This morning I followed my fox down the hill to the lake. By "followed," I mean I walked next to his footprints, and by "my fox," I only mean the local one who lays dainty beaded necklaces of tracks all over my yard and across my doorstep. Since we haven't had much fresh snow, tracks of many ages were visible. The newest ones seemed to be the tidy foot pads pressed into the smooth snow of my Mukluk prints. Older ones, messy and deep, were made when the snow was fresh and soft. Some tracks show where he floated across the crusty snow, and those were dusted lightly with graupel snow like powdered sugar on gingerbread.
Last week, behind the garage, I found a mess of his tracks around a small lump of leaves covered in snow. Two bright yellow dabs of urine indicated that this was a scent mound, used for marking his territory. Male members of the dog family, Canidae, will use raised leg urination (RLU) to let others in the area know that this territory is taken and defended.
You may think I'm crazy, but I got down on my hands and knees and sniffed the urine. Red fox and gray fox urine each have their own unique scents. Both are slightly skunky, but the red fox smells much sharper and stronger, while the gray fox's scent is mellower. The smell test confirmed that I've been tracking a gray fox. This scent marking is also why I've been referring to my neighbor as "he." By the end of last winter I had noticed enough side-by-side fox trails to be confident that my yard housed a pair of foxes. I don't have enough evidence yet to be sure that the female is still around, but this is the beginning of mating season, so I may know soon.
Back at the lake this morning I found a gray fox highway. Perforating the snow were at least eight different sets of tracks going in many directions along the edge of the ice and up onto shore. Some could be the vixen's tracks, although I don't have a good way to tell since male and female gray foxes are essentially the same size. One of the trails was very different, definitely not a fox.
The odd trail looked like Morse Code, with clumps of dots connected by five-foot long dashes. The dots were tracks, each a little less than three inches long. Five toes dug in asymmetrically above each rounded foot pad. In the troughs, three grooves paralleled the direction of travel. This pattern embodies the playful spirit of an otter running a few steps to push off, and then sliding belly-first across the ice. The grooves were from forelegs, held tight to its sides, and its tail, which acts as rudder both on land and in water. One of the many sets of fox tracks was placed neatly down the center of each otter slide, facing in the opposite direction.
"He has no words, still what he tells about his life is clear..."
This "run, run, slide" is one of my favorite tracking stories, and the one I was hoping to find last week on the opposite shore of Lake Namakagon. I have yet to see the otter making his (or her) tracks, but I have laughed with friends trying to imitate these playful creatures. Mary Oliver also interprets Otter's life through his body language, and in her poem, "Almost a Conversation," she infers:
"He does not own a computer...
He wonders, morning after morning, that the river
is so cold and fresh and alive, and still
I don't jump in."