Camping with Bears

As I write this the ground is covered in heavy snow.  The story I am about to share took place a few months ago during a particularly hot and buggy August.

My friend Justin and I went into the woods here in New England to do some primitive camping.

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We made the fire by friction and used the landscape to protect us from the worst of the heat and bugs.

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Water guard, a bark bucket and twined basket I made and brought along. Justin stuck much closer to the old ways with his food and gear than I was able with buckskin clothing, dried deer meat and a buffalo hide as blanket.

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There was a fair amount of plant food in this upland wood to supplement what we had brought along.  Here Justin is harvesting wild grapes.  They were some of the sweetest I have ever had.

After setting up camp, gathering some food and firewood we spent the night on the ground by the fire.  The next morning we went down to the meadow to practice with our bows.  Once there we decided some time sitting on the edge of the meadow to watch the squirrels was the thing to do.  It was hot and buggy again and a bit challenging to be still. Justin had found a spot somewhere behind me and after a rather short time I heard quiet intermittent movement from his direction.  This annoyed me as it would scare away the animals.  I heard it again and considered that maybe he had spotted a squirrel or something and was repositioning to get a better vantage point.

After the gentle crackling of sticks a dead leaves persisted beyond tolerating I finally turned to look.  It was a huge  black bear, 300 plus pounds walking slowly between us.  Over the bears shoulder I could see Justin sitting against a tree with wide eyes.  It had walked rather slowly through the woods behind him and come up between us about 15 or 20 yards from us both.

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I was a little slow to get out the camera so the images are after it had passed between us and had gotten far off.  Here it is in video and still photo walking away through the meadow.

What seemed remarkable to me was that it did not once turn to look at either of us.  I had turned out into the meadow in easy view and Justin even broke a stick to get its attention and not even a twitching ear as it ambled through the meadow. It even stopped to scratch its ear.

My hypothesis is it knew where we were and chose not to look at us.  Maybe this is what bears do to prevent unwanted confrontation as eye contact is menacing in the animal world.  I like this idea as it hints at a mutual respect between large predators, the bear respected us by not displaying any challenging behavior and we reciprocated by keeping our distance.

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After a time we looked over the big animals tracks.  Above is where he (I assume male due to the bears size) passed through some ferns to get back onto a trail near some mushrooms we had harvested.  Below are the tracks left in the meadow as we watched him go by.  They go from back right to center foreground.  On back tracking him a ways we surmised he may have come from the spot we had gathered grapes the day before.

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Justin and I had eaten grapes and mushrooms, slept on the ground, felt the heat and insect bites all same as the bear.  He felt the master of the forest with his easy power and patience of movement.  To be as connected to the land as that big bear would be a great blessing indeed.

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The Cattail Gathering

June 9th and 10th this year I will be hosting the 3rd annual Cattail Gathering in Litchfield CT.  It’s a wonderful gathering of people taking workshops in many different Nature related skills like wildlife tracking, wild edible plants, yoga, basket making and many others.  If you are interested in this kind of thing, and if you read my blog you must be, than take a look at the website for more information.

The Cattail Gathering

Forever Learning… a Lesson in Trailing and Tracks

A few days ago I got to go out tracking with some friends.  We came across some great stuff I’d like to share with you including ritual bear trails and moose sign.

Pine Tube Moth Larva's Shelter.
Pine Tube Moth Larva’s Shelter.

One of the first things we came across were little tubes made of pine needles like the ones above. They hold a moth larva that overwinters inside.  I had never noticed them before.

Ritual Bear Trail
Ritual Bear Trail

Kersey had been here before and brought us to this ritual Black Bear trail.  The bears walk in the footsteps of past bears, grinding their feet into the ground, leaving sometimes obvious and long lasting impressions.  It is hard to see in the photo though they were quite clear in person.

This sign is usually associated with marking trees though we didn’t find any.  We were more focused on something else.

Lee with a possibly bear damaged tree on ritual trail
Lee with a possibly bear damaged tree on ritual trail

Lee is from South Africa where he runs Nature Guide Training which teaches guides and other students about African wildlife.  He was intensely curious about everything.

