Peter Frost was a 2004 Wilderness Bushcraft Semester student at the Jack Mountain Bushcraft School. This amazing story really happened and illustrates the usefulness of getting out every day, if only for a little while.
Tracking A Fisher
This morning we were very fortunate. The conditions were ideal for tracking. Early last night, an inch of dry, light snow sifted down through the trees and covered the forest floor. Underneath this fine layer, nothing of the previous winter snows remained except for a hard-packed crust. This allows one to move through the woods and dense brush without being encumbered by snowshoes. And, since there has been a warming trend the past few weeks, all the animals moved around last night. There were zillions of tracks everywhere!
I awoke immediately at sunrise, bolted down a hurried breakfast, pulled on my boots and rushed out the door. Yeah!!! First I walked over to the fleshing poles where I’ve been tanning my deer hides. The meat and fur scattered around this area has been attracting all sorts of animals, particularly the crows.
Yesterday while reading a book I watched them fly by the window all day with tufts of fur in their mouths, trip after trip after trip, constantly. They must be building the most luxurious nest ever! I had gone out several times in the day to check out their tracks. The crow who happened to be gathering fur would fly fifteen feet up into a tree above the pile and caw at me when I approached, probably very annoyed about being interrupted. But then I noticed this cawing was just part of a larger chain reaction, crows further off in the distance repeating the call of annoyance, until I heard the cawing all the way down at the far end of the lake. Kind of like an advanced warning system. Then I noticed another crow in the top of a white pine overlooking the whole scene, that was eyeballing the entire field, including the crow on the ground. He was always the first to spot me, because the ground crow was busy picking through his treasure. This “sniper crow” would give me away, issuing a call that instantly sent the ground crow up into the tree, to safety. After all, what if I had been a Coyote? It would have been two birds with one stone for Coyote. Or more accurately one bird and one pile of deer flesh. The crows had a clever system.
The Coyotes came into the field last night. Rarely do they cross over the road, but they must have been tempted by the mound of flesh. It is still early in the season, and many animals are hungry. There were many smaller Coyote tracks as well. So many tracks leading off in all directions that I wanted to follow… but I had an appointment with a Fisher.
I met the Fisher on my very first morning out here at Rust Pond. I was crashing through the woods, behaving unknowingly like a predator, when I heard a squealing sound. If you put your bottom lip against your top teeth and suck in, you can re-produce the noise exactly. I went toward the noise to investigate, and discovered something black and furry through a three inch hole in a brush pile. For the next forty days, I dropped by the den every other day, sometimes each day, for about five minutes. The snow has now almost melted completely from around the den, and I can see the entire animal. She’s huge! Her head is bigger than mine and her nose is the size of a large Golden Retriever’s. Her body is a full forty inches long. Each time I approached, I got a little bit closer, and the Fisher got less and less irritated by my visits. Lately, I had been getting to within five feet of her. She would lift her head up from her curled front legs, tucked under her chin, and we’d stare at each other eye to eye. I would softly talk to her for five minutes, and then slowly turn and crawl away. I always approached the den from the exact same route, swinging a wide circle and crawling the last ten yards through extremely dense brush. If I ever tried approaching from a different angle or from downwind, the screeches would begin. I always made sure that I didn’t block the obvious exit to the den. It is unlikely that she would attack something as big as me, but nonetheless I didn’t want to corner her.
