Incident in a Beech Wood
By Tamia Nelson
January 12, 2010
It was the night before the winter solstice, a night so cold that ice sheathed even the swiftest reaches of The River in the Narrows, where hemlocks press hard against the bank before straggling up the steep shoulder of the encroaching hill, their numbers diminishing with each foot you climb, until you pass the last evergreen sentry and find yourself standing in a beech wood. I've said it was cold, and it was. Bitingly cold. Finger‑ and cheek‑numbing cold. And quiet. The night was as still as The River was swift. No breeze disturbed the copper‑colored leaves that cling tenaciously to the branches in the beech wood, not even on the crest of the ridge, where the only sounds were the grumble of rushing water against ice and the barely discernible mutter from a distant cascade.
Suddenly, faint footfalls broke the silence, as hurrying paws scuffled through the thin carpet of new snow and padded over the firm crust beneath. Soon a second nocturnal wanderer joined the first. He moved faster still, weaving nimbly through the little wood, dodging the rotting windfalls that are all that remain of trees which were young back when Henry Ford was luring workers to Detroit with the princely offer of five dollars a day.
Then the woods exploded in a wild melee. Jaws snapped. Fur flew. Hooves crashed. Sphincters loosened in fear. In all, five creatures collided in the forest of that frigid night. And nearly as quickly as fate had brought them together, it parted them. Once again, only the distant sibilants of moving water broke the stillness of the beech wood on the little hill.
How do I know all this? I wasn't present when the drama unfolded. In fact, I was fast asleep. But the next morning found me following the track of a fox through the woods. I'd already stalked his spoor for a mile as he traversed the ridgeline, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. We're old friends. I'd seen him many times before the day in question, and he'd seen me. I'd even visited his den. But he'd moved house recently, and I wasn't sure where his new home lay. That's why I was following his trail. I certainly didn't reckon on stumbling across…
A Scene of Battle
But that's exactly what I did. The fox had led me a merry dance along the ridge. Because he is small and I am not, he could go straight through brushy tangles and under deadfalls that forced me to detour. That's why, when his tracks led through a maze of toppled trees, I headed around to the west, climbing toward the crest of the ridge, confident I could pick up my quarry's trail on the other side of the maze. Then I caught sight of a small smear of bare earth in a sheltered hollow below me. It looked like it might be the mouth of a den, so I turned back toward The River. As I approached, however, I spotted a place where the snow cover had been churned up, just a little further down the slope. So I continued on. I'd seen a family of deer near here in late summer — a doe and two fawns. There was deer sign everywhere now. Some of the tracks were old, but others were new. Perhaps I'd stumbled on the family's winter quarters.
About this time, I picked up the trail of the fox again. It entered the little clearing from the north. But the fox hadn't been alone. I also found the tracks of another Canoe Country denizen: a fisher. This wasn't a complete surprise. I'd tracked a pair of fishers through the hemlocks on the lower slope just the other day, and the spoor I now saw looked like that left by the larger member of the pair — the male, presumably. My curiosity was well and truly whetted. I retraced my steps back to the bare patch of earth that I thought might be the mouth of a den. It wasn't. Instead, it marked the place where a deer had bedded down in the night. Here's what I saw:
My gauntlet mitt gives the scale. You can just make out the curved outline of the deer's back in the snow on the right. The bare ground marks the places where the deer's tucked‑up legs had rested.
Now I had evidence that no less than three animals had passed this way since the last snowfall: a deer, a fisher, and a fox. So I widened my search, casting about for any sign that others had been here. And I hadn't gone more than a few steps before I found two more deer beds. They looked like they'd been occupied as recently as the night just past, and their close proximity suggested that this little hollow might indeed be the winter quarters of the family I'd seen earlier in the year. A few steps further on, and I found the trail of the fox once more. It continued south along the ridge. I also discovered the track of the fisher, now headed off to the southwest. The three deer, it seemed, had gone in yet another direction, moving southeast, down toward a dense tangle of hemlock, beech, maple, and birch.
Clearly, something out of the ordinary had happened here. But what, exactly? I needed more information, and to that end I unlimbered both notebook and camera before quartering the little hollow and its environs from every point of the compass. As a famous investigator once observed, "It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data." I was now bent on…
Reconstructing the Events…
Of the night before, but I wasn't going to make the error of speculating in the absence of hard information. I'd taken great care where I put my feet earlier, and I was glad I had. The animals' tracks were still exactly as I'd found them, unsullied by my own clumsy spoor. Here's the sketch that I drew in my journal at the conclusion of my investigation:
Penciled arrows give the North and show the way to The River. I've since superimposed colored arrows to highlight the movements of the cast of characters, as revealed by their intersecting (and sometimes overlapping) tracks. Don't be confused my choice of colors. Though the fox has a reddish coat, I've used red to distinguish the movements of the fisher. That color seems more in accord with his well‑deserved sanguinary reputation.
