June 28, 2017

The Tell-tale Tracks

GD3-8-12

Illustration by George Danby

• By John F. Chisholm •

It’s easy to imagine that we live here alone.

There are no other houses in sight.

Sure, there are chickens, cats, dogs, sheep and cows plus my wife and me but otherwise it’s an easy delusion to entertain ― particularly in the winter ― that we’re the sole inhabitants of over 200 hundred acres.

Sure, my wife feeds the birds so we see chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, finches and ― alas! ― starlings, too.  But it isn’t until there’s a fresh snowfall that we see how deluded we are in imagining we’re alone.

Today the morning sun sparkles from an inch of fresh snow.

Our fields are crisscrossed with tracks.  They’re not easily deciphered.  Those that left them were careless of the story left behind.  That’s not their concern.  Worse, I’m not Natty Bumppo.  Figuring out why a red fox spent so much time in one particular area takes a bit of effort.  Finally two drops of blood on the snow and some much smaller tracks ending abruptly resolve the question.  Mice.  The fox was hunting mice.

That brings up one reason tracks are so interesting.  They intersect.

It’s also why tracking can be difficult, at least for me.

Dogs.  Their tracks intersect, too.

In fact, dogs greatly compound the problems of tracking.  My wife and I walk her dogs while I attempt to identify the animals that crossed our path earlier.  Show too much interest in any one area and five Chesapeake Bay Retrievers run back to sniff, snort, paw and pass judgment, thoroughly muddling the tracks of whatever you were trying to identify.  It isn’t helpful.

It’s not so bad if it’s deer tracks.  They’re readily identifiable, together with the scrapes made to expose the grass and fodder beneath the snow.  During rut, the bucks rub the velvet from their antlers.  You’ll see trampled snow surrounding a sapling with the bark hanging in ribbons.  That’s nothing dogs can obscure.  Sometimes it even kills the tree.

If that happens, the signs are still there next spring.

But if it’s smaller game — ermine, grouse or bobcat tracks beside Piper Brook — I have to see them before the dogs alter or erase them outright.  It’s a race.  Who’s going to get to see a set of tracks first?

Today we reach the bottom of the field, our footfalls crunching through the snow.  An entire pack of coyotes came out of the swamp along the logging road and headed northwest.  Wendy and I look around in wonder.  This was a busy spot last night.  Our dogs sniff ecstatically, running along their trail, tails wagging eagerly, noses to the ground.

I shake my head.  I can’t read what they’re smelling.  I have to go by the tracks they’re obscuring.  I look at my wife and smile.  “It’s just not right.”

She gives me a quizzical glance in return.  “What’s not right?”

“Have you ever noticed how those with a certain talent simply assume everyone else possesses the same ability?”

“What?”

“Dogs,” I explain.  “They think humans can smell everything just the way they can.”

Wendy gives me that look women reserve for their husbands.  “I never know what you’re talking about.”

“Never mind.”  I wave it off.  We finish our walk.  The dogs go inside and collapse by the woodstove, delighted to have rolled in the snow, barked at nothing and chased each other in endless games of tag.  I stand on the porch a moment, looking out over our fields.

Now the story told by the tracks is truly complicated.  Not only have mice, bobcats, foxes, coyotes and deer crisscrossed the snow but two humans and apparently a hundred dogs have done the same thing.

I smile.

They all were careless of the stories left behind.

But most importantly, none of them are alone.