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Signs of Wildlife in Alaska Appear with New Blanket of Snow
Craig Medred / Outdoors / Anchorage Daily News / November 27, 2005

The coyotes came down the valley from the west, following a neighborhood ski trail still lacking enough snow for winter sports. There were a pair of them judging from the tracks that fell almost, but not quite, within each other.

Where they paused on the trail, turned and peered down slope, the footprints mingled before leaping off into the alders in long bounds. Obviously, they'd seen or heard us coming and beat a retreat. We never saw them, though the cocking of Hoss' square, Labrador ears signaled that there was something out there in the woods -- out of reach of frail, human senses.

Whether he heard the coyotes or smelled them was impossible to know. Until we saw the tracks, I wasn't sure what had caught his attention. Moose were the most obvious suspects, given that Potter Valley is crawling with them. And there was a momentary thought given to bears, considering that we'd seen the fresh grizzly tracks only about 10 days ago.

Any worries about a bear, though, were slim. The first significant snow of the season should have finally driven them to their dens. Four or five inches of snow had fallen since last the bear tracks were seen, and there had been no sign of them since.

Other signs of life were plentiful, however.

You could find where moose were looking for the vestiges of the green, nutrient-rich vegetation of summer. They were stripping leaves off willows, finding some old fireweed to munch and rooting in the snow for the fallen leaves of cottonwoods. The browsing of willow twigs and sticks -- a starvation diet in even the best of circumstances -- had yet to begin.

The lack of snow was clearly a blessing for the moose but something of a curse for the voles. Where thick grass supported the new white blanket, they could safely move beneath, but there were many places where the tracks showed they'd been forced out into the open to face the risks of death that can come in so many ways.

The hunters were all about.

Along with the tracks of the always-hungry coyotes, we found tiny prints of ermine and just the slightest sweep of feathers on snow that appeared to have come from the wings of an owl. It was impossible to tell whether it had feasted on vole. There was no obvious evidence of blood or fur, but when the owls sweep so close to the ground they usually score.

Probably aware of this, a spruce grouse sought shelter beneath the tight and protective canopy of a grove of conifers. Bailey, Hoss' mother, exposed it when she jumped off the trail to flush the grouse from the ground into a tree.

She appeared disappointed that the discovery was not followed by the blast of a shotgun and an order to retrieve but instead by some stumbling about as I looked to see where the grouse had been sitting and what it might have been eating.

The second best thing about fresh snow is that it allows investigations such as this.

A fresh coat helps bridge the huge gap between our lame, human senses and those of the other mammals. Suddenly we can see the telltale trail of a snowshoe hare or red squirrel that is everyday as plain as a photograph when interpreted by the nose of a Labrador retriever. Suddenly patches of field and forest that once seemed devoid of life are revealed to be full of it.

Snowshoe-shaped tracks of hares bound across the landscape. Tracks of squirrels scurry from tree to tree. Round tracks of moose punch holes across a hillside. Three-toed tracks of magpies and ravens dance around the scattered remains of a coyote's supper.

And the round, compact tracks of the latter reveal the presence of canine neighbors we rarely see.

Coming home with Hoss and Bailey, we found the tracks of the coyotes again on the edge of a subdivision and followed them toward civilization. They swung close enough to homes it was easy to believe the coyotes were looking for an easy meal -- a house cat allowed to slip outside, perhaps; some dog food left out in a dish when the dog was brought in; maybe even some salmon sitting on someone's porch.

Still, the most amazing thing was not observing how close the coyotes moved to civilization but contemplating how often they must do it and how seldom they are seen. They peer out from behind a thin veil of brush that separates the urban world from the wild one along the edge of Anchorage.

When we stare back at that veil, our frail human eyes usually see only the trees and brush. Some of us probably have the capacity to peer through, but we're not conditioned to look. We're not of that wild world where survival depends on the senses.

We're of that busy, self-involved human world that allows people to get so caught up in little nothings that they can drive past a moose standing in the open, fully exposed on a sidewalk, and never see it. Some of us, being more attentive observers, will see the moose. But don't be fooled.

When it comes to the nature around us, we miss more than we see each day. Fresh snow offers a chance to catalog the sensory ineptitude. Intellectually, this may be the best thing about snow.

Physically, it's a different matter. Physically, the best thing about snow is its smooth and slippery nature. When it paints the landscape white, it not only reveals what moves therein, it also eases travel thereon.

Snow is a great equalizer for our species. Not only does it enable us to detect the presence of a hare, a moose or, for that matter, a coyote; it also allows us -- given the right equipment and conditions -- to chase down animals that would normally give us the slip with ease.

We never did catch up to these coyotes. When the trail hit a road, we hiked home to enjoy the easy life in a warm, comfortable house. But I know that if we'd pressed on along the coyote trail, we would have spotted them out ahead sooner or later.

If you're one of those people who enjoy watching wildlife in Alaska, and there are a lot of people who make that claim, there are few better times than now.

Daily News Outdoor editor Craig Medred can be reached at cmedred@adn.com.

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