Mountain Tracks ~ Mike Barenti


We saw the black wolf howl before we heard the noise. By the time the sound reached us, the other wolves around the meadow – their heads thrown back and mouths open to the sky – had joined in, changing the howl so that it rose and fell in time with some strange wolf rhythm then bent like a note reverberating from a Stratocaster before finally dropping back into silence. Maybe two dozen of us stood by the side of the road in Yellowstone National Park watching and listening. The howling came in waves and lasted fifteen minutes, and while it went on, nobody talked. After it ended, people began to whisper. “It was like watching a live version of a television nature show,” a man said. It’s a frequent Yellowstone comment.

“The wolves know we’re watching them,” a woman said. Her statement, of course, was true. The wolves were close enough that anybody could see them, even without binoculars, and we must have been equally visible to them. But that wasn’t what she meant. For her, the wolves hadn’t howled to define territory or to bond with one another or for any of the other reasons wolves howl even when nobody is around. They had howled just for us, just for her really. At some other time, in some other place, I might have found her comment silly or annoying, but I think she was searching for a way that she could mean as much to the wolves as the wolves meant to her, and I understood that desire for some deeper connection.

I lived near Yellowstone for a few years, and visited the park frequently, but also spent much of my time outdoors on national forest land, where the wildlife is somewhat less abundant and much less visible. Seeing animals wasn’t unusual but I never thought they were putting on a show. I was the police reporter at a small paper in eastern Idaho then, and so worked odd hours, which often left me with mornings free. Even during the short days of winter I could still get outside and at least once a week, I skied the snowed-over forest service roads not far from town. I was just learning to ski then, and had immediately realized that while anybody who can walk can cross-country ski, achieving efficiency and grace on the skinny boards wasn’t so easy.

One day, as I labored uphill, feet turned pigeon toed so the skies left little herringbone marks on the trail, I noticed something had punched divots the size of small plates into the snow. The oblong, egg-shaped holes made the trail look as potholed as a neglected road at the end of a long winter.

It was six degrees. At the time, I though that was bitter cold. The air burned my lungs as I worked uphill. My legs ached. My back hurt. Sweat soaked the clothes under my too-heavy coat. I quickly forgot about the trail divots in my overheated discomfort.

I was still trying to figure out how to dress for the cold, slowly discovering that if I was comfortable at the start of a trip, I would be miserable after I began moving, and that a big part of dressing involved figuring out how much cold I could stand early on. After the trail leveled, I stripped off a layer of unneeded clothes. Ice had formed on the inside of my shell, and little bits fell to the ground as I shoved it in a small pack. More frozen sweat coated the outside of my blue fleece shirt and black fleece vest so that it looked like I had been dipped in frost. But I was comfortable, and skied over to again ponder the mystery divots.

It hadn’t snowed for a week or so and the weather recently had shifted from days with highs near freezing to a more consistent cold, putting the snow through several thaw and freeze cycles, which had erased any details that might suggest the divots’ origins. I shrugged, wiped my face, then kicked and poled my way down the trail. After forty minutes or so, I turned back so I could make it into work on time. I was already running a little late. I pressed my skies, trying to get some traction on the hard snow and stabbed at the ground with my poles, doing what I could with my beginner skills to go fast. Stands of green conifers softened the winter light, and I fell into my body, concentrating only on arms and legs and lungs, on the feel of skies and poles against snow.

Two dark shapes moved from the shadows onto the trail, but didn’t immediately register, and I kept going. Then they stopped, and even before I identified the shapes, something told me I should stop too. At twenty yards the gangly-legged moose calf was big, its mother even bigger. A light wind ruffled fur on the cow’s back as she moved herself between me and her calf. This was my first close-up moose encounter. With its too-long legs, odd-shaped nose, and strange flap of skin, called a bell, hanging from its neck, the cow looked as cartoonish as Bullwinkle, making it hard to take her seriously. But I had heard moose, especially a mother with a calf, could be as dangerous as a grizzly bear, so I needed to take her seriously. Trying to gauge intentions, I didn’t move even as I realized I was much too close to the moose.

