February 15, 2016
KEEPING TRACK IN VERMONT
WOLF RUN, JERICHO, VT – Getting to Wolf Run is classic Vermont: From the tailgating rush of South Burlington to the how-fast-do-you-dare traffic on snowy Interstate 89; through the busy intersections of Richmond to the gradually more rustic roads and confusing turns leading into the woods and abandoned farms west of Mount Mansfield; to the end of the road here at the outdoor classroom of Keeping Track. Beyond this destination, the road slowly narrows, turns into a long-ago loggers’ skid road, and finally becomes a lightly beaten track through an almost mature forest. If you follow it farther, it no doubt diminishes into a squirrel trail, runs up a tree, and disappears into a hole high up. Big hemlocks and white pines shade an emerging understory of spruce, fir, red pine, moose maple, and at least two birches. Very quiet. If you’re from northern New England, it feels a lot like home.
The crew and I arrived here last evening, about an hour before dusk, to film an outdoor fireside chat with Sue Morse, who directs a program called Keeping Track here at Wolf Run. Trouble was, the weather gods were looking for attention; so while the poor videographer huddled under his camera hood, and we sat in folding lawn chairs, toasting our toes at the fire pit and thoroughly infusing our duds with wood smoke, a fall of wet snow tried to bury us. The warmth of the fire melted it, and within twenty minutes I could feel cold water soaking through my exposed upper side. We were saved by the deepening darkness, and repaired to a warm cabin for a beer, some conversation about the next morning’s shoot, and a retreat over slippery roads to Burlington.
Today broke clear and cold. My truck was encased in ice from the weather gods’ gift of last evening; but as I scraped the windows and mirrors, a cardinal, incredibly, sang lustily from a parking lot-side tree. A good omen, I hoped, and took off into the half-hour maze of twists and turns to Sue’s cabin at Wolf Run. Mount Mansfield, rearing massively to the east, was obscured in clouds and blowing snow from about halfway up.
Sue was up and just about to put on her boots, the Jøtul in the parlor had the room toasty, and the coffee was hot. I luxuriated in an armchair while the crew messed with the dozen or so battery-operated units that are necessary for a two-camera, two-microphone shoot that’s always more difficult in cold weather. Finally we pulled on microspikes over our boots and were off on our planned walkabout.
Americans since the days of Daniel Boone have invested the art of animal tracking with an almost spiritual mystique. How often we’ve read of Natty Bumppo’s uncanny abilities, or watched native Americans in western movies guiding the good guys by dint of a bent twig or a strand of gingham snagged on a cactus spine. That scenario is not far from reality. Susan, a UVM graduate, first made her reputation by showing folks less versed in the outdoors how to identify various wildlife species by their tracks, and how to figure out what they were up to when they made them.
At length, concerned by the constant pressures of development on natural habitat, she began cataloguing the species she found, as well as estimating their chances for a healthy survival in constantly changing environments. Then, realizing that she alone could hardly attend every public discussion of land use, she conceived the idea of training both professional biologists and interested citizens in the methods of recording the presence of wildlife species and monitoring their behavior and status. Thus, in 1994, was born Keeping Track, a most appropriate name that came to her in a flash, she says, as she stared at her notebook hoping for inspiration.
Her particular interest is wild carnivores, particularly as their environment changes under the influence of a warming climate. A frequent lecturer, she’s especially conversant with the challenges facing species from the Tropics to the Arctic. In 2001 she was honored by the Fairbanks Museum, with the Franklin Fairbanks Award, “for her lifelong creative and dedicated service to enriching the awareness and understanding of the natural world among the residents of New England.” One report claims that her trained teams of citizen naturalists have contributed to the conservation of over 30,000 acres of habitat so far.
We trekked south from Sue’s base cabin, uphill toward a notch in a ridge where she predicted we’d spot numerous signs of a popular junction of animal trails. The sun was bright, but we needed mittens and gloves; the temperature must have held around 20 degrees. Our first sighting, less than 200 yards from camp, was of a red fox track crossing the road. It was here that I realized how much more there was to see than most of us ever do. She drew an oval around three successive footprints, which showed the fox’s approximate size. Then she drew an X of lines kitty-corner through the footpads; its regularity showed that the track was of a canid, and not a cat.
I saw one live animal all day – a red squirrel that bounded into the tangle of a downed tree – but there were others all around us. A parade of fresh deer tracks, made during the night, led to and from an abandoned apple orchard. Claw and bite marks on a 9-inch white birch spoke of bears marking territory and leaving notes for other bears. A wisp of black guard hair sticking to a dead, horizontal snag about five feet off the ground showed where a moose had squeezed beneath. There were bobcat and fisher markers, as well, and scratches of bear claws on a big beech. Through it all, there ran the genial presence and guidance of an amazingly gifted and knowledgeable blonde lady who carried lunch thermoses, a replica bear skull, and first aid stuff in her pack as easily as if they were cotton candy, and smiled around her with the look of someone who’s truly found her bliss.