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Oddities in the month of February

Posted: February 24, 2012 - 12:02am
The three long toes on the hind foot of a beaver are distinctive. Two smaller toes and the webbing between the toes often do not leave much of a mark. The front feet are much smaller than the hind feet, and often show only four of the five toes.  Photo courtesy of Bob Armstrong
Photo courtesy of Bob Armstrong
The three long toes on the hind foot of a beaver are distinctive. Two smaller toes and the webbing between the toes often do not leave much of a mark. The front feet are much smaller than the hind feet, and often show only four of the five toes.

This had been the winter that wasn’t! On at least one day, the temperatures soared into the fifties. Many days saw temperatures in the forties. The snow alternatively got crusty (at night) and soggy. It became difficult for Parks and Rec hikers to choose a trail for their twice-a-week outings.

We tried the Herbert Glacier trail. It worked fine for skiers, but snowshoers were in for serious ankle-twisting on the unevenly packed snow. Not fun. The Auke Nu trail was pretty good in most places, with only occasional sections of frozen, deep bootprints that are so difficult to walk on; the descent was facilitated by snowshoes, after the sun had softened the snow.

When the group decided to go to Peterson Lake, a few hikers rebelled, thinking that snowshoeing this trail would be as miserable as the Herbert trail. Walkers that had passed when the snow was soft left deep bootprints, and now these had frozen. Some of the would-be hikers, weary of lurching over the frozen bootprints, turned back and went home. The rebellious ones went, instead, to the Eaglecrest area, on a day when the lifts were not running, so the ski-runs were not full of fast traffic.

We wandered around, on and off the trail, enjoying sunshine and peace. Mount Ben Stuart was spectacular: the slanting sun brought the lateral ridges into high relief and framed the snowy twin summits against a backdrop of purple-black cloud.

The snow was firm enough to walk on, but soft enough to show the tracks of a busy animal community. Peripatetic porcupines had ambled here and there, leaving a web of tracks over a wide area. A skinny, flimsy spruce branch whose tip was well-buried in snow had been recently de-barked by a hungry porcupine. It was surprising that a hefty porcupine was evidently able to climb several feet up the spindly, wobbly branch, gnawing all the way.

Red squirrels had made little highways from tree to tree. One was actively moving spruce cones from one hole to another. Snowshoe hares left evidence of their passage. A weasel had bounded down a long meadow, leaping several feet with each bound, neatly placing its hind feet just on top of the prints left by the front feet.

The snow was very deep but in a few places there were openings down to running water. At a couple of these water-holes, we found concentrations of the distinctive tracks of a beaver. We couldn’t believe our eyes, so we tried to make those tracks belong to almost anything else; but in reality, there was no mistaking those prints.

The big mystery is why a beaver would be up there in February. Beavers usually hunker down in their lodges in winter, but this one was unseasonably active. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen beaver activity at Eaglecrest; a few years ago, one burrowed into a streambank and tried to build a little dam. The divide between the Fish Creek drainage and the Hilda Creek drainage lies at Eaglecrest, and when young-adult beavers from lower down in those drainages leave their natal ponds in search of a new home, they may sometimes go uphill. But to find one in February was really weird; perhaps our bizarre weather caused a young adult to start its dispersal earlier than usual.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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