Convalescence from back surgery has few advantages. While the process is tolerable it is very limiting. Based on my conversations with other back surgery recipients I don’t know what to expect. Some get worse others have complete recovery. By far the majority have mixed results. The trick seems to be in not pushing the healing process to quickly. I have spoken with more than one individual whose main advise is to not rush the healing time. As they say, it is what it is.
None of this lessens my frustrations that arrive from the limitations of my body. The moment I do too much it tells me to stop. Its method of communication is pain. Lots of pain. Do a little too much and the results is unadulterated pain. That being said I have quickly learned to adapt to these new discoveries. I started by going our into our yard when it wasn’t raining and that wasn’t very often during the first month and a half of my recovery. It rained nearly 35 inches in the first six weeks after tropical storm Irene. This adds up to about 46 inches of rain in a month and a half or very near an average year’s total rainfall. Now that I think about it I spent most of my time on the inside of the house looking at the yard.
We are very lucky in that we live in a house in the woods. There are no neighbors to be seen. There is very little traffic on the dirt road that leads to our house. Our modest yard has a small orchard, vegetable gardens, a flower bed or two all surrounded by areas of mowed grass. It is quite steep, each rise in eight feet terraced into flat areas where gardens and orchard grow food. We have large areas of native forbs, herbs, and shrubs that form islands of natural landscape. These provide refuge for small critters including many species of insects, birds, and mammals. If you are patient you will see chipmunks by the barrel full, lots of song birds, red and gray squirrels, and a myriad of dragonflies, butterflies, bees, and ants. The forest, only ten yards off my back door dominates the surrounding landscape. A medium size brook can always be heard as it rushes down the mountain towards flat land several miles to the east.
I have to admit that I grow tired of spying chipmunks and dragonflies. I yearn for a more diverse setting where I can see deer, coyotes, fox, fisher, bear, wild turkeys and a host of other favorites. After a couple of weeks I hiked on a main trail that is not too steep and bisects out wooded land. I’ve hiked this old logging road countless times. On this first, very short, excursion I was amazed at all I had not paid attention to in recent years. An old, very dead, sugar maple that still stands and has a haunted appearance. Its once stately shape and crown are now reduced to a mere skeleton of trunk and dead branches. Odd faces, mostly ugly and distorted, can be seen where branches once were anchored to the main stem. Holes of different shapes and sizes ranging from millimeters in size where borer beetles have entered to gaping rectangular holes about six inches long and four inches wide where pileated woodpeckers have sought insects for forage. I also noticed large patches of partridge berry. The shiny green, nearly ovate and opposite leaves hugged a vine like stem that wandered in search of light on the forest floor. Bright red berries dot these masses of dark green foliage and are reminiscent of natural Christmas decorations adorning the wooded landscape. I could hear the last clear whistle of the wood thrush as it prepared for a journey south. My first walk on this trail during this recovery was not even a quarter mile. Despite the short length it lifted my spirits just enough to give the day a much brighter look.
A week later I lengthened the hike on this well worn trail to about three eighths of a mile. It was rainy and I was wearing rain gear. I walked very carefully along the wet and slippery soil. A minor slip and fall could set me back weeks. I took Cooper my male bloodhound with me. He found deer tracks and scat that crossed the trail. We stopped to inspect some other scat about ten yards to the east of the trail that appeared to be that of a fox. It was then that I realized if I couldn’t range an adequately far distance into the forest to satisfy my desires then perhaps I could bring the forest to me. I hiked back to the house with new hope. Even the most diffident idea might stiffen my resolve until I was recovered enough to start longer ventures into the backwoods.
The next day I set out, slowly, with a trail camera in my hand. I knew a fairly open area near a stone wall that was about a quarter mile from our homestead that hosted a steady stream of animals. With a little luck I though I might get lucky and snap a few photos. Certainly an experience that was no where near actually seeing wildlife in person but an interesting study nonetheless. My back was lame that morning so the trip was slow. I left my hounds at home because I did not want them to leave their scent behind in an area I was trying to record the travelings of wildlife. Slow and steady winds the race, although a land tortoise would have left me in the dust. I arrived at my destination and carefully strapped one of my trail cameras to a young yellow birch tree and pointed it towards a long stonewall that travels north to south along our most western property boundary. The particular trail cameras that I use utilize motion detectors and infrared heat detectors to sense when an animal is present. A great deal of luck is involved in getting a good photograph. The subject position is random if you get a photo at all.
