Editor’s Note: It was my great pleasure to be the Outdoors columnist for the Times-Dispatch for six years, from 2008-2013. I wrote two columns a week for most of that time, mostly sticking to Central Virginia, writing about the people and places that make the outdoor scene here special. I kept all my clippings from those years, and as I was going through them the other day, it occurred to me that, while some were event-based or otherwise time sensitive, many of them are still relevant today. The below is one of those, amended and updated (from Christmas Day, 2009). Look for more in the future as part of an occasional series.
A walk in the snowy woods the other day got me thinking about “CSI.”
You know the show; reruns are all over cable TV. Every so often an episode will include a scene where investigators try to interpret footprints. They’ll spray some liquid on the ground, turn on a special light, and, with the right glasses on, footprints will appear. Sometimes the show will enhance the effect by raising the prints into the air, inviting the viewer to follow the print path to its conclusion.
That’s what I kept seeing out in the woods: deer prints rising up out of their impressions in the snow, becoming a whitetail buck or doe (in my imagination, it’s usually a big 12-point buck I see). I imagined the animal following the path, jumping over a downed tree, stopping to drink some snowmelt.
It started in a nearby city park Monday morning, my dogs and hiking a hillside above a creek. We were following a trail that no one had touched since the snow started falling Friday night. The only tracks were mine behind me and mine up ahead. The I saw some others. They crossed the trail and continued down to the water’s edge. I bent down to look. They were deer tracks.
I’d seen deer in this area in the past and long speculated about their patterns in the park — where they bedded, what routes they choose, what they fed on, etc. Sometimes I’d come across a print in the dirt, but this time I recognized immediately how useful the snow would be to someone interested in the comings and goings of animal life.
For hunters, the snow offers an invaluable opportunity — and a rare one considering how often it snows here — to gain insight into deer movement. Heavy rains can be helpful, allowing mud to record tracks, but in forested areas, nothing is better than snow. For non-hunters, too, snow presents an opportunity to pursue animals usually only glimpsed by the side of the road.
Why follow tracks? The same reason you watch “CSI”: To put clues together in the hopes of figuring out who (or what) went where and did what. To solve a mystery.
Examining the prints up close, I realized there was more this print could tell me than the identity of the animal that created it. It was below freezing outside, and the print edge was hard. Inside, where the hoof had broken through, the snow was fluffy and light. It had gotten above freezing the day before, so I knew this track was fresh. A track from the day before would have thawed some, then re-frozen overnight, creating a hard crust over the entire print.
We followed the trail across the creek but eventually lost it on a heavily trafficked path, where dozens of humans and dogs had come and gone. This deer was lost but my appetite was whetted.
We headed home and packed the car for another city park, this one also about 100 acres and heavily forested. I was sure there’d be deer sign there. I was barely out of the car before finding out how right I was.
Deer prints were all over the area leading to the narrow park entrance. My dogs’ noses were hot on the scent. Less than 50 yards in, in a thick stand of cedars, we found droppings and urine lining the path of prints, which soon veered off into deeper snow.
We skirted a fence along the park boundary: more droppings, more urine. The trail turned sharply again and paralleled a small rivulet in the snow-covered forest floor. Periodically it would cross the trickle, now growing into a discernible creek.
The understory in this part of the park was mostly holly trees. Where the creek began to cut a deeper channel, we found the trail leading to a group of hollies with low, outstretched branches. Within their spread was a clear bedding area. Bare ground showed through the snow. Five spots had been scraped out. It looked fresh. Again the dogs’ noses went haywire.
At times the tracks came together and then separated. We had to choose which to follow. I’d been here before and knew where the creek led, so we followed the set by the water. I picked my steps slowly and as quietly as possible. As the temperature climbed above freezing, it became harder to age the tracks, but it seemed like we were on fresh ones.
Farther downstream, where the creek cut a bone fide ravine, my hunch was confirmed. Up above us, about 100 yards in the distance, two does stood on the crest of a hill. Their noses were turned into the wind, which carried our scent toward them. My dogs didn’t see them, but I knew it was a matter of time before the deer smelled us.
I crouched low, holding the dogs, and watched as the deer turned their gaze our way. I don’t think they saw, but they didn’t need to. Their noses told them plenty. They wheeled and bounded away from us, down the hill’s far side.
We clambered up to where they had been, but the forest had swallowed them. All that was left was the path of their escape — footprints in the snow — signposts to follow for anyone with the time and inclination.