Friday, December 16, 2011

Tracking Stories

With fresh snow on the ground I am eager to get out and read the stories of the forest. The deer are following their same patterns, the squirrels are frantic as usual, and a curious vole has been exploring my waterfront, leaving a trail of miniature walking footprints. The foxes are hunting, and in the dainty trails woven through hemlocks, along fallen logs, to and from the compost pile, and zigzagging down the driveway, I hear poet Mary Oliver give my wild neighbors a voice…“Listen, says fox, it is music to run over the hills” (Straight Talk from Fox in Red Bird)

Music…reading…both are wonderful metaphors for animal tracking. These recent snows are an excellent tracking medium, and noticing tracks can make the woods come alive. On a recent cloudy afternoon (we’ve had so many of them!) I took a friend exploring in the woods on Lake Namakagon. We tromped directly to the shoreline, drawn by water’s universal pull. Others had gone this direction not long before.

A foot-wide swath of heart-shaped hooves confirmed that many deer escaped hunting season with their tenderloins intact. Neatly pressed into the wet snow down the center of the deer trail was a narrow line of square-ish, four-toed prints. Tiny claws had made dimples in the snow. Each track equaled the length of my pointer finger to just above my second knuckle. Rarely remembering a ruler, I often measure tracks with body parts, or my lip balm. Had these tracks been a little longer, reaching to just below my second knuckle, I would have guessed their maker to be a red fox. I often see one at dusk along County Highway D not far from here. Instead, these smaller tracks, with their almost cat-like appeal, probably belong to a gray fox.

Tracking is always a “probably” kind of game. Any animal can do any gait, and foot size overlaps among many species. While habitat, behavior, scat, kill sites, and many other clues can help with identification, there is always an element of uncertainty.  The sense of a mystery that might not be solved is what keeps me hooked.

The next tracks we found reinforced the uncertainty factor. Large (as long as my entire pointer finger) and with five toes arranged asymmetrically, these tracks bounded along the bank in the 2x pattern. This is a common track pattern in the Mustelidae or weasel family, and we can find ½ inch tracks from the least weasel all the way up to 4 inch tracks from the river otter and fisher arranged two-by-two down trails in this area. Each set of tracks is the result of the back feet landing exactly in the prints left by the front feet. Squirrels can also leave tracks in this 2x pattern, especially in deep snow, but their tracks are perpendicular to the direction of travel, while weasel prints are at an angle to the direction of travel.

Being so close to the lake, I expected the animal to suddenly break into a slide at any moment. River otters will often slide over leaves, mud, ice, or snow, leaving long, foot-wide troughs between short groups of tracks. I walked faster as we followed the trail over logs, down near alders on the shore, and under balsam fir branches. Not once did they break from the 2x pattern. So, in my notebook, I would record these large weasel tracks as “likely fisher.” These large, dark brown weasels, with a reputation for being inquisitive and ferocious, are an important predator of porcupines in the region. I see fisher tracks regularly and even spotted one from my bedroom window last winter. Hunters often share stories of seeing fishers while sitting quietly.

As the tracks of the fisher faded in the thin snow under thick hemlocks, we turned our tracking eyes to other things. Frozen jelly fungus, vibrant orange with a little snow cap, practically glowed on a fallen log. Tiny birch seeds dotted the snow’s crust, using the smooth surface to disperse farther from their parent tree. The strobili (reproductive structure) of one little green club moss released a bright cloud of yellow spores onto the white drift.

The stories of nature are not confined to animal trails; every object adds a few notes to the symphony or leads to a new chapter of discovery. Red-cheeked and warm from the walk, practically dancing with joy at the chance to read new stories, I have to say I agree with the fox: it is music to travel over the hills.

For over 44 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. The new exhibit, The Joy of Birds: Feathers in Focus opened in May, 2011. Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Also discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot,

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