Today something very special happened. While tunneling through the brush toward the den, I wasn’t greeted by the usual raised head, or even a few soft murmurs. She just cocked an ear and remained curled in a ball, not even bothering to look at me. I crawled right up next to her in the snow and curled up too. She stretched once, extending her legs and paws, and settled back again, never even looking my way. I talked softly to her. I was, for all practical purposes, in the den. I was less than a foot from the Fisher and I could smell her breath and the musky odors of the den. Our breath, in the morning sunlight, mingled and vaporized all around us, filling the den. I removed a mitten, slowly reached out, and pet her on the back of her head. She didn’t move, nor was she afraid. I was, though! A few minutes later, I decided to touch her again. This time I didn’t want any fear to be associated with the experience. I put aside all of my past and forgot everything, reached out, and connected animal to animal. I lay still for a minute afterward, attentive. Then, something amazing happened. From the center of mother’s curl, a little kit Fisher poked it’s head out, yawned, and looked my way. Mother softly placed a large paw on the kit’s head and pressed it back down into the curl. I guess it wasn’t time to get up! I said, “Well, don’t want to wake the kit, so I’m out of here – I have a lot of your tracks to check out.” I slowly turned and crawled out of the brush, and began following their tracks.
Fishers are mainly nocturnal. For the past few nights my Fishers have been actively hunting, creating tracks that form endless loops over a huge tract of the forest. According to some guide books, their territory can cover up to six square miles, and they will walk around nine miles per night. From what I discovered in the snow this morning, I am able to make a few educated guesses as to the behavior of this mother and child. They are, however, just guesses, but for reading’s sake I will portray my opinions as assumptions.
I believe there is only one kit. The kit’s track prints are smaller than mother’s, they also had a different pattern to them. This made it very easy to distinguish between the two, and revealed each Fisher’s distinct personality. Mother ambled along, while the kit was more cautious and careful with each step. The kit would branch off from the mother to do its own stalking. They never strayed too far from each other, and would periodically merge back together to get to a new hunting ground. Their tracks threaded the needle through areas of dense conifers and brush, then stopped at the edges of a clearings. The clearings were chock-full of Snowshoe Hare tracks and sign. On a few occasions, the Fishers waited at the edge of these clearings long enough to have left melted imprints of their bodies in the snow. Then they would charge off after a Hare, upon which the Hare tracks abruptly changed direction and speed. I never found a kill site of a Hare, but I know my Fishers love them because they devoted almost all of their energy in pursuing them. I found Hare fur pressed into a few of the Fisher’s tracks – perhaps they killed one or swatted it. The Fishers would loop through these clearings of Snowshoe Hare habitat, and every time they came to a Hare track, they would pause, determine the direction of travel, and pursue. They followed right in the path of the Hares, overlapping their tracks. Sometimes the pursuit would just amble along, but in the fresher tracks the pace became quicker and the Fishers would begin to run. I became very excited in these runs and moved quicker with them, too. The prints were pressed deeper and were easier to follow. Sometimes the Hare would be bounding along and come to the line of a Fisher track. They would immediately do an about-face upon getting a scent, and leap away even faster. It was obvious that the Fishers gave the Hares hell. The Hares were scared out of their wits, turning in tight confused circles while the Fisher circled. The clearings were full of such prints. Occasionally the kit would follow a Hare track the wrong way, but quickly lose interest and circle off to find a different run. In many of the clearings, there were mounds of snow surrounded by impressive claw marks. This was where the Fisher had defecated and buried it under the snow. Sometimes I caught a whiff of the musky odor nearby, a territorial marking. It was wonderful being in the middle of a clearing, surrounded by so many looping tracks. They were telling many stories. I wanted to be fifty places at once!
At one point, mother headed out alone far off to the south. I never got to the end of that track, but there were many interesting things along it’s way. She would investigate every den and hiding place by sticking her head in or swatting at it. There were many claw prints in the snow. One Red Squirrel had used some of my Deer fur to line it’s den with (about 1 mile from the field!) at the base of a red oak tree. The Fisher rooted it all out, spreading a layer of fur, dirt, and chewed acorns over the snow. Many of the dens had erratic circles of distressed Mouse and Squirrel tracks around them.
