By Emily Cavanagh
You’re a smart girl. Where do you think the moose are?
Umm…in the forest? I replied in a playful tone, intending to mask my disgraceful lack of knowledge about anything related to my central subject of inquiry with a sorry attempt at humor.
Well, why don’t you do a bit of research and get back to me in a few days?
When I first reached out to Greg, a seasoned tracker, general contractor and wine maker from Shoreham, Vermont, about moose tracking I knew close to nothing about him and little more about what I was hoping to gain from the endeavor. The concept of tracking moose itself had been introduced to me only days before by a stranger at a party. “A friend of mine tried moose tracking last winter and really liked it,” she offered, “although I’m not sure he actually saw any moose.” I was in search of a winter adventure during the last month of my undergraduate education and this happenstance encounter served as a perfect catalyst. Of course, moose tracking was all very romanticized in my mind’s eye. I imagined my well-worn winter boots tiptoeing through the still forest, careful not to make a sound that might disturb the quiet calm. I’d listen to the soft hum of the wind moving through the valley, the delicate scamper of small critters through the bushes, perhaps even the chirp of the few birds courageous enough to brave the chill of the Vermont winter. I saw myself stealthily creeping along a well-trodden hiking trail, among trees stripped naked of their fallen leaves, foliage now packed beneath many layers of frozen snowfall. After a short while I’d happen upon a trail crossing of freshly inscribed, heart-shaped prints. I’d follow the footpath with my gaze, scanning the horizon for a mass of dark fur beneath bone-colored antlers. As I locked eyes with the enormous creature, I’d be consumed by the breathtaking profundity that only such close contact with such an elusive, wild creature can instill.
At 6:45 am I roll out of bed, grumbling at nothing in particular. I stumble toward the heaping pile of clothing in the middle of my carpeted dorm room. Feeling around in the darkness I find my black, fleece-lined long johns, black thermal pull-over and scratchy wool socks – all formerly belonging to my mother’s closet. After pulling on my under layers, I slip into my fleece Patagonia vest, also once my mother’s, zipping it up to my chin for warmth or perhaps merely comfort. I remember watching through sleepy, adolescent eyes as my mother prepared herself for a day of skiing on a similarly chilly and dark winter morning in Vermont, years before. She’d adorn herself in these very layers of insulation before bundling me in similar layers of a much smaller size. In honor of fabricated tradition, she passed her cold weather adventuring gear on to me when I left for Middlebury College, clothing that she too had first acquired in her early 20’s.
Just as the morning light begins to illuminate the room I guide my wool-covered toes into the tan, furry boots I’ve worn since age twelve, slide my arms through the sleeves of my wind-proof Arc’teryx jacket and scoop up my green Flash UL pack, stuffed to the brim with rubber crampons, snow pants, granola bar, notebook and pencil. I stand in front of the mirror scanning my frame for forgotten articles as I pull my speckled blue hat over my ears. “Ready Freddy!” as my mom would say.
By 7:25 I sit waiting for Greg and the inauguration of my first tracking adventure on the steps of a local elementary school. Greg and I agreed to meet here in Middlebury, before driving to the nearby Abbey Pond Trailhead, from where we will head off trail to climb to the 1800-foot peak of Elephant Mountain. I’d been there before with friends on a warm summer night a few years back. We’d wandered up the moonlit path smoking cigarettes and listening to the wind.
The concrete beneath my bum sends a chill down the backs of my thighs while the sunlight warms my face. I shield my eyes with my mittened fingers, straining to recall what I’ve learned since my first phone call to Greg. I’d spent the last week scrolling through tracking blogs and hunting forums filled with pictorial representations of moose tracks, winter beds, tree rubs and scat. While identifying these signs seemed simple enough from the confines of my own pillow-topped winter bed, I was still unsure where in the Green Mountains I might discover them. When I called the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department’s Lead Biologist, Cedric Alexander, in hopes of acquiring some local knowledge, I expected to leave a message that would not be returned. Instead I was greeted by an authoritative voice offering me fifteen minutes of his time. Without much prompting, Cedric launched into a comprehensive synopsis on moose tracking. I eagerly scribble down every word.