Kersey and Mike exploring bear sign
Kersey and Mike exploring bear sign

Kersey runs Original Wisdom which also trains people in wildlife tracking and other Naturalists studies.  She is generously mentoring Deneen and I in trailing wildlife (the act of following tracks to the animal who made them).  More on that later.

Mike is a tracker and forager who is on his way to great renown in the world of survival skills.  He was also known on this day as Samwise sans frying pan.

One of two large Red Squirrel Middens we came across
One of two large Red Squirrel Middens we came across

We also found some of the largest Red Squirrel middens I have ever seen.  Red Squirrels store food in large amounts, usually underground, in what are called larders.  They eat this food while perched in a favorite spot leaving a big pile of scraps, in this case pine cone parts.

Red Squirrel sign on white pine cone
Red Squirrel sign on white pine cone
The other large midden
The other large midden
many ages of Red Squirrel eaten pine cones
Many ages of Red Squirrel eaten pine cones
Black Bear sign on a rotten log
Black Bear sign on a rotten log

In another area of the woods where more bear sign in the form of torn apart rotten logs.  Bears dig through them looking for grubs to eat.  I especially like the one below as the bears hind feet pushed down the ferns below the logs giving a better impression of it movements.  The destruction seems intense however I bet it is quite a deliberate act on the part of the bear, possibly even slow and methodical.

More Bear sign on logs.
More Bear sign on logs.
Bear claw marks on sugar maple
Bear claw marks on sugar maple

A bear had been up this big old maple tree leaving some claw marks.  They may eat the maple seeds up there though that is just my guess.

Unknown species of "Foxfire Fungus"
Unknown species of “Foxfire Fungus”

Another cool find was the fruiting body of a type of foxfire fungus.  There are several types of fungus that are referred to as foxfire because they are phosphorescent (glow in the dark). I have yet to determine the species here.  It is the one responsible for the greenish blue rotten wood one often sees in New England.

The main purpose of this trip was to practice trailing.  Deneen was not able to be with us this day so it was me and Mike under the tutelage of the experts.  We had found some old moose sign early in our time.

Moose stripping of tree bark for food
Moose stripping of tree bark for food

Eventually we found a trail to follow. Below is a track, one of the very few obvious to me.

Another moose track, one of the few obvious
Another moose track, one of the few obvious
Kersey helps me find the moose trail
Kersey helps me find the moose trail (photo by Lee Gutteridge)

The tracks were very difficult for me to find.  Some were clear, two or three or four in a row, then nothing.  The terrain was not what would be called easy.

Andy on a moose trail in what is locally refereed to as "shit-tangle" habitat
Andy on a moose trail in what is locally referred to as “shit-tangle” habitat (photo by Lee Gutteridge)

After loosing the trail and finding it again (usually it was re-found by one of the others) we would come across something really obvious.  When Lee called us over to this moose scat he said, in that dry humor of experienced outdoors people, “I think it may have been here.”

Relatively fresh Moose scat of one of the animals we were trailing
Relatively fresh Moose scat of one of the animals we were trailing
Moose track in the forest floor
Moose track in the forest floor

I wasn’t going to find a moose that day, the trail was a little old and really difficult to follow.  That was fine with me because I was following a trail further than ever before.  Sure in snow I have followed trails for miles, even catching up to the animal.  That’s easy.  This was challenging. I searched for occasional clear sign like the image above of crushed logs and sticks, loosing the trail again and doubling back to the certain print to start over.

I had one really good sequence that I had found by myself and followed a few dozen yards with confidence.  In that moment it was pretty clear that I was made for this stuff.

It was also quite humbling as I stumbled around, to be with two people who routinely track lions in Africa this way.

Imagine that… lions.

(photo by Lee Gutteridge)
(photo by Lee Gutteridge)

A Tiny Hole in the Sand Ain’t Always an Ant.

As a kid I saw ant hills everywhere, even in cracks in pavement.  Since then my understanding of what a little hole in the sand could be made by has broadened tremendously.  Here are a few examples of different creatures that make holes in the sand.

Antlion Colony

Above are tiny pits in a protected spot under a shed roof.  Other than demonstrating how long ago the rototiller was used, these little pits can lead us to the amazing creature pictured below.

