There’s a school of thought that says snow covers the ground, hiding what’s underneath. On the contrary, snow is like a magnifying glass, a window on wildlife that we almost always miss in the ‘uncovered’ months.
Hiking in the uncovered months it can seem that the forest is empty. We walk along talking, jingling, stumbling, yelling ‘hey bear.’ It’s like we send out a noisy shield, an invisible warning, “Get out of the way, here they come!” Unless you get down and look really close and very carefully, tracks can be hidden. It can seem like there is nothing out there.
We may still make too much noise in the winter but the covering of snow makes it clear we are not alone. In fact, it’s obvious that the forest is a busy, busy place even in the snowy cold. Take elk, for example.
In the summer they travel the tops of the surrounding mountains, but in winter, when life up high gets difficult, they come down to where we live. As big as they are, they move through the forest quickly, quietly. If you want to see any, you must move stealthy. It also helps to be lucky; they like to roam. The lack of daylight doesn’t hinder them. Even when darkness absorbs most of the day, while we hide in our homes, they keep moving.
Sometimes they move alone. But mostly, they move in herds leaving tracks all over the snowy hillside. There’s safety in numbers. One afternoon, we startled the herd and counted fifteen trotting along through the Ponderosa pines.
People who don’t spent much time in the forest or whose idea of the wild woods is the thin margin between trails in a suburban park, can have a Disney-like attitude about life in the wild. It’s the Thumper and Bambi mentality that all animals live in harmony as friends, singing and dancing. The only real evil, the enemy, is when “man is in the forest.”
The truth is that for one animal to survive, another must perish. It may not be harmony but it is balance. For example, mountain lions need a deer every week to survive. Wolves and bears are not vegetarians. Ravens, crows and even the mighty bald eagle are all scavengers living off the results of another’s kill. A walk through the hills behind our house shows just where all this has taken place. The dog brings back bones all the time. One can’t help but wonder at what drama played out. Where’s the rest of whatever that leg was attached to?
This summer I noticed a couple of rabbits on the property. With the snow it is pretty easy to see there are more than a couple of rabbits around. Unlike in cartoons the rabbit and the fox aren’t buddies. The tracks of both weave through the trees. I wondered if the fox ever caught up with the rabbit. Maybe my next hike will show the tale.
Of course, the snow also allows you to follow the largest, most dangerous predator. I spied these boot tracks on the mountain.
As I followed the trail, I could tell it was a fearless hunter. The tracks wove through thick pines and over open fields. They climbed steep hills. I could read where they stopped to survey the surroundings, perhaps planning the next hunt.
Coming out from behind a stand of young pines I found the owner of the tracks waiting for me, ready for another adventure.
Oh, and Happy New Year!!