Monday, February 20, 2012

ETCHED IN WHITE – Life and Death In Snow

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!


Unknown said...

And if you get into the physics of snow and study snow dynamics, it can tell you all kinds of things about the weather. The whole season is recorded there in the layers of snow.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Thanks for the comment, Unknown! Yes, I've read about that. Can't scientists learn about all kinds of earth-changing events -- even from centuries ago -- by digging a core out of a glacier and examining the layers? Fascinating, no?

Emily Brisse said...

Wow, that first photo IS chilling. Definitely the image that will stay with me the longest today. Thanks for sharing!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hi Emily -- Thanks for stopping by and commenting! Yes, chilling's a good word for it. A reminder of the unemotional reality of life for most of earth's creatures.

moonlake said...

My cat was outside last night and he didn't come when I called so I turned on the yard light. I saw something come running across the drive-way it was a timber wolf heading down into our meadow where the deer hang out. Our cat was fine he came in after that.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hey, Moonlake -- I guess we should hope that there are a few feeble deer around for the wolves, so they aren't looking for other critter to your cat! Are wolf sightings rare where you are?
Many thanks for following One Man's Wonder! I hope you'll help spread the word! Thanks.

Post a Comment

Thanks for visiting One Man's Wonder! I'd love to hear your comments on this post or my site in general.
And please stay in touch by clicking on "Subscribe" below.