Tracking an Eastern Divide

My use of the term “tracking” is connected to the ancient craft of hunting. I began a pipeline corridormidday walk through the Greenwood State Forest near my home in order to track wildlife in the fresh snow (several inches had fallen two days earlier). I wasn’t actually hunting, just looking for tracks and other sign in the snow, as well as keeping an eye out for birds. Finches had reportedly irrupted from Canadian provinces– moved south from their usual winter grounds because their food supplies were gone, and I was hoping once again to get glimpses of such species as the pine and evening grosbeaks, the two types of crossbills, and maybe redpolls and pine siskins.

tracksTracking wild birds and other animal sign in winter is a good way to stay informed about the land we live on and to better know our place in the natural environment. To one degree or another, I’ve been fascinated with tracking wild life since my days as a kid, and today I’m just as fascinated by the possibilities. On the snow and in the woods and all along the meadow edges, I still make a stab at learning what happened the night before. I still wonder how we all fit into the picture that is drawn from animal tracks, and I wonder if our dreams of living in harmony with nature are anything more than just another lost cause.

The tracking of animals has been going on since the dawn ofup Homo sapiens. Tracking, for the kill, has been with us for at least 40 thousand years and it might be said to constitute the very first implementation of science. Out in Greenwood Forest I was not looking for meat. I was looking for specific signs, however, something for the sustenance of soul (perhaps a fisher track on the forest floor, or pine grosbeaks settling briefly on the tops of conifers).

Eyes were kept ahead of me on the snow, as well as on the branches of cedar, spruce and pine. The state forest here is 907 acres, about one-third of it planted in mixed conifers by the CCC crews back in the 1930s. Remnants of abandoned farms are slowly disappearing. While looking for specifics in nature, I didn’t want to exclude the overall picture or the chance of finding something new.

A walking stick seemed essential. Not only does the stick support my wavering stride, itbetween allows me to keep my eyes away from my boots while searching up ahead and out toward the peripheries.

Access to the forest is easy on a pipeline corridor for natural gas. I walked more than a mile of it and then returned, making short forays into the trees and small clearings. The forested ridge divides two major watersheds, pushing off water like a heart that pumps away blood then calls it all back home.

underI tried to pace the action of the eyes and other senses, wanting them balanced between the specific and the general, but that’s easier said than done. I don’t know if I accomplished what I set out to do, or if any of it really matters in the end.

I found no tracks of the fisher, but I briefly followed signs of fox, coyote, mice, and deer. I saw no finches or examples of bird irruption from the north, but listened to faint notes of the black-capped chickadee, golden-crowned kinglet, and red-breasted nuthatch. Ultimately I may have been tracking little more than some old guy (myself) looking for a pattern in wild animal behavior.

trackerFor several hours in the winter forest, it was nice to see an absence of the clamoring human world and, thankfully, a near absence of myself. That’s where it helps to keep the center of attention up ahead and out beyond.

But every boot print that I found while going out and coming back seemed to match the bottom of my shoes.

When the snow melts, water will trickle off the ridge and move on toward the Susquehanna and the Chesapeake. A crow’s hop to the west, the melt will reach the Genesee, Ontario and north Atlantic.sugar maples

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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8 Responses to Tracking an Eastern Divide

  1. I now know what an irruption is! Thanks for another great trip through the northern woods.

  2. Ken G says:

    I love heading out and doing the same thing, only we’ve yet to have snow here. Currently getting rain that’s supposed to add up to 2 inches over night. Upside, don’t have to shovel that.

    Once while out hunting on a low cloud day I got turned around cause of the lack of sun and felt lost. Came across a set of footprints and felt sorry for the guy being as lost as me, until I looked at the bottom of my boot and realized it was me.

    • Sorry you haven’t had any snow yet, Ken. If that rainfall had its moisture equivalent in snow tonight, you’d be shoveling for sure, then get some tracking in, to boot. Speaking of boots, and your anecdote of the bootprints of the lost, reminds me that some guys who’d gotten turned around in the wild just do a circuit over and over again until they collapse. Pretty sad. But not as pitiful as the lady who couldn’t find her exit from the Washington Beltway and drove around the damned thing countless times until she ran out of gas.


  3. Joseph Hord says:

    I’ve always enjoyed both hunting and just tracking in the woods after a snow. Unfortunately for me, our snowfalls are few and far between. Looks like a great trip!

    • Joseph, Snowfall isn’t rare only in NC this year, it’s surprising how much of the country is missing out. Perhaps it’s still part of the ongoing drought situation that is so widespread. Up here we seem to be having a “normal” year so far with regard to snowfall, but as I write the snow is disappearing underneath a heavy rainfall. All that beneficial water is just washing off downstream. Thanks!


  4. I have always been amazed by the amount of animal activity some days, while other days there is none.

    • Peter, Wouldn’t it be something if certain wild areas had designated holidays for the creatures, den days set aside for “leisure,” that we 2-leggeds know nothing about?


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