Despite the gray skies, despite the chilly wind, I needed a hike. Already, this early winter weather and lengthy darkness has me down. Bike season is over for my sensitive toes, ski season taunts me from just around the corner. I could have curled up on the couch with a book, but I lured myself out to the trail with memories of other times that a walk in the woods has done me good.
An inch of snow covered the grassy, soggy ski trail. Movement felt good, but my mood still clung. Soon, I began noticing tracks: the daisy chain of a grouse’s small steps; the dots and lines of a mouse dragging its tail; the lacy pattern of a shrew’s diagonal walking gait; the funny little half-tunnel of a vole burrowing along the top of the grass.
The large, loping tracks of a fisher made me stop and look. Then, barely ten steps down the trail, the belly-slide marks of an otter made me laugh as I imagined his playful mode of travel.
In summer, the woods bustle with life, but the comings and goings of little feet are hard to decipher in the thick grass and leaves. The first snow primed the forest’s typewriter, and now the paw-and-claw-inked words are preserved for a moment, allowing me to read their stories.
Still, the cabin fever was persistent. Mouse tracks became routine, and above trudging footsteps, my mind turned inward.
Then, out of the corner of my eye…WOLVES! While my thoughts had been elsewhere, my eyes registered the big, four-toed paw prints scuffing the snow across a whole section of trail. I grinned, my mind now alert and senses primed. A quick survey of the scene allowed me to estimate: definitely four, probably five wolves. Mary Oliver’s poem, Bear, comes to mind: “It’s not my track, I say… to no one but myself, since no one is
Maybe you think I should be nervous, walking in wolf-filled woods alone. I am not. Having tracked wolves in several different places (Minnesota, Yellowstone, Wisconsin), and observed them for hours on end (they mostly slept), I am confident that their wildness and skittishness of humans keeps me safe. I am ok with any risk that remains.
Instead of nervous, I am thrilled. I love seeing evidence that such graceful, powerful predators inhabit these woods. I love knowing they are here--running easily, determinedly, playfully through the forest. Perhaps if I had livestock, or dogs, or children I would feel differently. Perhaps that’s why I don’t have them…
When Mary Oliver describes discovering the bear track, she hints at all sorts of reports she’s heard of other people’s bear encounters. Then she goes on to say, “But not one of them told what happened next-I mean, before whatever happens-how the distances light up, how the clouds are the most lovely shapes you have ever seen, how…every leaf on the whole mountain is aflutter.”
After seeing those tracks, I felt alert and alive. For the rest of the hike I peered into the woods. Leaves fluttered. The clouds flushed pink in the setting sun. Nothing else happened. No wolves let me see them.
Too soon, I crossed my own large boot tracks near the trailhead. As I neared my car, I stored this hike away in my memory for use on another day when I need an extra something to lure me out for a walk in the woods.
“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he [or she!] seeks.” – John Muir
For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI, at 13470 County Highway M. The current exhibit, “Deer Camp: A Natural and Cultural History of White-tailed Deer,” opened in May 2013 and will remain open until April 2014.
Find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturalconnections.blogspot.com/.