The 7:00 am sun streams through the window, the lobstermen are checking their traps, the loons are aoohooooooooing, and the dogs are breathing in my face. It’s time to head off for a morning walk in woods…with the grandchildren! Ridiculous! Children don’t want to get up for an early morning walk in the woods with their grandparents. Well, of course they don’t, unless the walk involves “tracking wildlife”!
We walk outside into the mist rising off the lake and walk purposefully around the cabin. Right at the edge of the forest we spot a print in the mud… and another, and another. How many toes does it have? Are there claw marks? Are they spread far apart or close together? Where are they heading? These particular prints have two toes and look like hoof prints – large cloves with the widely rounded tip tapering down to V at the heal. They point down the path towards the lake. I conjure a printout of various animal tracks and scat and lay them out beside the hoof print. The grandchildren match the hoof mark to the picture and declare that this animal is most certainly, a deer! Evidence mounts when we find deer scat along the pathway. The hoof prints are close together, about the length of a deer, so she or he is walking slowly. Then we notice a set of tiny hoof prints nearby – maybe a mother and fawn. The tracks lead to a thicket of brush, where vegetation is broken, crushed and matted down….a deer bed most likely. But no sleepy fawn lies here.
We continue to walk along the waters edge and notice a partial set of paw prints. It looks like something heavy was dragged along behind, covering much of the print. We match tracks again, and agree…this must be a beaver. It is then we notice gnawed off saplings and begin to imagine. Our beaver must be a female. The heavy thing she was dragging was probably her broad flat tail, or maybe it was the sapling….she must be a pregnant female… building a lodge where she can have her litter of kits. We walk on…looking for the beaver dam, following the crystal clear stream that trickles through the forest.
The forest is enchanting – covered with budding pine trees, red bunchberries, sun-dappled ferns and mossy green fields. And just when we think the forest couldn’t get any more magical, we stumble across tiny moss houses! Someone has built tiny fairy houses and gnome homes in the mossy embankments to attract magical, mysterious creatures. They’ve used whatever building materials nature provided – bark and berries, sticks and shells, nuts, pinecones and mushroom caps. Some have pebble pathways and names like Oberon, Tatiana and Aethelwine, while others are fairy cabins in the woods….vacation homes we presume! So we stop for awhile and build our own fairy houses at the base of hollowed out stump – fashioning a tiny fence out of twigs, a roof of acorns, and bark window boxes overflowing with red berries. We name it Sharon…spelling out the name in tiny pebbles.
Reluctantly we leave this mossy haven, and continue our walk in the woods along the forest path until we come to where our stream backs up and widens into a pond. We hear a loud slap on the water – a warning! Then we see a furry mammal dive under the water, as another on the far bank slides down the muddy bank into the pond. Are there others? Perhaps our beaver really does have a family and this is their home.
As we head home …we start planning out loud. Maybe our project this summer could be to learn more about this forest environment, and about the animals that live here, their behavior and the visual clues they leave behind – what they eat, how fast they travel, where they sleep, whether they’ve been chased or caught. We could make plaster molds of the different tracks we find, or make paper prints and put them in a book with pictures of each animal, and tell their story.
Today, we tracked animals—a deer and her fawn, and a family of beavers. Perhaps we’ll call tomorrow’s walk in the woods “photo safari!”
Lori Stewart is the author of “If I had as many grandchildren as you…” (http://www.ifihadasmanygrandchildrenasyou.com/) released by Palmar Press. She lives in California and spends her time writing and running AFTA Associates, an organization she started that supports wildlife conservation through community enterprise.