Sunday 14 February 2021

A Familiar Landscape Transformed By Snow: A Ski Tour From Home


After five weeks of cold weather and lying snow the weather is changing with high winds and warm air coming from the south. A thaw is likely this next week, ending the longest period of freezing snowy conditions at this level for over a decade. I had forgotten just how much deep continuous snow cover transforms a landscape when it lies for weeks at a time. This year it has been particularly noticeable due to the COVID-19 lockdown as I’ve only been out for ski or snowshoes trips from the front door, yet it’s felt as though I was entering a vast Arctic wilderness every time. 

Under snow the rolling moors, rough pastures, and forests (a mix of natural and plantation) look like Lapland tundra rather than Scotland. Yes, I’ve missed the big mountains, but I would have missed them much more if there had been rain instead of snow. As it is, I’ve had many superb trips out into this snowy landscape.

After seeing the forecast for warmer temperatures and a thaw I went for one last ski tour. The sub-zero temperatures have kept the snow powdery and soft and in the forest the going was hard as I skied over hidden fallen branches and hollows, weaving a way round any obvious obstacles. Leaving the first woodland I skied across a large open boggy area where I’ve never walked as it’s too wet. On skis it was easy, the snow level and smooth. 

The next forest lay on steeper slopes and it was hard work again climbing through soft snow on hidden tracks and fire breaks. Twenty-five years ago clear-felling stripped all the spruce from this plantation, leaving stands of Scots pine and huge areas of bare ground. Birch quickly colonised the latter and it’s now a semi-natural forest. 

There were many animal tracks in the forest - the deep slots of roe deer, the single line paws of foxes, delicate squirrel prints, the distinctive pattern of rabbits, and once the wide five-toed marks of a pine marten - but I saw nothing except for a pair of black grouse that sailed through the trees. All was silence except for the swish of my skis.

During the day the wind slowly increased, stinging my face. Arriving at the high deer fence at the top of the forest and feeling the blast of cold air across the open hillside I decided this was far enough. On the other side of the fence the only other ski tracks I saw stopped then turned back.

I followed the fence to a gentle spot height of 442 metres. On the map the words Cree Dearg run along the forest edge. I hadn’t noticed this before and wondered what the word cree meant (Dearg, I knew, meant red). Research revealed a few possibilities as it’s a corruption. The most likely is crioch, boundary, as the forest edge is on the watershed between the rivers Spey and Findhorn.

Turning away from the wind I skied back down through the forest, relishing the effortless drifting through the trees. The soft snow and gentle slopes kept my speed down and I was able to relax.

Once back in the open I found the strengthening wind was just as bitter below the trees as it had been higher up. The down jacket I’d donned before the descent stayed on until I reached home.

Although I’d never been more than five straight line kilometres from my front door this felt like a trip to remote country. I met no one and saw no other tracks. It seemed as though I could have broken trail for days and stayed alone in this vast and wild snowy landscape.  

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