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Track Soup

Wolf

 

Winter tracking is almost too easy. Every fresh snowfall and nature has a clean canvas on which to paint a story. Most stories involve animals trying to find something to eat, animals trying to eat other animals, animals running away from something, and periodically animals sleeping and pooping. That’s pretty much the life of most animals.

 

A fox track is far smaller than a wolf or coyote and is much more elongated. /they also seem to have a cleaner registry between front and back feet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weasel

Weasel tracks are hoppers. Front and back feet look very similar in the snow and are usually just a pair of dots. We have three types of weasels in BC, the long tailed, short tailed and least weasel, in descending order.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Squirrel

 

Squirrel tracks are distinguished from weasel tracks because their hind feet are considerably larger than the front feet. Like the hare, the hind feet can precede the front feet – especially at high speeds.

Grouse feeding on buds

 

Winter food for grouse is scarce. Buds, dried berries, and some coniferous needles make up their diet. Especially hard for them is the lack of access to gravel which they need to ingest for their gizzards. Lacking teeth, they have a muscular organ, the gizzard, that when filled with fine gravel or sand, acts as a grinder for their food.

Deer browse on red osier dogwood

 

Ungulates like deer and moose do not have top teeth, but instead have a tough upper plate, hence, browse by these animals is not a clean cut like when a rodent is browsing or grazing.

The walker of the snow

Snowfall from Frank Ritcey on Vimeo.

 

There is an excellent poem by Charles Dawson Shanly called “The Walker of the Snow” and it comes to mind whenever I am out on a hike and there is more trail than daylight ahead of me.

I am blessed in that I have tramped many of thousands of kilometers across snowy landscapes and know well the feeling that Shanly conveys in this piece. And while I have net actually met a “Walker of the Snow” I have felt his presence before. It is funny though, never does nightfall bring a sense of foreboding to me, instead it is more like a sense of “This is how the world should be.”

If you, however, are caught out in the wilds and you have run out of daylight it might be a good idea to set up camp for the night. Traveling in the dark subjects you to a whole host of hazards, or maybe even a whole host of horrible hazards, that would be far too long to enumerate – but lets go with twisted ankle, stick in the eye, or falling to your death. None of the aforementioned outcomes are particularly good endings to a day of hiking.

Speed on, speed on, good master, the camp lies far away
We must cross the haunted valley before the close of day
How the snowblight came upon me I’ll tell you as we go
Of the blight of the shadow hunter who walks the midnight snow

Through the cold December heavens came the pale moon and the stars
And the yellow sun was sinking behind the purple bars
The snow lay deeply drifted upon the ridges drear
That lay for miles around me and the camp for which we steer

So silent lay the hillside beside the solemn wood
No sound of life or motion to break this solitude
Save the waving of a loose bird with its plaintive note so low
The skating of a red leaf across the frozen snow

Said I, The dark is falling and far the camp must be
But my heart it would be lighter if I had but company
Then I sang and I shouted, keeping measure as I tread
To the harp twang of my snowshoes as they sprang beneath my tread

Far into that valley had I made my lonely way
When a dusky figure joined me in a capuchon of grey
Then I sprang on my snowshoes with a long and limber stride
I hailed the dusky stranger as we traveled side by side

No token of communion gave he by word or look
And a fear chill gathered over me at the crossing of the brook
For I saw by the sickly moonlight as I followed bending low
That the footsteps of the stranger left no marks upon the snow

A fear chill gathered over me, like a shroud upon me cast
As I sank upon a snowdrift where the shadow hunter passed
And the other travelers found me just before the break of day
My dark hair blanched and whitened as the snow in which I lay

They spoke not as they raised me, for they knew that in the night
I had met the shadow hunter, I had withered in his blight
Sancta Maria speed us, the sun is sinking low
Before us lies the valley of the walker of the snow.

One good deed

I believe we should all do at least one good deed in our lifetime (no point in getting carried away with the whole concept). With that in mind, I think I have now done something that will put me over my lifetime quota.