After awhile I stopped paying attention to where I was in the forest, and just lost myself in the tracks. The sun was rising in the east like a giant compass, so there was no need to worry about losing my bearing or getting turned around. Eventually I was looped back to the den anyway. It had been about three hours and I needed to get back indoors to begin lacing a pair of snowshoes for the rest of the day. I was covered in snow and dripping wet from snow sloughing off tree branches. I went to my sit spot for a few minutes to take in all that I had experienced, and was graced by a flock of Chickadees that landed in the hemlocks all around me. I listened to them talking about me, studying me, with their various calls and movements. That is a whole other story in itself! Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, I startled a Grouse. He left wing tip prints etched in the snow where he took off. Suddenly, I began to notice Grouse prints everywhere…
The world has become a much richer place for me today. I am only beginning to discover many animal traits that are no different than human traits. The same stories and habits we teach are echoed by all species. I also discovered that I would not want to be a snowshoe hare in these parts of the woods. Personal experience and firsthand knowledge go straight to the heart. Behind the annoying caw of the crow I discovered a highly intelligent communications system. They were looking out for one another. The Deer that gave its life for food and clothing is keeping countless animals warm tonight. If you listen carefully, you can hear the birds talking, lighting on branches in front of your face. I took the time, and shed the myths of the Fisher being a “ruthless killer,” and was able to witness an amazing moment between mother and child.
Seeing the human in every animal, I can see more clearly the human animal that I am. I believe that all humans are good at heart. Traveling to foreign countries such as India have shown me firsthand that no matter how different the culture, all people have the same heart, laugh at the same things, and have the same connections with each other. This is so with other animals, too. I am feeling less and less like a tourist in the woods, exploring an entire civilization in my own back yard.
Tricked By A Weasel
After petting the fisher I refrained from visiting her den for three days. But I continued to follow her tracks each morning. When I returned to the den, she lifted her head to greet me with the usual silence. I curled up in the snow beside the den, talked softly to her. But a few odd things were different. The warm spring sun had melted most of the snow in the forest, revealing a dinner plate-sized pile of liquefied scat at the entrance to the den. Leftovers from fall. This was no ordinary fisher scat. Spring temperatures were also bringing out all of the Earth’s smells. The den smelled sour and of sweat- not the musky mink odor expected from a member of the weasel family. I began to have doubts and fears. The mother sensed my fear, which in turn sparked fear in her. As I slowly crawled away she stood up, revealing to me for the first time her profile, and she backed away from the den. She looked like a black bear, and was much bigger than I had imagined when she was curled into a ball! She was the size of a bear. At this point the kit started squealing, and I made a swift retreat.
I sat down on a log one hundred feet from the den. A great sense of sadness and rejection swept through me. What had I done to cause this miscommunication? The sky clouded over and tiny snowflakes sifted through the trees as I sulked home, erasing all of the animal tracks in the forest.
I wouldn’t visit the den for another three days. I finally forced myself to go back, but I already knew what I was going to find before getting there. The den was empty. The recent snows had erased all tracks leading from the den.
The next week was packed with fantastic tracking discoveries. It snowed an inch each night, creating a fresh palate anew day after day. I avoided the den area and focused on other parts of the forest. One day, while Tim, Jim, and I were walking through the forest, we came upon the tracks of a bobcat! It’s efficient and thoughtful tracks led to a spot where its trail merged with the trail of a grouse, snowshoe hare, and deer! Nearby were signs of moose, weasel, mouse, fox, and coyote. I analyzed the tracks and their stories written in the snow, bringing the animals to life in my mind. It was as though I could actually see them moving in front of me. I felt their various presences and purposes, and was struck with a sense of true wealth being there among all those tracks. It made me light headed and sent shivers up my spine.
Everywhere Jim and I looked we discovered new animal sign. We saw tiny claw marks in the red oak where a red squirrel made his ascent, and the awkward tracks of the large domestic dog that had made a detour and beeline for the tree. His owner, a man running up the trail, may have called him back, because the dog’s tracks did an about-face, sped up and merged with his master’s again. We found deer tracks in the mud, and places in the grass where they had bedded down for the night, eating young maple shoots and drinking from a nearby spring. Sometimes I stalked recent grouse tracks through the brush. Often I was lucky and witnessed a frantic thumping of wings as a startled grouse took off through the trees. Other times the trail ended at the edge of a clearing, with the last set of footprints pressed deeper in the snow where the grouse had pushed off, with wingtip feather arcs on either side of the print.