Moose spend the warm months in swampy, aquatic habitats where they can munch on marsh-submerged, mineral-rich vegetation. But as the temperature drops and the bogs freeze over, they are pushed to medium elevations between 1,000 and 3,000 feet where they rely primarily on the buds, stump sprouts, and offshoots of northern hard and softwoods to meet their nutritional needs. Among their favorites are Striped Maple, Spruce and Balsam Fir. Even the most nutrient rich regenerative growth of softwood trees, however, only provides one hundredth of the mineral content of the aquatic vegetation they prefer. As such, low ambient temperatures prompt moose to feed on trees that are more difficult for their bodies to break down. This slows digestion time and the burning of fat reserves, allowing them to conserve energy during this largely dormant period. After the long winter moose must replenish their sodium levels and therefore often gather by the roadside where salt has collected from runoff in the early spring.
A few minutes after 7:30 a grey, beat up pickup truck pulls into the parking lot of the school. Greg greets me with a warm smile as he clears a messy stack of books and papers from the seat beside him. “Hello!” I exclaim, perhaps a bit too excitedly, as I open the passenger door and climb in. Backpack in hand, I am careful not to step on an article entitled ‘Prehistoric Copper Production’ that lies on the floor near my feet. Greg sits idly in the driver’s seat, his pensive expression suggesting that his mind is entertained elsewhere. I immediately begin asking too many questions.
So you’re a carpenter?
What kind of carpentry do you do?
What are your favorite types of projects to work on?
This didn’t seem a promising path to the lively conversation I’d hoped for.
And you grow grapes for wine making as well?
I do, but I’m actually getting out of the business because it’s eating away too much of my free time. I haven’t had the chance to get out into the woods as much as I’d like.
Tracking, yes, and hunting. I don’t just track for hunting, though.
Then why do you track?
It’s kind of basic; it’s deep.
Greg’s voice trails off and I decide to leave him to his thoughts. We sit in surprisingly comfortable silence for the rest of the drive, with only the low hum of Vermont Public Radio in the background. Greg stares through the windshield with a soft brow and a steady, penetrating gaze. He is more handsome than I’d anticipated, with broad shoulders, a strong body and a scruffy yet managed salt and pepper beard. I peer out the window across the snowy fields, rimmed by tree-covered mountains and backlit by the brightening sky.
Greg’s tires squeak on the damp snow as we pull into the parking lot of Abbey Pond. Before hopping out of the truck Greg hands me a laminated 3×5 tracking identification card, organized by gate, and subdivided by print shape. Keep this close by for reference. I tie it tightly to the chest strap of my pack beside my wooden duck whistle, gifted to me by a friend from India, and my old bicycle key.
Amidst our first steps along the Abbey Pond trail, we spot our first tracks. Looking at a set of tracks you can easily picture the animal that made them. Is the animal walking, hopping, bounding, waddling? How wide is its gait? How long are its legs? I glance down. The steps appear to take a relatively typical four-legged walking pattern. The shoulders look about eight inches apart, the stride perhaps thirty inches. Referencing my card I walk a bit further to find a footprint I can more easily identify, as many have caved in with fluffy snow. The four toe pads extend from the main pad, forming a symmetrical contour in the snow. You can tell it’s a dog by the perfect symmetry of the print, Greg offers.
As the icy path ascends I am struck by the lack of ease with which I move. While I do spend a significant amount of time outdoors each winter with skis harnessed to my feet, it suddenly dawns on me that I haven’t meandered through the snowy forest like this since I was a child. Until around age nine I’d spent every snow day off from school with my best friend Carly, romping through the woods behind her house. We’d wade our little legs through the knee-deep snow, climb through the obstacle course of sugaring lines and repeatedly crossing the narrow brook, jumping from rock to rock and gliding our bellies along fallen tree trunks, just to prove that we could. Consumed by the adventure I could stay out for hours on end, never getting cold. “We’re explorers!” I’d yell as I ran ahead, glancing back at Carly where she stood, pigeon toed, chewing on a fist full of snow. Today, unfortunately, I do not possess the blind confidence of my nine-year-old self. Instead, I sloppily proceed on uneven footing as the wire base of my green, rubber crampons work to grasp the icy crust beneath my boots.