The cow stood solid, like she was rooted in the snow. Slowly, carefully, quietly, I turned and skied away. I looked over my shoulder again and again and then again. The moose didn’t move. Finally, the animals were out of sight and I was confident the cow wouldn’t charge and stomp me into the snow. I stopped and waited a few minutes, figuring they would move on.

They were gone when I started back to my truck. Only hoof prints revealed their passing. Each track echoed the shape of a hoof: cloven, sharp at the ends, rounded at the backs, long and narrow yet somehow delicate considering they belonged to an eight-hundred-pound animal. The cow’s tracks were maybe six inches long, the calf’s maybe half that length. After a few days, or a week of thawing and refreezing, the tracks would look like the divots I had been pondering.

Studying the new tracks, I saw where the moose had come out of the trees, how they had stopped, how the cow had shifted position to protect her calf, and how they had moved off together after I left. Back in the conifers, where the snow was softer, the cow and calf tracks merged into a single trail, and I guessed that the young moose had fallen in behind its mother to save energy. That conclusion seemed logical, but to reach it meant stepping out of my world and into the moose’s.

Snow is the perfect tracking surface since an animal can’t move across it without leaving a sign of its passing, and after the moose encounter, it seemed like whenever I skied, I always spent a few minutes here and there poking at tracks. I suppose I was trying to find the same sort of meaning in the tracks as the woman in Yellowstone had sought from her encounter with the wolves, although I doubt I would have admitted that then. It felt like spying.

I maintained my tracking habit even after I moved to eastern Washington and met and married my wife. I think my wife, a wildlife biologist, finally tired of hearing me guess and speculate about tracks on our winter outings, and so signed me up for a tracking class as a present. This was right around the time we learned she was pregnant with our first child.

The class was open to anybody, but geared towards professional biologists, and more than half the students who had come to Yellowstone for the class would use what they learned to conduct wildlife surveys. For a few days, we immersed ourselves not only in the mechanics of animal movement but in its language. We spoke not in the everyday vernacular of walk or run but in a language of gaits, of how legs moved and feet hit the ground, until we understood walk and trot and gallop in a way an equestrian would find familiar.

At a walk, at least one, and sometimes two or three feet remain on the ground at all times, and the animal leaves two rows of alternating prints. At a trot, the animal not only travels faster than at a walk, which you would expect, but moves differently, which you might not expect, especially from just looking at its tracks. The front foot and opposite hind foot move at the same time and for a brief period all four feet are off the ground. This creates a trail that looks like one left by a walking animal, but the distance between each print of a trotting animal is farther apart since the animal is covering more ground.

At a gallop, the animal is completely airborne once during a slow gallop, or lope, and twice during a fast gallop. Galloping creates clusters of four prints, each separated from the next by significant space, and depending on how the animal gallops, the clusters typically look like either diagonal lines or the letter “C”. Buffalo and cats usually leave diagonal clusters; antelope, deer, and dogs C-shaped clusters.

We spent mornings in a classroom learning our new language and afternoons skiing through a valley full of wintering elk and buffalo. Sitting in the classroom, everything I had learned made sense. Out in the snow, studying tracks, trying to figure what animal had made them and what gait it had used wasn’t so easy. When I called my wife that first evening of classes, after she told me about her doctor’s visit and the baby, I said “I’m failing my vacation.” I was only half joking.

The next day, after a morning discussion in the classroom, we broke up into small groups and headed outside. Sagebrush and rabbit-brush and great clumps of wild rye broke the level winter white of the valley floor. Somewhere off in the distance a handful of buffalo plowed through the snow with their shaggy heads to reach the grass below. The weather was unseasonably warm, which left the snow either so soft it couldn’t hold a track’s details or impenetrably hard from re-freezing at night. Still our group managed to find some decent tracks. The tracks showed claws and four toes situated in front of a triangular-shaped pad called the plantar or interdigital pad. The tracks were robust, but not overly large, and had a boxy, almost rectangular shape. Nobody doubted they were made by a coyote. We spent twenty minutes taking measurements anyway.

Because so much of what biologists do now has to withstand court challenges, it’s not enough for them to say a wolf or lynx or wolverine or whatever animal made a set of tracks, the biologist must provide empirical data to back up that claim. So over time, trackers have come up with average measurements for the tracks of various animals. Still on our skies, we laid out a tape measure, and starting at the back edge of the track made by the coyote’s right rear paw, we measured the distance to the next print left by that same right rear paw. The measurement, called stride, was thirty inches, and exactly matched the average stride of a walking coyote.

