K2 on a trail
Credit: Suhail Zubaid-Ahmad

"'Hear! hear!' screamed the jay from a neighboring tree, where I had heard a tittering for some time, 'winter has a concentrated and nutty kernel, if you know where to look for it." —Henry David Thoreau; Journal Entry, November 28, 1858 

K2, my Hungarian Kuvasz, and I — well-accustomed to watching Ontario's Credit River freezing solid — were observing a new unexplained phenomena during an early morning hike in February. The River was inundated by millions of metre-square ice slabs. The temperatures had plummeted to well below freezing. We heard the sounds of ice slabs rubbing against each other, at some times sounding as if someone was drilling a concrete floor  or a monster was  groaning with pain at others.

Overestimating the load bearing capacity of ice blocks, I prodded K2 to move on. Suddenly, a block of ice gave in. It was like a sinkhole forming in Karst Country. I feared that we would drop into freezing waters of the river. I took a sigh of relief as we fell on a layer of flat rock solid ice underneath.

Frozen Credit River
Credit: Suhail Zubaid-Ahmad

Ice blocks over Credit River.

Maintaining a safe distance, we carefully followed the river downstream over occasionally slippery ice. A few kilometres later, we saw water oozing out from under frozen ice trying to form the river again. Three mallards landed on waters of what had become a flowing river further downstream of us. They started swimming towards us. K2 looked bewildered at their audacity. 

I explained to K2, as if he was my student, "The water must have been well below freezing. These must be the resident ducks willing to take on the challenge of severe winters, when their cousins migrated down south to warmer climates.” Of course, by the time we reach any birds, they are long gone.

Ducks on ice
Credit: Suhail Zubaid-Ahmad

Mallards are used to the icy conditions of southern Ontario.

We reached a lonely, snow covered section of the trail. Turning a bend along a frozen pond, we met a woman, leash in hand, calling out to her dog. It had been off-leash and had taken after a rabbit. The lady was searching for it for past half an hour. I tried to help but kept thinking of the risks. It could have fallen into any of the several ponds in the area, where the ice may have yielded under its weight, could have lost its way in the forest, could have been challenged by livestock guardian dogs of nearby farms, etc. I would never take that risk with my K2.

Iced up berries
Credit: Suhail Zubaid-Ahmad

Iced up berries.

Wildlife photography in winters is tricky, but presents a unique opportunity to observe hardy resident wildlife species that won’t migrate south. 

Resident bird species impress us. Those ubiquitous starlings, crows and ring-billed gulls routinely give us lot of company, sometimes giving alarm calls and at other times, choosing to ignore us.We are now seeing more and more of northern cardinals, black capped chickadees, goldfinches, nuthatches, hairy woodpeckers, goshawks (red-tailed hawks), sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawks, etc. All of these birds are thriving, probably because the winters are not as cold as they used to be, and equally importantly, because more people are putting bird feeders in their backyards.

Snow also offers us opportunity to observe tracks made by various animals — raccoons, rabbits, white-tailed deer, coyotes.It is amazing to see how, all of a sudden, deer trails start and disappear in the dormant winter forests. Even more amazing is how, for their own protection, a herd of deer followed us, keeping an eye on us all the time until we hiked out of their range. They were probably doing it out of curiosity. 

Winter is a safe season to be in bear territory, for they are hibernating. If you do see a bear in winter, however, be wary. That bear has been woken up from its slumber by an unexpected natural or unnatural event and is going to be thoroughly agitated. I keep bear spray ready and K2 leashed all the time; I don't want him to wake a bear by entering its den.

Wolves and cougars are another story. They are active in winters and are looking for meal.
Ice on my gloves
Credit: Suhail Zubaid-Ahmad

Ice accumulates over my gloves as K2 pulls me through deep snow.

Every now and then, we encounter a stream formed by melting snow. While I get busy taking pictures, K2 likes to splash in it. This is always followed by his rolling in the snow. Since snow is a good absorber of water, this is his way of squishing out excess water from his fur. This is essentially the same reason polar bears roll in snow after getting wet. It is a strange coincidence that neighbours used to call K2 “polar bear cub” when he was a puppy.

When it snows, snowflakes deposit on my sleeves. They come in many shapes, but they always have six points of a hexagon. Hexagons are nature’s preferred shape for making crystals. Beehive cells are also hexagonal in shape.

On one occasion, the snow fell so heavily that observing snowflakes became a luxury. Soon the snow was ankle- and then knee-deep. I gasped for air as I plodded ahead. Readers may be aware of skijoring, where one or more dogs are harnessed to pull a person on skis. K2 loves "hikejoring." When the snow gets deep and hard to negotiate, or when there is a steep ascent, he is a willing partner to pull me for long stretches, giving me a breather. This was a time that I called for help, and K2 gladly obliged.

Treacherous grounds
Credit: Suhail Zubaid-Ahmad

Snow and fog over a land covered by frozen pools can present tricky hiking conditions.

Hiking on a path covered by snow or ice calls for different tactics. Soft ankle-deep snow tends to give firm footing, but if it gets deeper, more energy is consumed to take steps. In knee-deep snow, it becomes difficult for K2 to break the path, in which case I take the lead.

Trudging ahead in deep snow may be energy consuming, but hiking on slippery ice is something that I would like to avoid, but it is not always possible to do so. Ice and a lead dog are not a good combination.

While hiking with my nephew Ammar and son Rayyan on an icy section of a trail at Belfountain Conservation Area in the Caledon Hills, I unintentionally let K2 lead the way down the slope of a ridge. K2 pulled a bit more than he wanted and I slipped over the double-edged instability elements of nature — rocks and the ice covering them — leaving me with a bruises on several parts of my body.

You should never allow your dog to lead on descents. It should always follow your lead.

K2 in a dormant forest
Credit: Suhail Zubaid-Ahmad

It was one of those routine hikes in extreme weather that turned out to be classical snow-and-ice experience for K2 and me. The grounds of Conservation Park, all grassy in the summers, were covered with blocks of snow or mini icebergs. The trails were covered with at least 15 cm of snow and ice mix.

I tried to help the woman find her dog for an hour or so, but in vain. She told me she was going to call her family members for help. At first sight of the reinforcement, I begged my leave. Some 200 metres down the trail I looked back at the search party for one final time. They were heading off towards the treacherous grounds I had traversed earlier. I wished them luck in all sincerity and in decibels that only K2 could hear.