Antlion

Antlions dig their pits as a trap for ants.  They back down into the earth and flick sand up at any ant that enters the pit, making it impossible for the ant to do anything but fall deeper in.  The antlion, waiting at the bottom, then grabs them with those big mandibles and its all over for the ant.  Antlions are the larval form of what are known as lacewings, which somewhat resemble a dragonfly.

Solitary bee

While antions create an inverted version of an ant hill, these next examples do have somewhat of a mound around them. The biggest difference between this and the ants is a much bigger hole which is not always in the center.  Many species of solitary bees and wasps create these holes.  I find these in colonies in open sandy ground without any real protection from disturbance.

In the above picture you can see a bee coming out of the hole.  The below pictured holes are more indicative of the solitary wasps, with the sand pushed out in one direction.

solitary bee or wasp

In this picture a “pathway” was created in front of the hole.

testing depth

We tested the depth of a few of these holes and found them to be around 2 inches deep.  They could of course have changed angle and gone further down.

testing depth

Below is a closeup of one of the suspected wasp holes.

solitary bee or wasp burrow

 

Wolf spider burrow

Many kinds of wolf spiders burrow, some make these turreted holes, using twigs, pebbles and spider silk.  The wolf spider pictured below was walking amongst several of these spider holes which circumstantially indicates it may be of the borrowing wolf spiders (Geolycosa).  It is carrying its young on its back.

Wolf spider with young on it back

 

Tiger Beetle

This beauty is a Six Spotted Tiger Beetle.  Its larval form digs vertical shafted, very clean holes.  The adult form (pictured above) digs this hole below, more of a shallow slot really, as a shelter.

Possibly adult tiger beetle

As a kid I was not much interested in insects and spiders until I learned they could build things.  Turns out they build all sorts of thing including these burrows and tunnels and its was all right under my feet.

The Camp Robber aka Grey Jay

Whiskeyjack
 
While in Ontario’s Algonquin Park my wife Deneen and I encountered a well known and charming creature of the North, the Grey Jay (Perisoreus canadensis). This corvid is related to the more Southern Blue Jay as well as the rest of the corvid family which includes crows, ravens, and magpies. Like those other corvids they are smart,  consummate opportunists, and well known to the people around them.
 
camp robbers
Grey Jays have other common names that are often used; Camp Robber and Whiskeyjack, a anglicized pronunciation of a Cree name ( likely Wisakedjak).
 
Grey Jay eating from the hand
They have some unique behaviors, one of which is breeding and nesting in the Winter. To be able to do this they hide or “cache” food when it is available. They hide it in many different spots, later finding it, possibly by memory, the way we expect Grey Squirrels to do.
 
The name Camp Robber comes from their habit of taking food from people, often right from their hands whether offered or not. 
 
 
 

Wildlife Tracking Video; Red Fox

The snow is slowly leaving us here in New England.  Before it turned to slush and ice I got out to do some tracking in beautiful conditions.  In this video I go into detail on how to distinguish Red Fox from other species without using measurements.  I also include a good explanation of a few ways to tell canine from feline and, we see a bit of hunting behavior by our friend the fox.

Thanks for watching. Please like and subscribe.  If you want to learn more about tracking first hand go to my school’s website www.threeredtrees.com

Wildlife Tracking Video; River Otter

River Otter are a cool animals. Following their trails always leads to adventure and insight into otters adventurous nature.

In this video I follow an otter trail on the Bantam River in Litchfield CT as it slides its way along the ice to a snow buried beaver lodge. Hope you enjoy it.

 

Wolves of Algonquin Park

As I child I connected deeply with my dog, and the neighbors dogs, and my uncles dogs and my grandfathers and on and on… I also connected with the romance of a wild life.  My play and drawings were often of Native Americans, mountain men, horses and wolves. Especially wolves. In 5 grade, at the book fair, while I image other kids bought books on skateboarding or ponies, I borrowed the final 10 cents from one of the teachers to get Jack London’s White Fang and Call of the Wild. In highschool I made a life size paper mache wolf for an art class project.

Obsession is a word one could use. I think it was part of a desire to connect with the wild and a recognition of how much people and wolves have in common, I am certainly not the only one to think so.

