Dreaming of Tracks
Tiffany Cheezem, March 12, 2017
Our Wilderness Year group has been together since September, and we’ve done many things together: we’ve made clay bowls and wooden bows; tanned hides and collected acorns rich in tannins we’ll have to leach out before we eat them; we’ve slept out in debris shelters and cooked on rocks; and we’ve made many, many friction fires.
One thing we hadn’t done until recently, though - one thing I’d been itching to do since day one - was track animals. But mid-January was the appointed time, and so by Jove we went out in mid-January to look for animal tracks.
The first week of our tracking module was met with a perfect storm, if you will, of weather conditions antagonistic to tracking. If there’s snow on the ground, it’s easy to see tracks just about everywhere. If it’s too warm for snow, usually you can find good tracks in mud. But the elements conspired to make it warm enough to rain instead of snow - which also washes away tracks in soil and mud - and cold enough that most mud was frozen from about 2 millimeters down.
And yet - due no doubt to our fearless leaders’ experience and knowledge of “the good spots” - we saw no shortage of different species. It was usually only a few prints at a time, but we were lucky to see red and gray squirrel; raccoon; opossum; muskrat; red and gray fox; coyote; otter sign (scat and scent markings); deer; and many others I am doubtless forgetting.
We also spent some time that week learning from inside a classroom - unusual for us, but not unwelcome in that weather. We looked at animal feet and skulls; made impressions in clay; and learned about different ways to narrow down the universe of possibilities that is presented to you whenever you see a track.
The second week, however, was an entirely different story. It was as if the universe recognized the groundwork we had laid the first week, and approved. It sent us a fresh blanket of snow, and did it ever send us animals upon it.
On the second day of the second week, we travelled to Shindagin, and that is where the story of our most epic day of tracking begins:
Our group arrived at the trailhead in bits and pieces, one small group or single person at a time. It so happened that we intersected with an individual who had just been walking their dog down along the creek and acted nervous when we expressed interest in looking at their dog’s tracks.
We found their “ecologically incorrect” sign later. Funny.
In among the pine trees off the trail we found tracks of squirrels, mice, rabbits, birds (jays? I can’t remember) and deer in the woods.
In a field, we played in the snow, laying out colored squares representing front and hind feet in patterns representing different animal gaits.
We tried to emulate those gaits ourselves. (Have you ever tried a side trot? How about a bound. It has been said, you haven’t lived till you’ve seen a good Sean Cornell bound.)
We walked just a little further and down towards the creek. And there we saw very, very fresh tracks.
The tracks of a mammal. (What family?)
The tracks of a mammal with five toes on both feet. (Weasel family?)
The tracks of a swiftly moving mammal with five toes on each of four rather large (almost palm-sized??) feet. (A large weasel?)
The tracks of a mammal with relatively large feet, five toes, and claws showing, moving in a 3x4 lope along the creek.
We figured it could only be one thing: the elusive and energetic fisher.Jed, to the group: “How old are these? When did this animal move through here?”
Jesse: “Pretty darn fresh - “
Why was it moving where it was moving?
What did its speed tell us?
Was it being pushed or pulled?
It seemed possible to us that we, or the dog walker just before us, had alarmed this animal, perhaps less than an hour before - perhaps twenty minutes! Perhaps an hour and some - and it had set off, moving quickly to put some distance between itself and the source of the disturbance.
The tracks led us along the river…up the slope…through the hemlocks…to an area littered with tracks, covered with tracks, above-around-beside-and-through with tracks.
There were trees and hollows and potential burrow sites the animal had approached, sniffed, explored? There was a scent post with its base all scratched up and marked with an utterly new (for us) smell. Nutty? Musky? Earthy? (What do you call an animal smell you’ve never smelled before?)
And then - egad! - another set! Distinctly smaller! Of the same type, traveling alongside the first set! Could it be a female, temporarily in this male’s territory, courting and being courted?
The mystery and life around us abounded. We were so rich in fisher tracks they practically became baseline, and we (almost) stopped squealing if someone accidentally stepped on some.
Exhausted by our excitement, we eventually had to stop for lunch. (Actually, we were all itching to continue, like toddlers who don’t want to go to bed no matter what the hour because life is too exciting - but our leaders gently insisted we take time to eat, and we capitulated, gathering ourselves to refuel around a campfire).
Just before settling down, unable to contain ourselves, two of us followed the fisher tracks just a little bit further. The prints of the larger male and smaller female fisher went down a gentle slope, up to and across the creek. This formed a natural barrier for us humans - not so much that we couldn’t cross, but it helped remind us that there was firewood to gather and we shouldn’t - and we returned to the group.
Over lunch, we discussed tracks, sign, our food, our luck, and our plans. It began to snow. We packed up lunch and headed on our way. It just so happened that our group’s trajectory was to follow that of the fisher, so the two of us who had scouted out the next stretch of trail found ourselves back in our own bootprints. From the front of the line came some calls of interest - canine tracks, smaller (than coyote or domestic dog) - probably red fox. Prints that were on our old boot prints.
“Who came down here?” “We did!” “Was this fox trail here when you came down?” “No!”
As we picked apart the timeline of the trails, the story unfolded:
Two courting fishers loped down the slope and across the creek. About two hours later, a group of humans gathered at the top of the hill.Two of those humans scouted down to the creek and returned.Some time in the next thirty or so minutes, a red fox came along, moving in the direction of the humans.It crossed the creek, coming within 300 yards of the group.It heard and smelled them.It stopped to look and listen.And then it turned around and went back the way it came.Shortly thereafter, the herd of humans discovered its prints, and made the connection…
These were FRESH tracks!
Over the creek, up the next hill we went. Just before it flattened out, the fox’s trail showed this telling pattern: prints that turned back towards the way we had come, and a T-stop.
You could just see, in your mind’s eye, the fox trotting up the hill just ahead of us, hearing us come in its direction, stopping for a moment to look back towards us, listen, and sniff, and then continue on.
Jed posited the question: What did we think - would the fox go back the way it had come? Or would it drop back down into the creek bed, find another spot to cross, and continue on its way, knowing that we were no longer in between it and its desired destination?
I figured on the second one.
We searched both banks for tracks.
Here, the fox trotted along the bank. Here, it went up to a log bridge, but then backed out of it, judging it to be too precarious.Here, the tracks were lost because of rocks or heavily pitted snow.
The search was called off but I didn’t get the memo. I crossed the creek back and forth until I picked up the trail and saw where it crossed the creek on a sturdy log. I waded across and scrambled up the steep bank on the other side. The fox tracks when straight up the bank, popped out on top, and, what do you know - continued on casually in the direction of our lunch site which we’d now abandoned.
What was it heading to? Why? And conversely - where had it begun its day?
As with all true mysteries, we never got to find out for sure the answers to our questions. We spent the rest of the day in a happy haze of excitement over the abundance of beauty around us and magical glimpses into animal life that had been entrusted to us. We were greeted with new landscapes as we moved from the hemlock forest into floodplain and beaver pond, then ducked back into dense conifer cover to scry for flying squirrel tracks amongst the red and gray.
Even the last, snowball-ridden stretch of trail out through a field and across, for the last time, the creek, was blessed with weasel tracks, if I remember correctly…something small and earnest moving under the footbridge and along the water.
My day of hyper-focus and hypotheses closed out with a hard snowball hit to the back of the head. The miles we covered and the calories we had burned set in. I gave in to the passive comfort of the warm car ride home.
Some of us slept. We all dreamed of tracks.