As Thanksgiving rolls around my thoughts turn to snow.
I wonder if I need to pause here and explain what that is.
Snow is something we once experienced in considerable amounts in these mountains, usually starting with the first good jolt of hog-killin’ cold in November. Most years, I’d head out and comb through the nearby hills for the family Christmas tree, which I’d drag back home through a few inches of freshly-fallen snow.
I do remember one year it didn’t snow, and I dragged the tree back up East Fork Road. By the time I got home I had a lovely trail of needles but not a whole lot of tree.
At any rate, snow wasn’t much of a novelty a few decades back, so you learned how to live with it and enjoy its upsides: Days off from school, hiding the leaves you hadn’t raked, etc.
For me it had one big downside: It ruined my possible career as a tracker.
Sadly, when I was a wee lad we had plenty of snow and that’s where I learned my tracking. As it turns out, any fool can follow a track in snow, and I got accustomed to doing so to the point when there wasn’t snow I was essentially useless.
I’d be in the truck with Daddy trolling up an old logging road; he’d have a hand on the wheel and his head halfway out the window, staring intently at the cut bank looking for a sign of where a bear had crossed. He’d see some disturbed dirt, get out and start digging a narrative out of a track – species, direction, size, age of track, stuff like that.
All I ever saw was disturbed dirt. I could not tell what had disturbed the dirt. Perhaps a rock had dislodged and rolled down the slope. Perhaps a limb had fallen. Perhaps it had received news of a sick relative. I just could not tell what had disturbed that dirt so.
Daddy would point. I would stare. I’d stare hard enough to see individual dirt molecules, stare hard enough to see all the way to China, but I’d never see a track. Just that upset dirt.
Daddy tried his best, but that particular gift skipped a generation.
Thing is, when another experienced tracker was around, things would start getting out of hand almost immediately.
Tracking is a skill.
One-upmanship is also a skill.
The ensuing back and forth of two trackers on a sign was something to behold.
“I’d say it crossed last night.”
“Yep. About 250 pounder.”
“Blood type O negative.”
“Headed west, probably toward Burningtown Gap.”
“Hasn’t voted since ’74, though.”
Looking back over the years, I am beginning to suspect there was some slight embellishment lent to the depth of tracking skills amongst my hunting comrades.
There was a keen competition, it would seem, when it came to tracking.
One incident I vividly recall was a time Daddy had packed me off with another hunter, although the details of what I was seeing didn’t dawn on me until years later.
Miles deep in the woods we crossed one of the countless little branches that network these mountains and came across a track so obvious even I could tell it was a bear. I was treated to the usual details – 300 pounder, three hours old, Second Degree Mason, that sort of stuff.
Then, as my fellow hunter was squatting by the track rattling off statistics, he began dreamily mashing his fingers into the mud this way then that, keenly intent on something.
At the time I figured he was testing the soil for whatever extra clues it might yield, but as the years went by it dawned on me he wasn’t doing that at all.
He was clearly mimicking the track.
It makes me wonder how many times over the years he had sent a pack of hunters off on a decoy after he’d kept a real track to himself.
I must admit, pretty clever.
Bet I could do that if there was snow on the ground.
Buchanan is special projects editor for the Sylva Herald.