This weekend I took a needed break from my exhaustive search for Owl reference photos for my next painting to join a local naturalist as she led an expedition on animal tracking. My main mission at the start was: Stay warm. However much I love the animals, I am not covered in fur, so I layered four shirts under my down puffer coat, long underwear (locally known as double-bagging) under my jeans, and pulled my snow pants over the whole shebang. It reminded me yet again of how brilliantly prepared animals are to be able to withstand what we consider brutal conditions without even the aid of a Smartwool sock. My feet were freezing.
There’s about a foot of snow covering the rural woods of Vermont right now, and the morning had brought a nice dusting of fresh snow that would make our tracking efforts more challenging. Within the first few minutes along the main trail, we encountered a set of tracks worthy of following off-trail. Maybe fox, maybe coyote! We started through the trees, careful not to obliterate the animal tracks with our clumsy snow shoes, and soon found more tracks criss-crossing the original. This time a deer and a snowshoe hare. The snowshoe hare had the most distinctive track I’ve seen. Two smaller ovals in line, as the front paws come down, then two huge back feet spring past the front feet and push off for the next giant leap.
As we continued to follow our original tracks, our leader, Patti, called out to us that she was almost certain our coyote or fox was actually a bobcat! I have never seen a bobcat in the wild, so finding tracks this close to home was shocking. Our bobcat led us through amazing terrain, up steep inclines that challenges some of our snowshoeing skills, and a few of the group even decided to go back. For the rest of us, Patti called, “Hang in there a little longer — this bobcat is taking us somewhere amazing.”
We arrived at the edge of a rocky cliff rising above us with beautiful cascading icicles and small caves at the base of the rocks. Our bobcat prints faded here, but we were rewarded with a gorgeous winter landscape and our next animal track encounter — porcupines! Patti also located its burrow, and invited us all to stick our noses into the opening and breath in the distinctive aroma of porcupine. It smelled like a musty barn.
Our 2-hour trek had come to an end and we headed back down the mountainside to the main trail, following more snowshoe hare tracks as we went. Back on the main trail we encountered the bobcat tracks again, as it continued in the opposite direction we’d tracked it. Patti mentioned she’d likely come back tomorrow and follow it in that direction. I had a pang of jealousy, thinking about going back to my day job in front of my computer tomorrow. But I knew I’d spend my evening following Owl on my own path to find out what surprising places our animal guides can lead us.