The snow arrived last night, a little earlier than usual, blanketing the valley in white, though not as perfectly as it does in the depths of winter; stubble and tufts of grass still sticking out here and there in the fields. It will be a few more weeks until all signs of vegetation have been covered.
I took a walk over the hill to visit my friend today, reacquainting myself with snow; it feels so familiar to me now, having spent the last sixteen winters immersed within it here in the Alps. It used to feel strange, this magical world, which appears literally overnight but now snow feels like an old friend returning on his annual visit. Many a year, I used to think that he had outstayed his welcome come April but now, I relish this time of still and quietness to get busy following the animals that leave their tracks all over the valley floor.
It always starts with humans leaving their impressions in the snow; the comings and goings of people walking from village to village, some with dogs, some without. I get to learn what winter boots they will be wearing this season and have a chance to find out their preferred routes. It is a wonderful lesson in timing, watching footprints change in the snow. Well-defined prints mean a walker has passed by only very recently, softer shapes mean they have traversed the valley a few hours before. It takes time to fall back into this way of being, observing the nuances of time but by midwinter, I have been able to get my eye in again and feel acclimatised.
After the people and dogs, come other creatures, usually red deer in great numbers. Now is the time I start to study individuals in earnest; females, males and young. I add to my knowledge of the trails they love to use and the places they go to sleep. I find that the deer often come much closer to the house than I realise, sometimes even coming to look in our window during the night. It is then that I will put out food for them.
After the deer come foxes, usually because I have taken the time to look closer at the tracks starting to layer the paths creating a symphony of sound in the snow. They seem to be like dogs’ prints at first glance but on closer inspection, they are softer, narrower, more delicate and have needle sharp claw marks. Foxes, like deer, get everywhere and it is startling to see them cast their trail across a completely blank canvas of a field, as if striking out in their own confident and individual way. Always a beautiful sight to behold.
Often overnight, in certain places boar prints will pop up. They are usually accompanied with mud of various types. If boars have dug up a field and exposed the earth under the snow, they have it on their trotters, which makes for a very mucky print indeed. The spread of dirt around a boar’s hoof print makes it unmistakable.
Then comes badger sticking to the well-worn paths I know he has patrolled for years. Also often muddy, he snuffles around in the exposed leaf-litter by the base of trees, his tracks always leading from one tree base to the next. It only takes a few steps before badger’s paws have deposited all their mud however, and they become completely clean again.
Then come smaller and less noticeable animals, more tentative; the unique pattern of hare across the middle of a field, the spread and leap of squirrel, criss-crossing a path from tree to tree rather than hopping along it, maybe a stoat ~ now ermine for the winter and sometimes, a stone marten with huge bounds I am always astonished at.
And usually on top of all of these prints comes again the joyous twirls and loops of dogs; the craziest of all sets of tracks to be set down in the snow. It never fails to make me laugh when I see a dog’s tracks swerving wildly from one exotic and enticing smell to the next. Now I can see what they have picked up on and followed, only to come across something even more joyous and mesmerising within the next few bounds. Life is such fun.
And this brings me last but not least to Wolf; master of the winter world here in the Alps. Often, I will spot a huge footprint in the forest and check carefully for signs that such a wonderful creature has passed through. 100% of the time (so far) it has turned out to be only a large breed of dog. I have heard that Wolf may chance the valley floor in winter because of the lack of human activity but at other times, it stays high up in the mountains.
It is not only the size that distinguishes wolf from dog however, but also the purpose and intent of the path taken through the woods from A to B; dead straight with no meanderings. It can often be hard to identify a wolf track in snow that has melted and spread and many a time, I have been elated to find a huge track, only later to realise that a thaw had made it monstrous and mythical to my eyes.
Above all, the thing that gives the game away with Wolf is the Knowingness; this is unmistakable and magical, and once experienced, is never to be forgotten again.
Today, I did not find wolf prints in the snow. It is early days yet and I contented myself to follow humans as they walked their dogs over the the lip of the hill and on into the next village. If I am lucky, and set my intention and connection well enough, one clear night this winter, wolf will pass by and be so accommodating as to leave his tracks perhaps in a place only I will find.