The Shillelagh helps us gauge the size of the prints we photograph.
We are lucky enough to snowshoe right out of our back yard. With walking sticks in hand, we pack down trails every winter to observe wildlife and experience the woods sans blood-sucking bugs. With this hobby has come a fellow love for winter tracking over snow. The stories that unfold from footprints left behind are unwittingly evident with every dusting of fresh snowflakes, and are so descriptive in their own way; they could have inspired Shakespeare to write another comedy or tragedy. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have loved the clues left behind. Tiny tracks leading to a bright red droplet of blood on snow, a smattering of feathers drifting about an impressive set of wing-prints. Is this the scene of a murder? Or just a quick snack provided to a Raven via automobile? I have caught myself gazing down at the snow with no one else around, laughing out loud at the slapstick choreography laid down by a Red squirrel, of which Chaplin would be proud, marvelling to myself: ‘Who needs a Hollywood script’.
Upon first glance of my winter tracking photos, the walking stick seems to be the star attraction. It has its own unique beauty and like many celebrities, is lankier than most. It has received many compliments in the most unexpected places. My friends have given the stick the honorary title of Shillelagh. It was originally sought out to calm my ‘bearanoia’, as I often walk in the woods alone, but it has now become an indispensable tool and I never enter the woods without it. As mentioned before, it is longer than the average walking stick so it allows for support, even when it breaks through the snow below trail level to hit solid ground. It has a hook on one end; this lets me pull myself up a steep slope, or off of my backside, with the help of a small tree trunk. I often lay the stick down in the snow to document animal tracks measuring length between bounds along with print size.
The gaits of different creatures tell such great tales. Prints can express the personalities of the animals that leave them behind, along with their moods at the time of imprint.
Red Squirrels are spastic and comedic, always taking stock.
The Fisher cruises her territory.
Pine Martens bound towards adventure.
The Grouse shuffles monotonously for snacks, which is amusing because walking the line is quite the opposite of bursting out of the snow into a surprised face!
Wild Turkeys, the newly imported flocking heirlooms, are so unsure of what to do with their bulk they look sideways at each other to see why they’re walking forward.
A Porcupine tramps uphill in an awkward determined, squiggle staying afloat on its bristles.
The Fox lightly skips along in direct register with purpose, scouting his turf.
Wolf seem to happen upon our trails because they are often tracking themselves; afloat above the crust covering large tracts of land.
Raven skim in from above quietly observing and leave mischievous and curious prints for you to find.
The little Deer mouse is so busy hopping on its haunches from seed to seed that it doesn’t notice its past.
While the Vole frantically scurries from one hole to another, in a constant state of fear from above.
The deep dents, long jumps and melted snow beds, accompanied by scratched soil and nibbled ferns follow the White-tailed deer.
All of these patterns remind us of winter survival and the wisdom of conserving calories.
I measure this with my stick.
Otter tracks on the left and a sign of super-fun sliding on the right.
During the winter of 2011-12, the precipitation fell as rain almost as often snow, so the trails remained like eggshells. Whenever we tried to ‘just boot it’ we’d punch through repeatedly, burning more calories than we cared for, so the snowshoes had to stay on most of the winter. Another consequence of the rain and icy crust was that the trails were very noisy, snowshoes on ice crystals reverberate terribly, so we rarely saw any animals in person. The upside to this was that the trace evidence of their travels was terrific. The mammals, other than deer, had no problem floating on top of the snow pack, and thanks to the several light dustings of snow we could tell who had walked where, and on which day. We began to discuss the activities of the repeat rovers and eventually determined the home ranges and daily habits of several of our wild neighbours. The trails didn’t quiet down for us until the second substantial snowfall of the winter, which occurred near the end of February. The clear sky and cold that followed gave us the chance to properly stabilize our woodland snow bridge to perfection.
