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Snowshoeing with a Porcupine at Happy Valley

Porcupine

The following is a report on a three hour snowshoe through the Happy Valley Wildlife Management Area near Parish, NY in the Tug Hill Region. The snowshoe kept to the northern portion of the management area centering around Churchill Road following roughly the same path as my previous snowshoe to the region on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (to read click here). Highlights included following fisher tracks, a porcupine, and snowshoe hare tracks.

Date: February 12, 2011
Length: 1.92 miles
Difficulty: Easy


On February 12th, I headed up onto the Tug Hill to go snowshoeing within Happy Valley Wildlife Management Area once again this winter. I planned on pursuing the same general path from my previous snowshoe but this time I was better prepared as I brought my GPS and my compact digital camera with a fully charged battery.


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On the way up to Happy Valley snow began to fall light and it was still snowing upon my arrival. In fact, it continued to snow lightly for the majority of my snowshoe trip. Unlike last time the parking lot was actually plowed and there were several trucks and SUVs with trailers scattered about. Obviously other people were out enjoying the snow on this Saturday.

After getting my stuff together and putting on my snowshoes at my car (waypoint #1) I checked my watch and it was 9:30 AM. I headed down Churchill Road, which during the winter time is a nicely groomed snowmobile trail. Since the area around the buildings is posted with signs indicating it is a restricted area I had to clear the signs to the south before I could enter into the woods.


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When I cleared the restricted area, I headed east off the snowmobile trail (i.e. road) and into a young hardwood forest (waypoint #2). The snow was very deep; at least three feet deep. It was so deep it was difficult climbing off the groomed trail and up into the forest even with my snowshoes on.

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I thought I was heading east but instead my bearing was more northeast as I penetrated a dense stand of Norway spruces. The trees were planted in such close proximity to one another near the edge of the stand it was difficult going but as I moved further along the trees became increasingly sparser and the going was much easier. An occasional stretch would be devoid of trees and I made use of these as much as possible. In one of these lanes I noticed a small hole in the snow with some tiny tracks around it (waypoint #3). I could not tell the identity of the animal that made these tracks or the hole but given the hole was small and circular the occupant must have been about the size of a mouse.

Tiny hole in the snow

When I approached the eastern edge of the spruce stand I saw a clearing through the trees and knew I was at the edge of Mosher Pond, which is located to the east of the parking lot. After leaving behind the spruce stand I made my way through some young hardwoods before reaching the clearing. The clearing exists on the shoulder of a slight incline overlooking the western shore of the pond. I entered the northwestern corner (waypoint #4) and began moving southeast along the edge of the forest.

My snowshoe tracks

As I moved along the clearing’s edge I noticed a restricted area sign. This was when I realized my less than stellar eastern bearing after leaving Churchill Road. After seeing the sign I picked up my pace a little until I reentered the forest along the clearing’s southern edge so as to flee the scene of the crime as quickly as possible.

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Roughly following the pond’s edge but off a good distance into the forest I continued a southeasterly bearing. The forest was mostly young hardwoods after the clearing but the further I continued the more the forest became dominated by eastern hemlock. By the time I reached waypoint 5 the forest was completely mature hemlock. Some of the hemlock trees in this area were huge creating such a light-impenetrable canopy that there was little understory.

Clearing along shore of Mosher Pond

Occasionally, one of these towering behemoths would release a large chunk of snow, which came crashing down through the branches resulting in a resounding thud as it hit the snow-covered ground. The thought of one scoring a direct hit on my head made me thankful I had brought my personal locator beacon this time. As the slight wind continued to knock down chunks of snow I contemplated putting the hood on my jacket up over my head for some added protection. When I realized the marginal protection such a thin layer of material would provide I decided to leave the hood down so as not to impact my peripheral vision.

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My snowshoe tracks

The further southeast I went the more the tree canopy transitioned from pure mature hemlock to mixed with hardwoods with a plethora of young hemlocks in the understory. This made navigating increasingly more difficult due to the excessive amounts of snow on the low evergreen branches. I stopped and took pity on what seemed to be an especially tormented specimen of a young hemlock. The tree’s entire crown was bent over with the burden of snow it was carrying almost more than its trunk could bear. I gave some of the chunks of snow on this twisted tree’s limbs several whacks with my single pole until large chunks fell to the ground and the poor tree regained some of its past glory by lifting its crown further into the canopy.