Whilst hiking through the forest, I heard a tree call my name. It was more of a bark than a spoken word, but it called  out none the less. I had passed the tree many times before and it had always remained very arboreal and never interrupted my hike with any form of communication before. But here, it had called my name and I found myself trudging up the hill to where it stood, and had stood for going on a hundred or more years.

“What’s up old man?” I asked,

The tree did not so much as whisper.

“Hmmm,” I pondered out loud. “What could be the situation?”

The situation, was obvious. Barbed wire, wrapped around the tree, as was the way things were done back in the fifties, was now choking the tree – albeit slowly.

Fortunately I always carry my Leatherman with me (along with about 14 kg. of other survival gear) and I went to work on loosening the girdle. Although my hand looked like I had tried to pet an angry bobcat I did manage to loosen the wiry tourniquet of death.

As I trudged back along my way, I thought I could hear the tree sigh, that great sigh, like when that pair of all too tight blue jeans come off at the end of a day. It may have just been the wind through the branches but I will say it was a sigh of relief.

A Big Big Year

In the birding world a lot of folks take part in a Big Year – this is a year where they try to get as many species as possible. I’ve started a competition called a Big Big Year, where people try to get (and by ‘get’ I mean see and photograph) as many of the various animal species that reside in an area – in our case, the boundary is the great province of BC.

We have a Facebook page here and anyone is free to join.

Here is a short compilation of about a quarter of the species I found last year.

The Big Big Year from Frank Ritcey on Vimeo.

How we almost died on the solstice

I had taken a bit of flack over my invite that I had put out recently for any that wanted to join me on a longish hike out through the hills north of LacDuBois. The common complaint was that “the hike sounded too hard” and that “I expected people to carry survival gear.”

As it was, the hike was attended by a small, but hardy group, and the intended effect of my invite was accomplished. Unfortunately, these days, too many people feel that everything should be inclusive of all. The fact of the matter is: some of us do not have the capabilities that others have. I could no more go on an ice climb with my friends Mandy and Andrew nor could I hope to ever keep up with Chance when he does his one day Battle Mountain climb. Some people don’t understand this and will show up for hikes that they are ill-prepared for. I have taken the stance that I have to describe a hike as being twice as hard as it is to weed out those that might show up to something that they can’t handle.

As to carrying a survival pack – that goes without saying. When do I take my pack with me? Pretty much any time I am going out for a walk, whether I plan on being out for half an hour or half a day. No one plans to get lost, or plans to have an accident so you shouldn’t just take a pack with you when you are planning on having some misadventure. Now I know a lot of you will pooh-pooh the idea, but watch the newscasts when the SAR teams are packing some hapless soul off of the mountains. How many of the rescuees have packs with them? How many were prepared?

But I had set out to tell you about how Karma and I almost died on the solstice but the preceding rant was to set the stage for the story:

The winter solstice of 2017 started out with a heavier than predicted snowfall and I had set out to retrieve my trail cameras from the mountains at a much later than normal departure time. Sloth was my muse that morning and it was almost noon before I headed out on the trail. I knew it was going to be close for me to get back to the vehicle before nightfall. I had about 10K to do and the snow was piling up fast and it would be a slow go. I had my survival gear with me and had left word with Raven as to where I was going and when I should be back (before nightfall) so I felt confident in heading out.

A short ways into the hike I could feel my knees starting to act up. I had blown out both my knees on the Iditabike back in the late 80’s and, when stressed, they periodically flare up. I knew I should slow my pace but, being the shortest day of the year, I really had no choice but to press on.

I collected my first cameras from the valley floor and started my way up a steeper-than-I-remembered mountain. The going was tough on both Karma and I as she was icing up on her paws and I was falling down on my butt – owing to the steepness of the terrain and the deep snow which hid all types of obstacles below. But it was a good hike and I enjoyed being out in an area with no other humanoid tracks. Deer were plentiful in the area and I kept an eye out for wolf tracks as I was hopeful to catch a wolf or two on my cameras. The wolf tracks I did find were about a day old but you could see where they were covering a lot of area in their search for deer.

