Natural Connections: 'Making Tracks'
Awooooo! My best impression of a wolf howl rose over the crunching of snowshoes and little voices. Gesturing to the group of third graders from the Hayward Intermediate School, I invited them to howl back. The choir that responded sounded nothing like wolves, but it was music to my ears nonetheless. So was the expectant silence that followed, since these kids were wise to the fact that I’d howled to get their attention.
“We’re going to hike like a pack of wolves today,” I declared. “Do you know how wolves walk when they’re in deep snow?” I led this same snowshoe hike four times over the course of two days, and in each group there was one outdoorsy kid who knew. Wolves walk in a single file line and step precisely in the footprints of the wolf in front of them. The kids understood the benefits of the wolves’ behavior intuitively. Who hasn’t made their own life easier by following in someone else’s footsteps through deep snow?
“I’ve tracked wolves,” I told them, hoping to establish credibility. I’ve followed a trail that looked like it was made by just one wolf going through deep snow. When it came to a ski trail, though, the wolf tracks fanned out on the firm surface and I counted at least six in the pack.
With one last admonition to walk in a single file line, I howled again, and they howled back as we started up the trail.
For warmth, flying squirrels huddle together with their friends in a hollow tree. Handing out durable thermometers to small groups of kids, I challenged them to see how much heat they could generate by huddling together with their friends. Photo by Emily Stone.
The Mammal Tour on the Ridge Trail is a wonderful community resource. The 1.1-kilometer loop trail is the easiest of several snowshoe trails at the North End Trailhead just south of Cable, Wisconsin, and the Museum and our partners have created a self-guided interpretive trail along its length. We started out with plywood mammal silhouettes cut by the Drummond High School shop class, but hungry porcupines rendered most of those unrecognizable after just a few years.
This past fall, a funding drive spearheaded by the North End Ski Club and community member Ron Caple made it possible for us to commission a set of 25 new metal mammals cut by Mark Blaskey in Altoona, Wisconsin. We reprinted the booklets, too, which contain drawings, information, and tracks for all the mammals, plus a map of the trail. In January, attendance at our Backcountry Film Festival helped offset the cost of hosting this field trip.
I hiked the kids right past the shapes of a woodchuck, a big brown bat, and a chipmunk. When we finally stopped between the wolf and the deer silhouettes, I asked if they could guess why we skipped the other mammals. At least one student was paying attention. “You told us we were just talking about animals that stay active in the winter. Those animals don’t.” Haley Appleman, the Museum’s naturalist, was just then back in the Museum’s education room with the rest of their class talking about animals that migrate and hibernate. Out in the woods, we wanted to think about how animals confront the cold and snow head-on.
Wanting to wow them with the thickness of a wolf’s fur, I walked over to one of my helpers—a third grader carrying a heavy orange backpack. When I unzipped the pack and started pulling out a huge wolf pelt, a wave of surprised comments rippled outward. The helper was the most surprised of all. “You mean I was carrying that on my back!?”
Our next stop was below the form of a flying squirrel on the tree. Unlike wolves, they don’t have thick enough fur to sleep out in the open. For warmth, flying squirrels huddle together with their friends in a hollow tree. Handing out durable thermometers to small groups of kids, I challenged them to see how much heat they could generate by huddling together with their friends. Most groups brought the temperature up to 40 or 50 degrees, but one group of girls used their breath and registered over 70 degrees!
Down the trail, we compared the squirrel’s simple shelter to the more elaborately constructed lodge of a beaver. Even though we never see beavers in the snow, they are able to stay active all winter by snacking on their store of twigs under the ice and resting snugly in their lodge.
By far, though, my favorite topic to cover on any winter ecology hike is the subnivean zone. This magical space opens up at the boundary between still-warm earth and the insulating blanket of snow. Here, mice, chipmunks, voles, shrews, spiders, ticks, fungi and bacteria find their own special shelter.
As mysterious and invisible as this space is to us humans, however, a whole suite of predators have learned to access its rich stores of prey. Skinny weasels follow chipmunks into their burrows. Alert foxes and coyotes cock their ears toward scurrying mice and pounce through the snow. Vigilant owls’ precise hearing guides them to punch through the crust with bony talons and grab a late-night snack.
At our final stop on the trail, I invited the kids to explore the subnivean zone, too. In place of deadly accurate ears, I hand them mini-Frisbees I call “treasure finders.” Give it a toss, watch where it lands, then dig down. The Frisbee knows where treasures hide in the subnivean zone—which, of course, is everywhere. Every leaf, stick, acorn, or bit of moss is a treasure to some resident of this forest.
“Awoooo!” I called again, and “Awoooo-oo-oo!” my wolf pack replied as we began the last stretch of their hike back to the bus. With the end in sight, tired legs were forgotten and the group’s chatter turned to comments like “that was so fun,” “we hiked so far,” and “I wish we could go farther.” This, of course, was music to my ears.
Special Note: Columnist Emily Stone is publishing a second book of her Natural Connections articles as a fundraiser for youth programming at the Cable Natural History Museum. Since community members are often the inspiration for her articles, the Museum is conducting an art contest for kids and adults to illustrate each chapter with a black-and-white line drawing. Find the details and entry form at http://cablemuseum.org/connect/.