Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen—
The air can be crisp on some winter days. The snow may be fresh and the animal tracks can feel like they can go on forever. Other days, however, are loaded with little more than super slick ice, backed with sideways blowin’ wind that generously brings a single-digit chill with it. The world can seem pretty trackless on a day like that. As if no animal in their right mind would trek, much less find any other animal out and about. And while one of these days comes with challenges different than the other, both days can be great to look for animal sign!
When venturing out onto any frozen, aquatic biome (the Tenants Harbor marsh for instance), it’s a good idea to be aware of where patches of thin ice might be. Natural openings in ice occur for numerous reasons and can be anticipated along the ice edges, directly above and below beaver dams, or where a creek runs into a pond or other waterway. At places where water is flowing fast there might even be open water after a string of negative-degree days. Survival instincts hopefully tell you to stay clear of such areas, but openings like these can actually be hot spots to check for tracks and trails even on the bitterest of days! It doesn’t get lower than 32 degrees in the fresh water below and so life will go on under the ice regardless of the blizzards and winds we deal with above. Ice holes offer a glimpse into such worlds.
There is a wonderful ice hole at the north end of the marsh which stays open all winter. It’s a main entry point used by several species of semi-aquatic mammals to access the non-frozen, fresh water habitat below. When an otter crosses to the marsh from the Ponderosa or Seavey Cove, they often make a beeline for this opening upon arrival. There also happens to be an otter latrine located within 10 feet of the hole. The three local otters, which I lovingly refer to as “Moe, Larry, and Curly,” all mark at this latrine, and are known to come out from under the ice simply to spraint and then return to under. Otters are creatures of habit and will mark such a spot regardless of weather!
American Mink will also use this hole to gain access to the water world below. On an especially cold day this winter a mink came out from under the ice, explored a very short distance, and then returned to the hole. The mink left a section of “tail tracks” near the opening, documenting a period of focused activity at the opening—possibly working on keeping the hole open. On cold days some openings require a bit of maintenance.
Another day, there was a set of muskrat tracks coming out of the hole and then marching off through the woods. I followed the trail maybe 400 feet to a separate wetland system I had not visited previously. The muskrat obviously knew the terrain well—better than I did, for sure—and exactly where it was going. The hole put the muskrat close to this secret pond, and to the next set of plants for it to mack on. You just never know what you might find at an opening like that.
But this isn’t the only ice hole in the marsh of course! Earlier this winter, I followed an otter trail left by “Larry” that led to a hole in the ice that was in the middle of the marsh. The trail was focused and direct—this otter obviously knew of the opening and possibly helped to keep it open. Larry went in and out of the water several times as evidenced by the significant amount of tracks in the area. Eventually the otter headed to the west, towards the Ponderosa, but not before feasting on a pickerel it had brought up from below. All that the otter left was the fish’s mouth and a bloody spot alongside the opening. Ask anyone who ice fishes and they will tell you the same thing—catching fish is easier if you can get to them (them being fish). This was Larry’s fishin’ hole for the day and, needless to say, I now visit this spot every time I get on the ice.
Holes in ice are key for semi-aquatic mammals and critters to access food and for transortation. Conditions might be rough on the surface, but at the same time life goes on underneath. Being critters of habit, these animals will still come out from under—even if it’s “just” to mark a latrine – leaving clues to activity as clear as snow. One just needs to make it to the openings!
And so we’ll see you out there!
PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen