Winter's snow is a book… Tracks are the chapters and stories
January ski and snowshoe trips to Eagle Lake in South Fork valley reminded me of an essay on snow and tracks by Alaska poet John Haines, who died this past March in Fairbanks. In a letter to me several years ago, Haines granted permission to use excerpts of his material in my various writings as well as a weekly radio program that I produced for five years. If he were alive I’m sure he wouldn’t object to my quoting him in this space.
From his collection of essays, “The Stars, The Snow, The Fire”:
“To one who lives in the snow and watches it day by day, it is a book to be read. The pages turn as the wind blows; the characters shift and images formed by their combinations change in meaning, but the language remains the same. It is a shadow language, spoken by things that have gone by and will come again. The same text has been written there for thousands of years, though I was not here, and will not be here in winters to come, to read it. These seemingly random ways, these paths, these beds, these footprints, these hard, round pellets in the snow; they all have meaning. Dark things may be written there, news of other lives, their sorties and excursions, their terrors and deaths. The tiny feet of a shrew or a vole make a brief, erratic pattern across the snow, and here is a hole down which the animal goes. And now the track of an ermine comes this way, swift and searching, and he too goes down that white shadow of a hole.”
He continues: “What might have been silence, an unwritten page, an absence, spoke to me as clearly as if I had been there to see it. I have imagined a man who might live as the coldest scholar on earth, who followed each clue in the snow, writing a book as he went. It would be the history of snow, the book of winter—a thousand-year text to be read by a people hunting these hills in a distant time. Who was here, and who has gone? What were their names? What did they kill and eat? Whom did they leave behind?”
On my ski into Eagle Lake January 1st, I noticed that several creatures had taken advantage of the trail’s relatively firm footing rather than the soft, four-foot-deep snow on the valley floor. These included moose, snowshoe hare and coyote. When the hare tracks abruptly veered off to the side into the trees or underbrush, the coyote tracks often followed.
About a month ago atop one of the mountains near Mile Hi saddle, there were an unbelievable number of bird tracks — not ptarmigan, but those of ravens. It looked as if they had some kind of gathering or convention on their flight back to nesting areas deeper in the mountains. It would have been quite a sight had one been there to see it. Ravens are fascinating birds and will be the subject of a future column.
From a book of poetry I published, called ‘Tracks,” here are a few accounts of track sightings that definitely told stories:
“I once came upon the small tracks of a rodent, perhaps a squirrel, that stopped abruptly in the middle of clearing; and at that spot in the snow on each side of the tracks, were the clear indentations of wings from a large bird that had swopped down to grab its prey.
“I once walked into a clearing that was beaten down with moose and wolf tracks, with large chunks of moose hair scattered about. But there was no blood, so I think the moose survived a battle in the snow recorded as clearly as if it had been written in a journal.”
And one more passage from a poem I wrote about a climb up Harp Mountain in South Fork valley:
“Shuffling up this snow-dusted ridge, the small footprints I follow belong to a young woman who I have seen before on this mountain. Rising to a flat plateau, wolf tracks meet her footprints, circle, then cross down slope into a deep bowl. High above near the summit an eagle fights wind gusts, swooping down to get a closer look at recently disturbed snow, footprints that could leak to prey; a vole, a squirrel, a small bird.
“As winter pulls its white cloak over the land, the world of wild creatures and humans intersects for brief moments, only moments, as the wolf explores other valleys and the eagle dips below the ridge, out of sight, searching for new tracks in the snow.”
On a snowshoe hike into Eagle Lake a week ago, I saw small tracks that I first thought were a coyote dragging something. Every so often the animal was on its belly and made a smooth indentation for about four to five feet. A call to Fish and Game confirmed it was a river otter, which I thought I’d seen along the lake last summer. A long, continuous trough in the snow meant there were more than one, the biologist said, which I observed.
This winter we have abundant snow and are sure to find numerous tracks that will tell countless tales. Hopefully, despite the cold, some of us can all get out there to enjoy those stories in the snow, and create some of our own.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer from Eagle River. Write him at [email protected]