So how does one make the perfect snow trail? One must time it just right around the ideal weather systems, which only occur a few times per winter, if you’re lucky. Watch the weather for a warm, bountiful snowfall. Then flatten the snow and groom the trail throughout the warm spell, ideally during or just after a predictably large dump of snow. This is even better when you know it is going to be followed by a quick freeze and clear skies afterwards. If timed correctly one can get a bridge built through the forest so it can be walked upon without snowshoes into the spring melt. When you get a trail like this, you feel like a wild animal, floating over the snow as if a string were attached to your head, a light and springy marionette, if at least for one or two days, with hopes for one or two more weeks.
When we need to pound snow within a limited time frame, we use our 3 snowplowing dogs. Our two big shepherd siblings push snow with their chests, punching narrow footings for the trail bridge, and the little pug-beagle (peagle) works like a submarine, his curly tail being the only thing visible wiggling above the snow. We follow with the snowshoes smoothing the trail like icing on a cake and…Voila! A quadruple pounded trail with deep piers, which after freeze will be ready to float a 125-200 pound human in boots.
Many animals use our trails almost immediately after they are blazed, even when they are too thin to float us. Some critters tunnel under our snow bridge such as mink, grouse, and other forest rodents. We can tell where they’ve been beneath, but just not from the tracks; the dogs can’t resist poking their noses through the snow when they smell a heat-sealed creature pocket. When we pound under perfect conditions, the trails can support even the White-tailed deer along with Fisher, Pine Marten and Turkeys, who like to walk on top. The deer and hare nibble any twigs back away from the trail once they use it for travel, which helps us out too.
Ruffed Grouse tracks and scat are quite a consistent sight, though we’ve seen fewer now that the Wild Turkey population has increased.
During one of my crunchy February 2012 treks I came across the tracks of a fisher with two perfectly tidy marks running parallel to the footprints, like a gnome had been cross-country skiing alongside. I had found its den just a few hundred meters up the hill from our trail- head the month before, and up until that point had just enjoyed observing what time, and in which direction, it ventured out across the snow from its home. The precision and consistency of the extra markings peaked my curiosity. It must have carried a kill! I wanted the whole story, and I went out the following morning to find it.
|The Fisher will travel great distances to pursue and carry a kill.|
The forecast was predicting a snowstorm to begin that afternoon. This was a time of great tracking, because of the light dusting over the crust, but it was not a good time for a human to slog through the snow to find the kill site. The crust was thin, and I broke through about half-a-foot with each step. I may as well have had shovels on my feet- but I was determined. I wanted blood, and I wanted to document it with my camera and Shillelagh. The fisher had walked directly from its den towards the kill site, crossing the trail of a porcupine and several hares without even stopping for a sniff. It had only one purpose that day. From what I could tell, it knew exactly where to find what it required. After it had performed the bloody and likely swift deed, it carried its prey across the river and over the road to where I regrettably had to abort the mission. With my inner naturalist and parental adviser wrestling in my head, I headed back, absolutely amazed that this determined creature had dragged its kill over two kilometres, skirting its original trail beyond my ability to follow. The disappointment of not concluding the investigation with a gory photo didn’t dampen my spirits too badly. I wondered if the two lines in the snow could have been created by a pair of feet, maybe a hare. A friend offered a theory that perhaps one line was created by a nose, and the other a tail, being neatly folded in half to be transported. I then thought about how lucky my cats were, that this efficient hunter had not decided to target them, as they were so much closer to the fisher’s den than the one whom didn’t live to tell…
|This porcupine squiggled two kilometres uphill and beyond from the river below. That’s quite a migration for such an awkward dude!|
Surely enough, the heavy snowfall we needed for better trails occurred the next day with a twenty-centimetre dumping of snow. With this I knew I would never get the true story of the conquest that day, but I was happy to have thicker and quieter trails. The fisher must have sensed that the trekking was soon to become more difficult for hunting, it had gone out to kill when the travel and transport of prey was easy, and so it stayed happily in its den, all drafts sealed and well fed with whatever it was, for about a week without having to venture out into the deep, fresh snow again. I sent wishes for pleasant dreams to that natural born killer, glad that it had stayed away from my cats, as I fell asleep with a great tale in mind. (February. 29, 2012. R.K.)
N.B. I found this a week or two later, at the mouth of the Fisher’s shelter which was under a large dead fall log.
May the forest be with you.