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Column: The Creatures We Never Glimpsed

Willis Wood, of Weathersfield, follows the tracks of a bobcat toward a brook during a tracking excursion on the 318-acre Weathersfield Conservation Area last February. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Willis Wood, of Weathersfield, follows the tracks of a bobcat toward a brook during a tracking excursion on the 318-acre Weathersfield Conservation Area last February. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

Strafford

Bitter cold and winter doldrums may mean we prefer to hunker indoors under incandescent light, but I always feel better when I force myself outside. People in the Upper Valley understand this paradox because they have chosen to live where the seasons are so clearly defined, but there are always days when it takes more than Yankee wisdom to do what is good for you. Two Saturdays in a row, my wife and I signed on for hikes in the snowy woods, led by someone who not only knows the trails but also, like another in our group, is especially gifted in tracking animals. Our purpose was to learn what we could while we stretched our legs.

The first hike took us along the northernmost miles of Strafford’s Cross Town Trail. There were five inches of fresh snow on top of a firm base, so we didn’t need snowshoes to make progress. From the trail, we took occasional jags to see ancient cellar holes, some dating as far back as the 18th century, high farms abandoned and overgrown with forest, and now the habitat of wild animals. As we walked, we saw the prints of deer, moose, fisher cats, snowshoe hares, squirrels, mice, voles, weasels, foxes and partridges. A coyote joined our trail for the final mile and stayed ahead of us, probably just out of sight. The summary ease of my list is misleading because it suggests that animals always leave clear prints, distinctive as signatures; but the truth is that there is a lot of mystery to tracking. An animal’s footprints will vary with how it is moving — whether it is meandering or trotting or bounding — and time elapsed and the depth of the snow can distort the edges of what might have been a clear print. We learned the best way to be sure is to follow a trail for a while before deciding, and we heard a story from one in our group who once had followed what he thought was a fisher cat for over a mile until the tracks disappeared through an ice hole in a pond, making the animal an otter.

Our second hike a week later headed in the opposite direction and eventually led to a frozen swamp in Vershire. A warm mid-week had melted much of the snow until the weather changed and froze what was left into a crust that was firm except where water ran beneath. A thin dusting of overnight snow made recent prints show well, but the older ones were much more difficult to see. Still, we saw evidence of hare, coyote, squirrel, deer, vole and, in one spot, a perfect wing print left by a landing partridge, a snowy outline that looked like the wing of an angel on a chancel window. As we crossed the frozen swamps, we saw moose scat and several abandoned beaver dams stretching the width of a football field, breached and drained and a little like the stone walls of a deserted farm. On the far side of the swamp we followed a wildlife trail used by a bear in the summer, where it marked its territory by standing upright and gouging trees with its claws and teeth and by rubbing its back. When we looked closely, we could see strands of hair, snagged in the bark. There were also signs left by moose, trees that had been browsed at eye level and saplings worn smooth by antlers.

Both days were very cold with a wind that would kick up and make us tug our hats a little tighter over our ears, and the only way to stay warm was to keep moving. We returned home hungry and tired, but exhilarated by what we had seen — never actual animals, but always the clear evidence that they were abundant and connected in a complicated food chain. They needed no human help other than neglect, and as we passed by in the snow, they must have been watching and listening and patiently waiting for us to pass by.

A day or two in the woods is good for the soul. You see that there is more going on than the rise and fall of the stock market, the lobbying of the National Rifle Association, and the color stories hyping the Super Bowl. In the swamp the three abandoned beaver dams were something like the ancient cliff dwellings of the Anasazi. When their food ran out, the beavers simply moved and kept going until they found a promising outlet stream to dam and turn into a brimming pond to serve as their home until it no longer could. The cellar holes told a similar story of families who had sought high ground to clear for agriculture or sheep. They cut trees, pulled the stumps and carried the stones they turned up with plowing to the sides of fields to make walls; and they lived there until the soil tired out or the demand for wool for the industrial mills slackened. Then they moved on.

Most of the cleared land of 19th-century Vermont has reverted to forest, and while it is sad for me to see the hard work of another man disappear, who is to say which time is better? They are just different. The bears that had disappeared from the shrinking forests are now back. The turkeys, too, gone for so long, now abound. The human lesson is to humbly learn our place in the grand picture. Scientists disagree on the exact time the first humans came to the Northeast and disagree on the precise route they took, but today that history seems to matter less than learning how to live in harmony with the land and its creatures. For a hint on how this works, you can leave your house on a winter day and take a walk into the deep woods to see how the animals do it.

Jonathan Stableford lives in Strafford.