The moonlight cast shadows along the frozen creek, whose bank held a sporadic growth of birch trees. The bare branches in shadow lent a medieval feel to the night. The two inches of fresh snow covering the ice danced with sparkles, a bed of stars broken by the wolf track.
The ice and snow absorbed the gurgle of the stream beneath, broken only by the occasional openings in the ice over fast water, the wolf track making a wide berth around them.
Wolves were not the purpose of my night travels but they lent a sense of companionship as we both headed upstream, the tracks so fresh I would pause the crunch of my steps to listen, might I hear the wolf making his way into the night.
The presence of river otter was my mission, hoping to see the tell-tale signs of their slides as they darted down an opening in the ice for a chance at a fish dinner. I was still doing some trapping then, and I was trying to determine if enough otters were using the drainage to allow taking some. But more than anything, I wanted to come around one of the winding curves and witness otters making a dash, followed by a belly slide in the snow.
Ever since seeing the evidence of the otters making their way in this manner, I’ve wanted to see it firsthand. Thus far, it has eluded me, but I figure I’ll eventually beat the odds and share, for at least a moment, what I imagine is these fierce predators making fun in their relentless travels to survive.
Winter has been a part of life for me for 61 years, and I haven’t missed a winter yet. I doubt I ever will. Oh, I’ll grumble about it around the end of February, I suppose like everyone else, but I wouldn’t want to miss some of the best times to be in the outdoors.
The coming of winter — and winter for me is defined by a snow cover, not by a calendar — pulls open the curtain of nature’s dramatic stage for all who care to attend. Not that the drama is isolated to winter and snow cover, but for all but the most expert trackers and naturalists, which I am not, winter snow cover highlights them in deep relief.
When hare populations peak in Southcentral Alaska, with those peaks come lynx and birds of prey, notably gray owls and some northern goshawks. Early one morning many years ago, I was the first person to drive down a back road covered in a couple of inches of snow. A set of hare tracks had started across the road, and halfway across they stopped, and there was no rabbit sitting in them.
Curious, I stopped to examine the tracks and saw the wing-tip marks in the snow that evidenced a large bird of prey, most likely an owl, had swooped in and snatched the rabbit into the air, gone, as though it was never there.
It was easy to play out the event in my mind, the unsuspecting hare making its way to early breakfast, then suddenly soaring through the air clutched in sharp talons. Instead of having breakfast, it was breakfast.
Not as many years ago, Christine and I were walking along another frozen creek. Along the bank on the other side there was an otter track leading out of a break in the ice and up a slight hill, where it ended. It was peculiar enough that we crossed the creek to investigate.
What we saw, to this day, still seems unbelievable, but we saw it. Three feet to either side of the otter tracks, where they ended, were wing-tip impressions in the snow from what had to have been a bald eagle. Eagles aren’t known to carry off a fish or animal weighing more than about 10 pounds. A typical otter is much heavier, and it seems even an immature river otter would weigh more than that. Never mind that otters are vicious fighters and tough as wolverines.
But there it was, the hard evidence that the otter was swept away. We still talk about what a fight that must have been. We don’t know who won — maybe the eagle dropped it, maybe not — but it is quite an image to think about.
Just the other day, snow had been falling for a few hours in an area I have been watching. A trickle of a stream ran through an area of thick, second-growth cover, broken with muskeg swamp interspersed, and where a few coho salmon come to spawn. I suspected bears would come to the stream for the fish, and I wanted to get some photos. But I hadn’t seen any, and the terrain didn’t lend itself to close scrutiny for bear tracks.
The snow was still falling when I made my way to the trickle that bubbled through a culvert under the road, and right there, there were bear tracks. I had my answer, and that will drive a bit more judicious effort to secure the photos.
Whether one is a hunter, trapper or a wildlife lover who wants to know what lives in the shadow world of predators and small creatures that leave scant evidence of their passage, snow cover opens a window into the heart and soul of a place. For us mortals who lack the sensory skills of the creatures we share the planet with, tracks in the snow tell the story.
The wolf track continued north in my direction for a mile or so and turned west into a flat of muskeg and willow shrub, broken with small ice-covered ponds. Wonder what that wolf is doing, I thought as I turned to follow the track.
It hadn’t occurred to me that I would see something I had hoped for most of my adult life. I had read about it and had others tell me of their experience, but I didn’t have in-person confirmation. The wolf’s track turned into five wolf tracks within yards of entering the flat. The tracks all broke off from what had appeared to be a lone animal.
How a pack of wolves can step in the leader’s tracks for miles defies description, the sort of thing one must see to believe. The snow made that possible, a highlight of my outdoor life.
There are stories to be read when brilliant white blankets the land. They are written in nature’s language, maybe the original form of communication — tracks.