This being the final All Outdoors column of 2017 it seems only fitting that it appear on Christmas Day. In the 27 years since All Outdoors first appeared within the pages of the Rolling Thunder Express there have only been a few occasions when the publishing schedule coincided with a major holiday. Oddly enough, the first column of 2018 will appear on New Year’s Day – like the eclipse, not likely to happen again for quite some time. I’ll leave the predictive calculations up to the mathematicians in the audience.
For decades I have used this year’s-end column to record my final woodland ramble of the calendar year. I had thought about doing otherwise this year just for a change of pace but, of course, events in the wild world caused me to reconsider. I barely got to the back yard bird feeders when I noticed something that affected my entire day. A peculiar trail in the snow leading out of the woods, past the wood shed and into the corn pile changed my plans – it’s often that simple!
We’d had a light dusting of snow overnight so the tracks were clear and sharp on the pre-existing skim of crust left over from the last storm. At first glance I thought I’d had a visit from an otter or a mink because the first thing I noticed was drag marks about 4 inches wide in the snow with wide footprints on either side. I’d seen otters make such a trail between waterways in winter, and I’d trapped enough mink over the years to make me wonder except that I knew mink are meat eaters and none too fond of corn or bird seed.
Too curious to ignore the evidence, I got my woolies and winter boots on and headed out to find out what had made the unusual tracks. I got as far as the wood shed before it became clear to me – a porcupine had passed through. The crust was hard enough and the dusting was light enough that only his foot prints and dragging tail showed on the surface, but here and there the animal broke through the crust, giving himself away in just the first 50 yards. I found a few black hairs and a broken quill along the way, and just like that the mystery was solved.
Of course, being out and about and adequately dressed for a cold, windy day, I decided to follow the trail to see just how far and where a wandering December porcupine might go. I had an inkling that it would not be far and would likely end at the base of a hemlock somewhere nearby, but I was entirely mistaken on that score. The porcupine waddled through the open hardwoods for several hundred yards before it turned and headed into the local bog, where it seemed to meander without purpose for close to a mile. The trail passed any number of hemlocks, hollow logs and den trees without diverting. Two hours into the trek I’d seen deer tracks, coyote tracks, rabbit and squirrel tracks, even the wing-marks of an owl that had swooped down to pluck a mouse off the surface of the snow. On and on the porcupine plodded, never stopping to eat or rest, simply ambling along at a walking pace, leaving that tell-tale tail-dragging mark behind him.
I followed the trail for several hours, not sure where the porcupine was going or where the trail would end, but over time I began to realize that the animal was making a wide circle, first away from my house and then almost straight back to it. I began to think that he was going to end up under the wood shed or perhaps under the back deck, where I’ve found winter porcupines in the past, but this time the trail stopped about 200 yards short of the homestead, ending in a great heap of boulders that we locals call The Rock Pile. How those giant stones got there and how anyone could have piled them so neatly without using heavy equipment confounds everyone who sees them. Their location and formation suggests the town’s earliest settlers may have done the work but how (and why) they did so is lost to history.
I doubt that they would have created such a mammoth pile of large stones just to provide shelter for wintering porcupines, but I was happy to leave him there. Porcupines can be a destructive nuisance especially near gardens, wooden buildings and food sources, but this one has no reason to fear retribution as long as he stays in his pile of rocks. Years ago porcupines were valued at about $3 (for their quills) but these days they are not even listed on fur buyers’ charts.
At the end of my excursion I was thankful that the wandering porcupine decided to stop by. The days prior to Christmas are the shortest of the year and are usually cold and dismal, not really conducive to spending time outside. But, his visit gave me a good reason to spend the entire day outdoors. Not only did I get to solve a little tracking mystery but I also got to enjoy the calls of blue jays, crows, ravens, pileated woodpeckers and other birds along the way.
I also thought it amusing that my own curiosity over what made those unusual tracks in the yard resulted in my spending the day in the woods. I do my best to solve or resolve such wildlife mysteries as they occur because I like to figure out who did what and why. It’s certainly much easier to arrive at conclusions based on evidence left in new-fallen snow. Many times during the summer and fall I’ll find piles of fur or feathers on the ground but no tracks or other evidence of a skirmish, leaving me to surmise what happened. A little bit of snow can make a big difference.
I dream of white Christmases, too, but for a different reason!