In any case, the tracks of fox and fisher met at a point just east (and downslope) of the deer beds. This was the place which earlier caught my eye, the place where the snow had been churned up. (I labeled it "CLASH SITE" in my notes.) The encounter between the two nocturnal predators was frenzied but bloodless. The first photo below sets the scene:
I was facing north when I shot this, and the light wasn't ideal. Still, the disturbed snow preserved the tracks of both fox and fisher, as well as several indistinguishable skid marks. Now here are two closer views, the second one annotated to distinguish the actors in the drama:
Again, the blue lines and arrows show the movements of the fox; the red, the movements of the fisher. And this close‑up compares their pug marks:
The story so far? The fox and fisher meet and tussle, their bowels and bladders letting loose as the adrenaline takes hold. (The snow was stained by dribbles of urine and faint smears of excrement.) Neither combatant seriously injures the other, however. But the incident isn't over yet. The row wakens the sleeping deer, who shoot up from their beds. The one closest to the skirmish — occupying "DEER BED #1" in my sketch (above) — thrashes about furiously as she struggles to her feet, kicking snow far and wide:
That's my gauntlet mitt in the photo, by the way. And the deer in BED #2 is equally quick off the mark:
But the occupant of the third bed isn't so nimble. She lumbers up heavily, leaving deep impressions in the snow:
Imagine the scene: Flashing hooves, steam snorting from flared nostrils, bleats of alarm. No wonder it's too much for the startled fisher, who loses no time in fleeing the scene along a path already well‑trodden by the deer in earlier days:
Abandoning their habitual path to the fisher, the three deer all take off in another direction, crossing in front of the frantic fox, who's also headed south. To the deer, it must seem as if they've picked up a relentless pursuer. Their bowels empty in a spasm of fear, but they turn and stand their ground, pawing the snow, stamping their feet, and letting the fox know in no uncertain terms that he's in for a hard time if he ventures closer:
One deer is particularly vigorous in defying the now thoroughly addled fox:
Sensibly, the beleaguered predator shears off, while the deer turn and move downslope toward the dense hemlock grove along The River:
And then, as quickly as it began, the action is over. Did too much happen too fast? OK. Here's a summary:
- A fox and a fisher surprise one another near the ridge top, and…
- A bloodless skirmish follows.
- Their tussle wakens three sleeping deer, who…
- Shoot up from their snowy beds.
- The fox and fisher part company, with…
- The fisher rushing away to the southwest, while the…
- Deer head southeast, just ahead of the…
- Fox, who's also fleeing the scene, hard on their hooves.
- Now the deer turn on the fox and warn him off, whereupon…
- The fox veers away, and…
- The deer drift into the dense woods near The River.
- Peace returns to the forest.
What a story! And it was written in the snow for any sharp‑eyed traveler to read. But only if he took the time to unravel the plot. That's the catch, isn't it? The white pages of the winter woods are open to all. But as the legendary sleuth whom I quoted earlier once cautioned would‑be investigators, it's not enough to see. You must also observe. And that's not as simple as it sounds. So here are…
A Few Tips
To begin with, keep in mind that tracking isn't just about identifying and interpreting animals' pug marks. Other sign is equally important. Urine and scat have their stories to tell, too, as do scuffed earth, claw marks on tree trunks, and gnawn bark. Nor is that all. There are even more rules to this game:
- Keep your distance from wildlife; there's no need for close pursuit
- Watch where you put your feet: it's easy to obliterate tracks
- Leave Fido at home. He can't be expected to watch where he puts his feet, can he?
- Always carry the Ten Essentials
- Be extremely careful if you venture out onto ice
- Make a record of all you see; your notebook and camera are your best friends
Most of this is self‑evident, to be sure, but some of the points are important enough to bear repeating. Winter is a harsh and dangerous time for wildlife — and for would‑be wildlife‑watchers, as well. Food and shelter are precious commodities, obtained at great cost. Further stressing wild creatures by forcing them to move about unnecessarily isn't doing them any favors. So keep your distance if you cross paths with any of the forest's permanent residents. It's their home, after all. You're just a guest. Behave like one. Binoculars or a camera with a long telephoto lens will bring you as close as you need to get to any wild animal, and the camera will capture a permanent record, as well.
You can't theorize without data, right? Make every effort to avoid treading on tracks, scat, and other sign. Expect to log a good few miles in your search, too. Gear up for traveling in the winter woods, and be cautious when trekking cross‑country. New‑age crampons like Yaktrax are light and compact. They can be stowed in your rucksack in readiness for the time when you have to negotiate an icy slope. And while we're talking about ice… Use extreme caution every time you set foot on a frozen pond or bay. Farwell's series on crossing iced‑over waterways has good advice for all backcountry travelers:
- On Thin Ice: Is It Safe?
- On Thin Ice: Stepping Out
- On Thin Ice: Breaking Through — Self‑Rescue and Beyond
Finally, if you're really serious about deciphering the texts written on the pages of the winter woods, be sure to keep a journal. Take lots of photos, too, and make sketches whenever the opportunity presents itself. Never assume you can come back later and find things just as you left them. You can't. A case in point: The day after I documented the encounter I've just described, a heavy snow blanketed the region. When I next returned to the scene, the story of the fox and the fisher had been entirely erased from the little hollow in the beech wood. It was just as if they'd never passed that way.
Of course, your notes and photos are useless if you can't interpret them. So while you're at it, get yourself a good book on animal tracks and sign. I can recommend Olaus J. Murie's A Field Guide to Animal Tracks, as well as Donald and Lillian Stokes' A Guide to Animal Tracking and Behavior. Donald Stokes' A Guide to Nature in Winter is also helpful. (There's more about these field guides, and many others as well, in "Nature's an Open Book: The Living World.")
That's it. So what are you waiting for? Come on! The game's afoot!
Winter may put an end to paddling in much of Canoe Country, but it opens new vistas for exploration. There are plenty of dramatic tales being written in the winter woods right now. You'll have to learn how to read what's recorded on the pages first, though. Sound difficult? It's not. Just give it a try. Pick up the thread of a story and follow each twist and turn in the plot as you travel over the snow. But be warned: You have to walk the talk here. That's the only way you'll make sense of the wildcountry palimpsest. The good news? It's a journey well worth taking — and the stories you discover will make great winter reading.
Too busy to go outside today? Want to do some vicarious tracking in preparation for the real thing? Then join Tamia for a walk on the wild side, in "Making Tracks."
Copyright © 2010 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.