Spotting wildlife, in absentia
Photo courtesy of Tim Sullivan
Traditional sportsmen know half the excitement of hunting is in the chase. As Vermont’s rifle toters track down deer, moose or coyote, they learn volumes about the habits of the critters they’re aiming to kill.
But you don’t need to have murder in mind to experience the primal thrill — and, yes, sometimes tedium — of tracking. Naturalists have revived the age-old pastime as a way to spot and identify animal footprints without rubbing shoulders with the critters themselves. In the Northeast Kingdom, the NorthWoods Stewardship Center has offered an annual “winter tracking” workshop for years. The activity resonates with the 19-year-old center’s holistic approach to wilderness education.
On a recent Saturday morning, wildlife guru Tim Sullivan meets me and five middle-aged trackers on a snow-covered dirt road in Victory, thus kicking off the 2008 winter-tracking event. We’re in the Victory Basin Wildlife Management Area, a stunning 5000-acre preserve managed by the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife.
According to the odometer of my snow-shy Nissan sedan, I’m only 96 miles from downtown Burlington. But I already feel like a fish out of water. While this is supposed to be an introductory class, the other apprentice trackers seem to be well-versed in books on the topic — one totes a copy of Tracking and the Art of Seeing. As we enter the woods, my rabbit-fur hat begins to feel painfully ironic.
A few yards in, Sullivan stops in a dense cluster of spruce and fir to admire a smattering of paw prints: snowshoe hare. Because trees loom overhead, he explains, the snow here isn’t as deep, allowing mammals relatively easy access to food sources. Plus, a wetland habitat is right next door, so predators can snack on amphibians through tunnels connecting them to “subnivean” — “below-snow” — environments.
“With the river right behind us,” says Sullivan, who has rosy cheeks and a close-cropped beard, “I expect we’ll see mink, weasel and potentially otter tracks.”
“I can add a couple of things,” says David Govatski, a hearty, camo-clad New Hampshire-ite with high-tech binoculars. “This is a canoeable river in the spring, and it’s one of the few rivers up here that has a fish called ‘burbot’ — B-U-R-B-O-T.”
No one says anything. “It’s a bottom-dweller, the kind of fish that tends to mate under a full moon in March,” Govatski adds. “They’re a predator of trout. Neat fish. Some people eat ’em, actually.”
Whoa, I think. I’m sticking with this guy.
In a nearby clearing, we pause beside a cherry tree. “This time of year, cherries aren’t very useful,” Sullivan concedes. “But, come spring, as bears wake up, they’ll be hitting areas like this looking for fresh grass. In the summertime, they’ll switch to the trees once they produce berries.”
So far, we’ve heard a lot about what we’re not seeing. But, Sullivan explains, a lack of footprints actually speaks volumes about animal feeding patterns. “In a really warm year, especially if there are a lot of beechnuts, the bears get up,” he reports. “I’ve actually seen tracks every month of the year. But in a winter that’s this snowy and cold, they prefer to sleep.”
“So it’s sort of like, if you’re watching television, and there’s tasty food in the other room,” I hazard, “you could be motivated to get off the couch?”
“Yes,” he says. “Otherwise, if there’s nothing good in the fridge, you’ll just sit there.”
As that forced metaphor suggests, animals are more like their human neighbors than the average non-naturalist assumes. Bobcats — like house cats, or Packers fans — would usually rather conserve body heat than traipse around in snowstorms. Other large mammals lope in the wintertime instead of sprinting, saving much-needed energy for springtime feeding.
Animal tracks document all of that subtle behavior — assuming we’re wily enough to spot them. Bobcats, Sullivan tells us, leave incriminating indentations in the snow after they rise from their holiday-season siestas. By measuring the length of three consecutive footprints, he explains, a tracker can determine both which animal left them and whether it was a “walker” or a “bounder.”
With that, Sullivan bends to assess three faded dimples in the snow. “It’s very tough to be sure, but I would guess it could be a small coyote or a fox,” he tells us. “Deer tracks would be even longer . . . and moose tracks can almost remind you of a person’s . . .”
“It’s funny,” I say later, “this area is so remote-seeming, but all these animals are behaving so domestically.”
“Well, there is a danger in anthropomorphizing,” Sullivan cautions. “But in the end, humans are animals also, and most of the things we do relate back to general behaviors: wanting to be comfortable, having food and shelter and water.”
“We’ve removed ourselves a little bit from that with the technology and grocery stores,” he continues. “I think that’s why so many of us are drawn back out — to get away from those distractions that aren’t necessarily all that meaningful.”
The 40-year-old outdoorsman speaks from experience. A Rhode Island native, Sullivan quit a job as an ice cream factory supervisor in 1994 to hike the Appalachian Trail. But that walk was curiously unfulfilling. “I didn’t make the connections I thought I would, because I was so caught up in getting there,” he recalls. “It was the same thing when I worked for the Green Mountain Club and saw everyone climbing to the top of Camel’s Hump or Mount Mansfield: You get ‘goal-oriented’ and start thinking about where you’re going instead of where you’re at.”
As he meanders into hikerly anecdotes, I start to space out. While my fellow trackers feast on trailside snacks, my stomach is roaring with envy: The only thing I fed on this morning was a stale gas-station muffin. Proof, perhaps, that it’s not advisable to roam the wilderness without proper provisions.
“You want a snack?” Govatski asks. He and his wife are tearing through individually portioned bags of trail mix — the kind with dried mangos and expensive nuts.
“I wouldn’t want to impose,” I lie.
“Are you kidding?” Govatski says. “I have enough for two days in the backcountry.”
“If I had known you hadn’t brought anything,” adds a woman from St. J., “I would have packed an extra sandwich.”
We start back at a brisk pace; animals are active mostly at dusk and dawn, so it’s unlikely we’ll spot any new tracks. About halfway to the parking lot, though, Sullivan veers off trail.
After tromping through some undergrowth, our guide emerges at the edge of a small pond and directs our attention to a line of perfectly formed otter tracks. Because the snow out there is wind-swept and hard-packed, we can see details that wouldn’t be apparent in deeper drifts. For example, the tracks show where the otter dragged his tail, mid-waddle.
“These tracks are fresh,” Govatski observes with a theatrical flourish. “Very fresh.”
“I think they were made after we came through,” Sullivan says, his face glowing with Boy Scout-ish excitement.
“You think he’s underneath?” someone asks of the slippery mammal.
“Yeah, we’ll have to leave him alone in a second. But I need to get a picture first.”
Later, I strike up a friendly conversation with Govatski, hoping he’ll supplement Sullivan’s lesson with some extra tidbits of animal lore. But this tracker has been studying up on our species, too. As my Nissan comes into view, Govatski points out that all the spruce trees in our vicinity represent secondary, as opposed to primary, growth. In other words, this forest is relatively young.
A subsequent email explains why. Citing a 1989 historical tome, Govatski writes that the area we crossed on foot is the former site of a 19th-century lumber mill. During its heyday, I learn, the mill employed about 90 people and turned some 5 million feet of spruce wood per year into “shingles,” “lath,” “clapboard,” “chair stock” and “piano sounding boards.” Not surprisingly, the trail upon which we spotted animal paw prints was once a logging railroad.
Or, you might say, a stretch of train tracks.