The empty parking is lot ringed by stark trees standing like solitary sentinels at the edge of the woods, while silent birds sit hidden among the frost covered branches, making us wonder who else is out there watching while we invade their territory.
Slipping out of the truck, stiff from sitting, sending longing looks back at the heated seats... we move quickly, gathering what we need, it's too cold to stand still, to talk, so we're of one mind, get to the woods, where it will be a few degrees warmer. The cold is a challenge we're up for.
The dog's strain, eager at the end of their leads, greeting each other with wagging tails, roughhousing in the snow.
Fresh snow from the night before covers the ice but reveals the tracks of other four legged visitors passing through, this has been a busy place.
We're the only ones out here now, whether because of stubbornness or enthusiasm we're not sure, but at -14 c this morning it's cold enough to freeze exposed skin, we're going to have to move fast to make our way through the open fields and chilling breeze to reach the trees and shelter from the wind. The bright sun lies to our brains, telling tales of a mild day, but it's cold.
Crunching sounds of boots on snow, and swishing of snow pants...pockets filled with treats, knapsacks arranged, boots tightened, cell phones charged. We move onto the trail together, each hiker one fully extended dog leash apart, each dog encouraging us to move just that little bit closer to the person in front of them.
A canine version of follow the leader.
Close up a cold quilt of snow crystallized like flaked salt coats the fields, while in the distance it mingles with the heavily laden branches of the dark trees rimming the edge of the forest blurring the line between ground and sky.
Hoar frost covers the branches along the fenceline, muffling sounds leaving us with the feeling that there's nothing here but a wasteland of fallow fields and snow. High above all this, the sun continues to shine through the scattered clouds, waiting to hide behind them until we're deep in the woods.
Wet dog noses over frosty whiskers follow the heels of the boots ahead...not a step is missed. Each dog takes a turn as pack leader, proudly surveying the white path ahead and surging forward.
Follow me, I know the way they say, sometimes too eager in their attempt to lead us off course, caught up in the scent of a desperate deer they plow off course as far as the lead will allow, jumping through the beams of sunlight that filter between the sparse branches above.
Shivering into scarves, fingers frozen, glasses fogging...switching hands that hold the leash, dipping into pockets grabbing the chilly cell phone clicking fast while walking because the cold hurts too much to stop for even those brief seconds.
Keep moving, keep moving, it's a group mentality...until one dog stops, suddenly doubled over, paws coated with snow. We all pull up short...bodies bent and paws raised snowballs removed from between canine toes.
Oh young pup, we told you not to jump off of the path...
Now you're shivering...let's run, as fast our mid life bodies wrapped in layers upon layers of clothing can move to get warm. We surprise ourselves, because yes, we can still do this, up the hill we go... encouraging each other.
"I can do this, we can do this.... we're doing it..."
Stop for a breath at the top of the path, dogs doing an intricate dance that tangles the leashes, running rings around our legs with excitement, cold hands fumble over the exchanging of ends of leads and someone gasps... can't....catch my.....gotta stop....gotta ...deeeeep breath!
Deep deep breaths in whooshing out icy air...it's so dry and cold.
"Which dogs can sit for a treatie?" Suddenly all three furiously wagging tails hit the ground...oh you're so good, good dogs, good dogs, get down baby...no jumping.... are we having fun yet?
Of course we are, let's get moving their eager eyes say.
A moment of comfort and encouragement for the older dog who's suddenly changed her mind halfway through the hike. It was all fun and games when we started but now... "it's so much harder for you isn't it...but baby you're a champion for coming along and keeping up with the young pups...you're our super dog, aren't you? "
Yes, you are sweetie...that's right. We coo encouragingly and she gets back on stride.
More tromping through the narrow path, the diversions of other more promising tracks ignored by the dogs...until we stop despite the cold to catch our breath once more.
"Let's take a group selfie...oh my goodness it's so cold, hurry.... your hair looks fine, stop worrying...no one's going to see it but us. No, you don't have hat hair...everyone smile...click...oh it's soooo cold!"
Another path is chosen at the junction this one heavily wooded, and ominous.
Out of the corner of the eye...a small clump of snow falls from above our heads while branches shake on the massive cedar tree lining the narrow darkened path...
Cougars? Hearts jump...it's the perfect spot for an ambush, and they're about...but no, the dogs are silent, happily sniffing everything around the path, someone automatically reaches for the knapsack with the bear spray as calls to stop are shouted out.
"Look up what's that...oh my goodness that's a huge owl!" it's gliding gracefully over our heads with a silent swoop clearing the distance between the trees with what feels like a scene from a slow motion movie, but only takes seconds.
There it sits silent unmoving and seemingly unperturbed perfectly camouflaged among the cedar trees dark green branches, peering at us, the interlopers on the ground below.
"Did you get a picture...no, I don't know...it happened so fast...amazing isn't it? What a huge wing span...did you see it?"
Intense feeling of joy, excitement making it worth all the cold steps...this is a rare moment and while we don't want to disturb it any more than we've already done, we know how unusual it is to see them during the day time or at all up here.
The dogs are unfazed...it's all in a days hike for them. Someone turns forward on the path and we move on.
"Let's keep moving, how about this trail, wonder if it loops back? Oh now I'm soooo cold ..but that was worth it."
The conversation returns to an old hike, "remember that time we got lost and walked, and walked....and then we had to walk more....phew...my feet hurt just thinking about it again."
"Look there's the edge of the woods, see doggies we made it, you're such good doggies..wow that was a long hike, but now I'm warm now...you too?....laughter...
"That's all it takes to get warm out here, a good brisk 10 k walk.......OK doggies into the truck... let's go let's go...."
Cold seats, warm hearts and engines roar to life, off we go.
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