After walking along the path for about half of a mile, we pause. Ready to climb? You might want to strip a few layers off once we get going. Feel free to stop and take your time. We’re in no rush. We begin our assent up a steep hill through the trees, leaving the luxury of the path behind. Greg walks ahead and I follow his trail, a few paces behind. I watch him as he gently hoists himself to the top of a small rock face. I follow close behind but struggle to clamor up the icy rock, reaching for branches, roots, or anything that might help me to stabilize my body, as Greg continues on. Flashing through my mind is a feeling I’ve experienced far too many times – wanting so much to embody the adventurous spirit I know inside but struggling like hell to keep up. When I finally manage my hips above the slippery rock face, I exhale in relief. Brushing the wet snow from my long johns I rush to catch up, my feet sliding a bit more than before. Looking down, I realize one of my crampons has come off of the bottom of my boot, likely while climbing that menacing rock several yards back.
I’ve lost a crampon.
Well you’d better go back and look for it.
I drag my feet cautiously down the hillside, retracing my steps by following my tracks in the snow. Peering over the rock’s edge, I spot a flash of green in the snow below. I’d have to lower myself and climb up the rock all over again. It’s good practice, I guess.
Greg stops to explore the signs and tracks that appear along the way, most of which I only notice by way of his line of sight. Scattered across the hillside are what look to be hopper tracks. A rabbit? No, rabbits move in more of a slalom-like pattern, with back feet offset from one another. Greg pulls off one of his heavy work gloves to draw a visual representation in the snow with his index finger. Squirrel tracks take a more organized shape, like this, with back feet landing in front of the small front paws, on a single plane.
Following in Greg’s tracks, I clumsily slip my body through the thicket of brush and trees. I try to walk close behind him but, as branches catapult from his shoulders into my eyes, decide that a bit more distance might be better. Dropping back a few feet isn’t difficult either, given my tendency to trip over vines and other obstructions buried in the snow.
Greg points to a mound of snow at the base of a tree, covered in tiny brown flecks. I follow his finger with my gaze a few feet up the trunk of the tree then down onto a fallen log beside it. A set of hopper tracks extends away from the base of the tree. Gather the clues and the story of who has been here will unfold. The bark in the snow was shaven away by the claws of a squirrel who scurried down the trunk and jumped onto this log before scampering off.
Spotting another set of tracks, Greg turns toward me with wide eyes. His earnest disposition has begun to bubble into an authentic enthusiasm. You’ll never guess this one. I look down at the subtle markings of a walker of some kind, with three thin toes protruding from the heel of each foot. A bird? Alright! Greg shouts, as he enthusiastically slaps my arm with the back of his hand. I am elated by this small gesture of affection. Partridge tracks begin and end within a small section of ground because they can fly. And do you see that? They burrow themselves beneath the crust in search of food, leaving imprints of their small, round bodies in the snow. You warm enough?
As we climb toward the summit of the north-facing hillside, the sparse, deciduous tree line is transformed into a thick canopy of old growth hemlock and beech trees. Hemlocks require much less light than other trees, like firs or maples, so they tend to populate shaded areas like this. Unfortunately, moose don’t especially like hemlock or beech, so we probably won’t be seeing any of their sign today.
While not the ideal habitat for moose, we do spot sign of another large mammal among the hemlocks. Along the trunk of a tall tree are vertical scratches about one foot long and six feet from the ground. Along the top of the scratches is a deeper horizontal tare in the bark. Taking a closer look we find a few thin, scraggly, black hairs caught in the layers of tree bark. A bear, Greg explains. They mark trees with their claws and drag their canine across the top for scent. Bear rubs are social behavior to say ‘I’ve been here.’ I guess we all want to be remembered.
