Saturday Stalkers in the Snow

A happy morning exploring and pondering puzzles.

I chuckle inside whenever someone says: “Wyoming! How can you put up with those brutal winters?”

Sure, once in a while there are days when we really prefer to stay indoors. But often, like today, it’s clear, bright, windless, and we yearn to be outside. Wear the right layers, and you’re perfectly comfortable when you go out exploring. Soon you’ll shed the hat and gloves.

One of our favorite pastimes is pondering the puzzles that hint at stories in the snow. The image above is my trophy. Some friends gasp a little when I show it.

“You got a bird print!” You can clearly see the marks of the wings. Is that a head and a beak at the center? And if so, why did it come down sideways?

This isn’t as prized, however, as an imprint of a bird nose-diving into the snow to catch its prey.

What happened here? The tracks at the right went nonchalantly past, either before or after the bird alit. But a few yards away, on the other side of those willows at the upper left, I found clear signs of a scuffle. Alas, the dog tramped all over them before I got there, so I was never able to decipher what kind of creature this bird might have stalked and then caught.

That was a while ago.

On a day like today, how could I resist when a friend texted with an invitation to join her and two other women on a snowshoe trek? We arrived to find the surface clean and newly groomed by the volunteers with DART.

I was glad for sunglasses. The sunshine was almost painfully brilliant. Not a cloud in the sky.

Squirrels chattered overhead, and we could see their tiny tracks everywhere, crossing and recrossing the trail. I recognize the rabbit tracks in my driveway, but in the woods, in general, I don’t know what I’m looking at.

Unlike my friends, I’ve not yet joined an excursion with naturalist Bruce S. Thompson, who can read the animal tracks like a book. He’s the founder of an invitation-only Facebook page, Togwotee Trackers Exchange, where members pursue what he calls “foot-writing analysis” based on images of what they have seen on the ground.

We’re just discussing the shapes of tracks when K turns and points her pole at these strange hourglass-shaped traces of a passerby. “Snowshoe hare,” says K_, who has been practicing this for a while.

“Right,” says A_. “Not a weasel. They’re shaped more like a dumbbell.”

“I wonder why they call them snowshoe hares,” I say, looking down at my own boots clamped into cumbersome contraptions.

“Perhaps because they can walk across the top of the snow,” says A_, who is an amateur naturalist in her own right. “Or maybe because their feet stay white all summer.”

The conversation drifts to tales of other creatures we have seen while trekking in the winter. Meanwhile we peruse the field of white for other signs of life gone by. Someone mentions a sage grouse. “In the winter?” I ask.

“Come back this way!” K_ calls out, and we trudge back up a slope. “What’s this?”

There you see it, at the far left next to the shadow of a branch. Something has landed in a splotch, and then headed off to the right. The tracks are three-toed, and slender.

“Good for you!” says A_. “I think that must be a grouse.”

She turns around, and we can follow the traces on the other side of our own trail, up the slope and off toward the cliff and the fabulous long vista over the valley, which is carpeted in pines and blanketed with snow.

K_ leans over and grabs a shot with her IPhone. No doubt she will post it on Bruce’s invitation-only Facebook group, where we share puzzling and amusing tracks and debate what they might be portraying–or just document what we ran across.

“Why did the chicken cross the road?” drawls A_. “To take a look at the view.”

Many yards later, after navigating over several downed trees, we stop for a long chat with our Forest Service rep L_ (who’s out on Nordic skis on Saturday checking the trails, government shutdown or not). A_ recalls the time that she was out with another group on a day just like this, also standing around, yakking.

Suddenly, in the middle of their circle, a weasel pops up out of the snow. It looks around amazed, left, then right, and pops right back down again.

As we near the highway and the parking lot, K_ calls out again, “Come back!” She points with her pole to something beside the trail.

“Oh my gosh,” says A_. “I think that’s a weasel. What else could it be?”

K_ whips a small measuring tape from her pocket, spins it out beside the track, drops her glove next to it for perspective, and takes another shot with the IPhone.

Another post for Bruce, no doubt.

But then A_ calls us to turn around. “There’s the hole back to his burrow,” she says. “And this is on a cattle guard. Perfect.”

It’s the dark image in the center of the picture below. The slots in the cattle guard, now buried in snow, offer easy access downward for a small, slender critter.

Beneath our feet, A_ says, lies a world we cannot see. It’s called the subnivean zone, an open layer between the surface of the ground and the underside of the snowpack. In that vast chamber, beneath that roof, small animals like voles and mice live out the winter protected from the cold, from predators, and from noisy interlopers like us who crunch deafeningly overhead on snowshoes. (Who knew?)

We trudge back to the car. Two and a half hours. Maybe a mile and a half. Who bothered to click that app on their Apple watch? Who cares? (We stopped a lot.) We’re pleasantly tired and happily edified. Lots of vitamin D through our faces. Clean, fresh air in and out our lungs.

Back in the day, back in the city, I might be sitting in a bistro on a beautiful Saturday like this, lazily downing eggs florentine and a mimosa, talking nonsense.

That never gave me this kind of buzz.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com



Author: LivingDubois

I am a retired science journalist, devoted to enjoying and recording the many pleasures of life in the Wyoming's Upper Wind River Valley.

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