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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Rich Landers: Critter tracks read like story in the snow

Early Sunday morning while reading the newspaper, I contemplated several options for making the best of the day outdoors.

The decision was easy after calling the Mount Spokane State Park Nordic ski trails hotline, (509) 238-4025, for the recorded snow conditions report. When park manager Steve Christensen said 2 inches of new snow had coated the area overnight, I began rounding up my cross-country skiing gear.

The paper wasn’t the only reading I was going to do that morning.

Seeing what wildlife has written on a clean slate of snow is one of the most enjoyable reasons to head out on cross-country skis or snowshoes. The landscape is like a library shelf filled with natural history non-fiction ranging from comedies to tragedies.

Occasionally the stories will include graphic violence. Blood is hard to ignore on snow.

While most people sleep, great horned owls are feeding and rodents become meals. Little more than scattered hair was left of the white-tailed deer several coyotes had killed behind my house, but the entire drama was spelled out in the snow.

The deeper snow that bogged the deer down was tramped out as though a rugby scrum had occurred. The carcass had been tugged and dragged before being devoured. Some body parts were dragged away for more leisurely individual snacking.

Tracks apparently made by ravens and magpies indicated they got a piece of the action, too.

Mount Spokane’s blanket of new pristine snow left little to the imagination. Every critter movement on the ground overnight was exposed.

If I were after any sort of record in making a 15-kilometer loop through the trail system that morning, it would be for the most gawking. I’ve gawked a lot less on a hot summer day at a crowded beach.

Snowshoe hares had been on a wild romp that night, and squirrels were still busy after sunrise – their coming, going and rambling all recorded for a curious skier to appreciate.

Mountain grouse had been active that morning leaving lines of tracks that sometimes continued 40 and 50 yards before flying away, leaving wing prints at the launch site and divots resembling a bad 9-iron swing where they landed.

Good cross-country skiing technique suffers when you’re gawking and hoping to see a critter sitting on top of a fresh track below the trees. I nearly face-planted a couple of times, although getting an even closer look at the tracks in the snow wouldn’t have been a bad outcome.

A mountain lion had come up from darker woods and onto the Quartz Mountain Trail. The track was older, slightly filled by the new snow in the woods. A passage had been erased by the trail groomer before I saw where it continued upslope.

I paused over the big cat’s track after snapping a photo. Skiing out in that remote portion of the trail system might be best with a buddy, especially early in the morning and late in the afternoon, I thought, as I suddenly felt the weight of winter-woods solitude.

On another aspect of the mountain, the tracks of a ermine brought a smile to my face. They were fresh and sometimes so crisp I could distinguish the little toes.

Ermine also are known as short-tailed weasels. Their fur turns immaculately white in winter except for the black tip on their tails. They make a bounding four-footed track that’s smaller than a tennis ball, yet ounce-for-ounce they’re one of the most efficient hunters in the forest.

During one hour of my morning tracking bliss on the edges of the trail system, I encountered only two other people. They were fit skaters getting fitter by racking up kilometers. They whizzed by. I wasn’t offended by their lack of interest for what I was reading. They may have browsed a chapter or two later during a water break.

Nature is a prolific writer. Its work was everywhere.

As I started to loop back, up through the snowshoe hare-rich slopes of Mica Road and Moose Meadows, I met friends on the trail who’d seen a bobcat track out on Outer Limits. They were very proud of their sighting.

“Well, I saw a moose track in town as I drove up this morning,” I said, puffing out my chest a little, not to be outdone.

“We saw a wolf track cross the ski trails three weeks ago,” one friend said as the three other buddies nodded their heads in agreement.

That sort of one-upmanship and piling on probably goes on a book clubs, too. Every group seems to have an authority on War and Peace.

I’ll call each one of my friends when I see my first bear track this spring.

Meantime, what have you read lately?

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