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Tracking a winter outdoors adventure

We have had enough winter this year to last a lifetime.

When I suggested a tracking expedition on one of our few nice days, two grandsons and a large goofy Mastiff named Duke were ready before I had a chance to change my mind.

The boys have had several snow days, but what good is a snow day if it is too cold to go out and play in it. Duke loves to run and play in the snow but is not nearly as much fun if nobody will stay outside and play with him. The four us loaded up in my little SUV and headed for the woods.

I thought we could make it an educational walk, learning to identify animal tracks while trying to find shed deer antlers that might be poking out of the snow. We had no luck with the antlers, but there were tracks everywhere. 

We parked at the top of a hill and piled out. With years of experience, I have learned it is better to park on top and walk down the hill than to drive down the hill and have to walk all the way back to the house when the vehicle is unable to make it back up. Grandpas are thought to be wise when they impart bits of wisdom like this. It is best not to explain that wisdom was only gained after more than one really long walk. 

I asked what the first tracks were that we saw.

"Deer!" came the answer loud and clear in unison with just a bit of "that was too easy" implied.

"Right guys," I said, "but tell me if they are does or bucks and how old they are."

They were all but convinced I was pulling their leg. There were three sets of deer tracks. One set was quite large and the other two sets were about the same size and about half the size of the other set. I said, "The smaller tracks belong to this year's fawns. They will be a year old in the spring. The other deer is a doe, their mother, and is at least three years old, because does usually do not have twins the first year they give birth."

My wisdom was beginning to amaze them. We saw squirrel, rabbit and raccoon tracks. We saw tracks where a bobcat carried a meal into a brush pile. A large area under a big old oak tree was cleared of snow. I asked the boys what that was all about. With a bit of investigation, they figured out a flock of turkeys had removed most of the snow and leaves to get to the acorns safely hidden below. 

Walking along the creek, we spotted a paw print almost as big as Zane's hand. Trevor said, "It must be a mountain lion!"

"Perhaps not," I calmly replied. Zane became concerned, sure it was a mountain lion and asked if I had my pistol. When I assured him I did indeed have my pistol in the truck a half of a mile away, it was no assurance at all.

I suggested we follow the tracks. The boys thought I was crazy but agreed to follow if I went first. Duke bounded past us on another of his loops into the woods and back to check on us. We continued on the trail of the illusive monster with the big feet until we came back to our original trail.

One of the boys pointed down and said, "Look! The tracks are on top of our tracks we made before. Whatever it is, it is tracking us!" I could not torment them any longer. I stooped down to point out the tracks showed claws or toenails. Cats, even big cats, retract their claws when they walk or run. I was just getting to the part about dogs not being able to retract their claws when Duke bounded up the hill and sent me sprawling in the snow. He had indeed been tracking us. Whenever he got out of sight, he runs until he finds a human trail and follows it. 

The boys were happy to find it was only Duke stalking us. Duke was also happy to be able to track us down. There are scary things in the woods. Just ask the boys.

We all had a good time just being able to get outside for a few hours on a winter day. It did not hurt we learned a few things along the way.

Walter Scott is an outdoors enthusiast and freelance writer from Bloomfield, Iowa.