BRAINERD - When in January the sky is blue and the wind calm, the temperature is usually well below zero.
Last Tuesday was an anomaly, weatherwise. It was 32 degrees (above zero) when I strapped on my cross-country skis for an afternoon outing. The sun was bright, the sky deep cobalt and, best of all, there was no wind.
My jaunt was not going to be on a well-groomed trail; instead I planned to ski atop the ice of the Mississippi River, exploring as I went. I hoped to see some wildlife but would be satisfied to observe the recent comings and goings of various animals by reading their tracks in the snow. Also, I could use the exercise, but beyond that I had no itinerary.
I headed south on the ribbon of ice, kicking and gliding. River ice is never safe, but I knew this stretch of the Mississippi, not only from summer fishing forays but also from three decades of exploring via skis during winter. I skirted the areas of fast current and deep holes.
The first signs of wildlife I encountered were the tracks of red foxes. Frozen creeks and rivers are thoroughfares for predators such as foxes, coyotes and timber wolves. The canines often voyage atop the ice for the same reason I do, ease of travel.
The snow is rarely deep on river ice because as soon as the snow's weight gets to a certain point, the ice cracks and water seeps up, turning the snow to slush, which freezes.
Another reason predators travel on ice is to take advantage of prey, especially deer, that have met their fate because of thin ice. Many years ago while skiing this same stretch of river I found the frozen carcass of a huge whitetail buck entombed in an icy grave. The big deer had apparently fallen through thin ice and was unable to extract itself from the cold water. The buck's antlers and half of its head were all that was visible above the ice.
Coyotes had used their sharp canine teeth to tear hide from the skull, and bald eagles and crows had employed their powerful beaks to pick the bones clean. I used a hatchet to remove the buck's antlers. The big rack is one of my favorite wildlife collectibles.
I continued my ski trek and soon came to a deer trail that crossed the river. The runway was well defined. It was obvious many deer had used this crossing since the trail was worn to the dirt where it exited the river ice.
Further on, I found where several timber wolves had rolled in the snow and then bedded in a sunny spot along the bank. I'm always struck by the size of a timber wolf track. Some are nearly two-thirds the size of a man's hand.
The footprint of a fox would easily fit four times into a wolf print.
In addition to all the wolf tracks, I noted the area was well marked with urine scent posts. Wolves often urine-mark sites near a kill, and upon further examination of my surroundings, I found several clumps of deer hair along the riverbank. I scoured the vicinity by searching in ever-widening circles but was unable to find a deer carcass, or even any part of a deer besides the hair. And I neither heard nor saw any crows or ravens, two noisy scavengers that often gather at wolf kills.
I skied further down river and eventually came to a spot where the meager January sun had melted away the snow on a south-facing section of riverbank. The area was littered with the tracks of wild turkeys. And when I skied around the next bend, a flock of 30 or more turkeys took flight.
A decade ago this part of central Minnesota contained no wild turkeys. Now, I watched in awe as the big birds winged their way across the frozen Mississippi. Upon reaching the far riverbank, some of the birds flew up and over the trees, some glided into the trees, and others landed on the ice near shore and ran into the woods.
With the sun perched on the horizon, I headed back in the direction from which I had come. During my return I spotted a deer as it stood along the bank far upriver. I watched for a minute or two, but the deer did not move. It seemed like it wanted to cross the river but was reluctant to do so. I skied closer, and eventually the deer -- alerted by the sound of my poles striking the ice -- ran into the woods.
As I skied toward my truck, I knew the critters of the night would soon be stirring. I wondered if they would ponder my tracks, as I had theirs. I also questioned where else on this earth timber wolves and wild turkeys could be found in the same location.
Bill Marchel of Fort Ripley, Minn., is a writer and nature photographer.