Later that day, we skied out to a road that in summer led to a campground. Exposed to the sun, the snow had the consistency of oatmeal. An old set of tracks had melted away until they were little more than a line of indentations in the snow. Our lead instructor was with us and someone in the group asked, “What made those tracks?” It sounded more like a challenge than a question.

“There’s no way to know for certain, but I’d guess a coyote,” he said.

“Why?” the student asked.

The instructor had the edge of one ski marked off like a yardstick and he moved the ski next to the tracks and measured the stride. “That’s pretty close to what you would expect from a coyote,” he said. He then went on to say the animal had moved from south to north. To me, the tracks showed absolutely no details, so I couldn’t understand how he knew that. He explained that when an animal’s paw or hoof hits the snow, it pushes up a wall of snow in front of the foot and then, as the animal pushes off, creates a slanting ramp at the back. Even devoid of other details, those old coyote tracks still showed a wall and ramp.

Anything moving leaves those tell-tale signs in their wake, even people. I remember an old movie, staring Charles Bronson I think, where the main character is a trapper accused of murder and fleeing from the Mounties. At some point he puts his snowshoes on backwards and fools the Mounties’ trackers, who head off in the wrong direction. I know now it was nothing more than a Hollywood creation.

Our next day out in the field, not far from where we found the melted-out coyote tracks, our group skied across wolf tracks. There was no mistaking them for a coyote’s. I took off my glove and placed my hand down on the snow next to one of the paw prints. It was bigger than the palm of my hand. Someone pulled out a measuring tape and stretched it across the snow to determine the wolf’s stride. It was almost four feet. Whenever I had watched wolves move, I had always marveled at how quickly they cover ground, even at an easy trot. Looking at those tracks, at the great distance between each footfall, I understood.

Our instructor asked when the wolf had made the tracks.  A layer of ice covered the snow, and with each step, the wolf had broken through the ice. I had noticed that the thermometer outside the small cluster of cabins where we were staying hadn’t dipped below freezing until around eight the previous night, so I guessed out loud that the wolf had traveled through at maybe nine. The instructor reminded me that the ground temperature would have dropped much faster, and the snow would have frozen over much sooner. He figured the wolf traveled through around six or seven. I could imagine that while I made dinner the night before, a wolf on a hunting trail had trotted through the dark valley, and with that revelation, the wolf somehow seemed more knowable.

After I returned home, I went out tracking a few times, dutifully measuring coyote and snowshoe hare tracks. But winter was almost over, and in a few weeks I traded my skies for a kayak and gave up tracking for the season. My daughter was born in the fall, and my wife and I worked at incorporating her into our usual activities. We usually skied at a small state park not far from our home. A paper company had owned the land before it became a park, and various trails wind their way through stands of second-growth conifers. In summer, mountain bikers, hikers, and horseback riders use the paths; in winter, a small snowcat lets park rangers etch a set of parallel grooves into the snow for traditional cross-country skiers and pack a wide, smooth section of snow for skate skiers.

On an early trip to the park that first winter with our daughter, my wife and I slid across the trails, me in front – my pole plants sometimes falling out of sync with my kicking legs – my wife gliding easily behind, my daughter slung on my wife’s back in one of those packs made for carrying kids. Being bigger and stronger, being the father I suppose, I sometimes felt I should have carried our child, but my wife has skied since she was three and has an on-snow grace I still cannot match. While I’m a better skier than I was that first winter in Idaho, time hasn’t negated my southern upbringing. Snow remains a foreign substance to me, and skiing, although I love it, a foreign activity. Besides, my wife was less likely than me to do something stupid that might have resulted in a crash.

Skate skiers zoomed by us while we kept to the grooves. Sometimes I heard my wife repeating the names of the trees as we passed them – hemlock, spruce, fir – words beyond meaning for my three-month-old daughter. We passed a set of tracks falling into the woods along the trail. Even at a glance, they looked different from the snowshoe hare and squirrel tracks marking the woods, exotic in shape and spacing, as if they belonged to some distant land. My wife almost piled into the back of me when I stopped.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I want to go back to look at something,” I said, planting my poles as I brought my right leg up and around, to make a one-eighty. I stumbled a little with the kick turn but didn’t loose my balance. I stepped around my wife, our daughter bundled against the cold in the pack, and made my way slowly back until I found what I was looking for.

