Editor’s Note: If you haven’t read “Tracking a Fisher,” please read that article first and this is part two.
The following essay is the sequel to the fisher story. It is an account of how the fisher turned into the bear, and how old habits can play tricks on the mind.
After petting the fisher I refrained from visiting her den for three days. But I continued to follow her tracks each morning. When I returned to the den, she lifted her head to greet me with the usual silence. I curled up in the snow beside the den, talked softly to her. But a few odd things were different. The warm spring sun had melted most of the snow in the forest, revealing a dinner plate-sized pile of liquefied scat at the entrance to the den. Leftovers from fall. This was no ordinary fisher scat. Spring temperatures were also bringing out all of the Earth’s smells. The den smelled sour and of sweat- not the musky mink odor expected from a member of the weasel family. I began to have doubts and fears. The mother sensed my fear, which in turn sparked fear in her. As I slowly crawled away she stood up, revealing to me for the first time her profile, and she backed away from the den. She looked like a black bear, and was much bigger than I had imagined when she was curled into a ball! She was the size of a bear. At this point the kit started squealing, and I made a swift retreat.
I sat down on a log one hundred feet from the den. A great sense of sadness and rejection swept through me. What had I done to cause this miscommunication? The sky clouded over and tiny snowflakes sifted through the trees as I sulked home, erasing all of the animal tracks in the forest.
I wouldn’t visit the den for another three days. I finally forced myself to go back, but I already knew what I was going to find before getting there. The den was empty. The recent snows had erased all tracks leading from the den.
The next week was packed with fantastic tracking discoveries. It snowed an inch each night, creating a fresh palate anew day after day. I avoided the den area and focused on other parts of the forest. One day, while Tim, Jim, and I were walking through the forest, we came upon the tracks of a bobcat! It’s efficient and thoughtful tracks led to a spot where its trail merged with the trail of a grouse, snowshoe hare, and deer! Nearby were signs of moose, weasel, mouse, fox, and coyote. I analyzed the tracks and their stories written in the snow, bringing the animals to life in my mind. It was as though I could actually see them moving in front of me. I felt their various presences and purposes, and was struck with a sense of true wealth being there among all those tracks. It made me light headed and sent shivers up my spine.
Everywhere Jim and I looked we discovered new animal sign. We saw tiny claw marks in the red oak where a red squirrel made his ascent, and the awkward tracks of the large domestic dog that had made a detour and beeline for the tree. His owner, a man running up the trail, may have called him back, because the dog’s tracks did an about-face, sped up and merged with his master’s again. We found deer tracks in the mud, and places in the grass where they had bedded down for the night, eating young maple shoots and drinking from a nearby spring. Sometimes I stalked recent grouse tracks through the brush. Often I was lucky and witnessed a frantic thumping of wings as a startled grouse took off through the trees. Other times the trail ended at the edge of a clearing, with the last set of footprints pressed deeper in the snow where the grouse had pushed off, with wingtip feather arcs on either side of the print.
One day, I was off in a corner of the woods gathering a dozen long, straight saplings to fashion myself a pair of “emergency snowshoes.” I found a great thick grove of beech trees and cut my first sapling when I heard a familiar sound– the screeching! I wanted to make amends with the mother, so I headed in the direction of the noise. I needn’t have gone far, for mother was coming to meet me! She emerged from behind a thick hemlock like a phantom, not fifteen feet from me. As she lumbered confidently toward me, I lumbered quickly away from her. I wasn’t sure what her intentions were. In the fleeting moment that I saw her, I clearly made out the classic gait of a black bear, with a light brown patch around her muzzle. She was the size of three bar stools.
My doubts, confusions, and curiosity intensified. How could a bear make fisher tracks? I dubbed her the Fisher Bear. I wanted to believe she was a bear raising two fisher kits. The tracks I had been following from the den were clearly fisher tracks, doing things that fishers like to do. They were not bear tracks.
Later that day I brought Tim and Jim out to “the meeting place” to look at the tracks she had made. I was dying of curiosity, and the snow was melting fast. When all three of us approached, there was an incredible level of screeching that I hadn’t heard before. Mother came out again and began pacing and talking to the cubs. We got a clear view of two cubs lying at the base of a hemlock. This was their new den! The three of us agreed that the animal was way too big for a normal fisher, most likely a bear, or “a fisher that had been taking steroids for ten years and was ready to take over the world,” as Tim put it. We left the area without finding any tracks because we were causing such a disturbance. If I wanted some positive ID, I would have to do it alone.
The next afternoon I armed myself with a measuring tape, notebook, pen, and camera. I bounded through the brush, cracking branches, and calling out loudly that I was coming. When I reached the standpoint I had gotten to before, I was met with complete silence and stillness. I inched forward, calling out occasionally. At my feet I noticed very large coyote tracks. Jim had seen his tracks previously and reported them to us. He was a big one. The tracks at my feet were very fresh. The snow was melting rapidly, but the imprints were very detailed and hadn’t begun to erode. The tracks paralleled the den area, and I began fear that he had caused some trouble with the cubs. My heart sank as I saw the tracks turn right toward the den and make for the area where the cubs had been earlier. But then I laughed and became extremely alert. The coyote had abruptly run off and away from the den while peeing! I cautiously continued forward, and noticed a few prints from the previous day that were roughly the size of my foot, but they were very melted and distorted. Bear? I scanned the area and saw from the corner of my eye a tiny hemlock bough flip up silently, spilling a bit of wet snow. I knew it was her. As I began to back off, mother materialized silently from the trees again and presented herself in full view, directly in front of me! She was beautiful, and there was no mistaking her for the bear she was. I said “you are definitely a bear and I am going to leave now.” From my recent research on bears I knew that the last thing a mother wants is a big confrontation in front of her cubs.
