this winter i’ve been trying to teach myself wildlife tracking. the only way to explain how this came about is that i was hit with a deep curiosity to know more about the other creatures that traverse the same lands that i routinely walk and explore. this really got started last winter. i happened upon a good set of moose tracks in the snow soon after we moved into our cabin. then, a naturalist friend of mine told me about some bobcat tracks that she had seen and all of a sudden i thought, why haven’t i seen such tracks? what have i been doing all this time spent hiking? i remember one day in particular when i became enchanted by one set of animal tracks that meandered along my hiking trail. i became so excited and wondered if they were bobcat tracks. in hindsight, i’m pretty sure they were canine and that they were probably someone’s dog that had walked the trail with its owner. but still, the spark was lit.
last summer i spent a month in Alaska and had a chance to see brown bear tracks on multiple occasions. i remember how excited i felt looking at the shape of their claws protruding from the overall great size of the track set in mud or sand. it gave me the chills to imagine that such a creature stood exactly where i was standing not long before me.
still, i’m kind of new to wildlife tracking. i feel like a really excited kid the whole time i’m following any track. i have naturalist friends who are much more experienced than i and i ask them questions every time i get back from finding tracks to help me confirm what i saw.
i had some great finds this february, though. in the photos above you can make out coyote tracks that i found on a snowmobile trail near our cabin. it was the morning after a new snow and no one had come out riding to destroy the clear, solitary, canine tracks. i was amazed! i followed the tracks off trail and through the woods. i meandered with them over logs and across another path. i went over boulders until i got to a high point looking down on our camp below. the tracks wandered away but i found some more and i couldn’t distinguish whether they were the same coyote or if they were another animal (maybe a bobcat? i couldn’t tell in the deep snow). these new tracks led to a small boulder with a clearing underneath. something had been there and recently. the night before! i couldn’t see any scat so i don’t know what had been there or if they just stopped by or spent the night. my heart was thumping.
soon after i came upon a totally different set of tracks. they were those of a waddler. they had an interesting dragging pattern in between each step. this was an animal much lower to the ground than the coyote tracks i’d just been following. i had a suspicion they were porcupine and followed them until they stopped at a little beech tree. lo and behold, the beech tree had freshly munched on branches laying on the ground around it and A LOT of the bark on this tree had been scraped off. this was definitely a porcupine and he or she had been here more than once!
on another day in february i was outside talking on my cellphone to my sister (outside is where i have to go for acceptable reception around here!) when all of a sudden i saw a snowshoe hare run across the road ahead of me! i was so surprised and excited! i hadn’t seen a snowshoe hare since last winter when we first moved to our cabin. after i said goodbye to my sister i went over to where i saw the hare bounding and found its tracks. they were very far apart because of how fast it had been running. apparently they can leap 12 feet at a time! i decided to plunge my snowshoe-less feet deep into the snow to follow the tracks and see what i could find. the hare still moved fast and light on his feet. he went under hemlocks where i almost lost the tracks and then up and over a ridge. then the snowshoe hare, who had been here so very recently, passed another intriguing set of tracks…. yes, they were bobcat tracks! my first official bobcat track ID!
^^above you can see the hare tracks on the right and a bobcat print on the left :)
the bobcat tracks were something i had been hoping to find since my curiosity first sparked last winter. i finally knew that i was in the same place that a secretive bobcat had been. i followed mr. bobcat’s tracks for a while. i could see how on a steep hill his paws had sunk deeper into the snow and he slipped and slid a little bit. i saw him climb over a dead branch. then, to my surprise, i followed the tracks as they crossed back over the road to the other side. it turns out that i had walked passed these tracks without even knowing it. if it wasn’t for the bounding snowshoe hare, i may never have found them. my experience this winter has taught me that sometimes the most exciting and interesting things are found just a few steps off the beaten path. all it takes to teach yourself tracking truly is a curious spirit and the pull of adventure to take you on a wandering path. maybe also a few friends or books to help you gain “knowledge”, but that comes in time. for me, it’s about the experience and sense of wonder.
it makes me happy to think about running across a frozen pond. 8 inches or so of solid ice. 5 inches or so of snow. that weird in-between layer that crunches and settles when you step in a way that makes your heart skip a beat. is that the snow? or is the ice mushy? what if i fall in? the only other tracks on the pond are that of snowmobilers, clearly testing the pond for themselves. does that comfort me or not? what does comfort me is the growing confidence of a few steps, and letting my partner walk ahead. as does the light of the setting sun, shining so clear and bright across the open space. i look to the far side of the pond and see the light get deeper in color and my own shadow getting longer. i’m going to chase that light and run! the trees are further away than i thought, but i get there just in time. soon enough, the light climbs to the tops of the trees and fades away.