In college I befriended a young man named Z. No I did not make that up. We had some nerdy common interests and hit it off. Turned out he had wolves living in his back yard.  His folks ran Wolf Hollow in Ipswich Mass an educational facility to raise awareness of what wolves are really all about. I spent a lot of time there, was around for the raising of some of the puppies, witnessing the death of the alpha male, even living in the house for a few months. Hanging out with the wolves was a dream come true and I learned a great deal.

Me and one of the half grown pups.
Me and one of the half grown pups.

As amazing and wild as they were, these animals, for all the love of the people around them, lived withing artificial confines.  So did I.

Now about 15 years later I am much less confined, much more connected to the wild. So time to experience freely living wild wolves in their own place.

I went out with Alexis to scout for tracks along highway 60 on the morning of our second full day. I found out tracking at 50 mph is a good way to train your mind . We saw so many fox and moose trails I quickly learned how to recognize them from a distance at a glimpse. The wolf trails looked quite distinct from the other two as you might imagine.

Canis lycaon

Above and below are the first wolf tracks I have ever seen in real life. For anyone familiar with tracking or wolf feet they might seem quite small. The wolves of Algonquin Park are not the same as the big Grey Wolf Canis lupus. It was known for many years the wolves of the park and surrounding areas of Ontario, Quebec and parts of the nearby States were smaller than their big Northern brethren, and too big to be Coyotes, one of North Americas other three wolf species.  Genetic studies in the 90s by Brad White and Paul Wilson of Algonquin Park showed that these local animals were distinct from the big Grey Wolves (Canis lupus) and little Coyotes ( Canis latrans). Turns out they were very much like the Red Wolf (Canis rufus) of the US Southeast, the same species. White and Wilson called it the Eastern Wolf (Canis lycaon even though it is the same species as Canis rufus).

Wolf tracks in a trot pattern

It gets even more confusing as sometimes Lycaon and Latrans breed and sometimes Lupus and Lycaon breed.  In the park they sometimes have really big wolves and sometimes really small ones. The biologists and naturalists of the area don’t think there are Grey Wolves or Coyotes are currently present in the park (Mammals of Algonquin Park, Strickland and Rutter revised 2002) though they reside in other parts of Ontario. This past and possibly current mixture is referred to as Canis soup.

Wolf and fox trail on side of highway

Back to my story. We discovered through the course of the day following each of the 3 or 4 trails along the road, that most likely a single wolf traveled many kilometers on the highway the night before, leaving it for occasional short forays into the woods and back out again. The other half of the group followed one trail to a bed and we followed these trails off and back onto the road. The image above includes a Red Fox trail which appears narrower and neater, moving in a half loop to the right.

Wolf front and rear track

The clearest wolf tracks I saw over the week, again on the side of the highway.

Eastern wolf tracks on side of road

Our group on the trail of wolves

We followed this trail in to where it turned around and came right back out.

Red Fox track

Above is a fox track for comparison. The local Red Fox left the biggest tracks of its kind I have ever seen. The morphology, or shape, is the give away, indistinct in the center because of the very furry nature of Red Fox feet, and a bar shaped metacarpal pad which can be seen on the left side of this photo.

Wolf trail in deep snow

Distinctly deep and messy wolf trail. Like moose, their long legs allow easier movement in the deep snow.

Older wolf trail in woods

The next days early morning scout reveled no wolf movement along the highway. We found wolf tracks anyway on the way to the Chit Lake rangers cabin. These were older snowed in tracks as seen above with Deneen celebrating their discovery.

Wolf scent mark

Wolf urine along the trail. They of course scent mark inside their territories.

Wolf tracks through moose bed

Where we had to leave the trail I went ahead a little and found a spot where a wolf walked right through a moose bed. In this area I got a little confused because the wolf tracks were mixed in with big moose tracks. I did not have time to follow it out and confirm a suspicion that there may have been more than one wolf, they will often follow each other stepping in the front wolf’s tracks the way we were breaking trail for one another (Mostly Dan and Alexis bless them). When I got back to Dan I told him my suspicion and he agreed. We dug in the snow to feel the bottom of the tracks which were quite deep with hard packed bottoms suggestive of more than one animal stepping in the same spot. That coupled with the scent marks points at least a little bit toward multiple animals.

