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Saturday, February 28, 2009

A moose on the loose?

Yesterday's sunset over the Divide showed the clouds receding and the mountains emerging for the first time in days.Today, the same mountain towered crystal clear against the blue sky.
This morning, K and I barreled out the door, excited to explore the crisp clear day - a glorious day. K bounded through the forest with strength and grace. I felt strong on my bike but K can outpace me on any hill. The cardiovascular capacity of an athletic dog is amazing - humans are wimps by comparison. When I'm at the red line on a steep climb, K can accelerate past me with no effort if a scent catches her interest. Today, she caught the scent of her favorite human friend, V, who runs on our trails and left me in the dust. I knew from her body language why she sprinted happily past me so I let her go. I found the two of them playing together while they waited for me.

The strong crust on top of the snow was ideal for tracking. The pine martens (left) and shrews (center) had scampered around the forest last night. K barely tolerated my stops to investigate their tracks. She believes that she needs to guard my back while I'm preoccupied with tracks. She sits right behind me, facing in the opposite direction from me. In the photo, I asked her to stay after I investigated the shrew tracks. She doesn't look pleased with me - she wanted to go, go, go, gracefully running like the wind, this morning.

It used to be legal to trap pine martens for their fur until Colorado voters banned it in 1996. State agencies have tried to reinstate live trapping but, as far as I can tell, lawsuits have stopped it. Based on how many tracks I'm seeing this winter, I wonder if the trapping ban has allowed the marten population to grow. I'm sure that I'm seeing the tracks of at least three individuals based on their separation. All three live in mature pine forests with huge trees, including ponderosa pines and lodgepole pines. I haven't seen any tracks in the homogeneous lodgepole pine forests. One of the pine martens marches along for more than a mile in my mountain bike tracks every few days or so. Since the literature says that their home range is usually less than 2 square miles and it takes them a week to patrol their whole territory, that's a long distance for a marten to travel.

Today, I decided to try riding some favorite summertime trails that are north-facing in a dense lodgepole pine forest. It was the perfect day to try because of the strong crust on the snow. I descended from a ridge on a narrow, rocky, and today, icy, trail, and a mixture of terror and elation electrified my muscles. I'm not sure that the Fatback was intended to navigate such technical terrain but it rumbled over obstacles like an unstoppable monster truck. At the bottom, I found that no one, and I mean absolutely no one, had been on my intended route since the first snow.

The virgin snow meant that no hikers had 'groomed' my route by packing down the snow. As long as I stuck to the shaded parts, I miraculously rolled over the top of the snow feeling like I was walking on water. But, in the few sun-warmed sections, I fell into the deep snow and hit the ground with a definitive thump.

Some forest dwellers had traveled parts of my route. The elk herd marched through on an 'elk superhighway' within the last day (left). I love that I'm covering so much ground most days that I often know generally where the herd is grazing. They move miles nearly every day, using well-worn routes. I wonder why they relocate so much, especially since it burns valuable calories. I've read that elk move more when wolves live near them - perhaps a strong mountain lion population like ours also keeps them moving.

A very large animal had tromped through the forest, criss-crossing my route. His tracks were distorted by the sun beyond any hope of recognition. Clever coyotes had used the mystery animals tracks to avoid breaking through the snow. Using precise movements, their paws landed only in the huge tracks. In the right photo, two fresh coyote paw tracks are inside the huge track.

I wonder if a moose might have left the monster track. Moose were reintroduced on the other side of the Divide years ago but now they've crossed the formidable mountain barrier, and a few live in our neighborhood. I've seen a moose near here only once. Last fall, K and I went for a special bike ride up high in the mountains to celebrate her birthday. As we approached a gate, I was astonished to see a moose, with unbelievably huge antlers, nibbling the grass. K, who has been afraid of the silliest things like the cracks between the boards of our deck, didn't hesitate to pursue the moose as he fled. Moose are dangerous so I was glad that K heeded my call.

Last winter, some neighbors saw a moose on the edge of the forest where I saw the tracks today. So, they might've been moose tracks. If so, I wish that I'd seen him.

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