Hello winter, my old friend

As we make our way past the ski huts, our boots sink into the top layer of powdery snow. We walk on through the open eucalyptus forest passing deep holes in the snow where heavier walkers than us have sunk further than us. In some of these holes, I can see water running underneath the snow. 

Once we are out of the forest, we veer off the path to a rocky outcrop that looks over Lake Seal. Below us, a fine layer of mist hangs in the valley above the lake. 

It is time for chocolate.

We continue through the increasingly thick snow up towards the Tarn Shelf. A weak sun emerges for a few moments, bathing the trees in front of us in a light gold before disappearing behind the clouds. Once we reach the top of the plateau, I realise just how sheltered we were in the forest below. 

If, like me, you enjoy being out in the elements, this is the best of winter in Tasmania: a time of bracing cold, fine mist, light rain, ice and snow. Today we are spared the icy winds that often characterise Tasmanian winter days, but even those winds can create an exhilarating sense of being in touch with nature. There are those who want to stay home beside the heater, watch Netflix and eat comfort food while they wait for the spring equinox, looking forward to warmer days and shorter nights, but I think that is a waste of one of the best parts of the year.

We peer towards the shelf but it’s hidden in mist. The sun seems to have disappeared for good and visibility is down to about 10 metres or so. On either side of the track, the watercourses are frozen over. Snow flurries come and go as we crunch along the narrow, snow-covered boardwalk, enjoying the elements, and the silence. The temperature must be below zero.

While it can of course be too warm to snow, apparently it can never be too cold to snow, although there needs to be moisture in the air. I run my bare hand through the snow both to enjoy the cold and to feel the texture. The top level of fresh snow seems powdery compared to the snow beneath, but compared to snow in places such as Sweden, it feels wet. It clumps together easily in my hand. Snow is made up of loose ice crystals of varying sizes which are surrounded by air. The snowflake itself is actually a symmetrical cluster of ice crystals. 

In much colder and drier places in the world, such as Japan, the quantity of air in the snow pack is much greater than here in Tasmania. The snow in these places there is so dry that it’s possible to roll around in it without getting wet. If you run your hand through it, or try to grab a lump of it to form a snowball, the snow just falls away. 

Temperatures in Tasmania are rarely low enough for snow to fall as pure snowflakes. Here there is usually some element of water in a snow storm, even if only enough to make the snowflakes partially melt and clump together so they appear to be larger snowflakes

. . .

Winter doesn’t just bring us snow though. The following day I get up hoping for a stunning sunrise. Another benefit of winter in Tasmania, which I really appreciate as a photographer, is that it is possible to get out of bed at a reasonable hour and still catch the sunrise. 

Outside our cabin near Lake Dobson, there looks to be too much cloud cover for a really spectacular sunrise but, following the little hoppy footprints in the snow, I reach the pond near-by. It’s iced over with dramatic geometric patterns reflecting the early morning colours. Through the ice I can see the vegetation in the water below. 

Water has an unusual property which allows ice to float on the surface rather than sink. Recently I walked on one of Sweden’s larger lakes, Torneträsk, at the top of the country within the Arctic Circle. Like this Tasmanian pond, the Swedish lake was iced over, although the thickness of the lake’s ice was considerably greater than on the little pond. 

Later in the morning we set off along the boardwalk to Lake Belcher, before suddenly finding what seems to be a random point in the track’s construction where the boardwalk ends and the track turns into an icy bog. 

I’m reminded of the many bushwalks I’ve done over the years in Tasmania before the advent of boardwalks. In those days, our conversations often turned to the nature of our walking boots: whether others had better boots, how much they cost, how long they kept out the water and anecdotal stories of those whose boots had actually come off their feet in the legendary muddy bogs that passed as tracks. 

Trying to avoid the mud, we look closely at the ice formations. We can see what appear to be bubbles, trapped in the ice. The bog itself contains anaerobic bacteria which decompose the leaves and bits of other organic matter that fall into it. Methane gas is given off as the organic matter is broken down and these are the source of the bubbles which have frozen inside the ice.

Another favourite place of mine in winter is Cradle Valley. There are fewer tourists in winter which makes it more appealing for those of us who have fond memories of a time when it wasn’t an international destination, but it’s also a more dramatic time. 

One very cold winter morning, I got up to find the valley was almost white. As in Mount Field, the many small ponds were covered in a layer of ice, some with similar interesting geometric shapes. Instead of snow, frost lay along the individual stems of button grass, on the pandani leaves, and on the branches of the small twisted trees near the end of the Waldheim huts. As I walked down to the river I found crystals of ice had grown out from the chicken wire on the boardwalk in an interlocking pattern. The night before was perfect for the formation of a hoarfrost, which forms when there is so much moisture in the air that the air can no longer carry it, and the temperature drops to below freezing point. As the cool air settles around objects that are below freezing point, the water vapour goes directly from vapour to ice crystals, rather than into liquid (as in dew).

As the sun rose, sending rays across the valley, I sat with my hot cup of tea in hand watching the ice as it slowly turned to water, until it was dripping from the vegetation. My only companions were a few wallabies. It was a glorious winter morning and what better way to enjoy it than in the silence and stillness of Cradle Valley, with a few of the native animals for company.

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