How lucky am I to have the experiences I have had. Tracking wolves in the Canadian wilderness, living with wolves outside the window when I was a young man, feeling a little bit of wildness anytime I want just by walking out the door. It doesn’t always take wolves to feel that way, a chickadee in a hemlock will do it. Though it doesn’t hurt.

 

Moose at Algonquin Provincial Park

In my last post I eluded to more stories from our trip up North.  On our first full day in Algonquin Park Deneen and I went with half the group with Alexis as our instructor and guide for the day.  He had seen a moose on his morning scout so we set off to follow its tracks.  Moose track next to a boot print

Above and below are moose tracks on the side of highway 60 which runs through the park.  The track below is about 4 inches long.  Not even that big by moose standards.

Moose track with scale

Moose trail

Moose trail through 3 foot deep snow. The bottom of the tracks is WAY down.

Alexis on the trail

Alexis leading the way into the woods as we follow the trail.

Moose trail

Snowy Woods

A very snowy forest awaited us. The snow had piled up on everything. Below is one of many stumps that received a mushroom cap of snow. It gave the bush (forest) a surreal and truly Northern feel.

snow stump

Moose browse

This area transitioned from Spruce and Fir to mixed hardwoods. There where very few if any saplings here above 5 or 6 feet tall, only fairly mature trees or small, battered ones like in the pictures above and below. They where so heavily browsed by the moose that each year the new shoots could only spread out to be eaten again with out ever getting much taller.    Moose browse

Moose browse

Close up of a moose eaten branch held by my mittened hand. Notice the broken off appearance, deer family, including moose, have no upper incisors and therefor what they bite is more broken or torn than cut. Moose, in winter, can eat up to 45 pounds of twigs, buds and bark a day. An adult bull usually weighs about 1100 pounds (numbers from Mammals of Algonquin Provincial Park published by The Friend of Algonquin Park and converted to pounds by me).

Moose push over.

Moose have an interesting way of getting at branches that are taller than they can comfortably reach.  They just push the tree over, often straddling it. This tree was fractured under the assault. Below is a closeup of some hair left after the operation.

Moose hair on push over

moose scat

We also passed other sign of the moose as we followed their trail.  Fresh moose scat, (its big) we encountered several times.

Moose poop

Moose hair

More moose hair, this one probably from its back.

Deneen next to moose bed

And beds.  Moose and other animals in the deer (cervid) family lay down often as they forage and browse in order to fully digest their food.  They eat a lot at once, swallowing into the first chamber of their four chambered stomach, then go lie down to bring some up a little at a time to re-chew and swallow into the next section of their stomach, in this way they can spend more time on the alert for predators.

Moose bed in snow

The ruler is 2 feet across, the bed is something like 5 feet across the long way.

Moose spotted throught the trees

After several hours of quietly moving through the woods trailing the moose we caught up to them. They were very aware of our presence and pretty tolerant of us. Turned out to be three moving together, we knew there were at least two by the tracks. The video below explains more about the many minutes we spent with them.

 

Algonquin Provincial Park Tracking Trip

Deneen and I have just returned from White Pine Program’s Algonquin Park Wildlife Tracking Expedition.  It was a trip of a lifetime.  We went with the intention to track the wolves of the park who have their own interesting story which I will get to in future posts.  This post will be an overview of the trip, what it was like to be there in the deep snow and extreme cold, with really great people, tracking amazing Northwoods animals.

So here goes.

Deneen and Andy in our cold weather attire

Canadians use Celsius and Kilometers.  Compared to miles and Fahrenheit the numbers always seem big.  The speed limit was 100 and it was about 20 below when we took this picture.  Thats -4 F.  Add wind chill and some days were -20 F or colder.  The lowest it got at night was something like -30 to -40 F. 40 is where Celsius and Fahrenheit meet, its also where your nose hairs freeze into prison bars.

Alexis with bear sign

Alexis Burnett from Earth Tracks in Ontario was one of our instructors. He and Dan Gardoqui from White Pine Programs lead the trip along with Caren Vigneault also from White Pine who kept us wonderfully fed. It takes a lot of good food to keep warm in those temperatures.

bear bite marks

We experienced lots of cool tracks and sign of the Algonquin Park wildlife.  The above two photos show Black Bear bite marks on a telephone pole, excuse me, hydro pole.

sitzmark

I had never seen as much flying squirrel activity as we did just in the first day.  This is an older set of tracks of a flying squirrel landing and hopping away back to the trees.  There are two species known in the park Northern Flying Squirrel and Southern Flying Squirrel, both of which remain active all winter long, living in communal dens in hollow trees and eating seeds, nuts and any insects they might find.

