owltalk 2001


30 March, 2001


He approached as my back was turned. I heard the light crunch of feet and reacted with a spin and flick of the headlamp. It still is a reflex action for me, I want to see what it is before it is gone. My movement startled him. He had been moving down the road in zigzags - sniffing, scenting, then moving again. The road smells like cheap perfume from the 60's now. He has done his job.


And when my spin brought him to a halt, he didn't scurry into the woods, like the hundreds of other foxes I've seen over the years, he stopped. I spoke softly, trying to offer some assurance that like him, I was part of the landscape. He moved to the left, then the right, hopped up on a snow bank, and sat.


I have seen fox up close before, but usually when the ravages of distemper or injury leave them feeble and resigned to the inevitable. This guy was fat, his coat rich with reds and silvers. He moved like a water bug.



I wondered if he knew my smell, if he knew the human that came into the woods and sat motionless for hours at a time; the human that regularly, but unknowingly, left his scent on the ground and in the air; the human that didn't intrude into, but absorbed his nights.


And so we watched one another, me cooing baby talk to flicking ears and a tilting head. He didn't mind that I went to the truck to retrieve my camera. He didn't mind that I moved towards him and sent a strobe of illumination pulsing in the night. He just sat and observed. Finally, he hopped back to his feet, looked at me matter-of-factly, and moved back into the darkness.


The next night, I came back to the same spot and prepared to snowshoe into a boreal owl that I had heard several nights before, but only briefly. I expected to see the fox, but that seemed too Disneyish, too implausible. Instead, I did what any biologist would do, distributing my scent across the road, holding, hopping, and spraying. I repeated the effort during my walk-in. I was curious to see what would happen.


After a 3/4 mile hike, I pulled out my warm clothing and waited for the owl. In the lowlands where I stood, the wind was still. On the uplands surrounding it, the trees undulated, moved by the south winds of a distant low pressure system. Auroras glowed in the north sky. From my spot in the North Woods, I did not hear the owl. From that same spot, I heard the fox. He yipped, then barked and yapped as he followed my trail.


After two hours, the boreal remained quiet and I resigned myself to completing the back portion of my out-and-back journey. Sickly sweet Vulpes perfume was everywhere. His tracks lightly imprinted on the snow, on and next to my waffled prints. He knew that I was here, and didn't want me to forget who was here first.


W.H. Lane