One day, I was off in a corner of the woods gathering a dozen long, straight saplings to fashion myself a pair of “emergency snowshoes.” I found a great thick grove of beech trees and cut my first sapling when I heard a familiar sound– the screeching! I wanted to make amends with the mother, so I headed in the direction of the noise. I needn’t have gone far, for mother was coming to meet me! She emerged from behind a thick hemlock like a phantom, not fifteen feet from me. As she lumbered confidently toward me, I lumbered quickly away from her. I wasn’t sure what her intentions were. In the fleeting moment that I saw her, I clearly made out the classic gait of a black bear, with a light brown patch around her muzzle. She was the size of three bar stools.
My doubts, confusions, and curiosity intensified. How could a bear make fisher tracks? I dubbed her the Fisher Bear. I wanted to believe she was a bear raising two fisher kits. The tracks I had been following from the den were clearly fisher tracks, doing things that fishers like to do. They were not bear tracks.
Later that day I brought Tim and Jim out to “the meeting place” to look at the tracks she had made. I was dying of curiosity, and the snow was melting fast. When all three of us approached, there was an incredible level of screeching that I hadn’t heard before. Mother came out again and began pacing and talking to the cubs. We got a clear view of two cubs lying at the base of a hemlock. This was their new den! The three of us agreed that the animal was way too big for a normal fisher, most likely a bear, or “a fisher that had been taking steroids for ten years and was ready to take over the world,” as Tim put it. We left the area without finding any tracks because we were causing such a disturbance. If I wanted some positive ID, I would have to do it alone.
The next afternoon I armed myself with a measuring tape, notebook, pen, and camera. I bounded through the brush, cracking branches, and calling out loudly that I was coming. When I reached the standpoint I had gotten to before, I was met with complete silence and stillness. I inched forward, calling out occasionally. At my feet I noticed very large coyote tracks. Jim had seen his tracks previously and reported them to us. He was a big one. The tracks at my feet were very fresh. The snow was melting rapidly, but the imprints were very detailed and hadn’t begun to erode. The tracks paralleled the den area, and I began fear that he had caused some trouble with the cubs. My heart sank as I saw the tracks turn right toward the den and make for the area where the cubs had been earlier. But then I laughed and became extremely alert. The coyote had abruptly run off and away from the den while peeing! I cautiously continued forward, and noticed a few prints from the previous day that were roughly the size of my foot, but they were very melted and distorted. Bear? I scanned the area and saw from the corner of my eye a tiny hemlock bough flip up silently, spilling a bit of wet snow. I knew it was her. As I began to back off, mother materialized silently from the trees again and presented herself in full view, directly in front of me! She was beautiful, and there was no mistaking her for the bear she was. I said “you are definitely a bear and I am going to leave now.” From my recent research on bears I knew that the last thing a mother wants is a big confrontation in front of her cubs.
I finally had closure to most of my mystery, despite not getting a clear track. Mother kept me away from them. At this point I just wanted to see a fresh bear track, and see what the cub’s tracks looked like, but it wasn’t worth the price of disturbing the family. I was happy that my presence didn’t upset her cubs and that my recent intrusions hadn’t forced her to flee or re-locate again. I walked away.
Soon after, I picked up the trail of a pair of foxes. They led me down to the creek and by the base of a tall dead birch. A large woodpecker was hacking away at the top of the tree, looking for insects. I carefully approached the trunk, then pressed my ear to it and hugged it as tight as I could. Each deafening “Thok!” transmitted through the length of the trunk and into my ear, the vibrations sent down from the woodpecker’s head shaking my entire body. I became part of the tree and the woodpecker was personally attacking me. At one point the “thokking” became extremely vigorous. I could feel his enthusiasm as large chunks of rotten birch began to hit me on the head and rain down all around me. I clearly heard and felt his rasping claws as he shifted around the circumference of the trunk. After awhile I felt a rapid pulsing of wing-beats, and then silence.