I stepped off the groomed trail. My skies flexed as they captured my weight before I sank too deep into sugary snow that hid the leafless huckleberry bushes and clumps of green-bear grass growing beside the trails. The previous summer, my wife, pregnant and round bellied, had settled into the soft bear-grass, which isn’t a grass at all but a lily, while we picked huckleberries at the park. The bear-grass had just finished blooming then and long flower stalks full of seed pods swayed above the lily clumps. By early winter, the straw-colored flower stalks remained, their tops standing clear of the snow, but the seeds were long gone.

“Hemlock, spruce, fir, larch.” My wife named the trees again for my daughter as I inspected the tracks.

Whatever animal made the tracks had sunk deep enough so that snow hid the details of each print. I took off my glove, and like an archeologist digging through a layer of dirt, brushed away the remains of the winter’s most recent storm to get a better look. The cold pricked at my fingers, numbed and reddened them so badly that by the time I shoved my hand back into my glove, they barely moved.

With the surrounding snow gone, I could see the print clearly – four small toe pads arched around a larger, triangular-shaped planter pad. The print showed no claw marks, and that, along with the two rounded lobes at the top of the planter pad, made me certain I was looking at a cat track. Delicate and not that much larger than the prints of my housecat, each an almost perfect circle in the snow, they were too small for a mountain lion and both too small and too clear for a hairy-footed lynx. That left bobcat.

I followed the bobcat’s tracks into the trees, but the mountainside was steep and the hemlocks and the lodgepole pines clumped close together so that I couldn’t ski through them. I sank past my knees when I stepped out of my skis. I pushed them tail-first into the snow so they stood upright before I continued downhill. High stepping like a drum major leading a parade, I sank over and over again until each step became an effort unto itself. Snow fell into my boot tops. Cold melt water soaked into my socks. Even using my poles for balance, I was breathing hard after a minute or two. I had to stop. The bobcat’s tracks were evenly spaced, showing it had moved steadily and easily through the snow, not changing pace for deadfall or terrain shifts. I marveled at how it must have flowed over the country, fast and silent. I could never move like that.

I worked my way back uphill, carefully stepping in my original tracks – a useless attempt to make the return trip easier. By the time I retrieved my skies and reached the trail, my wife had moved to where she could see the tracks. She had probably already figured out what had made them, but between heavy breaths, I told her anyway then pointed and uttered “bobcat” to my daughter. I stepped into my bindings, the three of us headed off, and I could again hear my wife murmuring – “hemlock, spruce, fir, larch, lodgepole pine” – to my daughter as we skied.

On other ski trips that winter, I occasionally found more bobcat tracks, some in almost the exact spot I had seen them that first time. I always assumed the same animal had made all the tracks I saw, although there’s no way to be certain of that, and I took some comfort in their presence in the same way I took comfort in my wife whispering to my daughter while we slid over the snow.

By late winter, when snow reached past the tops the old bear-grass flower stalks and my daughter had grown too heavy for a backpack, we bought a specialized trailer for her to ride in. The trailer was stable, so even if the person pulling it fell, it stayed upright, and I became responsible for pulling the trailer and my daughter. My daughter was small for her age but weighed enough that combined with the weight of the trailer, I felt a kind of herky-jerky sensation when I skied. Even on the flats, the trailer yanked against me with each push of the skies. Going uphill, I imagined I would slide back to the bottom if I paused. I didn’t mind pulling my daughter, but it took away the rhythmic kick and glide of skiing, and I missed that.

So when one of the frequent winter-time temperature inversions layered thick fog into the valley where I live, I used it as an excuse to sneak away during the week and ski alone, something I hadn’t done since my daughter was born. The inversions can leave the valley gray and sunless for weeks, but in the mountains, above the fog, the sky remains a brilliant blue. It was maybe fifteen degrees on the mountain, and I stood beside my pickup in the ski area’s nearly empty parking lot sorting through clothes, trying to decide how uncomfortable I wanted to be for the first mile or two of my outing. A pair of ravens tumbled past, their blackness stark against the cloudless sky, their croak croaking calls startling against the silence of a windless mountain afternoon.

