Last week on a long, slow chairlift ride at Powderhorn my eye fixed on a meandering set of animal tracks.
This liftline traverses a lot of flat ground near the top. Some of it appears to be wetland (or fen or snowed-over pond) amid enormous spruce and aspen glades. At any rate, it is too flat to tempt skiers, and the snow beneath remains a blank slate on which this and other wild creatures leave their marks.
These tracks were set deep, about eight inches into the untrammeled snow. They appeared to be heading up the liftline and wandered a little, but not in the purposeful zig-zag way that a coyote goes following one promising scent and then another, linking the hollow around a buried willow here to a redolent rodent hole there.
This was not a deer. Deer would not be up this high in this much snow. And their little two-toed hooves would have sunk much farther into blue shadow. Nor was it an elk, whose far bigger feet and heavier bulk would have left monstrous postholes, probably all the way to the ground.
(Telluride purists who claim that the elk have been driven from the Valley Floor by cross-country skiers and the machines that groom their trails have obviously not been out there to see the potholes in the track and the scuffling wakes through the deep snow where the big ungulates plow through.)
No, this track was left by no stick-legged Bambi. I could see paw prints in the bottoms of the holes – four toes, and broader than a child’s fist.
This was a “diagonal walker,” maybe a red fox, or a bobcat. The tracks showed “direct register.” That is, the hind foot came up into the hole the front foot made, covering the front track. He, or she, was not loping or galloping, but simply walking, mostly straight ahead, stopping at the bases of the lift towers to sniff, and move on.
It didn’t appear this creature was hunting. There were rabbit, or snowshoe hare, tracks everywhere, like a faint wallpaper pattern, white on white, the bunnies’ big hind feet landing ahead of their daintier front feet as they bounded.
My critter paid the rabbit prints no mind. Where was he going? Which way did his mind wend this morning? I would never know. The tracks ended, probably well before dawn, on the shoveled-off ramp of the old double chair.
Here at Boulder Rock, a few days after a storm, tracks in the snow are like hieroglyphics in alabaster. The scribbles of deer branch in all directions, their beds soft ovals beneath the junipers, their pointy footprints leading from one nibbled sage to another. They don’t like the deeper snow, and stick, when they can, to the south sides of the ridges, where sun crusts support them, or the snow is simply shallower to paw through.
The rabbits, too, are ubiquitous, their prints scattershot, seemingly oblivious to the dangers that may be out to get them. (Have you looked at a rabbit face straight on? The skull is so pinched, there couldn’t be room in there for a brain much bigger than an almond.)
I find myself rooting for the predators, the coyotes, bobcats, the big birds. When predators are plentiful, they say, the whole ecosystem is healthy. (I wanted the track under the lift at Powderhorn to be bobcat.)
I read once, written plain on crusty snow, about the death of a cottontail by raptor, a hawk or an owl. There were large wing prints, petal-delicate at the tips, pressed as if into sand; in the center blood-stained snow like pink glass.
I root for them, except, that is, when I may be the prey. It could happen. Mountain lions have been seen on our hill. I haven’t seen one – I have seen tracks in mud later in the year – but there are too many deer carcasses, once the snow melts, to be the result of natural die-off. Why wouldn’t they be here?
I think about it when I’m walking the arroyo bottoms, my Sorels sinking in ankle high. The walls on either side would provide perfect cover for an ambush. I stop often to look and listen. I turn slowly 360 degrees, scan the horizons, all senses on alert, trying to know the mind that may be following my track.