Tracks and Bones

Winter is beginning to show signs of arriving in Idaho’s Salmon River Mountains, my home. I love winter. I love snow, almost as much as my dogs do, except I don’t roll in it. Having real winters with snow – as opposed to Seattle’s dreary constant drizzle with the occasional snowpocalypse that brings everything to a grinding halt for a day or two – is one of the reasons I chose to move here. Snow is just…pure. And delightful.

dogs on snowy road
Running on a Forest Service road, me using the tire tracks for easier footing.

We’ve recently had enough snow to stick around for several days, enough that the guy came and plowed my driveway, deep enough to make running in the forest a real effort for me, especially on single track trails. Not so deep, however, to stop the boys and me from running in the forest. No yet, anyway. Before long the snow will be so deep – three to four feet at my house, more at higher elevations – that we only run on the road groomed for snowmobiles, or on plowed roads in the valley. So we run in the forest as much as we can before winter truly settles in for the long haul. When the occasional adventuresome driver heads into the forest, leaving packed tracks on the road, we take advantage.

I love running through a snowy landscape. So clean and pristine. So quiet. Plus, it’s always fascinating watching my dogs following tracks in the snow with their noses. To them, deer and elk tracks are the best, followed closely by fox and rabbit.

dog in snow at fence
Finn wanting to follow the deer tracks but stopped by the fence. The deer leaped over it.

Spring through autumn, tracks are less easy for me to see in the dirt, unless there’s mud or thick dust. Over the years I’ve noticed my dogs’ interest is focused on fresh tracks; old tracks are ignored. I can tell they’ve found fresh tracks because they put their noses to the ground and pick up their pace, following the tracks several feet, often as they cross our route. Conall’s tail sometimes wags slightly in happiness (I’m pretty sure that happens only for elk tracks). The boys will sniff intently, then look up, scanning the nearby terrain, hoping to spot the animal that left the tracks, but we make enough noise as we run through the forest that we rarely surprise anything.

dogs running in snow
The boys always find plenty of deer/elk and bunny tracks to keep their noses occupied in this section of forest.

When snow begins to blanket the forest – like now – the scent left by deer and elk punching through the snow is even easier for the boys to smell. It’s not just hoof on dirt; now it’s hoof and foreleg leaving scents in a snow tunnel on the way to the ground. The dogs push their snouts right into the divot left by the animal’s foot, take a quick inhale, then follow the tracks a bit before looking up through the trees to see if they’re still in the vicinity. With the snow, I can see the tracks easily, so it’s easier for me to piece together what’s going on with the dogs’ behaviors. I just wish they could tell me how fresh the tracks are, and how old they have to be before they ignore them as yesterday’s news.

I was hoping to capture Conall zooming past me, as he often does, when he suddenly took a detour, following his nose and deer tracks uphill from the road. Fresh tracks!

Conall has an especially keen sense of smell. All of my Alaskan Malamutes have enjoyed this trait, but I think Conall’s ability is the best. Too many times to count I’ve watched them all sniff a track, lift their noses high to breathe in the air, then look in a direction where we eventually see a deer or elk just as it bolts to get away from us. I swear my girl Meadow (she passed in 2013) would literally vibrate if she smelled the scent of elk on the breeze. Finn, an Australian shepherd, doesn’t have that olfactory ability, but he’s learned to key into Conall’s body language and follow his lead. As have I. It’s fun to watch play out.

dogs in snow
Conall inspects his newly-excavated forest treasure while Finn sniffs the spot where Conall dug to find it.

In addition to animal tracks, Conall has an amazing ability to sniff out what I call “forest treasure” – animal bones off the trail, often buried under snow. To him, they are treasure. They might be bones left after a hunter butchered his kill and later spread by forest carnivores (coyotes and fox, mostly), or it might be an animal killed by a prey species, or one that simply died of natural causes. The boys and I will be running along when suddenly Conall will stop, sniff, go to a spot and start digging, pulling up bones which he proudly brings to show off to me. I confess, I reinforce the behavior by telling him what a smart boy he is. The bones are usually already well-cleaned of meat and sinew by forest scavengers. (Finn shows little to no interest in these bones, which is just as well.)

Conall tries carrying the treasure he found yesterday along with us, but elk leg bones are heavy and awkward.

After gnawing on his new-found treasure for a minute or two I can persuade Conall to leave it behind. The next time we come that way, however, he will remember exactly where he left it, and dash ahead searching for it. Sometimes it’s in the same spot, although he may have to dig through fresh snow to uncover it; sometimes it’s nearby, having been moved by a scavenger. I swear he derives as much joy at finding it the second or tenth time – and showing it off to me – as the first.

There are many reasons I love living here. The ability to let my dogs be dogs, watching and learning from them about the natural world, is top of the list.

Happy fifth birthday, Conall!

All images and video are mine, taken over the past three days.

10 thoughts on “Tracks and Bones”

  1. aaaaaOOOOOOOOoooooo…..ooooOOOOOOOOO…wuuuuuuuOOOOOOOooooo ❤

    (P.S. I loved your videos. Bear is amazing in her abilities both to see and sniff. We also love snowy landscapes for what "we" sense. Last year a deer sprayed a tree on our regular walk. The yellow patch of snow on the side was Bear's absolute favorite until it melted away. There was also a bit of fox scent buried beneath the snow she had to roll in long after the snow had gone. For a year after, she left her own messages in that spot and checked for his. That whole world they get to live in and we can't except through them.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Oh yes, to know what they know, eh? So fascinating. Why taste, or roll in, one type of scat or scent, and not another? Or maybe we don’t want to know; we might find it all too intimidating! I’m content to let them alert me to the most important stuff, keeping us all safe.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I wish I could know where the animals are the way my dogs all know. I thought I had a post about the day I followed my Husky/Wolf into a sumac thicket in CA and ended up face-to-face with a doe. I don’t know why, but I decided to let her be in charge. I guess hunters have used dogs in that way forever. I don’t think I want to roll in scat, though.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Snow is magical and my dog loves it too! The only trouble I run into is the snow sticking to her paws and freezing into clumps, then she starts limping around. I have been looking for good paw covers for our snowy runs. Do you ever use them?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I tried booties with previous dogs; they rarely stayed on long, were often lost, and expensive to replace. My current dogs are both good at chewing ice balls out from between their toes with their teeth. What I have learned works best to prevent the ice balls from forming: trim the fur between the pads on the bottom of their feet and keep it trimmed; spray their feet – top and bottom – with cooking spray (e.g. Pam’s) before hitting the snow. If you can work the spray in between their toes, even better. Depending on how long you’re out and conditions, it may not last the entire run, but it will help. I learned to wait until the start of the run to spray because they’d lick it off during the ride there, maybe because I had butter-flavored Pam 🙂 I’ve tried Musher’s Secret but didn’t find it worked as well at keeping ice balls from forming, was harder to apply (Conall hates it when I touch his feet), and is pricey. Musher’s Secret would be better for damaged or cracked pads; luckily, my dogs don’t seem to have issues with their pads, just with snow sticking to their fur and forming icy balls between their toes.

      Liked by 2 people

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