July 2014 day 2

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Sunday morning dawned with the sound of rain drumming on our tents.  After a soggy packing-up and an equally wet breakfast, the rain eased as we headed out for the day. Those of us who had camped drove to join two more members of our group at the Kimberley General Store (where I, for one, picked up a pie to take home to my family!). We drove a few minutes down the road and entered a trail into the woods.  The sky was clearing now and the temperature rising, but a fresh breeze and some cloud cover kept us comfortable. Rain jackets were stuffed into backpacks, just in case. 
The first stretch of the trail was bordered by farmland. Tall grass on either side of the main trail revealed smaller animal trails. We investigated one, noticing how the soil was compressed when we pushed aside the grass. This small trail led straight to and through a tall horizontally-slatted fence, which gave us some estimates as to the animal’s size. As with the debris tracking of the day before, using our fingers to gently examine the indentations gave us much more information than using our eyes alone. We could see a track pattern that, along with the size information, suggested a raccoon. Looking closely under the grass, we saw that heel pads and toes had made an impression on the soil.
Off ahead, someone spotted a rabbit.  In such a quick flash of movement it was hard to tell the species. We pressed on along the trail and to a wooden bridge over a rushing creek. Scratch marks in the wet wood mystified us. On the other side of the creek, we found a large quantity of deer hair in several places, and a lone deer scapula (shoulder blade). We crossed the bridge and continued to follow the trail upwards, spotting deer, coyote and raccoon tracks on the way.
The trail upward was surrounded by cedars. Looking around, some of us were struck by the high browse line on the cedars.  We were reminded of how deep the snow had been last winter. Alexis pointed out that this area is a highly used “deer yard” in the winter, a place where deer congregate over the cold months to take shelter in the conifers, browse the available vegetation, and make snow travel easier by maintaining well-used trails. The deer had eaten everything they could reach.  And even with that, we learned, many deer in the area had died of starvation and illness this long, cold winter.
Our trail rose past the cedars and into a hardwood forest.  We cut off the trail diagonally to the left, first climbing gradually, then increasingly scrambling with effort. I had cleverly – I thought! – found myself a walking stick, but it proved to be more hindrance than help as the trail got steeper, so I finally tossed it aside and threw my whole body into the climb. Feet sliding in the rain-soaked earth, testing a foothold on stones that occasionally slipped away beneath me; hands grasping for stones, trees, and sometimes a rotten branch. For a while the group’s attention was focused on the ascent. Occasionally, one or another of us stopped for breath, to check that everyone was accounted for, and to look around us: birch, beech, elm, maple, poplars, aspens. A brief break for lunch on a flatter section of stone, and then upwards once more.
We were on a stretch of the Niagara Escarpment crossed by the Bruce Trail, and heading up to the highest vantage point overlooking the Beaver Valley, a spot known as Old Baldy. The last stretch of our climb was more gradual and on a well-used trail. As the group scrambled out to the rocky pinnacle, Jeff and I briefly stood back, our attention drawn by a bird neither of us had seen before perched high up on a branch and singing.  Jeff did a bit of quick research on the spot and identified it as a black-throated green warbler; from a distance its colour looked yellow against the sky. 
I joined the group at the outlook point, a tall column of stone joined to the main cliff by a narrow bridge of rock. There, in the soil, were more deer tracks.  Even at that highest, most treacherous, spot the agile and sure-footed deer had preceded us. The view over the Beaver Valley was stunning. I wondered what the deer had made of it – did they share any of my exhilaration at looking over this vista? What a change in perspective to watch hawks and turkey vultures flying below us. And feeling that momentary imagining of what it would be like to fly out there with them.
We stepped back from the lookout, looped sideways and upwards just a bit more, around some even taller cliffs. Some animal sign showed us that other non-human creatures had preceded us. A group of four clear slashes on a rock made us puzzle over their story, picturing a four-toed creature slipping backwards as it scrambled over the rock. A fox? It was reassuring to see that, like us, other creatures sometimes take a wrong step. Beside us was porcupine scat in the rock crevices; and a large nest, likely vulture, right above us. We climbed around large moss-covered boulders, trying not to grasp the prickly gooseberry and currant shrubs growing in between.
Finally we began to scramble downward, sometimes squatting or sitting to reach the next stable place to stand. Our destination now was the source of the creek we had seen below, a fresh spring gushing from the rock, which had once been a main source of water for the valley. With some coaching from Alexis, we found the right handholds and footholds to climb safely down to the creek and into the small grotto from which the water emerged. We took turns filling our water bottles, drinking the pure clean water, sitting on the rock ledges, resting our bodies, and breathing it all in.   
We left the spring refreshed, with water bottles full. Our route back took us through hardwood forest, into a meadow and again into the coolness of the cedars where we had started our climb.  To the side of our trail, one of the group spotted something white – a second deer scapula. A little further, deer leg bones. Now some of us were scouring the area, sure that more of the deer would be nearby. Mark walked ahead across a small clearing, feeling the pull of a trail through the grass, and on the other side was the rest of the deer skeleton. The skull, lower mandible, spine, leg bones, all scattered close together. We examined the anatomy of the deer, had a close look at its teeth – which were all intact – and realized that there were parts of more than one deer in the mix.  Alexis showed us how to open up a bone to look at the marrow, the best way of assessing the health of a deer prior to its death. The bone marrow of a healthy deer is creamy, and this one was pink, a sign that the animal’s body was using the last of its fat deposits before starvation. There was no sign of struggle in the area, and all evidence pointed to an animal who had died of illness or malnutrition, and whose body had been scavenged by other hungry animals. 

As we walked back to the road, we were again struck by how little accessible vegetation was left on the cedars. What will the deer eat next winter? How does hard weather impact their population? The day left us with new understanding but also some big new questions about the life of the deer and their ecological relationships.
By Malgosia Halliop – 2nd year Tracking Student

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