Tracking in Algonquin, February 2018
February’s tracking weekend took place in Algonquin Park. Our focus? The sexy area megafauna: Moose, Wolf, Otter and Marten. Here’s a phrase not often associated with Algonquin: Not much snow! Temperature fluctuations this winter have created a snowpack just a foot deep, most of it melted snow that’s frozen again, covered by a few inches of powder. Fortunately, that meant excellent tracking conditions and no need for snowshoes on the first day. But more on that shortly.
The apprentices met up at the Wildlife Research Station on Saturday morning. It had snowed lightly but constantly since Friday night, and Alexis and Lee had found a fresh trail they wanted to explore. But because most of us had been sitting in cars since very early in the morning, we spent the first part of the day investigating the area around the station.
Lee had seen some tracks just up the road — skinny, draggy tracks that wove through spindly branches. The trail would stop in one place, then start again a foot later. It was made by none other than our friend the Ruffed Grouse, eating Beaked Hazel, and flying through the air so fancy free.
But that’s not all! On the same side of the road we discovered a long, curving slide in the snow, interrupted every so often only to resume once more. One went all the way down from the road into the river. It was our first sight of an Otter slide. Friend Otter knew that ice below + powder above = sledding bonanza! It was this trail we followed to as we walked deeper into the trees. Truly the Otter did not put its feet down except to push whenever it lost momentum. When it did, its feet landed in a 3×4 lope, and in places we could see all five toes clearly. Did you know Otters spend 85% of their time on land?
The Otter’s merry jaunt took us from road onto Bat Lake. We saw more grouse tracks and possible Southern Flying Squirrel tracks along the way — southern because of the tiny 2” trail width and boxy track pattern.
In classic tracker fashion, as we were trying to make our way back, we were completely sidetracked by the trail of a Red Fox. Last month’s gait discussion continued: What gait was this? Was it fast or slow? Where were the fronts and the hinds? And so on. As we mulled over these details, we had to ask: Why was this fox running across the shore? Was it running away from something? Intrepid Asian tracker Christina needed to find out more.
Following the trail back into the forest, it went from gallop to lope to side trot to direct register trot. So the fox was speeding up as it left cover. Why? We think these photos tell the story: The Fox was doing its thang when it heard a noise. It stopped and listened, then (1) abruptly turned left. (2) It crept towards the sound in an understep/stalk walk, (3) sat down to listen to where the sound was coming from, and (4) leapt into the air and dove nose-first into the snow! We found the tracks from a David Attenborough nature special, y’all!
So did the fox leave the hunt in a hurry because it was successful or not successful? Discuss among yourselves. The morning was wearing on, so we hopped into our cars and drove to our next destination: Kearney Lake. Alexis and Lee had seen some wolf tracks they wanted to follow. We did a circle in the parking lot then began investigating this new trail, two wolves travelling side by side through the campground.
From what we could tell, the wolves seemed relaxed. We found the places where they sat and wagged their tails. Maybe this was where they had stopped and howled to the rest of the pack! The pair used the human paths to make their way to the lake, and we split up and followed each one. Like most wild canids, their dominant gait pattern was side trot. Evelyn and Arlene explored how each foot would fall in those tracks.
Our group trailed the wolves onto a frozen lake, over a spit of land, onto another lake, and then up the shore into some white pines. Alexis was just saying that he had found some beds here a few years ago when the luck of the tracker struck again: We discovered two wolf beds, and tracks leading out of them to roll marks in the snow. Jackpot!
Each bed measured 18” x 15”. The wolves’ body heat had melted the snow down to the pine needle duff, and the apprentices had little difficulty picking out wolf fur from the frozen edges. One bed had a drop of estrus blood in the bottom, and in a flash, we knew that we were tracking the Alpha male and female. Mating season for wolves begins at the end of January and continues throughout February. The pair typically leaves the rest of the pack to socialize solely with each other — kind of like a honeymoon!
Unsure of how fresh the tracks were, the gang stopped for lunch, in case we were pushing the wolves away. Then we followed them inland, onto Kearney Lake, and across the ice. The wolves trotted one right after the other close to shore. Most of the way, we could not tell that there were two animals, or that there were four sets of tracks in each print. Every once in a while, one wolf would break from the pattern and leave a scent mark. It seemed like they were depositing urine every 50 to 100 metres, and the female’s was red with estrus blood. Notably, they went to every single beaver lodge and scent-marked nearby.
On the other side of Kearney, we followed the wolves over a portage to Pond Lake, where we found our first moose sign: spaghetti feeding on maple. We also found a young balsam fir that had been the victim of a moose antler rub. It was completely debarked from top to bottom. No tracks, though.
By the time we got to Pond Lake, it was late in the afternoon and snowing heavily. We would have to turn back soon. Alexis asked if we wanted to stop and do a howl, then a sit, and the apprentices agreed. Each apprentice walked out to a spot on the shore, and our fearless leader led us in a call of the wild, a call to the wild.
In moments like these, I sometimes find myself entering a sort of trance. Time slows. The sky deepens. I feel my heart beat in time with the earth.
Moments later (or was it years?) we gathered again. It was time to go back.