One snowy morning I took our miniature schnauzer, Abby, outside for her morning toilette in the back yard. The sparkling blanket of the fresh snow was pristine, but for the occasional trail of tiny paw prints. I could tell the squirrel path by its much bigger paw marks and the broad indentations the animal had made as it alternately hopped and sank into the snow.
Each of the marks had one quite distinct edge; the other, delicately drawn, as if by a series of very soft brushes…
Another very delicate set of prints caught my eye—probably those of a field mouse or a vole. The quarter-inch-long impressions led across an unspoiled patch of snow and then simply stopped. No tree, no hole in the snow…just stopped. Looking more closely, I noticed that the last few tracks were flanked symmetrically by two large, subtle depressions in the snow, each about the size of my forearm.
|End of the trail for a bigger critter—a rabbit perhaps -- PHOTO: Susan Barstow|
On further inspection—this is when the chill went up my spine—I saw that each of the marks had one quite distinct edge; the other, delicately drawn, as if by a series of very soft brushes…or feathers! It was then I knew that the last thing the poor little devil had experienced in this life had been the piercing clutch of the owl's talons.
It’s for this ability to record such comings and goings that snow is such an asset to hunters, detectives, anyone who needs to track another creature. Besides the obvious information like the number, size and direction of your quarry, snow tracks can reveal to the trained eye things like the animal’s weight, age, or even if it walked with a limp.
For me, though, it's not so much the practical information snow can provide as it is the narrative, the life-and-death drama, it recounts.
My wife and I were cross-country skiing on fresh snow in northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Wilderness when we came across a set of fresh wolf tracks crossing the ski trail at right angles. When I stopped to look around, I noticed there was another set of tracks about ten yards ahead of me. I edged along and came across five more equally spaced, parallel sets of wolf tracks.
I didn’t know whether to feel happy or sad when I discovered...the tracks of a medium-sized white-tail deer.
I’d heard that these skilled hunters often spread out like this when tracking their prey—an effective way to comb a large area for sights and scents. I didn’t know whether to feel happy or sad when I discovered, between the last two “teeth” of the “comb,” the tracks of a medium-sized white-tail deer.
I was tempted to follow them to see if I could find signs of either prey’s or predators’ success. For some odd reason, my wife wouldn't let me go.
What comings and goings, what living and dying, have you discovered
etched in snow? We'd love to hear about it. C'mon, join the conversation!