Tired of this winter? If you have to get out in it in the early morning or move a lot of it from one place to another-I surely don't blame you. But for retired people like me, this has been the best winter in a dozen years, like the "good old days" when the snow came and stayed, without rain and warm weather ruining it. We have had only a couple of short rains which left icy crusts, but those have been covered each time by another half foot of fluffy stuff again, heavenly to ski on if you set a track on skis.
I have tracked my own private trail, one step at a time, and it winds through a low valley lined with small balsam fir. These collect blobs and clumps of snow in artistic, photogenic arrangements, some very small trees being totally hidden in pointed snow cones. Snow on arching blown-over trees gradually droops down in gravity-defying scallops. There was a difficult stream crossing where the three feet of snow dropped down vertically to open water. I carried a small shovel, chopped through the icy layers of snow on the side and filled in a bridge wide enough for two skis. Voila! Now I can ski to where monster mud trucks and/or ATV's have made such a wallow that it is not possible to cross the area with anything short of wings.
But of course I never just ski. I try to figure out every track I see, and this trail has a wealth of them. One place is puzzling because of a dearth of deer tracks on a hemlock covered hill where this marginally-winter-adapted animal used to hang out when the snow got too deep elsewhere. They eat hemlock needles pretty happily in the winter so not only does the hemlock grove keep snow from getting too deep (the thickly needled branches hold the snow up until it evaporates), but the deer can continue to reach the lower needles as the snow gets deeper. The rule is that deer go to their "yards" when the snow gets 15 inches deep. These can be 20 miles away, so it seems to me that the elder females who do the leading may forget where to go or may have died if too many years elapse. (Don't know marten? They used to be called sable here. Google them!) Here are the tracks I have seen on my trail this last month: deer mouse, shrew, ruffed grouse, weasel, snowshoe hare, red squirrel; coyote, which walk in one ski track in a neat straight line as does the fox. A fisher coursed back and forth across the trail a half dozen times in one short stretch. And another in the weasel family, an American mink, left a couple of smooth, half-pipe slides in the snow as it went down steep slopes on its cross-country route to the next waterway; these tracks are like otter slides but much smaller. I have yet to see what I knew were American marten tracks, though this beautiful red squirrel- chasing member of the weasel family is said to be in the area now.
Mink males weigh a couple pounds, females a pound and a quarter, and are a dark brown. They can sometimes be seen in daylight as they are a typically fearless weasel. Mink are semi-aquatic, even in a winter like this. You can often see their offset pairs of tracks on a stream going from one open hole to another as they search for crayfish and other aquatic victims.
How would you like to make your living in icy water underneath a thick layer of ice and snow? With their thick coat of underfur they probably don't even notice there is a problem!