Near the summit we stop at a small opening in the trees. The sun has now risen over the crest of the hill and, standing at the ledge, we are warmed by the bright sun. Looking across the valley I am stirred by the vastness. I feel an overwhelming urge to close my eyes, to disregard the particularities of the visual sensation and just feel my body. Cool air stings my legs, sending a shiver up my spine. Water seeps through the seams of my worn snow boots, saturating the soles of my wool socks. I notice a throbbing on the outside of my left hip, just beginning to thaw from the cold. Rubbing my hand along my leg’s curvature I notice a lump the size of an orange beginning to form from one of my earlier tumbles.
Greg pulls his black, fleece balaclava from his tanned face, scrunching it across his forehead, and sets his pack down on a rock. He scans the adjacent peak, eyes glistening in the yellow light. We’re all drawn to the same places, humans and animals alike. But you have to first be a good animal to be a good person. You don’t want to be the kind of person who doesn’t listen to things, who doesn’t pay attention. Animals notice their surroundings, trust their instinct and follow their intuition. We live the same game but a little more detached.
On our walk down from the peak of Elephant Mountain we come across a set of small footsteps, about two inches in diameter. They fall so close together that they seem to form one continuous path through the heavy snow, as if made from a rutted tire. You can judge how old a track is by the consistency of the snow beneath the print. If the snow is hard or contains a crust, it has melted from the heat of the paw and again frozen over. But if the snow is still soft, the track is fresh and can lead us to an animal. I take off my dampened mitten and press my finger into the mark in the snow. It is still fluffy, indicating that whatever this short legged and narrow gated creature may be, it is not far. When in doubt follow it out. Tracing the track, we can see it had scuttled beneath a low lying branch only about six inches from the snowy crust, indicating that the head of this critter did not sit much higher from the ground. We follow the ribbon of footsteps through densely packed trees, then around the perimeter of a massive bolder, probably placed in this very location by melting glaciers some 10,000 years ago. On the other side of the bolder the tracks extend into a shadowy alcove at the base of the irregular mass, shielded from the elements by the protruding ledge. Peering inside, I spot the body of a porcupine with dimensions just as we had anticipated. Good eye! Greg beams. Most tracks you follow won’t lead to much, but tracking doesn’t have to be about finding the animals, anyway. You’re weaving stories based on the evidence you find. It’s about that process of discovery.
Driving back to campus I sit quietly, my toes tingling, my belly grumbling and my head reeling. A steady rush of hot air streams from the heater, warming my bones and drying my eyes. When we arrive again in Middlebury, Greg pulls his truck to the side of the road. This was fun! I offer, as I gather my things. Greg turns to me with a look of grave sincerity. I’ve tried to be genuine but I want you to remember that you don’t really know me. The things I talk about that get your bubble going, those are the things that you hear. You seek out the voices that are saying yes. But try to dig beyond that bubbling to discover its source. What’s feeding it? What are you connecting to? This is really about you and your path. It is very possible that I’m just a mirror for you, more of a reflection of what you need to see.
Still in search of moose, I decide I might have better luck on land with more ample regenerative growth. A local forester told me about a section of the 30,000-acre property owned by the Bristol-based A Johnson lumber mill that was clear-cut in 2012. The region should have plenty of young trees for moose to munch on.
On a chilly winter morning I bundle myself in my tattered heirlooms. Over the years I’ve worn the fleece lining away between the thighs of my long johns, I’ve burned cigarette holes into the sleeves of my pullover, and I’ve frayed my socks to such an extent that only a suggestion of a heel remains. But despite the many stumbles and blunders that have left my inheritances in disrepair, I’ve also filled my vest pockets with pebbles, sea glass, acorns and memories. Just as the sun begins to peek over the Green Mountains, I slip my wool covered toes into new, waterproof winter boots and head north on Route 7.
