On a Winter's Day, Circling: From a Land Steward's Journal
Tom Thomson. 'In Algonquin Park', Winter 1914-15. Oil on canvas. 24 7/8 x 31 15/16 in. (63.2 x 81.1 cm).
The day started with a stain of blood on the snow, framed by a spray of wing markings. A hawk, or maybe an owl, had found its prey only moments before we arrived. As we unloaded firewood from the back of the truck, we debated whether the smudged paw prints nearby were those of a weasel or a rabbit. This was how we learned to approach what we encountered in the wild: not to be surprised by what we found, but to be curious.
My father, sister, and I were a couple of hours north of Toronto, at the makeshift cabin that our grandfather, Dad’s dad, built in a small clearing on an otherwise deeply forested piece of land. We’d come up for the day, to check in on the beehives we keep there. This could have been 20 years ago, or 10 or 5 years ago — we’ve had many such days together — and there’s great comfort in feeling as though nothing has changed. There’s also a feeling of secrecy about the place. I don’t like to see it on a map; I want it to be unknown.
These smaller sequences of prints all leapt, scurried, and zigzagged on and off the trail, but the deer tracks moved forward at a steady pace.
Our three beehives are kept under the sweeping arms of young spruces. Each of us chose a hive and performed a routine check in unison: pressing our ears to the netted air-holes, tapping the sides of the tar-papered hives and listening for the faint buzzy response that signifies a living colony; examining the ground in front of the hives for dead bees; and, after noticing scratch-marks on the tar paper that suggested that some small mammal had attempted entry, staple-gunning an extra screen over the main entrance. Beyond these simple operations, there wasn’t much else to do but keep our fingers crossed. Getting a bee colony through a Canadian winter is a constant challenge that keeps us floundering.
After a quick lunch standing around the tailgate of Dad’s truck — sandwiches and tea from a thermos sweetened with honey from last year’s harvest — we strapped on our snowshoes and headed single file into the woods. There’s just one trail that leads through the trees, created by our grandfather and maintained now by Dad. He led the way, with my sister next and me in the back. Around us were over 100 acres of forested land, made up of a blend of sugar maple, red oak, basswood, and jack pine, among others that thrive along the border of the Mixedwood Plains and Boreal Shield ecozones of Ontario.
"Getting a bee colony through a Canadian winter is a constant challenge . . ." [o]
As we shuffled along, Dad pointed to deer tracks that headed out of the underbrush and followed our human-made trail. There were also tracks of red squirrels, rabbits, and something between canine and feline that I determined must be a fox. These smaller sequences of prints all leapt, scurried, and zigzagged on and off the trail, but the deer tracks moved forward at a steady pace. We also saw the markings of a grouse that had burrowed down and suddenly taken flight, leaving traces of wing prints fanning across the snow.
The three of us snowshoed in silence. Chickadees buzzed and chirped nearby, hopping along low branches and scattering snowflakes that caught the afternoon light. Awkwardly side-stepping over a tree that had fallen across the trail, Dad said he’d have to clear it out come spring. The deer tracks carried on, having delicately moved around the fallen tree rather than clambering right over it as we had.
My Dad's hand at the scene of a passer-by's print.
The trail split in two — one path heading down to the river and the other heading up and out of the woods to the rocky, shrub-strewn shoulders of the Canadian Shield — and the deer tracks were joined with those of a very different mammal. Large, deliberate, and canine, they were easy to spot as a wolf’s. I remember the thrill of hearing their long, distant howls on mid-summer evenings as a kid, but we’d never seen them. These prints were the closest physical evidence of their secretive lives, lived in parallel to our own.
We followed alongside the two sets of tracks until we reached the river. Here, both the deer and the wolf veered off into an area where we couldn’t tell what was land and what was ice. We opted not to follow. Instead we took off our snowshoes to better navigate the uncertain banks of the river, heading in the opposite direction. Our boots cracked through the ice and sank into the dark mud beneath. The water that seeped through the snow was brown as tea, smelling of primordial leaf-rot and living decay. Along the way, we discovered bear tracks — a slow, ambling line of paw prints, with wide palm pads and a curved line to the toes. Dad put his hand next to one of them and the track was a thumb’s length longer than his fingers. Moving from a tree that had distinctive claw markings in its bark, the tracks walked along the bank and faded away into the trees. Unlike the deer and the wolf, the bear didn’t make use of our convenient human-made trails.
"A slow, ambling line of paw prints, with wide palm pads and a curved line to the toes . . ." [o]
From the riverbank we cut upward through the woods and onto a plateau of smooth rock. The afternoon sun had started to melt the snow exposed across the lichen-laced curves of granite. Here we came across the heavy indentations of a man’s boot in the mud, along with ashes from a bonfire — evidence of the hunters we share the land with during deer-hunting season, a few weeks back. Nearby, my sister pointed out some unexpected green leaves feeling their way out from the melting snow: wintergreen. Each of us plucked a waxy leaf, popped it in our mouths and reacted to the strong toothpaste flavor!
The trail took us back down into the woods, where we merged with our original trail and followed our own jumbled snowshoe prints back to the clearing to the cabin. Broken from the spell of the forest, the three of us talked woodland gossip — about the tracks we’d seen, where the bear might den down for the winter, and whether the wolf had caught up with the deer.
It’s easy to forget those dwelling deep in wild places. Too often we seem to focus on what’s directly before our eyes, denying or disregarding how our daily lives ripple out into habitats beyond our own that impact the creatures living outside the domains of human propriety. (I almost wrote ‘property’. I think I mean both.)
The four basic track patterns. [o]
In this corner of the wilderness, we try to leave things be. Of course there are the trails we maintain, the bees we keep, the well dug by my grandfather and the spruces planted by my grandmother, the outhouse, and the remains of our fires. There are property taxes to be paid. We use the land for recreation and refuge, not survival. And yet the land finds a way to sustain us. It teaches us to pay more attention, to move more slowly, to look more closely — and to look again. We can learn to read the daily stories of the woods by tracing the little journeys that render the place legible. The trails become an archive of the recent past —reaching into the present as we follow the tracks, and add our own. ≈ç
My sister at the final stretch.
EMILY PASKEVICS is a writer and editor whose publications include the chapbook The Night That Was Animal (Dancing Girl Press, 2014), along with poetry, essays, and short fiction pubblished in Hart House Review, Vallum Magazine, Acta Victoriana, CLASH Media, Rogue Agent, and U of T Magazine, among others. She lives in Montreal.
Track and trail photos by the author.