Mike and the Fox
by: Mike Lushington  

            With all the preparation for the Winter Games, I have not had as much time this winter to explore my own back country as I usually do. During the cold snap that we just prior to the Games had to cancel several training sessions with my biathlon athletes - it was simply too cold - and I took the opportunity to strap on my snowshoes and wander around up there for a couple of hours.

            I left the house in the early afternoon, when, at least in theory, the temperature should have been at its warmest for the day. It was, I guess, although that only translated into -17, with wind chills of up (or down) to - 35. I have always responded to challenges of this sort, so I took the time to clothe myself carefully, making sure that even my cheekbones and the tip of my nose were protected from the cold.

            Just up the hill from the house and out in the open, I felt the full force of the wind. It has been several winters since I remember cold of that intensity; in fact I had to go back to our days on the Balmoral farm to recall a stretch such as we had been having over the previous few days. Immediately, I swing to the east to pick up the scant protection that the hedgerow and the little cedar swamp provide. From there I hiked up to the Birch Grove and through there to the railway tracks.

            On the other side of the tracks I came across fresh fox tracks. We have several of these small predators in the area, but I missed the tracks of the one that usually frequents our backyard and the garden area. This one obviously had its own territory, the tracks were fresh, and they were headed in the same direction that I was travelling. On a whim I decided to follow up on an idea that I have had for some time, which was to follow a fox for as far as I could, to see where it was going and what it was doing. The first thing that I realised was that it was taking advantage of a trail that I had cut a couple of years previously and which I use regularly on my own meandering. I was following a fox that was, in a sense, following me!

            He headed up the hillside from the tracks, through the cedars there and out onto the hardwood ridge that rises to our woodlot. It seemed to me that he was travelling steadily, although I could see where he would veer from his straight line to investigate promising stumps and clumps of brush. I found where he had pounced into the snow on a couple of occasions; whether these thrusts had been successful was impossible to say, but I could imagine him, trotting along quite quickly, ears and nose flaring out to survey the snow all around. Then he heard something and came to a stop. A mouse or a vole was scurrying around beneath the snow, oblivious to the tiny noises that it was making, noises which were to be its downfall. Suddenly the fox jumped straight into the air and pounced into the snow, driving its muzzle and its front paws into the area of the last sound. Then it lifted its head, shaking the snow from its nose and eyes, a mouse tail twitching from its jaws. Breakfast! A quick gulp or two, and it resumed its search. A mouse was most welcome after the cold night, but two or three more would add up to a good meal, so its search resumed.

            I followed the fox for more than a kilometre before losing its tracks when he came out onto a hard-packed and windswept snowmobile trail. In that time, I found where he had pounced two or three more times. It also became clear that he was headed for a tangle of fallen spruces at the top of the ridge at the back end of the woodlot. I suspected that that was where he was holed up for the day, snug under the roots of a big tree, out of the wind, but with a view to watch for any intruders. I also noticed that as he got closer to his denning area that he was marking small bushes and trees more frequently - in the same way that male dogs do. I remembered then that although it was only late February, that it was -20 or so, and that everything was locked in ice and snow, that the time for courtship was fast approaching for foxes. This fellow was obviously getting his signposts ready so that other males would be aware that this was taken territory.

            I left him there. I do not like to disturb creatures during the hard times of winter because they are under enough stress already, so I declined to pursue him into his den area. I was content to leave him there, no doubt aware of my presence but not unduly alarmed. I know that our paths will cross again.


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