I finally had closure to most of my mystery, despite not getting a clear track. Mother kept me away from them. At this point I just wanted to see a fresh bear track, and see what the cub’s tracks looked like, but it wasn’t worth the price of disturbing the family. I was happy that my presence didn’t upset her cubs and that my recent intrusions hadn’t forced her to flee or re-locate again. I walked away.
Soon after, I picked up the trail of a pair of foxes. They led me down to the creek and by the base of a tall dead birch. A large woodpecker was hacking away at the top of the tree, looking for insects. I carefully approached the trunk, then pressed my ear to it and hugged it as tight as I could. Each deafening “Thok!” transmitted through the length of the trunk and into my ear, the vibrations sent down from the woodpecker’s head shaking my entire body. I became part of the tree and the woodpecker was personally attacking me. At one point the “thokking” became extremely vigorous. I could feel his enthusiasm as large chunks of rotten birch began to hit me on the head and rain down all around me. I clearly heard and felt his rasping claws as he shifted around the circumference of the trunk. After awhile I felt a rapid pulsing of wing-beats, and then silence.
I went back to Rust Pond and put the pieces of the Fisher Bear puzzle together as best as I could.
I’ve seen over fifty bears in the wild before. And now, I’ve even pet one in its den! What caused me to misidentify the “fisher” for so long? Many factors led to my lengthy indecision, to the point where I was staring into the eyes of this bear for long periods of time, not even realizing she was a bear! It was a wonderful, unforgettable lesson.
First off, I had (as most people do) a few per-conceived notions. I didn’t expect there to be any bear (or bobcat or moose, for that matter) in these parts of the woods in New Hampshire. My respect for this amazing area has increased one hundred-fold with the knowledge of their presence. Also, she is a smaller bear than the ones I’ve seen before. I now know that I have never seen a fisher before, so I figured it was just a very large one. If I had known she was a bear from the beginning, I may not have had the courage or desire to be near her. Innocence was my ally. It allowed me to see her through my own eyes, in my own experience. I shattered many myths, and I am still not afraid of her.
I read and re-read all of my field guides on both the fisher and the black bear. The guidebooks played a large part in my misconceptions. For one, they all stated that bear will “seldom make any noise, if at all,” and that the fisher “looks like a small bear.” She was also in a classic (according to these books) fisher habitat: her den was in a brush pile, in snowshoe hare habitat, and in an area that was recovering from logging. As I read these accounts, I curved my mind to fit them. When something I experienced didn’t match the books, I also curved the books to fit the fact. Once an idea came into my head, I established it as a fact. I reinforced it with whatever I could find, but I didn’t allow the idea to crumble.
What really happened: mother bear had given birth to her two cubs sometime in January, while she was hibernating. The weather started to warm up, and now she is awake and ready to spend the next year with her cubs.
As for the tracks: I have come to the conclusion that they were, indeed, fisher tracks around the den. There was no mistaking it. They had come over to the den to investigate the sleeping bear family every day, getting right up to the edge and then leaving again. I have learned from this experience that fishers are curious creatures. They had investigated every den they had come across in their hunting, whether it was the den of a mouse, squirrel, hare, or bear.
I backtracked the fisher tracks. After looping into and out of the old bear den, they wound back into the brush. I followed their trail for a few hours, through dense thickets and into more uprooted squirrel dens. I found more snowshoe hare fur. Gradually, I began to hear red-winged blackbirds in the woods, which I thought was odd, but then discovered that I was standing near the edge of a very large bog. The fisher tracks led out there, and looped through the bog. But they eventually straightened and stretched across the ice, over deeper and deeper water. The ice gave out beneath me a few times, revealing gurgling, frigid water hidden underneath. It was the end of my trail, for now. The ice was too thin to proceed.
I wanted to become a chickadee and fly lightly through the brush and over the ice. I did the next best thing and climbed to the very top of a nearby oak tree, to see if I could survey the tracks from the air. I climbed until the branches became questionable to hold my weight, and I ran out of tree. The fisher’s tracks led back into the thick brush of the bog, disappearing among the reeds. Damn! It was the end of the trail. I may never solve this new fisher mystery. They had deceived me about the bear and now I couldn’t follow the tracks to their true source. I had been tricked by a weasel.
I remained in the tree for quite a while. The sun broke the horizon and slowly spread its diffused golden light over the bog. A sudden East wind piped up, breaking the stillness of the dawn. The wind carried the noises of the bog to me, in the top of my tree. I swayed with the gusts, clinging to the thin, snow-covered branches and listened to the “conk-a-LEE-der” of the red-winged blackbirds talking of the impending storm. There are few things as powerful to me as listening to a red-winged blackbird at dawn, especially as a storm approaches. No words can express the feeling that came over me. The dawn was subdued by an overspreading wall of gray cloud, which quickly swallowed up the sun and its colors. The birds quieted down, and it began to snow.
Peter Frost was a 2004 Wilderness Bushcraft Semester student at the Jack Mountain Bushcraft School. This amazing story from Peter is verified by our good friend Tim Smith. As Tim says, stories like these, “…illustrate the usefulness of getting out every day, if only for a little while.”
Tim Smith is Registered Master Maine Guide and runs Jack Mountain Bushcraft School, a survival, guide training and wilderness expedition school established in 1999 and based on the Aroostook River in Masardis, Maine. They teach college-accredited, GI Bill approved semester and yearlong immersion programs in bushcraft and wilderness guide training, as well as shorter courses on wilderness survival and traditional north woods crafts. Jack Mountain also leads canoe and snowshoe expeditions. In addition to his website linked above, check out Tim’s excellent blog.