Tracks in the Snow
By T. Dietz
Even with all the warm weather in the Lake Tahoe region this past winter, there’s still been enough snow for skiing and snowshoeing. The best part, with the decrease in crowds, is the abundance of undisturbed areas among the tall pines. So with that, a big part of my winter routine has been strapping on the snowshoes and finding those places no one has disturbed.
The day didn’t start out with the idea of tracking wild animals, but rather to enjoy the solitude of the quiet wilderness. But as the day began, my plans started to take shape. It wasn’t long after sunup when my wife pointed out a coyote was in the backyard. These wild canines (Canis latrans) can be upwards of 50 pounds, often resembling a mid-sized dog. Of the 19 identified subspecies most, usually hunt in pairs, but can often be seen solo. Sightings are common, as these animals live in close proximity to humans. Highly adaptable, these cunning animals can live in swamps, deserts, grasslands, dense forests and, as is the Tahoe region, high mountain ranges.
I quietly walked out to the back deck, my routine morning tea in hand, overlooking about 75 acres that extends beyond our home. From the raised deck, I was standing about 10 feet from a beautiful brownish gray, coyote, average sized, who stopped and stared for a few seconds. It started to saunter off before one of my sons thought to capture a picture.
Now, with my interest peaked, I threw on my boots and walked down to look where the coyote was heading. It wasn’t far before I came to the soft ground that highlighted the animal’s tracks. Having missed the opportunity a few minutes ago, I at least had my phone for some simple shots.
I could clearly see the hind tracks in the ground. I grabbed a quick shot to highlight the hind paw, as front tracks (second photo) have a fuller spread as they bear the heavier, front part of the animal. Coyote tracks tend to be more oval-shaped compared to domestic dogs. The rear track above shows the two outer toes tucked up almost behind the front ones and the nails are all pointed forward. If you look closely at the front track (right), you’ll see a characteristic X formed in the print from between the back toes and the heel pad (I used the pine tree needs to measure the track at 2 1/2” long).
It was at this point that I understood how I would steer my planned day of snowshoeing. Along with a healthy day trek in the woods, I would focus some effort on identifying various animal tracks and seeing how far and where they might take me.
One thing I had to bare in mind, in Tahoe we have a number of large mammals and predators. Black bears are very common, and show up on occasion. A privilege to observe from a distance, I’ve had two recent encounters, one at the local garbage drop off and one, when Smokey tried to go through our screen door, following its nose to some very tasty bbq’d chicken. That ended well for all concerned but involved a mad dive to close the glass slider. Mountain lions are also present in the area but only rarely seen.
So with some added goals for the day’s adventure it was time to head up to Mt. Pluto in the Northstar Resort. Mt. Pluto is on the northern side of Lake Tahoe itself and is an extinct volcano. Its last eruption completed the formation of the lake some 2 million years ago. I knew that on the Eastern side of Pluto would be plenty of isolated backcountry, all accessible with snowshoes.
The quiet of the woods can be very moving. This was a day of sunlight, warmth and solitude. On this day by heading east from mid-mountain on Mt. Pluto I found myself in untouched snow and a snow-muted silence. First the silence is comforting but then you realize that when you can’t hear anyone, they can’t hear you. I always come prepared for having to stay out longer in the woods then I plan on staying. If you haven’t experienced this type of isolation, even briefly, it is well worth the experience. I seek it out often. It clears the head and cleanses the soul.
I wasn’t but a half hour into my 4-hour trek when I came upon the first of many small animal tracks. These consisted of rabbit, chipmunk, squirrel and possibly raccoon.
As would be expected, the tracks began or ended, at the base of trees or rock outcroppings where these critters can seek shelter and protection. The placement of the back feet is a good indication of whether the tracks are from a land or tree dwelling animal. These both appear to be tree dwelling with the back feet in parallel to one another. Small land animals will have one back foot in front of the other.
It’s an interesting feeling when you see the telltale signs of life but not the life itself around you. Kneeling down by these tracks and listening carefully the silence of that life can be disconcerting. I of course know the environment I’m in and caution of larger mammals, like bears, is prudent, especially when solo trekking.
Next up was what I was hoping to find – the unmistakable tracks of a coyote. Not a surprise with all the potential prey that coyotes would be present. Having had my morning encounter with that lone coyote I was thrilled to find clearly identifiable evidence of their presence up on the mountain. I was even hoping to see one tracking through the snow but wasn’t optimistic. I spent at least 15 minutes in this place listening to the silence, taking in the smells and sights of a place that is beautiful but deadly for some. It’s easy to walk through all this and forget that a variety of species work hard to survive and thrive continuously and mostly out of our view.
The snow in the area where I found the tracks was of different consistencies based on sun exposure so some tracks were deep while others shallow. Determining the age of tracks in the snow can be difficult even with an intimate knowledge of the local weather (unless of course its right after a fresh snow fall). Tracking knowledge can allow you to determine a number of facts about an animal including what it is, its sex and emotional state, its weight, speed of movement, or whether or not it is hunting. Coyote tracks display straight line walking. These animals, unlike playful domestic dogs, will be extremely energy conscious and walk straight lines to areas of prey and dens.
Every time I step out into the wilderness I feel the adventure of observing and feeling things unforeseen even as I set goals for the journey. It makes me feel alive to move in environments I am likely the least adapted for among the species I’ll encounter.
With the day’s shadows getting long and the air even cooler it was time to head back down the mountain. I’m hoping to see that coyote by the house again. This time I’ll hopefully get a good photo of him and a maybe even a plaster cast of his track for a desktop weight.