By the time I had reached the top of the mountain, the weak light was fading fast. I knew I was not going to make it back at my scheduled time so I sent a text out on my cell to Raven. There is no cell service in this area, but periodically, you can hit a bounce and your phone should send the message when service is established. I took a good drink of water, ate a couple of chocolates to get my sugar levels up, and gave Karma a couple of biscuits to help her along as well. I then set out at a better pace down an old skid trail which offered the safest, if not most direct route, off of the mountain.

Reaching the foot of the mountain, the light was long gone and a dark 3K of hiking was in front of us. Fortunately the valley floor is relatively flat and open and with a couple of short-cuts I knew it was only an hour or so to the car. Karma was starting to tire as her feet were giving her more trouble and she would often lie down to chew the ice-balls from her toes. We crossed through an open meadow and were approaching a thick, dark, forested stretch and I thought I should stop and find my headlamp before making my way through an area where one stands a good chance of getting “poked-in-the-eye-with-a-sharp-stick.”

I searched through my pack and found a great variety of things, but my headlamp was nowhere to be found. I seemed to recall a similar lamp sitting on my desk back home and cursing my luck I started to repack all of my gear which I had heaped up on the snow in front of me. It was then I heard them. Back behind, maybe a kilometer or so, a pair of wolves howled long, low, and eerily. The hairs on the back of my neck crawled. I stuffed my pack with greater urgency.

The pair howled again as in some haunting duet.

“Were they closer?”

“Of course they were!” My over-active imagination immediately saw them gathering the troops for the attack.

Just as I buckled down my pack – a third wolf howled, this time about 300M away and slightly ahead and above us on a small hillside. The further wolves sounded again, and this time it wasn’t my imagination, they were closer. It is amazing how much more energy one has when one is in the company of flesh-eaters. Especially when one’s own flesh might be the meal-de-jour.

Now I know that statistically your chances of being eaten by wolves is so ridiculously low that it is hardly worth thinking about. I know that. The primeval part of my brain that is in charge of keeping me alive doesn’t know that and it was pumping a good deal of adrenaline into my legs and I was amazed at how our pace had picked up.

The pack followed us along with an occasional howl – and I am sure it was to say “Screw the high-cholesterol – I’m going to eat the fat guy!” Consequently Karma and I made it out in record time.

We were not eaten, nor were we ever in any real danger of being eaten. It was great though to go through something like that where your only focus is, in the words of that great 70s disco song, “Staying alive, staying alive, oooh, ooooh, oooh, aaah staying alive. . .”

 

 

Tracking 101

The conditions were ideal for tracking today.

A deer, probably a buck mule deer given the drag marks, and the location of the tracks – but it could be whitetail.

This is a coyote, given its size (too small for a wolf, too large for a fox) and the track when I followed it did not show the characteristic halo the the wolves around here are now sporting with their longer hair.

Muskrat tracks – tail drag too small for a beaver and the tracks are going in and out of a muskrat lodge.

Deer mouse tracks up the middle (characteristic tail drag and hopping action). Wolf track to the left and a deer track running from right to left.

This is a wolf track – I’ll get some better ones next weekend. I followed a pack for about 2 kilometers and they looked as though they were just trying to cover a lot of ground. The deer had better be nervous.

Another wolf track.

 

This is a running grouse (probably a ruffed given its location). A waddling grouse will have the tracks almost on top of one another. (see next image)

 

Last track is of a bobcat

The lungs of the earth

I was walking in the snow the other day and a leaf caught my attention for awhile. The veins reminded me of a representation of a lung. I thought, “How appropriate.” Leaves, in all their thousands of millions of forms are just that – the lungs of mother earth. I would hope that if I had bugs walking around my lungs that they would take care when doing anything that might affect such an important structure.