Finding tracks in the snow

Posted: Sunday, December 28, 2008

A mixed group of skiers and snowshoers set off on a short hike around the upper cross-country loop at Eaglecrest. The track was not groomed and we were almost the first humans to go up there since the last snow. One set of booted feet had post-holed along the edge of the woods, presumably the marks of a hunter.

Snow conditions were excellent. There were narrow snow canyons (up to 5 feet deep) wherever small creeks passed through the meadows, and it took a bit of searching to find suitable crossings for everyone. Attempts to step across the canyons sometimes made their edges collapse, dumping the hiker into a hole, but the occasional snow-bridge held up to our traffic.

The group went up the Trickster ski run, which was not yet groomed for down-hillers. Almost immediately they found porcupine tracks. One animal had clearly been intent on moving far away from where it had been, leaving a beautiful trail the entire length of the Trickster run. Once on top, we saw many porcupine tracks meandering from one grove of trees to another. It would have been fun to follow these trails and figure out how many animals had made them, but we did not take the time to do so.

All around the upper loop, critters had left their marks in the snow. Snowshoe hares had made their big hindfoot prints in several places. Red squirrels had dashed from tree to tree. A weasel had leaped across the ski trail and entered a tunnel under a stump. Mouse (or vole?) tracks left a delicate tracery coming out of one hiding place and diving into another. A ptarmigan had sauntered out of a thicket and back.

There were, however, no deer tracks to be seen. This was a big contrast with what I'd seen the previous week above one of the tributaries of Fish Creek. On that day, deer tracks laced the shallow snow under the trees and in the meadows deep snow recorded their plunge marks. Several deer had traveled around in this area, judging from the different sizes of hoofprints.

Four days after the hikers' first visit to the upper loop, we went again. By then, the area had received more human visitors on skis and snowshoes, and the temperature had dropped considerably. Despite the soft snow, there were almost no fresh animal tracks to be found. In one place, snowshoe hares had dithered around under some hemlocks, nibbling on blueberry bushes. And that was all, that day. Perhaps the plummeting temperatures had kept the creatures home in bed - there may come a point when conserving energy is more important than getting food.

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

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