, the hermit thrush (whose song is one of the first to be heard throughout the tents in the early morning) and the yellow-rumped warbler (whose yellow rear is the most visible part of its body as it flitters from tree to tree) pick the latter. They hitch a ride on the pineapple express to warm, sub-tropical wintery grounds come the end of summer. Often they take flight when the last of our campers pack away their green shorts and sunscreen and drive away for the school year.
Others animals, like the beautiful painted turtles who can be found throughout the summer sunning on logs, and the spring peeper frogs who erupt into singing choruses at sunset, burrow into leaves and mud to sleep through the long winter. Even the young male black bear spotted near Aloha this fall has bedded down until spring comes once more. Many of our operations and buildings are closed up and ready to spend the coming months in a deep slumber like the turtles, frogs and bears.
And for those animals who choose to stay active during the cold, a number of specialized behaviors and adaptations are used for surviving and thriving. Many northern dwellers rely on hair and feathers for trapping body heat and keeping it from escaping into the cold wind. This is called insulation, and the Lake Morey muskrat population and the chickadees who visit our office feeders daily, depend on these adaptations to stay toasty during the coldest nights. Some animals even grow extra insulation on their feet like the snowshoe hare and the ruffed grouse. Surprisingly we employ the same behaviors here at The Foundation. We winterize windows by putting up plastic to keep the heat inside, we seal off rooms that we don’t use, and we keep an eye on how much heat is being lost to the bone-chilling wind outside.
Winter may seem like a time when animals are solitary, going it alone, but those that enjoy the winter wonderland often do so with their buddies. The red squirrels and crows who can be found daily throughout our campuses, come together in the winter, sharing warmth and resources. And like the animals, there are quite a bit of gatherings happening around Fairlee throughout the winter. The Hulbert Outdoor Center not only hosts a winter holiday family camp, promotes a weekend of frosty fun at WinterFest and even sends intrepid participants further north to Canada!
So enjoy the first day of winter by getting out and exploring the most wonderful parts of our habitats. Watch where the animals go and what they do during the longest nights of darkness, because from now until the summer solstice on June 21st, we will be gaining more sunlight and making our way closer to a new summer season.
Laura Beebe is graduate of Prescott College with a double major in Environmental Studies and Adventure Education, with a focus in Women’s Studies, she has also been trained and educated with National Outdoor Leadership School, Exum Mountain Guides and Rainier Mountaineering Inc. Much of her experience has come from eight years of leading and directing wilderness trips with Camp Manito-wish in Northern Wisconsin, a premiere wilderness trip camp for girls. Laura is working on her Masters Degree in Circumpolar Geography at Prescott College. Laura has taught collegiate courses in winter camping, alpine and arctic expedition skills, natural history, and Northern Studies for Sterling College and the University of Alaska. She has worked for the National Park Service in Arctic Alaska teaching natural and cultural history of the region and taught science at a school for students with learning disabilities. Laura spends her free time rock climbing, snowboarding and paddling her new Greenland style wooden sea kayak. She is an avid bird watcher, often participating in community bird counts and banding programs. She is especially fond of the New England spring Warbler song bird migration. She also enjoys botany, snow science, personal wilderness trips and traditional travel methods of the North.