ALL CREATURES, GREAT and small, leave tracks and trails behind as they move from the beginning to end of their life spans. Sometimes, it is tracks along the trail, other times, evidence left behind with only bones and fur to tell the story and still other times, merely by the pattern of their actions. It has been thus since the dawn of dinosaurs.

Perhaps my favorite example of a trail left behind in the outdoors came from, who else but the Honorable Mr. President of the Old Duck Hunters Association Inc. “Hizzonor,” in an Old Duck Hunters Association story by Gordon MacQuarrie, points out a trail in a dirt road to the junior member of the association — a trail made after a long, hot hunt in the northern woods just south of Superior. 

Trudging down this dusty road one hot autumn day, after an afternoon of brush busting for partridge, Mr. President summoned MacQuarrie to the center of the road to look at something. Pointing, Mr. President asked “You know what made that track?” MacQuarrie responded “No sir.” To which Mr. President answered “That’s where my tail has been dragging.”

That may have been in jest, but in the world of wildlife, the mark of a tail dragging oftentimes points out the story of an animal that has made its way along a dusty track or a snow covered landscape.

Tracks of a weasel or ermine as the critter is known in the winter when it changes to a snow white color, oftentimes leave evidence of a tail dragging behind. So, too, does the common field mouse leave the marks of its tail dragging behind in the snow. I have seen such tracks often while skiing or snowshoeing along groomed trails with a fresh dusting of powdery snow covering them or in the depths of an untrammeled piece of woods where no one else has passed since the first snowfall of the season.

Along a lakeshore, especially in an area where a creek enters or departs the body of water, another wild critter oftentimes leaves a trail that tells of nothing more than the pure joy of being a wild and free animal playing in its woodland home.

The trail of otters sliding down steep banks and hills onto the frozen surface of a lake or the open water created by moving water of a creek is unmistakable and whenever I come upon such a trail, I can’t help but stop and chuckle to myself as I see in my mind’s eye the trail of a single otter or even an entire family of the furry critters acting like school children on a playground during recess. Never mind that the entire piece of the outdoors where they live is one big playground for otters.

There are times when even winged denizens of the woods leave a trail for the observant passerby to see. The trail will be a short one, but in the space where it lies, perhaps a circle of just a few feet in diameter, there is a story to read.

The winter landscape is a harsh one for the wild critters who live in it and when it comes to birds of prey, the short trail they leave is often a trail of death for the animals which become a meal for a predator.

This brings to mind just such a short trail, if you will, I once found while bushwhack skiing in the Frank Lake area. Working my way down a slope into a semi-open valley, I came upon a place where a snowshoe hare met its end. The story of the trail was plain to see.

There was the point of impact where the raptor, most likely an owl, slammed into the hare as it tried to race for cover in an oh so close, but oh so far away clump of thick hazel brush. I could clearly see imprints of wings spread wide in the snow as the bird clamped the hare in a death grip. There was scattered blood and bits of tufted fur left behind as the bird left its final liftoff tracks of the trail.

As I wander the woods, whether in winter when tracks are oftentimes easiest to spot and read or in the remaining three seasons when it takes a keener eye to spot a woodland trail, I find those trails and as I walk along a piece of woods through which they run, I see in my mind the animal making the tracks and for what purpose it was leaving behind a trail.

The tracks of white-tailed deer are among the easiest to find. Whether in snow or soft earth, the tracks a deer leaves behind with its sharp hooves tell a story that almost anyone, experienced in the outdoors or not, can read. 

The trail might be that of a wandering deer in search of shrubby browse or acorns to fill its belly. In winter, when food supplies may be limited by deep snow, it is easy to read the trail of a hungry deer by looking at small maple seedlings with tiny branches clipped off raggedly or it may be a swath of cover in a stand of dense oak where deer have pawed up a brown carpet of leaves in search of acorns to munch.

A buck in rut leaves more than hoof prints behind to tell the story of its trail. Ground litter pawed to bare ground is a telltale sign on the trail of a rutting buck telling any doe in heat within its territory that he is the king of that particular realm and shortly thereafter in a meeting with her they together will produce the progeny to carry on their line.

Turkey tracks along a sandy logging trace are among my favorite trails to follow. That and the areas where they, like deer, tear up a large patch of ground cover in oak country as they seek out nutritious acorns. 

Wherever I roam the woods, there are trails to follow, whether they be those of a beetle working its way along the underside of a piece of fallen bark that one time covered a rotting popple trunk or those of a bear or a wolf, the story of the trail is one of great interest, a story that can be written in any way the imagination of the viewer wishes it to be.

I guess the important thing is to get out there where the wild creatures are, whether in a backyard or in the depths of the forest, and read and enjoy the stories trails will tell.