At first glance the set of tracks in the snow did not seem out of the ordinary; three canines, two large and one small. As I stood there in these deep woods staring at the prints in the snow I realized that what stood before me was a real adventure. True, there were three sets of canine tracks, but upon close examination one of them was a fox. I surmised that the two sets of larger tracks were those of eastern coyotes trailing the fox. I decided to follow along to see if I could decipher this mystery.
The snow was not too deep. It averaged about two feet deep in the open hardwoods, and about a foot or so in the conifer stands. A fresh snow had fallen the previous night on top of a layer of icy crust that was strong enough to support medium weight four footed creatures. Given I don’t have four feet and no one would describe me as medium weight I was trekking about on snowshoes. I knew the tracks were fresh because they were made after the snow had stopped falling; only three or four hours before I arrived in these deep woods.
The coyote tracks were on both sides of the fox tracks. The larger of the two sets of prints were on the right hand side of the fox trail and the smaller set of coyote tracks were on the left hand side. From my viewpoint I could see that the fox made small imprints in the snow. They were close together; the back foot often overlaying the front foot print. It seemed apparent that the fox was not in a hurry and was not aware that he was being followed. The coyote tracks indicated that the dogs were loping along, not a dead run by any means, but the three two four foot strides were certainly indicating that they were moving with great intention and interest.
And from this point on there would be a forth set of tracks added to this group. My snowshoe prints somehow seemed out of place. The canine prints were both graceful and elegant. Each print made a beautiful pattern in the fresh snow. By contrast my snowshoe prints seemed clumsy and gauche; an invasion of the beauty of the winter forest making deep depressions in the surface of the snow shattering the thick crust with each step.
I tried to stay to one side of the canine trail so as to not obliterate the clear path made by these wild dogs. I wanted the opportunity to revisit the evidence if necessary. As I trudged along I kept looking ahead with high hopes of getting a glimpse of the coyotes. Trailing wild animals in the snow is best done while looking ahead. You can tell as much from the pattern of their tracks and where they move as you can from the actual prints.
In this silent forest I could see the pattern of tracks heading straight up hill. Given my knowledge of the territory my best guess was that they were headed for a high ravine that sits near the top of this hill. There is a sheltered area, some would call it a pass, a low lying part of the forest wedged between two glacial gouged areas of bedrock. This area was full of potential food; red oaks, American beech, striped maple, and alternate leaf dogwood all provided ample forage and browse for wildlife. Predators also loved this area for the food it provided them; other wildlife that gorged on the available plant community.
The tracks crossed over an old stone wall. They passed through a low spot in the wall. The hole in the stone wall was likely created by the rocks being tossed aside by frost in the ground. The power of frost is frightening, it can move boulders, split granite, and topple walls made by humans hundreds of years before. The fact that the fox automatically seeks the path of least resistance, often by virtue of an intimate knowledge of its territory in order to save precious energy, is astounding. Not having to climb over this ancient stone wall saves only a few calories. This energy saving route along with an unknown number of other conservation minded movements in a given day might actually help this predator be able to survive on one less meal.
The tracks of the fox were in a relatively straight line. It stopped at one point and urinated. The coyote tracks indicate that they investigated this area thoroughly. While checking out this scene I stopped to look ahead and noticed that the fox tracks changed to a different gait. The strides changed from a walk to a gallop, not a full run, but a different pace for sure. The coyote tracks seem to stay at a quick, but steady pace. I wondered at the time how far I was behind this fabulous trio.
I examined the evidence in the snow. At this point I remembered a grizzly sight I found the previous winter. Two coyotes had chased down a red fox. On the snow there was blood, red hair, a well devoured carcass, devoid of the well known red fox tail. At the time I had a cartoon in my head of the coyote in a den with a fox tail on the wall. These type of thoughts entertain me while alone in the woods; strange but true.
As I wandered up the hill on my oversized snowshoes I realized that I was moving at a snail’s pace as compared to the three canines. There wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that I would ever see them unless the fox was captured and the coyotes stopped to consume their meal; a distinct possibility. I was torn about my fortune in witnessing such an event versus this great misfortune for the fox. In any case the fox’s fate was out of my hands. Only the vixen would determine if it lived of if it died.
Contrary to my prediction the fox did not head for the bedrock pass. It veered to the north, downhill, towards a deep gully dug by giant advancing blocks of ice twenty thousand years ago. This dingle was perhaps three to four acres in size and full of springs and streamlets. It was rich with the cover of a thick hemlock grove. The area had a tall conifer overstory with thousands of hemlock saplings covering the ground. This was perfect cover for a fox on the run!
