It’s doubtful you’ll ever see tracks in the snow that indicate an animal has purposefully fabricated an angle in the cold, white powder — unless that animal was human.
But that doesn’t mean the critters that inhabit the woods and fields of the north don’t sometimes leave artistic impressions in the snow during their wanderings.
Snow, as an artist’s medium, can portray the finest detail. The frigid powder detects even the diminutive tracks left by a shrew weighing just ounces. Yet snow will also tell a tale of the big whitetail buck that — under the cover of darkness — left its typical heart-shaped tracks.
An encyclopedia of knowledge can be gathered by investigating clues left in the snow.
A few weeks ago, I went on a short trek through the woods and fields of central Minnesota. Under an anemic winter sun, and with the temperature hovering a few degrees above freezing, I left the road.
A light easterly breeze barely stirred the bare winter tree limbs, which was delightful weather for a January day. The snow scarcely reached my ankles, yet there was enough to reveal the tracks of wildlife that had passed unseen during the previous few days and nights.
I came upon the tracks of a timber wolf not long into my foray. Only occasionally do I find wolf tracks in my neck of the woods. Upon discovering the tracks, my environment was suddenly transformed. I was now in a far removed landscape somewhere Up North.
As I followed along, my eyes sometimes left the prints as I glanced ahead. I didn’t expect to see the maker of the tracks, but I could envision the big predator trotting along.
The wolf’s huge footprints showed clearly in the sticky snow. I estimated that the carnivore had passed within the past 10 hours.
It’s uncommon to find the tracks of a lone wolf. As I advanced I noted several times that the prints appeared to be enlarged. It was then I figured the pock marks in the snow were left by more than one wolf. Farther ahead I verified my discovery when the tracks separated.
Oddly, despite the shallow depth of the snow, the second wolf would occasionally step in prints of the leader, an act wolves commonly use to conserve energy when the snow is especially deep and fluffy. One of the canines must have been a male because I saw several spots where it apparently had lifted its leg to urinate on tufts of grass.
I followed the pair of wolves for a half-mile or so before leaving the tracks to take a different route back to the road. Along the way I observed prints left by a multitude of wildlife, including ruffed grouse, squirrels, cottontail rabbits, mink, weasel and fox. I even found where a ring-necked pheasant had landed, leaving an artistic imprint in the snow as it dragged its tail just before touchdown.
I also crossed the tracks left by a big male fisher. For me, predator tracks are especially fun to follow. The fisher, a large member of the weasel family, was obviously hunting because its tracks indicated it had checked out every downed tree and clump of snow-covered brush.
Eventually I reached the road. I stood for a moment as I stared in the direction from which I had come.
The snow had revealed stories I otherwise wouldn’t have known.
Bill Marchel is an outdoors writer and photographer. He lives near Brainerd.