Tracks in the snow

Tracks in the snow

I smile at a friend and step across the threshold. Inhaling and exhaling two deep breaths, I recall my intention for the day and step on down the snowy slope excitedly. 

Out of the gate, I turn right and follow the tarmac road southwards. The dawn chorus is in swing and the clouds above are sunrise pink. Our nearest star is emerging above the eastern horizon behind the hills to my left.

The air is fresh with anticipation. The small amounts of snow remaining unmelted on the tarmac have frozen crisp overnight and line the middle of the road. The child within me can't resist walking onto that channel of ice purely to feel and hear the crunch. 

After a few hundred metres the bank of conifers to my right come alive with song. I stop, turn to the west (my right) and listen mesmerised. The wooded bank is dark and dense with evergreens. I can only hear but not see the birds within. It's a complex choir this morning, and some birds I haven't heard before - adding to the exotic feel of the moment. 

Several minutes later, my feet decide it's time to move on and turn and walk me further south. Walking slow but steady, I can observe all that is going on around me.

I take in the scene: from the black and white mountains to the east, the barren tree graveyard between me and those hills covered in mournful snow, the bank of vibrant green and living trees to the west, beyond which lie farmer's fields, the river, more fields, more conifers, and then more black and white mountains. All these make up Glenfeshie.

My road is straight but undulating - making it impossible to look far ahead to where I will be, and therefore easier to be where and when I am now. That fits my intention for the day.

I pass one farmer's track on my right, with a rusted and broken sign. Shortly after I find the second one I am looking for, this one marked by a traffic cone half buried in snow. I crunch my way down the gravel road and into the valley below.

To my left, I see a large, modern barn. Ahead of me to the right is an attractive farmhouse clad in new, yellow timbers. The large window is close to the track ahead, and faces onto it. That makes me a little nervous as I plan to walk across their farm - but I comfort myself that it is just dawn and the inhabitants are unlikely to be up.

I only just see the low electric fence and stop abruptly before walking into it. Again, I am nervous as if I am trespassing. But I recall my right to roam and step over the wire. Passing between the narrow ends of north-south elongated fields, I reach a wide gate in the next fence line a few tens of metres further on.

Silently I open it and step through. I am confident I am now on common land as I find myself in a buffer zone roughly five metres wide between the farmer's fence and the river that runs parallel to it. 

I walk to the river and squat on the dry pebbles at the edge of its bed to watch and listen to the bubble and gurgle of the tea coloured water passing over stone.

Judging by the metre high river cliffs on each bank, the water levels are far lower than normal. That'll change once the snow melts, I think to myself.

I walk south, staying on the eastern side of the river, walking along its dry bed, crunching again on this natural gravel road. Naked and exposed deciduous trees start popping up on the bank of the river and they shelter refugees of green grass below them - contrasting beautifully with their snow-white surroundings.

One of these would make a perfect place to settle... but I am not ready yet.

I step up the cliff to take a closer look at the gnarly trunks and curious winding branches that reach out in all directions. Its bark is rough and plated with silver lichen.

Again my legs decide for me and I walk on. But after just one step each they stop, and I freeze. Tracks in the snow. These are not common dog, cat or deer tracks. These I do not recognise. 

Each print was about a foot apart and wide at the toe while narrow at the heel, each approximately ten centimetres long, flat and even in depth. I have to follow them.

Their path is captivating. Unlike a human walking in this landscape, they don't follow a straight path. Rather than target a point visible to the eye from on high and walk directly to it, they follow what is visible to the nose.

They wind three-quarters of the way around a grassy clump. Then they turn sharply left and directly to the fence, travel alongside that for a few metres, then make a ninety degrees turn and head directly to the river's edge. Then they pass along the river for a little while before I lose the tracks as they skirt by a sheltered and muddy spot below a tree. I pick them up the other side and from there it is relatively straight on for a while.

I walk with them for a while, leaving my own tracks in the snow beside them.

This gives me a chance to wonder at whose prints these are - otter? Badger? Pine marten? Fox? Although the tracks find small 'beaches' at the water's edge they always seem to continue passed, so I rule out otter. But I cannot narrow down further.

Just as I am starting to excite at the prospect of meeting this creature - the tracks seem fresh - the footprints pass under the fence, across the field and the back into the woods.

But it is no matter because the tracks have already led me to where I need to be.

I am standing by a group of ten or so black poplars by the river. Each as gnarly and windy as the others. And each with a patch of green below them. They are alive with the song and activity of blue tits, coal tits, chaffinches and other friends I haven't yet got to know.

The river also offers an exposed rock platform out into the middle of its channel - which I will enjoy later in the day.

But for now I spread out my tarp under a tree, lay back and settle into stillness so the birds will forget I am here.

This is just the spot I was hoping to find. Here is where I will stay until the sun sets over the hills to the west. Here is where I will be solo until dusk drops into the valley. Until the Earth has spun half way round, turning us away from our star. 

Here is where I will watch, listen and feel the cycle of a day in this valley.

Red squirrel stand off

Red squirrel stand off

Detail on a daffodil

Detail on a daffodil