I went back to Rust Pond and put the pieces of the Fisher Bear puzzle together as best as I could.
I’ve seen over fifty bears in the wild before. And now, I’ve even pet one in its den! What caused me to misidentify the “fisher” for so long? Many factors led to my lengthy indecision, to the point where I was staring into the eyes of this bear for long periods of time, not even realizing she was a bear! It was a wonderful, unforgettable lesson.
First off, I had (as most people do) a few per-conceived notions. I didn’t expect there to be any bear (or bobcat or moose, for that matter) in these parts of the woods in New Hampshire. My respect for this amazing area has increased one hundred-fold with the knowledge of their presence. Also, she is a smaller bear than the ones I’ve seen before. I now know that I have never seen a fisher before, so I figured it was just a very large one. If I had known she was a bear from the beginning, I may not have had the courage or desire to be near her. Innocence was my ally. It allowed me to see her through my own eyes, in my own experience. I shattered many myths, and I am still not afraid of her.
I read and re-read all of my field guides on both the fisher and the black bear. The guidebooks played a large part in my misconceptions. For one, they all stated that bear will “seldom make any noise, if at all,” and that the fisher “looks like a small bear.” She was also in a classic (according to these books) fisher habitat: her den was in a brush pile, in snowshoe hare habitat, and in an area that was recovering from logging. As I read these accounts, I curved my mind to fit them. When something I experienced didn’t match the books, I also curved the books to fit the fact. Once an idea came into my head, I established it as a fact. I reinforced it with whatever I could find, but I didn’t allow the idea to crumble.
What Really Happened:
Mother bear had given birth to her two cubs sometime in January, while she was hibernating. The weather started to warm up, and now she is awake and ready to spend the next year with her cubs.
As For The Tracks:
I have come to the conclusion that they were, indeed, fisher tracks around the den. There was no mistaking it. They had come over to the den to investigate the sleeping bear family every day, getting right up to the edge and then leaving again. I have learned from this experience that fishers are curious creatures. They had investigated every den they had come across in their hunting, whether it was the den of a mouse, squirrel, hare, or bear.
I backtracked the fisher tracks. After looping into and out of the old bear den, they wound back into the brush. I followed their trail for a few hours, through dense thickets and into more uprooted squirrel dens. I found more snowshoe hare fur. Gradually, I began to hear red-winged blackbirds in the woods, which I thought was odd, but then discovered that I was standing near the edge of a very large bog. The fisher tracks led out there, and looped through the bog. But they eventually straightened and stretched across the ice, over deeper and deeper water. The ice gave out beneath me a few times, revealing gurgling, frigid water hidden underneath. It was the end of my trail, for now. The ice was too thin to proceed.
I wanted to become a chickadee and fly lightly through the brush and over the ice. I did the next best thing and climbed to the very top of a nearby oak tree, to see if I could survey the tracks from the air. I climbed until the branches became questionable to hold my weight, and I ran out of tree. The fisher’s tracks led back into the thick brush of the bog, disappearing among the reeds. Damn! It was the end of the trail. I may never solve this new fisher mystery. They had deceived me about the bear and now I couldn’t follow the tracks to their true source. I had been tricked by a weasel.
I remained in the tree for quite a while. The sun broke the horizon and slowly spread its diffused golden light over the bog. A sudden East wind piped up, breaking the stillness of the dawn. The wind carried the noises of the bog to me, in the top of my tree. I swayed with the gusts, clinging to the thin, snow-covered branches and listened to the “conk-a-LEE-der” of the red-winged blackbirds talking of the impending storm. There are few things as powerful to me as listening to a red-winged blackbird at dawn, especially as a storm approaches. No words can express the feeling that came over me. The dawn was subdued by an overspreading wall of gray cloud, which quickly swallowed up the sun and its colors. The birds quieted down, and it began to snow.