Wolf tracking Bear tracking Wolf

The wolves and bears have been active out back, leaving fresh tracks almost daily. As they move through the land, their great paws press into the soft evening snow or sketch delicate lines in the icy crust of early morning. They appear to move with a purpose, leaving linear trails as if a location is in mind or meandering across the valley in an even pace, perhaps a rodent hunt driving the direction.

Bear tracks in Yellowstone

Bear tracks in Yellowstone

I ski up the valley and follow the trails. The tracks are old enough, I don’t worry about disturbing either wolf or bear, and I stay in the open, not venturing into the dense woods on either side of the valley where the trails inevitably lead. Much can be learned from following tracks, not least a better understanding of the habits and cycles of those who share residence in this valley.

Last week, the wolves – two of them – dropped down into the small clearing at the head of the valley, traveling in a fairly straight line. Then something altered their movement; they made a right angle turn to head off in another direction. Snow doesn’t always tell the whole story, and I puzzled over that turn, following the changed trajectory, leaving my ski tracks parallel to the wolf tracks, up to the point where they inevitably headed up into the dense woods.

I am not the only creature following tracks. A bear came down sometime after my visit – probably in the pre-dawn light – and followed the wolf tracks. The canines passed when the snow was soft, leaving deep distinct prints; the bear moved through when the crust had formed, leaving only ghostly impressions decorated with claw-holes. The bear walked over the wolf tracks, paw on paw, paralleling my ski tracks. The bear made an abrupt right angle turn where the wolves had turned, where I had turned, where now the bear turned, following tracks. The bear tracked the wolves, until breaking off from the trail, heading up a small side gully where the snow was soft, and the bear’s big feet sank six inches down, leaving a track that went – inevitably – off into the dense woods.

Next day, I skied up-valley. Now wolf had tracked bear. The snow held the story. Where the bear had moved up the side gully, the wolf followed – placing each paw directly into the bear’s deep prints. I followed for a time, witnessing the wolf walking within the bear’s track, canine on bruin, paw on paw, precisely centered step for step.  

This tracking is not a matter of taking an easy route and walking in a packed track. It is not simply a coincidental following. There is a deliberate nature in the way paw goes on paw. An awareness. This I believe because of the bear who walked in my tracks.

It was another year, in late autumn. I walked up the valley behind the cabin – the same valley where the wolves and bears are now walking – leaving my tracks in an inch of fresh snow. As day passed to night, the nocturnal wanderings of a bear brought her to my trail.  She encountered my prints, and changed her direction of travel, even as she altered her gait. That great bear shifted from her steady pigeon-toed pace to the narrow, straight-footed movement of this human. She set each big paw directly on each boot print, aligning her walk with mine across the meadow and away. With each and every step, her paw centered on my footprint, deliberate, focused, and precise.

In the crisp air of the next morning, I discovered our overlapping journeys, her tracks pressed into mine, all preserved in ice.

I walked with her. I set each foot directly on her great prints, boot on paw, striding in her track (that was in my track) out to the point where she had left my path of the day before to take her own direction and return to her own stride. And so I altered my gait to match her steady pigeon toed pace across the meadow, trundling in a movement that let me put boot on paw, step for step, until her tracks led inevitably up into the deep woods. There, our paths diverged. I paused at the point where I left her trail, wondering if she would return and know.

This last week, there in the back pasture, bear tracked wolf, and wolf tracked bear. I make my temporary sojourns into the valley, crossing paths with that community. The conscious movement of the animals’ tracking is clear. Curiosity? Survival? Play? Gaining wisdom, I would guess, of a kind we may not understand. As I walk the lands around my home, I am also conscious of the many creatures who note my passing – or will become aware of it later, perhaps as darkness falls and the icy crust takes hold of the snow.

Sometimes I think of this and hold the memory. A bear has walked in my footsteps, and I have walked in hers.

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