A wolverine recently traveled over the hill next to home. I found its tracks while snowshoeing, and spent some time puzzling out just who had traversed the ridge.
The paw prints were hard to discern in the crusty spring snow. They were big, larger than coyote, but the stride seemed wrong for a small wolf. Cat? No, not quite right for a mountain lion. I followed the trail until I found a clear track pressed into the snow beneath a tree. Unmistakable. The five toes and distinctive shape told me that a wolverine had passed that way, leaving his mark in the snow.
Wolverine are rare, even in the fairly wild land here on the edge of Yellowstone. I’ve seen the great mustellids a few times over the years, once in close proximity – a male gnashing its teeth at me as a female and two pups disappeared over the ridge. Wolverine embody the essence of wild, with a presence like that of wolves and grizzlies; separate from and not subordinate to humans. On that day when I snowshoed the ridge, I realized I was sharing the woods with that great creature, an awareness gifted to me by the snow.
Snow holds stories. One of my greatest joys is to venture out into the first snowfall of the year and encounter the trail of a shrew, follow the path of the coyote, or find where an owl has taken a mouse. Winter narratives are written into the land. A hole dug by a fox with a bright blood spot in the diggings tells of the death of the vole, the meal of the canine. Slide marks on a snowbank reveal the joy of otter’s play, while bear tracks emerging from the woods reveal the end of hibernation.
Winter is a quiet time, when most life is either conserving energy or simply gone for the season. Yet, the natural community is still alive and vibrant. Moving slowly through the winter landscape, taking the time to observe, notice, be aware, I find that winter is a time to connect with the doings of the land. The challenge is to carry that awareness forward into the summer months, when the tracks are not so clearly printed on the earth. The signs and stories are still there, but it takes a keen eye and an open mind to find them.
That may have been my last snowshoe of the season over that ridge. The trek home was treacherous, the snow’s surface giving way frequently, sending me crashing thigh-deep into slush. I’m watching the meltdown, knowing the tracks so visible only a few days ago will disappear. But the wolverine will still be out there – as will the fox, vole, and owl. I’ll keep an eye open and an ear cocked, looking for sign, hoping for a chance to share a story with that great community of life.