The story was in the tracks. Thursday was cold, but sunny – I’d had a hunch that it might be a good day to get off the groomed trails and do some exploring. There were a couple of inches of fresh powder on top of a hard crust that covered probably two feet of snow, and skies as blue as they could be.
I drove up to Santa Clara and parked on route 458 by the gated road and the Pinnacle trail sign. It looked like two people had skied the old logging road the day before. Possibly earlier in the day, someone post-holing, walked in with a large dog. That person eventually put on snowshoes and continued to trudge in on top of the ski track. I just skied up onto the crust however, and glided along – probably the smoothest, easiest skiing I’d done all year. The person with the dog didn’t make it very far and turned around. Good – now I could start watching for wild animal tracks in the fresh snow.
Easily sliding along on top of the smooth crust, it wasn’t long before I saw loads of rabbit tracks and then the coyote tracks. It had been obvious there was no dog with the 2 people who’d skied the trail the day before. And the coyote tracks are pretty distinctive from dog tracks as they came onto the road from the woods and appeared very business-like, walking directly, one paw ahead of the other, like they were on a mission to get to a specific destination. Dogs on the trails often bound around and frolic about. The tracks seemed pretty fresh to me. Yesterday’s ski tracks were fairly clear in the sheltered areas, but blown in with snow when out in the open. The coyote tracks were sharp and well-defined. I could see the imprint of the pads and the claws.
I’d gone about a mile, past the road that turned left to go to the Pinnacle, when I saw the first sign. About 50 yards into a very open woods, I noticed a raven lift off the ground, giving a raucous call as it reached the tree tops. They aren’t usually on the ground unless there was something to eat. From farther away, another raven cawed. I noticed the coyote tracks that had been following the road veered into the woods in the same direction. I realized there were tracks from a number of coyotes – it was like a convention! Coming from different directions, they all headed into the woods near the same opening. I actually stopped and thought about following them. “I bet there’s a carcass in there that they’ve been feeding on”.
But the snow conditions were just so perfect, so I decided to keep on skiing, marveling at the number of animal tracks criss-crossing the road. In a 1/10 of a mile I encountered a large cluster of tracks. Then another. Then clumps of fur. Finally drops of blood, bright crimson in the brilliant snow. It was obvious a struggle had gone on – I wondered if perhaps the coyotes had dragged pieces from a carcass out here to eat. There were coyote tracks all over, spots where it looked like they’d lied down, tufts of deer hair scattered all over – but no bones or meat or anything. I continued on – another cluster of tracks, hair and blood, and another. I wondered if there were steel grey eyes watching me from the woods.
I’d come across evidence of the life and death struggle of the wild. The tracks began to disperse and I continued on, sharing the roadway with at least a couple of coyotes. I needed to watch where I was going to avoid skiing through several piles of coyote poop! Down a slight hill, I crossed the outlet of a little brook, below an old beaver dam. I noted there was just a little bit of open, gurgling water – spring is trying to break through. The snow conditions were so perfect I even glided up the hill on the other side of the brook, the tracks continuing to keep me company. I was still skiing in the day old tracks but as I reached the point where those tracks turned left, toward Conger Mountain, and I planned to go straight, I noticed the next important signs. There was a deer track, a large deer track, coming down the old ski track. I saw a couple places where it post-holed and struggled to get out. I looked closer at the nearby coyote tracks – they too were coming towards me. Were the coyotes actually trailing this deer? Harassing it? Could this be the deer that ended up being a meal on the road a half mile back? The deer was walking in yesterday’s ski track, hooves splayed, able to keep up most of the time, but when stepping off to the side of the ski track, sinking in 2 feet deep. I wondered if it was old or sick or starving.
I skied up the hill, through old log-skidder tracks overgrown with brambles, and picked-up another old logging road. This was the spot where there had been moose sign three or four years ago. Large, post-hole tracks with a three-foot stride and tree bark bitten off of young red maples, seven feet above the ground. No moose sign this year. There were an abundance of rabbit tracks – it was easy to note how they clustered around fallen tree tops that were just now being revealed from snow drifts that had covered them all winter, getting a fresh meal The road looped back and met the one I’d skied in on. Now I could follow all the tracks back and see if the rest of the story unfolded.
I think the deer had continued along the day old ski track, but I’d not been paying attention before and I’d skied on that track as well. I think the coyotes were following it. As I approached the area where I’d seen the large clusters of tracks, the tufts of fur, and drops of blood, I realized this is where the coyotes attacked. There weren’t any bones or meat here because this is where the deer was struggling to get away. I saw where it post-holed in the deep snow, putting up a brave fight. I wondered if the coyotes went after the hind quarters, attempting to hamstring the deer, or gone for the jugular. Then I saw the fatal mistake the deer made, though it may have been too late to do anything else anyway. It tried to escape off the road and into the woods, but the deep snow hampered it even more. I was close now to the place where I’d seen the raven fly, so I skied down to that spot and followed the coyote tracks into the woods. There was the actual kill site. A 12-foot in diameter circle of deer hair and blood, the frozen stomach and intestines, and finally, part of one leg. Judging by the hoof, it was a full-grown, adult. The survival of the fittest had been played out as it has since the beginnings of life on our planet. I always feel humbled when I am reminded of how nature works.
A timeline began to take shape in my mind. Two people skied the Pinnacle road yesterday. Last night, or early this morning, a deer – the only deer tracks I saw on the entire five-mile ski – attempted to walk down that ski track. The coyotes tracked it, attacked, killed, and ate it. It had snowed two days ago, so there was no snow on top of any of the remains of the deer. All of the coyote tracks had appeared to be less than 24 hours old – likely from this morning. They were probably watching me all afternoon!
The Pinnacle Trail is located off route 458, 9.6 miles north of the intersection of 458 and route 30, or .6 miles south of the bridge over the St Regis River in Santa Clara. In summer you can drive the two miles in to the actual Pinnacle hiking trail, which is about a 1/2 mile up to the summit where there is actually a picnic table. I have no idea how it got there. It’s a great first hike for kids. In winter, the road is gated, which is what makes it a great ski. The Pinnacle is located in the Santa Clara Easement Tract, open for public recreation, but still actively logged.
Photos: Above, a close-up of coyote track; and below, a close-up of deer track, splayed hooves and imprint of dew claws in ski track.