It was -14°c this morning but out I went. I decided to walk to the second waterfall, as I knew it would be frozen and looking beautiful. There had been a very light dusting of snow on top of the deteriorating layer last night, which showed tracks only when the under layer was icy, so in general, activity that had been made overnight was very hard to spot. I saw nothing out of the ordinary really this morning; cross-country skiers had made fresh tracks and a few walkers with their dogs. There was a beautiful and delicate set of fox prints up around one of the huts along a ridge and back into the forest (it was good to see that, as I could compare it to my lynx trails). There of course, were the obligatory red deer tracks and lots of wild boar activity around the bases of the trees, as usual for this time of year.
As I got nearer to the waterfall my mind was wandering, I could see so many dog tracks along the paths that the thought crossed my mind, if there were to be any wolves along here, it would be extremely difficult to pick their trail out. I have seen huge dog prints in the past along here but have always dismissed them as just a St. Bernard or Bernese mountain dog print instead. It seems so strange to think that there could be wolves trotting along these paths but after my friend’s sighting of one of them behind her house and also after seeing a newspaper article about a village to the south of us that reported wolf sightings as a ‘banal occurrence’, maybe I should be changing these preconceived ideas. The trouble is, I grew up in suburbia where the idea of a wolf sighting was even more preposterous than seeing a UFO (I spent a good portion of my childhood looking for them – UFO’s that is, not wolves). They were always in my dreams however; when I went into labour with my first daughter, I had a vision of a wolf sitting at the end of my bed coming to help and protect me.
It’s funny how thoughts of a thing can sometimes come just before the actual thing. I find that happens to me more when I am out in the woods and have time on my hands. Literally five minutes after these thoughts had been mulling around my head, the most beautiful dog came around the corner with three walkers. He was not ‘massive’ massive but ‘tall and lanky’ massive, so much so, he actually stopped me in my tracks for a second; he looked so like a wolf that I had to stop and ask his owners. No, not wolf of course but a wolf and dog cross – a Czechoslovakian Wolfdog, no less. We said our good days and went on our way. As soon as they had disappeared around the corner, I started looking for its prints. Boy, was it hard. The old snow was like a rock and the new snow was so light that there was hardly anything to go by but I knew that whatever I found would be fresh and the ground was so cold that they would not have deteriorated. After 10 minutes of searching along the path where they had just been, I found a very faint print that I knew beyond doubt was from him, walking so close to his owner that he was when I saw him.
It was not that it was massive as such; 8.5cms across from outside claw to outside claw, 10.75cms from claw tip to pad base. Large domestic dogs can be 12cm long (and the stride would have been deceptive, as he was walking very slowly, gathered in as he was by his owner, so this would have been a very unnatural gait to come across in the wild and actually impossible to measure on this occasion). Amazingly, the track looks like the back foot has overprinted the forefoot, which is what wolves do. And the Czech WolfDog, it seems (dogs do not do this).
Maybe this overprinting will be one way to identify a wolf track when I finally come across one (if he is walking). Another way to identify it is to take into consideration all the variables; size, gait, movement along the track, habitat, weather, time of day etc., and get the overall gist of it all. From following a dog along a path for four years now, I just know how a dog moves; I know about all that pent up energy it has, how it rushes from place to place to sniff out new smells, how erratic and excitable dogs can be. Foxes show no such signs of that desperation, they are Zen compared to dogs and I get the feeling that wolves would be too. The difference is that those wild animals do not have extra energy to expend, so their movements will be calculated, precise and effective, no matter what.
I love the detective work one can do around these chance encounters. I think the more tracks I can come across like this, even though it is only a domestic animal, the more it helps me to get to that place where I just know.