About five days later I returned to the site, pulled the card out of the camera, inserted a new one and returned to the homestead where I could load the card into the computer and see the photographs, if any, that were recorded during the previous five days. The trip was a little easier as my healing had progressed but I was still on the outside distance that I was capable of traveling on a trail in the forest. Although I did not get a good photo of a deer, I did catch a fisher traveling along the stone wall in the very early morning, well before sunrise.. Not just once but on several different days. There was also some photos of what appears to be a gray fox running along the stone wall. The repetitive photos revealed this was a well used travel corridor for the gray fox and fisher. This area is likely a good travel corridor between destinations and has ample hunting opportunities given all the coveys for rodents, other mammals, and reptiles that the stone wall may offer.
My back continued to improve very slowly; sort of a two step forwards and one step backward process. On some days I felt as if I had made good progress on others a steep decline. Still over each week gradual progress was the name of the game. At about week four I decided to venture off trail to a place near a wooded gully. This area is a travel corridor known to me between a deep hemlock forest and a year ’round spring. Deer, turkeys, and other animals travel to the spring for fresh water. I brought a second trail camera with me and set it up in an area where there were apples. I was confident that I would be able to get some revealing photos of some deer and other wildlife. As I traveled to my destination I had to be enormously careful. The woods are still full of downed trees, tops, and branches from the 2008 ice storm. Travel is difficult for the perfectly healthy. I could not climb under or over fallen trees. And I couldn’t risk tripping so I had to slowly navigate my way around an abundance of debris. The ravine is only about three eights of a mile into the woods but is quite secluded. Despite this short distance it took me a very long time to reach my point of interest. When I arrived I set up the camera, my feet in rubber boots and my hands in rubber gloves so as to not leave any significant scent. The return trip was equally slow. Picking my way around each fallen limb took what seemed like forever. At one point I snagged a toe and almost went down. I’m happy to report that my quick upper body reflexes allowed me to grab a very stout limb and prevent my toppling to the earth like a falling oak in the forest.
A week later I returned. The trip took slightly less time. I knew the best route and my back was slightly improved. I have to admit it still took about 20 minutes to go only slightly more than a quarter of a mile. I changed cards in the camera and returned home. I was very happy to find more than a hundred photographs. By far most of them were of deer, the majority of those of a doe and skippy (last springs fawn). Checking the dates and time of each photograph there was no clearly discernible pattern. Some were in the evening, some in the predawn hours, and some in the afternoon. Most were taken about six AM and eight PM. Even more interesting were more photographs of a gray fox. He seemed to be checking some of the apples out and also the scent of the many deer tracks in the area.
Gray fox are likely as common as their cousins the red fox in this area. We humans do not take note of them for three reasons. They are almost entirely nocturnal. They live in deep forests and do most of their hunting in these ecosystems. They have almost mythical stealth. In all my years wandering the woods I have only seen a handful of gray fox. Unlike their red cousins they are very sensitive about being detected, especially by humans. If there is a ghost of the deep woods that title should be reserved for this most secretive of all predators. Gray fox can also climb trees like squirrels. This allows them to nest in large hollows in trees. It also allows them to escape many predators, especially the persistent coyote, by harboring above on a tree limb.
Years ago I found a gray fox carcass on the back side of some steep ledges. The carcass was partially buried. This can be a tell tale sign of a cat kill. At the time I guessed that the gray fox had met its match in a burly bobcat. Another mystery to which I will never be sure. These are the mysteries that keep me coming back to deep woods habitat.
At present I’m about 50% through my predicted recovery period. I still have to stay close to home. I still cannot crawl under or over anything. And I still must be exceedingly careful and take woeful amounts of time to travel short distances. I really don’t know what the ultimate result will be from my back surgery. In the meantime I’m repositioning my first trail camera in hopes of getting some photos of black bear or moose.
Only time will tell.
Click on images for larger view.
Written for www.wildramblings in October 2011.