"Look ! muskrats!"
My skiing companion had stopped ahead of me, and was pointing to the side of the trail. I crouched down, scanning the area of snow that Grasshopper was pointing at. Sure enough, regularly spaced beside the the lines left by our skis, was a track of indentations, each the size of a small saucer. The tracks ran behind us along the trail all the way. Something had definitely passed this way, and was headed in the same direction that we were.
I knew nothing about muskrats, but I knew enough about the Canadian wilderness to be aware that some Canadian creatures were best avoided. There was considerable evidence of muskrat activity in this particular locale, and I was slightly apprehensive. The tracks did'nt look like the animal was particularly big, but even small carniverous creatures hunting in packs could be dangerous, like pirahna fish for example. Besides, it was winter, food was scarce and these critters were likely to be hungry.
I listened carefully as Grasshopper alleviated some of my concerns, explaining that muskrats were small furry creatures who only used human-cleared cross-country ski trails as pathways because it was easier for them to get around. Satisfied there was minimal danger, we carried on down the trail, spotting signs of musk-rat activity on both sides of the trail, as we proceeded. We completed a beautiful, cold, quiet circuit of woodland, deep in the Nova Scotia forest, and returned to our starting point to wait for our companions, Not-Quite-Dr Nel and Bert, anxious to know if they'd been as eagle-eyed as we had been.
Our Canadian adventure had introduced me to the notion that wildlife was'nt just a television phenomenon, and I particularly liked hiking with Bert and Grasshopper due to Bert's uncanny ability to spot wildlife. Usually, we'd be walking down a trail when Bert would, in one smooth movement, reach into a mess of leaves in the undergrowth, and pick out a tiny frog, a frog I would imagine, who until that moment, had assumed that he was perfectly camouflaged. Of course, the little froggy was perfectly correct, and to mere mortal eyes, he was invisible, but to Bert, frogs, toads, snakes, squirrels, chipmonks and woodpeckers (one of the hardest things in the woods to spot), may as well have been fluorescent.
I suppose it did'nt help that the rest of us were usually engaged in other activities while we hiked, Not-Quite-Dr Nel happily gossiping incessantly, myself practicing my silent-walking Indian woodcraft that I'd read about thirty years before in an old copy of Boy's Own ('heels down first, then roll the foot'), and Grasshopper occupied with checking that we were'nt breaking any rules of any description at all anywhere, but recently, I'd come to believe that some of Bert's woodcraft was beginning to rub off, because my own ability to spot wildlife was definitely improving. I was probably foremost among our friends in eagle-spotting, readily identifying species new to Nova Scotia, and in places that cynics believed eagles were unlikely to reside, like WalMart car-parks,our back garden and in the middle of seagull colonies.
As Bert and Not-Quite-Dr Nel approached, I was pretty eager share my latest discovery with them.
"Hey Guys, did you see the muskrat track?"
Bert looked puzzled.
"Yeah, muskrat tracks. At the side of the trail"
Bert still looked puzzled.
Grasshopper walked over to some muskrat track, easy to see if you knew what you were looking for, and poked her ski-pole into some undisturbed snow next to it. The indentation the pole left was about the size of a small saucer.
"See?" she said, "Muskrat tracks."