The coyote tracks separated at this point. The larger animal on the right hand side of the fox trail moved in a wide circle on that side. The smaller animal did the same on the opposite side. My best guess was that they had a visual on the fox and were now trying to outmaneuver it. That is tough business-outmaneuvering a fox.
I decided to stay on the fox trail to see if the coyotes would converge on the small canine. I looked ahead to the hemlock gully. There was no obvious movement other than the saplings swaying in the gentle breeze that came from the northwest. As I entered this amazing tangle of small hemlock saplings bent over in a u shape creating thousands of snare in the crusty snow I realized that travelling here would be next to impossible in snowshoes. I knew if I took my snowshoes off I would constantly break through the frozen snow. The loud crunching noise created by each and every step I would take would be equivalent to my screaming out loud; alerting the three canines that there was a human in their midst. I decided to travel high along the brim of the dingle with hopes of being able to catch glimpses of the fox tracks with my binoculars.
Examining the snow filled basin with my binoculars from above was not the best way to see the path that the fox had laid out. The tracks disappeared into the thick underbrush and I was a little concerned that it might try to hide in this cover. The only way to determine if the fox exited this area was to circle around the deep depression and see if the tracks exited from the other side. As I trod along the brink of the dingle I realized the coyotes had the same strategy, only there was two of them so they could cover both sides of the low area. They too realized that penetration into the hemlock saplings would be very difficult.
I followed one set of coyote tracks around the perimeter o the bowl. The hike was mostly downhill as the trail followed the angle of the slope. At the bottom the coyote trails turned right, I noticed that the area of thick hemlock saplings ended about 100 feet to the south. As I followed the coyote tracks I came to a spot where we intercepted the fox tracks. The wily fellow had gained more time and distance by taking the shorter, quicker route. In another 200 yards or so we intercepted the tracks from the other coyote. The fox tracks were no longer travelling in a straight line. They seemed to weave back and forth through the hardwoods. At on point the fox tracks went straight up the angled trunk of a tree that had toppled over. The tracks followed along the tree trunk and jumped off neat the top of the tree and continued to meander through the woods as if it were looking for a place to escape.
We finally intercepted a stream. It was running pretty hard on this day. The current looked formidable. The fox tracks stopped. It appeared he had jumped into the stream. The coyotes evidently decided he went down stream so I followed in that direction, hoping that they had more of a good clue than I did. The gait of the coyotes slowed to a walk in this section. They seemed to be exploring every possible piece of evidence hoping to get a good scent. They smelled along the bank of the brook, at the root ball of over turned trees, even under the overhang where the stream had eroded the soil away. I followed their tracks for about a half of a mile. You could see clearly by the foot prints in the snow that the behavior of the coyotes was changing. They tail showed that they paced back and forth along one section of the stream and then both crossed it together. I took off my snowshoes, found a tree that bridged the stream from bank to bank, and crossed to the other side. There I found no fox tracks. The coyotes had simply mad decision that the chase was off and their odds of catching prey would be better elsewhere. Their tracks headed towards a large open meadow that was traditionally full of meadow voles.
I stood there looking at the stream. Had the fox travelled further downstream? The coyotes seemed to think that there was no use of pursuing this senseless chase and I decided that they knew better than me and followed there lead. Today’s adventure was about to end, except for hiking back to the homestead where I would enjoy a hot cup of java and reflect on today’s events.
The next day I returned to the spot where the fox had hopped into the stream, only this time I followed the bank in an upstream direction. As I walked along looking into the stream bed I noticed that there were logs and rocks above the water line with gaps in the snow coverage. The water was too deep and cold to examine the tracks at close range. The evidence was pretty good that the fox had moved upstream. I had walked perhaps a quarter of a mile when I saw a clear set of tracks coming up and over the bank in the white snow. They then continued back up the hillside circling to the left where they would likely intersect tracks left the day before.
I stood there, somewhat amazed, but at the same time confident that the fox had made a clean getaway. I was so caught up the day before in tracking the three canines I had neglected to remember that fox often circle back to their original set of tracks. This makes it very hard for a predator following the fox; it creates a never ending circle of smells-an infinite riddle that cannot be easily solved.
The fair chase had ended in favor of the fox. This wiliest of all creatures was likely seeking prey of its own within hours. And the coyotes were doing the same. As for me, the hunger of my natural curiosity has been satisfied at least until the next adventure finds me.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in March of 2010.