With holiday feasting behind us, Pete and I set out on snowshoes early one afternoon after Christmas. We crossed the meadows and headed for our nearby hillside where we climb over 800 feet to the top. Just as we cross the last fence, Pete asks, “Are those elk tracks? Let’s stop and take a look.” As I look down into the well of one of many tracks, I see elk hoof prints and turn to follow their path as it crosses the fence and proceeds toward the bale feeder for the young colts.
“Boy, that’s not good so early in the season,” Pete moans. “I’ll have to move the colts' feeder in behind Mark’s cabin.” Mark rents our small cabin and works at the Steamboat Lake State Park. He loves to watch all the animals: horses, elk, deer, and dogs that wander through the ranch. The bale feeder behind his house should be safe from the elk herd. We’re not sure why. Perhaps, they don’t seek it out because it’s closer to human activity. But it’s important to prevent the elk from feeding on the hay because it’s costly to our hay supply as well as unnecessary to the elk’s survival.
With the snowshoe track well set for the season, Pete and I carry along up the first grade of the hillside. We comment on how the elk have moved in just during the last week, probably from the north side of ridge. Their tracks crisscross our path showing their movement across the length of the hillside from the base all the way up to the top.
I often see any number of wildlife tracks on my snowshoe outings. In their silence they tell a story of a small ecosystem on the hillside. In the wintertime the ermine move among the oak brush, nuthatches brush the surface as they hurriedly take flight, small rodents scurry down the path to the next safe haven, and the elk and a new resident group of white tail deer travel through the heavy brush, one draw to the next.
Tracking footprints is like receiving special information from a world I live in but I’m not always privileged to witness firsthand. By its sign, the footprints describe a life that goes on here even though it is often invisible and silent as I pass through. I am reminded that we do not lay sole claim to this landscape. We clearly share in the enduring cycles of life with the wildlife on the hillside as well as the landscape’s invitation for exploration, retreat, and renewal.
*For a related posting on elk coming and going here at the ranch, please see “Wintering Elk” posted February 19, 2009.