I haven’t seen mule deer or elk in the forest near my house since last November, but whenever I walk, snowshoe or ski there, I always see something wild despite winter’s icy grip. That something is usually wildlife “sign,” aka tracks.
I love looking for tracks in the wintertime because it’s so easy. After a fresh snowfall you practically trip over these records of an animal’s passage. I’ve seen the trail of a squirrel radiating out from the animal’s home tree in a starburst shape, raven tracks by the dozens where a flock landed, and many tracks whose makers I could only guess at.
The guessing game is part of the winter fun. Good trackers say it’s not just the size and shape of the track itself that matters, but the clues given by the trail formed by a set of tracks. Like tracks, trails have distinctive shapes, like those star-shaped squirrel trails I mentioned.
Just yesterday, I found a coyote’s tracks. I could tell it was a coyote, not just by the dog-shaped tracks, but by the trail, which meandered down into a ravine and up the opposite slope. The trail curved from here to there and yonder, in a shape that said, “Here is a creature following its nose, moving quickly in search of breakfast.” Maybe he found it: In one place, snow had been gouged and mounded, probably where the coyote stopped to dig.
I tell a lot of stories about wildlife, but in that trail an animal told its own tale, in lines as elegant as script. Tracks and trails are a record left behind by an animal’s passage across the landscape. Winter is a wonderful time to hear those stories in snow, written with the touch of a paw.