Walk in the woods provides Christmas Eve to remember

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snowy pine branch

It was the night before Christmas, 1993. Nora was barely 10 years old, and Emma would not start kindergarten for another eight months. We had just gotten home from an early Christmas Eve church service.

About 2 inches of snow had fallen the day before, and it was about 25 degrees, so a white Christmas seemed a sure thing. All that remained was a long winter’s nap, but the girls were too excited to sleep.

Winter walk

My wife, Linda, suggested we take a walk in the woods. “That will tire the girls so maybe we can at least sleep until dawn,” she hoped. “Besides, the moon is bright. With snow on the ground it really does give a, ‘luster of mid-day to objects below.’”

The girls thought it was a great idea. “Maybe we’ll hear the animals talk,” Emma volunteered.

“Mom says on Christmas Eve animals can talk.”

Nora smiled a knowing big sister smile.

Gorgeous night

We bundled up and followed our favorite trail into the woods. About a quarter-mile later we came to a huge fallen tree, a favorite rest stop. “Let’s just sit for a few minutes,” I said.

It was a gorgeous night. Chilly, but not too cold. The air was still, the sky crystal clear, and a thousand stars winked and blinked. The moonlight cast shadows from the tall white oaks that surrounded us.

A pair of great horned owls duetted in the distance, a reminder that the beginning of the nesting season was just a month away. As we watched and listened, a breeze picked up and blew icy crystals off the snow-covered branches overhead. Though the sky remained clear, it seemed to be snowing — on Christmas Eve. It was so quiet I could hear snowflakes striking my jacket’s outer nylon shell.

High-pitched sound

After about 15 minutes, our hands and feet began to get cold. The thought of hot chocolate and a few cookies was too much to resist. So we got up and headed back to the house. We hadn’t taken 10 steps when we all heard a distinctive, high-pitched sound.

Before I thought better of it, I almost spoiled the moment. “I think we’re hearing flying squirrels. They have high pitched voices,” I explained.

“They live in our woods. Remember, we found a few flying squirrel nests in the chickadee boxes last spring.”

In the glow of the moonshine, I confirmed my suspicions. All around us a half dozen flying squirrels jumped from tree to tree. As they sailed, flaps of skin that run from ankle to wrist billowed with air, and the flyers glided skillfully from one tree to the next. Upon landing, they instantly scurried to the back side of the tree trunk — just in case an owl was in hot pursuit.

Elves? Linda and Nora saw the movement too, but just as I was about to point it out to Emma, she exclaimed, “Those aren’t animal sounds, they’re elves!”

She was still focused on the squeaky noises we had heard moments earlier.

Now I faced a dilemma. Do I grab the teachable moment, or do I go for holiday magic? I opted for magic because I knew we could see flying squirrels another time.

“What are you talking about, Emma?” I asked. “What elves?”

“Santa’s elves, of course. I don’t know why they’re in the woods, but we need to get back home, and I need to get to bed,” she explained.

Emma took off up the trail like a fox on the run. It was all we could do to keep up. By the time we got back up the hill to the house, we were exhausted.

After a cookie and a quick cup of hot chocolate, Emma put on her nightie and jumped into bed. Her cheeks were still rosy and cold.

Before I even opened our dog-eared copy of A Visit from St. Nicholas, Emma had fallen sound asleep. It was a Christmas Eve to remember.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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