2005-02-03 � tracking the seasons

winter wonderings

O, wail and woe! I screwed it up! I got it all wrong! I was suppose to be feverently praying that the groundhog DID NOT see his shadow! No shadow sightings! Shadow sightings BAD! and now it's too late and because of me and my erroneous banner, Punxatanewey Phil and Wiarton Willie and all forecasting rodents of the groundhogging kind saw their shadows and now North America will have to suffer through six more weeks of winter! Ack!

So, my apologies. I better start prepping myself now to make sure I get that in like a lion/out like a lamb thing straight!

Of course, after all the whining about winter I did, I stepped out that day into a hoar frost glazed winter wonderland with azure skies and flashy red cardinals zipping about, darting away from my lens. I guess it's not so bad, really. Not so horrible. Actually, when you think about it and when you spend as much time wandering around in it as I do, winter has undeniable charm.

It's really a mysterious time of year. So hushed and quiet, everything blanketed and still. The tiny details stand out in a way they simply don't in any other season, each frost etched twig and branch and bristling head of teasel highlighted as if laid gently on a bed of cotton, boxed up like jewellry. And then there are the footprints... mysterious legends printed across the face of the map. I've spent hours and hours this winter following footprints... the stamp of deer hooves, like deep lobed hearts on stalks pressed firmly into the snow, the cunning, almost human hands of racoons, the tiny crosshatched trails of mice and voles, randomly stitching the edges of the fields, hopped all over by rabbits. Human footprints too, There are people who walk the same trail on a semi-regular basis. I know them by boot print only. A dog-less giant with feet the size of watermelons, a dainty lady with a little heel on her boot, accompanied by a medium-sized dog. She must walk first thing in the morning and does not venture off the beaten path the way I do, tromping here there and everywhere across the virgin snow to check the status of things various and sundry.

And then there are the coyotes. Oh yes, the coyotes! At the beginning of January, I spotted a huge one hunting mice along the edge of the field. I watched him for about an hour, curving and pouncing with deadly accuracy, so excited I had to reach into my jacket pocket for my "emergencies only" cellphone to breathlessly report the sighting to Jack. The next day, i crossed over into the field to study the tracks left behind. Big prints, larger than Finn's and over a dozen little kidney shaped piles of mouse innards dotted here and there as if the coyote had just unzipped their furry suits and emptied them. I'd always assumed that these little pilings (they are everywhere in the park) were left behind by feasting red tail hawks, but no. They're from coyotes. That surprised me a little. The coyotes must be much more active than I had previously imagined.

A week later, as Finn and I surveyed the landscape from atop a little hill at the edge of a clearing, I spotted a lone dog ambling through the trees. As it drew closer, I realized it wasn't a dog at all. It was a coyote, smaller than the one we saw the week before, maybe a female. I called Finn (investigating some bunny droppings a little further down) to come, and she trotted right over, stopping just beyond my reach. We stared down at the coyote, watching it weave through the trees at the edge of the field. And then Finn did something I never anticipated. She suddenly CHARGED down the hill, tearing after the thing!

It took me a second to catch my breath and then I screamed my head off and half fell down the hill after her. It never occurred to me that she might go after a coyote that way. I mean, I know that Finn does not like other dogs. I work hard to avoid them on our walks. But on the occassions when we do spy another dog in the distance, she will pointedly ignore them, pretending they don't exist. Unless they come bounding right up to her. Then there's trouble. But she never approaches or attempts to approach them. So I was completely dumbstruck when she suddenly tore after the coyote.

Obviously, she knew the coyote wasn't another dog. Maybe she could smell it, or tell by the way it moved, low down and slinky, or judge by my reaction. I don't know. I have no idea what she was thinking going after it like that... my mother thinks she was trying to protect me and I like to think that too. More likely she was defending her territory. Nonetheless, we appeared to be headed toward one nasty dog fight I had no desire AT ALL to be involved in.

Fortunately, she responded immediately to my screams, stopping in her tracks and then wheeling back to come bounding to my side. I leashed her up and we stood panting, watching as the coyote stopped, and then casting a steely glare of disdain over its shoulder, disappeared into the brush.

Since then, as we wander through the woods and fields, I'm a little more aware. I inspect the tracks in the snow carefully. But its hard to tell the dog tracks (Finn's and other canine users of the same area of the park) from the coyote tracks. Occasionally we come across frozen clumps of forensic evidence � fur and broken bunny paws, still glistening piles of mouse guts, scenes of wild destruction � in the snow. Every once in awhile, Finn will stop and do the hundred mile stare, scanning the edge of the brush. And I will catch my breath and stare after her, wondering if there is a coyote tracking us, watching us from the brush. I have no worries about my own safety. I know coyotes aren't a threat to humans. But I have no intention of pitting my darling doggity against a wild thing.

And winter goes on.

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