FAIRBANKS - Mara Bacsujlaky was skijoring around Creamer's Field when she saw what looked like a brown clump on the side of the trail.
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"I thought it was a hat that somebody had dropped," Bacsujlaky said on Monday. "I skied close to it to see if I could pick it up and when the dogs veered over to check it out it reared up and bared it's ugly yellow teeth."
Neither Bacsujlaky or her two dogs, Hershey and Frosty, knew what to make of it. Later, officials determined it was a muskrat, an animal not usually seen there in the winter.
Bacsujlaky first thought it was a woodchuck, even though she knew it should be hibernating by now. A few of the rodents are known to inhabit Creamer's Field and with low snow conditions and a warmer-than-normal winter, Bacsujlaky figured this one might be staying up past its bedtime.
But with her dogs - and whatever it was baring it's teeth and hissing - both freaking out, Bacsujlaky didn't hang out to get a closer look. She urged her dogs past the rodent and was glad they obeyed before trying to take a chunk out of it, or vice versa.
Bacsujlaky sent out a note on the Sunday afternoon sighting on the Alaska Skijoring and Pulk Association listserve, telling fellow skijorers to keep an eye out for a wild woodchuck on the trails at Creamer's Field.
When Mark Ross, the education coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, heard about it, he was immediately skeptical. Ross, a naturalist whose office is in the Creamer's Field Farmhouse Visitor Center, is the unofficial woodchuck watcher at Creamer's Field. He keeps track of the rodents when they awake in the spring and keeps an eye on them each summer.
Figuring chances were better that it was a porcupine or confused beaver, Ross called Bacsujlaky and quizzed her about the encounter.
Then Ross did what any naturalist would do - he went out and looked for tracks.
Sure enough, Ross found where Bacsujlaky had run into the rodent and he and fellow naturalist Mike Taras, an education specialist at the Department of Fish and Game, tracked it 300 yards through the snow almost to the edge of College Road in front of the Department of Fish and Game offices. The rodent appeared to be getting plenty to eat, reported Ross.
"He left a poop trail for 300 yards," said Ross. "He'd stop every 50 yards and eat some barley grass under the snow. We found one place where he slept for quite a while because there was a little ice bowl in the snow, like a moose bed."
It was Taras who actually found the animal hunkered down in the snow.
"I was sweeping my foot through the snow and my foot came into contact with it," said Taras. "It jumped out of the snow."
As was the case with Bacsujlaky, the rodent surprised Taras by rearing up and baring its teeth.
Ross and Taras were able to herd the rodent, which they quickly identified as a muskrat, into a cooler that Ross commandeered from a Fish and Game lab.
"We caught him right before he crossed College Road," Ross said.
Muskrat typically live in the water and this one most likely came from one of the ponds on Creamer's Field, he said.
"Maybe he's getting froze out," said Ross. "If the ponds freeze solid to the bottom he's gotta leave."
It's unusual to see a muskrat in the summer months, much less the winter, he said.
"I've never seen muskrat tracks out in the winter," Ross said.
Bacsujlaky was surprised to hear it was a muskrat and not a woodchuck.
"That was a big muskrat," she said.
Ross and Taras released the muskrat into an open section of the Chena River behind Pioneer Park near Peger Road.
As for the muskrat's chances of survival in its new home, Ross said "they're a lot better than crossing College Road," though he did report finding both mink and fox tracks on the riverbank near where they released the rodent.