BRAINERD, MINN. – Even the most perceptive human detects but a small fraction of the animals coming and going from our wild lands.
Some critters are experts at avoiding humans. Others are so rare that our chances of seeing them are akin to winning the lottery. And what about nocturnal animals that pass unseen during the night?
Ah, but there's a tattletale residing in our woods and fields. Lying, waiting, it is able to recall, with great detail, the habits of various creatures. That snitch is, of course, snow.
Come winter, nary a ground-dwelling creature can pass without leaving behind intimate details of its life, which would go unnoticed without the snow. Even casual outdoor observers can learn a great deal about an animal just by studying tracks and other signs left in the frigid, white powder. And to the observant naturalist, an encyclopedia of knowledge can be gathered by investigating clues etched in snow.
For example, a tracker can determine which direction the animal is traveling by closely examining individual footprints, especially by checking out which way the snow tosses in-between prints. The sex of the animal can often be determined by the position of urine marks in the snow. Deer and other animals will show signs of browsing on favorite foods by nipped twigs along their tracks.
Tracking game is nothing new for many people. It has been practiced by hunters since time began. In fact, much of the nostalgia surrounding deer hunting revolves around a "tracking snow." Rare is the deer hunter whose pulse doesn't quicken when he or she spots in the snow the typical heart-shaped tracks left by a deer that passed only minutes, perhaps seconds, earlier.
Tracking wildlife isn't just for hunting seasons — or for that matter, only for hunters. Beginners should start by picking up one of the many animal tracks guides available at libraries, bookstores or online. When the snow is deep, cross-country skis or snowshoes will give the tracker greater mobility. Otherwise, very little gear is needed for tracking. This is simple sport.
Tracking animals is fun, provides good exercise and is a great distraction from the long winter. It can be done alone or with friends or family, plus it's an interesting way to introduce youngsters to the outdoors. With the upcoming holidays, an animal-tracking adventure can be a family affair.
Interpreting animal behavior written in the snow is not as easy as reading the ABCs. Unscrambling an individual animal's tracks among the many others left in old snow can at times be nearly impossible. For the beginner, practice will prove the best teacher. But every now and then, Mother Nature looks down upon the endless scribbling left by her creatures, and with a new snow, wipes her slate clean.
Then it's time to go tracking.
Bill Marchel, an outdoors writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.