The other school of thought maintains that the goop is good. Let it rain; let it pour. Wait a few days for the trails to dry out and come take a look. You’ll find there, right under your Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass, an array of wonders those pristine trails of summer can’t provide: animal track.
If wildflower enthusiasts love spring, trackers love winter. Mud and snow are the document on which animals write the signature of their presence. As a human signature can reveal much of the signer’s personality, an animal’s track can tell us what the beast was doing when it made its mark, allowing us to deduce, like Holmes, the creature’s species, gender, direction, speed and activity. It’s remarkable how much information can be contained in an impression a few inches square.
Sometimes the impression is dramatic. A couple winters ago on the Oak Savannah Trail at Los Vaqueros I spotted a mystifying deer track. Four close-spaced hoof prints had been embossed in the dead center of that 12-foot-wide avenue perpendicular to the line of the trail. I looked around for other deer sign and found none.
What I did find, however, was intriguing. A pair of coyotes had passed this way heading in the same direction. The relative freshness of their track implied they could have crossed the trail in the time frame of the deer crossing. And the stride of their track suggested they were making serious time.
Then the vision came: A deer in flight, sailing in from my right, landing smack on the center of the trail and bounding majestically away to my left – then the coyotes in urgent pursuit: one head-down, led by the scent of prey; the other head-up, ears forward and pupils dilated.
At dawn on a snow-capped Mt. Diablo in February of 2006 I came upon a set of track that conjured up another tale of fight or flight. Puncturing the snow on the Meridian Ridge trail were two sets of coyote track alongside the track of a single deer, all created after the snowfall had ended. No more than six hours old.
A few hundred yards up, at the 2,200-foot level, something had happened. The deer, perhaps sensing danger, had taken a sharp left into the dense manzanita. One coyote had peeled off and followed. The other had kept to the road trail. Were the predators working as a team? I never found out. What I found was the signature of life on an elemental level, and a reminder of my privileged place in it.
Dust off your magnifying glass, Sherlock. It’s time for the trails to get muddy. Time for the beasts to sign in.