This morning I traveled through a world transformed. The well-worn forest road that feels my footfalls almost every day, with its familiar scenery and recent logging, had disappeared under a mantle of white lace. Every glance into the forest was like a trip to an art museum; its exhibit hall filled with intricate line drawings.
Icy wheel tracks often forced my gaze downward, though, as I watched my hot pink running shoes navigate slick spots. I’m looking forward to the day our ski trails open, but for now this method of forcing air into my lungs and endorphins into my brain will do.
Although I’d previously enjoyed the solid footing of bare, frozen gravel, our recent snowy dustings make my morning excursions more interesting. Lois Nestel, our founding director, wrote, “Each day as daylight comes, I find it one of my more pleasant self-imposed duties to check on the outdoor activities of the preceding night.”
“Exactly,” I thought, as I noted the heart-shaped tracks of deer with little troughs connecting them. Long ago, at the Audubon Center of the Northwoods down in Sandstone, Minnesota, I learned that those toe drags often indicate a buck who’s tired from chasing does and carrying a heavy rack. I was teaching the tree identification part of a college-level Wolf Ecology course that winter, and ended up learning to love tracking as well. Reading books and being outdoors constantly vie for my attention. Tracking turns the whole, snowy world into a storybook.
My forest holds quite the cast of characters.
Squirrel tracks dominate my driveway. Both the tiny red squirrels and the fat gray squirrels bound willy-nilly down the steep bank and up the maple trees. In each cluster of four footprints, the bigger, five-toed hind feet lead, and the four-toed front feet follow. This is a function of their hopping stride, shared with rabbits and mice. Squirrels and deer mice are “paired front-foot hoppers,” though, with their feet landing next to each other. This is the stamp of tree-dwelling hoppers. Cottontails and snowshoe hares place one front foot ahead of the other, and are described as “diagonal front-foot hoppers,” in the guides.
Dainty daisy chains of grouse tracks often wind among the dried grasses and seed heads. Their trails often begin and end abruptly. In deeper snow, the soft fingers of wingtips frame their departure. More than once, I’ve stopped to trace a grouse track into the brush, and been surprised by the whirring flight of their owner.
Red foxes hunt along my driveway almost every night. Their canine prints with four toes and visible claws might aim neatly down a wheel track for a bit, but inevitably they get distracted. I can see where they’ve turned to look into the hemlock ravine. Or where they’ve investigated a clump of grass, or where they’ve urinated on a prominent stick to announce their territorial claim to the society of sensitive noses.
Coyotes, too, frequent these woods. I spotted one furry ghost last spring, as it melted into the trees. Their tracks are not much bigger than the fox, but wear less fur and often show up more clearly. Rarely do I see the two canines’ tracks together. While coyotes can catch bigger prey than a fox, they overlap in pursuit of the medium and small meals, and their competition often results in the fox being chased out.
I run an out-and-back route, but quite often I notice new tracks on my way back home. Probably, I just missed them while daydreaming or skirting an icy patch, or because I was on the other shoulder. But what if I didn’t? What if something snuck across the road behind me? As Lois wrote, “These were some of the things I saw, but how much did I miss? How many unseen eyes watch me?”
The pacing tracks of a raccoon surprised me one morning. With their two-by-two pattern, my first hope was a bounding fisher. Like most in the weasel family, fisher tracks often appear paired, with one foot slightly ahead of the other. Their hind feet land where their front feet just vacated, so you only see their hind feet. Looking closer, I found that each pair of tracks showed one five-toed hind foot and one five-fingered front foot. This pattern is created by the “pace” gait of a raccoon. They move both left legs forward, then both right legs. The fox and coyote would swing diagonal legs simultaneously, similar to how our legs and arms work together.
My arms and legs stopped abruptly last week, when my foot landed next to a rather large track with five naily toes. “Shouldn’t you be asleep?” I thought, as I glanced into the woods where the tracks led. Mama bears probably are in their dens. But with an ample acorn crop, plentiful bait piles, and the gut-pile bonanza of hunting season approaching, the males are in no hurry to go to bed.
And we can’t really blame, them, can we? New stories appear every morning, and the beauty of early winter is something I’d not want to miss.
“How fortunate are those of us who live in an area of changing seasons, each with its own unique charm.” —Lois Nestel
For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, where our new Curiosity Center kids’ exhibit and Pollinator Power annual exhibit are now open! Call (715) 798-3890 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.