The animal tracking had not been too good lately. The snow had been softened by rain, and then a 40 degree mild spell, followed by some zero degree weather which gave the snow a 2 inch crust. The crust was enough to support many small animals, but certainly not this 250 pound man that sought evidence of their comings and goings. On this particular day, the only new tracks were the ones that I was making, and even then, the loud crunch of each step I made could be heard for great distances.
If I were to gather any new information on the local wild life I would have to pick a spot and wait. Waiting is a lonely game. Hours can pass you by while you keep yourself company. It’s funny where your mind will travel. Being in the wilds, you might assume that your thoughts would be consumed by your surroundings. But this is not the case, at least for me. My thought patterns are random, somewhat like dreaming while you’re awake. Sometimes my thoughts lead to fictional stories. Sometimes my thoughts lead to good ideas with respect to my present life. But most often, my mind simply uses the time to sort through endless amounts of information, categorize it, and store it away deep in the recesses of my mind. Some of this information will never find its way to the surface again.
In search of a place where I might see wildlife, I remember a spring that seeps out of this north facing hillside. It yields clean, clear water 365 days a year. It is a peaceful place, and also a place where animals frequent to get a drink of water. There is a good vantage point on a fallen red maple tree within the hard wood forest just to the south of the spring.
As I journey to my destination I am ever conscious of the noise that each step makes. I wonder what animals have scurried away as I plod my way through the frozen snow. As I approach the spring, I see old tracks of deer, fox, and coyote leading to and away from this precious water source. I climb the hill above the spring, and find a comfortable place to sit on the fallen red maple. The branches of the maple conceal my silhouette, while giving me reasonably view of the area around the spring.
This spring is one of several in this area of the woods. This one has, by far, the strongest flow. I have never seen it stop running in the thirty years that I have observing this stretch of woods. The hill to the south of the spring rises up three hundred to four hundred feet. It is entirely wooded with mixed hard woods and conifer forest. The soils are somewhat poorly drained. Mountains of glaciers thousands of years ago compressed the deeper part of these silty soils to a point where they are not suited for drainage. It is easier for the water to run along the top of these compressed soils then it is to drain through the soils. Water discharging from water stored in the bedrock further up on the mountain run along the top of this soil layer below the surface of the soil to a point where it comes close to the surface. At this point the water discharges onto the forest floor. This is what we call a spring in these parts.
The constant source of fresh, running water creates its own microclimate. In the summer the area immediately around the spring and the down gradient stream it creates is cooler. In the winter the constant source of 40 degree water makes the immediate vicinity warmer. It is truly beautiful in all seasons, but in winter it is almost beyond description. The exposed rocks, created from soil washing away over scores of generations, are covered with peat moss. The moss, green, orange, and red, is constantly covered with a frosty cap. When light spills through the tree over story onto the spring’s stream bed, the spring seems to take on mystical dimensions. Reflecting light off of the frozen snow along the stream banks seems to bring the moving water alive. Steam rises off of the warm water as it evaporates into the cold air. The peat moss covered rocks provide color in an otherwise black and white world.
On this day the air is still. There is virtually no wind. The fog coming immediately off of the spring lingers. As I sit and wait I see very little other than the occasional black capped chickadee, a red squirrel or two, and a raven off in the distance. I think that perhaps this will be one of those days when you wait an entire afternoon for absolutely nothing other than the organization of your own thoughts. There are many days like this for a serious observer of nature.
But on this day my luck would prove to be good. As darkness approached from the east I saw movement in a pole stand of trees. There, moving in a determined fashion through the woods was a red fox. I love how fox move when not frightened. They walk briskly, moving their legs quickly from the knee down. Their head is usually erect, eyes straight ahead, observing all of the landscape in front of them. This fellow was headed directly for the spring; my hunch had paid off! As the fox moved towards the spring he passed behind a knoll where I lost site of him. My eyes focused on the area, but I couldn’t relocate this marvel of stealth. And then suddenly I saw movement to my left. The fox had turned a right angle and was coming directly towards me through an area of dense hemlocks and wind thrown trees blown to the ground.
As he approached I was able to really look at him, and I mean really look at him. He was unusually tall and the bright auburn coat contrasted sharply with the white snow on the ground. As he got closer I noticed that he had a broad, white chest. His tail, not particularly bushy, had the classic white tip. At about 40 yards I began to wonder if he was going to notice me. Although I was somewhat concealed, I didn’t think at close distance he would have a hard time noticing me. But he came closer, and at 20 yards I pursed my lips and made a loud kissing sound. As soon as I made the sound he stopped dead in his tracks, and looked directly at me. When I blinked, he jumped straight into the air and did something I thought was impossible. He turned 180 degrees in mid air simply by snapping his torso from the shoulders back. When he landed on the ground he was off to the races. Curiously, he did not race straight off but zigged and zagged every two or three yards, as if being chased by hounds. I could see him run off for quite a distance, eventually disappearing into the shadows of the coming night.
As I sat a while longer, digesting the events of the last few moments and enjoying the last light of the day it occurred to me that on this day my thoughts needed no immediate organization. These memories would stay as crisp and clear as the winter’s night.
Originally written in January 2006