“A pileated woodpecker, deep black and with its white wing bars flashing, sliced with muscular wingbeats through the forest of thick maples and ash. The back of its head sported a crimson crest. The bird landed abruptly on the truck of a maple, eyeing me warily. Then it slipped into a cavity in the tree to seek shelter from the driving snow.” - Bernd Heinrich
Sometimes nature’s majesty takes hold of your spirit and whisks you away into an adrenaline rush of inspiration and humility. Other times, you’re in a seasonal slump and the THOUGHT of such an experience seems laughable. Let’s be real. It hasn’t snowed in two weeks and the ground is icy and hostile. We’ve been hearing the same chickadees all winter. You’d much rather hole up and watch 8 hour marathons of tv shows before going outside for another walk in the bitter, cold, gray, blah winter landscape. I’m all for mid-winter tv marathons, but sometimes you also need to rely on your friends to get you up and out and appreciating the little things at this time of year. I myself was feeling pretty glum last week, but after a couple hikes with friends (and a furry friend), things were looking up. I learned a few new winter tree ID tricks, jumped on a frozen pond, re-learned a recently logged landscape, collected tiny hemlock pine cones (just ’cause), awkwardly slipped and stumbled on an icey trail (and laughed), didn’t hear or see any exciting birds or wildlife (it’s okay, it’s winter. that’s just how it is), had some fun seeing the world through a dog’s eyes, and drank some really good hot cocoa. sometimes friends and walks are just what you need to get through a long winter.
a couple weeks ago i had the opportunity to visit my brother and his family in downeast maine again. unlike my last visit, where we enjoyed hiking many different trails, this january adventure happened during a bitter BITTER cold spell. still, i managed to put on every layer i had and waited outside for 30 minutes to watch the sunrise over the frozen bay. i’ve actually never seen the ocean frozen before, can you believe it? i may have grown up on the coast of Maine, but we didn’t have as many inlets and bays down south that give the water a chance to actually freeze. while standing next to the frozen bay you could hear the ice creak and groan and crack as the tide slowly receded. we also went to Acadia National Park, but only to briefly take some leaps on the ice and soak in a little bit of sunshine. mostly we rode around in the car looking at the sights. the rest of the time we hunkered inside next to the wood stove, ate lots of tacos with homemade corn tortillas, and played games with my nieces.
“There is nothing in the world more beautiful than the forest clothed to its very hollows in snow. It is the still ecstasy of nature, wherein every spray, every blade of grass, every spire of reed, every intricacy of twig, is clad with radiance. “ - William Sharp
It feels like I took these photos ages ago when only a week has passed. We had the gift of a fresh snowfall over the weekend before last, and already I’m waiting for more. The snow accumulated quickly in the afternoon and after driving home in the heavy snow I rushed outside and walked slowly in the peaceful snowfall. I crept from tree to tree at times to shelter myself and my camera from the wet flakes. You could barely see across the pond, and the woods were the most magical I’ve ever seen them with snow touching every twig and needle. I also saw a pileated woodpecker flying from tree to tree. Its bright red and black feathers stood out starkly among the white forest. I got so excited because I hadn’t seen or heard one in sooo long!
The day after the snowfall Darin and I went on a long hike (without snowshoes, at that!). We attempted to find the trail to Hall Mountain, but couldn’t. I think I may have found it after we had already followed a snowmobile trail that nearly summits the mountain anyway. It is hard to find trails in the winter when they aren’t blazed! We had a map and compass and the GPS from our phones with us, however, and Darin lead us home on an off-trail adventure through the backcountry. It was actually thrilling to be away from the snowmobiles and to explore a side of the forest that I would never see if I just stuck to the trail. We found a beautiful wetland and an area of trees heavily impacted by a busy beaver. I also kept my eyes out for animal tracks but only saw evidence of deer. I felt like such an explorer wandering through groves of hemlocks heavy with snow or coming upon winding streams. By the end of the 4 1/2 hour journey, I was sore and tired, but very happy.