Finally, I threw a light jacket on over my polypro and made my way to the trail head. The start would be cold, but not overly so, and as I warmed up, I could fold the jacket into its built-in storage pouch and strap it on with its built-in belt. I kicked up a short hill and shivered a little as I fell into the motions of the afternoon. Cold air filled my lungs and puffed out in steamy breaths. My skies grabbed just right and the snow was fast. I pushed with my legs and back and arms, and each push sped me down the trail. I felt almost graceful.

Hoar frost refracted light across the snow like the shards from a million broken mirrors. Snowshoe hare and red squirrel tracks littered the snow, but I skied on without breaking stride. By the time I reached the first trail junction, I was warm. I paused to take my jacket off, and then, lost in sunshine and movement, picked a moderately hilly trail without really giving it much thought. A set of tracks marked the un-groomed snow on the trail’s left side and then again on its right. I stopped. The tracks were sharp and crisp and I had little doubt that sometime early that morning, a coyote had crossed the trail moving from left to right. I found no tracks in the hard snow of the ski trail and suspected the animal had crossed before the park rangers had groomed.

Frost formed on my clothes. I felt chilled, and started skiing again. The trail rose and dipped as it wound through the stands of hemlock, spruce, fir, larch, and lodgepole, and from time to time, I could see the coyote tracks paralleling me. After awhile I began to wonder if what I was looking at were not coyote tracks but the tracks of somebody’s dog running beside them as they skied. Dogs aren’t allowed on groomed trails, but maybe if the skier had been out late at night or early in the morning, the dog would have gone unnoticed. I didn’t have anything with me to measure the tracks, and even if I had, it wouldn’t have mattered. In the structure and shape of their paws and in the way they move, domestic dogs carry with them all the traits and patterns of their wild ancestors, so there is no single thing anyone can look at to definitively distinguish coyote tracks from those of a dog. Location, on a mountain far from houses, suggested coyote; behavior, following a trail used by people, suggested dog.

The trail worked its way around a mountain, and as it turned uphill, trees thinned and stunted until it was possible to see across them. Mountain peaks rose up from the fogged valley like tall islands rising out of a flat, grey ocean. Where the afternoon light lingered, the mountains glowed pink. Close to the top of the rise, a second set of tracks raced through a thin stand of wind-twisted trees, over a patch of open snow, and down toward the ski trail. Like the first set of tracks, they were sharp and crisp, showing claws and four toes. I backtracked up the hill long enough to find they also followed the ski trail, but on the opposite side of the ones I had studied all afternoon. Coyotes often move in pairs, paralleling each other a few hundred yards apart.

I had my answer about what made the tracks, but thought I could extract more information. I kick turned retracing my path back downhill, but by the time I reached the spot where the coyote should have crossed the ski trail, its tracks vanished. I slid onto the groomed snow confused. Farther away and not quite where I had expected them, I spotted the tracks. They showed not the right-left-right-left, hind foot landing in almost the same spot as the front foot pattern of a trot, but the C-shaped, four-print cluster of a gallop.

The coyote tracks veered toward another set of tracks. A snowshoe hare’s. For a moment I anticipated the high drama of the chase and of the kill. Instead, the two animal tracks crossed at a right angle, the coyote’s on top of the hare’s. They had been there at different times. Past the hare tracks, the second coyote had dropped back to a trot and its tracks finally merged with those of the first coyote.

I had learned a good deal from following the tracks – knew there were two coyotes, knew one had broken into a gallop, and even knew the coyote had galloped on a right lead. Urine-stained snow, if I could find it, might tell me the coyotes’ sex and status in the pack, but saw nothing. Down in the trees below the trail, I looked for a place in the snow where they had stopped to greet one another. Again nothing. I didn’t even know if the two coyotes had traveled together.

I could guess what had happened based on typical coyote behavior, but could never be certain, could only go so far into the coyotes’ world. Living with mystery is not something I do easily, but there was no choice. The hillside steepened and the trees bunched so close they became impenetrable. I turned around, made my way back to the groomed trail, and skied back to my truck.