It is only once I have the opportunity to go tracking by myself that Greg’s words begin to truly resonate with me. Walking alone among the trees I can hear his voice echoing through my mind, pay attention, it beckons. I listen to the shuffle of my snowshoes along the quiet logging trail, covered in a thick blanket of fresh powder. Soon I enter into the thicket of trees on the mountainside, beginning my two-mile assent toward North Pond. The walking seems easier than when I was out with Greg and I only stumble sporadically. While during my first tracking experience I was consumed by mind chatter and daydreams, my steps today become meditative and my brain is eased into silence. My emotional mind is forced to surrender to my sensory perception. I enter into a flow characterized by a more acute perception of the natural environment. When I spot tiny footprints in the snow leading off to a small alcove at the base of a tree I drop to my knees to take a closer look. Field mice burrow beneath the snow to keep warm but can also quite easily float above the soft carpet. I am bewildered by the precision to which the snow holds the shape of every subtle brush of the tail, every nail imprint. We all perceive the same input, but for each of us it’s valued differently. I walk on in wonderment.
Abandoning the more passive, observational disposition I embodied on my first outing, I instead decide to physically engage with my surroundings. Allowing my feet to lead the way I hop from rock to rock across streams and glide my belly across fallen tree trunks, just because I can. Instead of closing my eyes in reverence for the beauty of the wilderness I remain present, feeling my feet on the ground and the cool air on my skin.
After some time I come across a ribbon of tracks quite similar to that of deer, but larger. I remove my mittens and kneel down to touch the grapefruit sized, heart shaped imprint in the snow. It is frozen solid. I decide to follow the tracks nonetheless, as it would be silly not to investigate my first sighting of moose sign.
I weave through spindly striped maple seedlings, stopping where the tracks indicate the moose had stopped, turning where the tracks indicate the moose had turned. You can learn a lot just by looking. Coming to the edge of a small clearing, I am delighted to discover three large, cashew shaped moose beds, each of which I investigate. In the first bed I discover a few thick moose hairs. I examine one in my palm. Moose hair is actually hollow, providing a layer of warm air in cold climates and buoyancy for swimming. The second bed is littered with snowy clumps of moose scat. I pick up the solid cluster of brown pellets, weighing it in my hands. The third bed also contains scat, although not yet frozen. I press my fingers into the white bed. To my amazement, the snow is soft and a set of equally fluffy tracks lead from there, up onto the hillside.
Jumping to my feet, I excitedly proceed in the direction of North Pond, following the tracks and noting any changes in stride. I walk at an energetic but steady pace. I can feel my heart pounding in my chest and my eyes widening in anticipation. Walk in the direction of the tracks but keep your eyes on the horizon. Where the tracks pause I notice buds chewed from the end of a maple branch. I touch the broken, green ends with my fingertips. Walking on, the strides begin to widen, indicating that the moose has begun to run. Animals walk with the wind so that they can smell when someone is following. They stay alert so as to protect themselves from predators of the forest.
My feet come to a halt. To the herbivorous moose I am a predator, a threat. Man strives for progress, for innovation. But you must ask yourself if that striving is worth the sacrifice of another. Each person must decide his or her own contribution to the continuity over time. We all leave impressions on the landscape we inhabit and the other living creatures that reside there. While watching the stories of the forest unfold has been exhilarating, I do not wish to instill unnecessary fear in the psyche of any creature. The insight I hoped to glean from my first moose encounter should not be grounded in distress or anxiety. I turn away from the tracks I was following to instead carve my very own traces through the snowy forest, guided only by my contemplative consciousness.
As I wander on I come across a river that winds down the mountainside from North Pond. I stand silently at the edge of the riverbed, breathing. The cascading waterfall the once gushed through the depressed fracture in the tree-littered landscape, crawling over rocks and smoothing the muddy banks, now sits completely still. Mounds of opaque ice have gathered, formed by layer upon layer of once trickling water, paralyzed by the chill of neighboring molecules. I listen to the audible determination of the water that remains beneath the thick pelt of ice, contributing to the well being of the bottom-dwelling species below, protecting them from the elements. The water gurgles, almost growls, as it struggles to sweep though the cracks and fissures of the near solid mass. Enamored by the commotion, the beauty, and the equilibrium of this micro ecosystem I yearn to insert myself, to participate, to engage. Eyes wide, ears perched, and feet firmly planted, I growl back.