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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.