Raven track

Raven track.  We saw a few over the week flying about.

Bear scratching on tree

More bear sign. This time claw marks on this fir tree. Deneen is demonstrating the technique. She is standing on at least two feet of snow so the bear must have reached much higher than she easily could.

Fisher tracks

The group as a whole (we often split up for the day) saw tracks of all six of the Park’s mustilids; Fisher (seen above in a walking pattern), River Otter (below coming out from a whole in the ice, rolling around and moving away), Pine Marten, American Mink, Long-tailed Weasel and Short-tailed Weasel (also know as Ermine when wearing their winter white).

otter tracks and sign

I was often surprised by the familiar species we encountered, only a few were really foreign to me. Below is a hole excavated by the very familiar Pileated Woodpecker.

Pileated Woodpecker sign

Moose rub

Above Deneen stands next to a moose rub that nearly destroyed this little tree.  Again remember that she is standing on two or three feet of snow that was not there when the moose did the job.  Deneen didn’t demonstrate this one, maybe next time.

Raven tracks

More Raven tracks.  They can be distinguished from crow tracks by the thick hallux or back facing toe which is very wide and robust near the center of the foot which also shows clearly.  In crows the center shows weakly and the hallux is thin.

Black-backed Woodpecker sign, bark sloughing

This is a good one for bird nerds, Black-backed Woodpecker sign.  They pry off bark to get at the insects underneath.

Lunck time campfire

Most days we had a fire for lunch time.  This particular day it was more welcomed than usual.

Out on the lake

On the second to last full day the tradition on this trip is to snowshoe out to an old ranger cabin near Chit Lake about 4 k from the Research Station where we where staying. The first part of the hike was over a frozen lake. One of the park staff later told us the ice was not very thick this year, only 16 inches compared to the usual up to 3 feet.

Deneen and I at the Chit lake rangers cabin

Deneen and I at the old rangers cabin.  In the early days of the park there was a lot of poaching and the rangers patrolled in teams of two, often with dogsled, from one cabin to another looking for poachers and shooting wolves.  More on the Park’s relationship with wolves in a future post, you will see it changed dramatically.

Some clear track lessons from Dan

Dan gave us a lesson on small mammal front tracks on the floor of the cabin.  V = vole, S = shrew, and M = mouse.

Back on the ice on Sasajewan Lake

Back on the lake as some snow fell.

Chickadee eating from our hands

There are places in the Park where people have been feeding the birds for a long time. The Chickadees, Red-bellied Nuthatches and Grey Jays will eat out of your hand in these spots. This alone was worth the trip.

Chickadee on my head

Some of the white in my beard is ice (some of it).

Chickadees on Deneen's head

Chickadee

Whiskey Jake

Grey Jays, also known as Camp Robbers and Whiskey Jacks (above and below) are studied here, in what might be the longest ongoing wildlife study in the world, by Dan Strickland whom we met briefly. His license plate says “Grey Jay”. Top notch wildlife biology goes on in the Park.

Grey Jay in my hand

Below are Grey Jay tracks. Somewhat similar to our Blue Jay only quieter with a pretty little song.

Grey Jay tracks

The tracks we encountered the most were those of the Pine Marten (aka American Marten). They were all over the bush (a Canadian term for the forest) and around our cabins.

Our cabin in Algonquin Park

This was our little cabin. As the only couple on the trip we got one all to ourselves. And below are Marten tracks we found on the front porch one morning.

Marten tracks on our porch

evening activities

In the evening we all did research, pouring over the books, learning everything we could about they day’s observations. Lots of silliness and laughing, bad jokes guitar and banjo playing and good food may have been involved as well.

Moose track

The two biggest stories of the week involved these tracks above and below. In following posts I will share these stories, and what I have learned since then about these animals.

Wolf tracks!

If you like my stories please reblog, share or invite me to guest blog on your site.