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To avoid hitting a channel of water feeding Mosher Pond I headed directly south and soon began following what appeared to be white-tailed deer tracks up a hillside through a maze of snow-covered hemlocks. At the top of the hill the tracks led to a place where the deer (or whatever it was as the snow did not afford a clear track for which I could be certain) dug at the snow for some purpose (waypoint #6).

Deer diggings (and my glove)

Since the hilltop gave me a nice view from the direction whence I came I decided to stop and have a snack here. After having a nice snack of aging breakfast bars (which I had stockpiled when they went on sale last summer) and some hot tea (brought in a stainless steel Thermos) I was ready to continue tracking the deer (or whatever animal I was tracking).

Soon I met up with some other tracks that were clearly not deer. These tracks appeared in pairs and based on the size and distance between I suspected they were fisher tracks. Being the fickle tracker that I am, I abandoned the deer tracks and began following those of the more interesting suspected fisher instead.

Deer tracks

Before I ran off following these fisher tracks I checked the time to find I had been out about an hour. Since I was not even back on Churchill Road yet (the approximate halfway point) this one hour snowshoe had now become at least 2 hours and most likely much more. My compass indicated the fisher tracks were heading westward and since that was the direction I needed to head anyways I made the decision that I would continue to follow them as long as they did not make any drastic turns to the south or east.

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The fisher tracks weaved their way through the snow-covered hemlock forest staying amazingly true to a slightly south of west bearing. Although I stayed right on top of the tracks for the most part, occasionally it was necessary for me to detour around an especially dense area and re-acquire the tracks on the opposite side. At one point the tracks went up on top and underneath a downed tree. In the spirit of taking on the persona (or animala?) of my quarry, I jumped onto the top of the downed tree and balanced myself on the fallen trunk in my snowshoes. I made my way down along the log for a good distance before jumping off to once again follow the tracks on the snow-covered ground. I refrained from following the tracks along the portion that went underneath the fallen truck, not wanting to take this animala notion too far.

Snow-covered hemlocks

If I indeed was following a fisher then I suspected it may have been looking for its favorite quarry, the porcupine, underneath the fallen tree. Porcupines are quite common in this area and I have frequently found them in the winter time underneath such fallen trees.

The fisher tracks continued and at one point went underneath a cluster of hemlock trees situated within a small clearing. When I stopped at the edge of the canopy of this cluster of hemlocks (waypoint #8) and contemplated going around rather than between them I heard some scratching sounds above me. I glanced up and spotted a dark shape above me in the canopy near the main stem of one of the hemlocks. Instantly I realized I had found a porcupine, which given some of the near-barkless branches and the assorted twigs strewn around on the ground in the snow I had evidently interrupted its lunch.

Porcupine

As I tried to retrieve my binoculars from my daypack the porcupine started to crawl out onto a branch and away from the trunk of the tree. Alternating between watching the porcupine with my binoculars and taking pictures with my camera I started to become concerned that it was going to fall from the branch and plummet down onto the snow-covered ground. Although it probably would not have gotten hurt due to the deep snow, I changed my position relative to the animal trying to get it to refrain from journeying any further down the branch.

Porcupine

Porcupine

This strategy seemed to work as the porcupine halted its attempt to get as far from the tree trunk as possible and even at one point turned around and stopped to study me before starting its awkward way back toward the tree’s main stem. I marveled at its slow sloth-like climbing ability for a while longer before re-connecting with the suspected fisher tracks and heading back toward Churchill Road.

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The fisher tracks continued into a seemingly wetter area with less hemlocks present where it ended at a medium-sized hole in the snow at the base of a young red maple. Squatting down, I made some squeaking noises; doing my best to imitate a mouse. I have read that fishers are quite curious about such sounds and will often make an appearance to determine their source. Unfortunately, nothing stirred from within the hole as far as I could tell.

Down the fisher hole

Since the tracks I was pursuing ended at the hole in the snow I took a new northwest bearing with my compass and headed off toward Churchill Road. After traversing some rolling hills my bearing brought me to a thick stand of spruces (waypoint #10). Snowshoe hare tracks were scattered about in this area but unfortunately none were observed.

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Instead of weaving my way through the dense conifers I followed the sound of snowmobiles that I figured came from along Churchill Road. Unfortunately the sound took me further south finally intersecting with Churchill Road just south of a curve in the road (waypoint #11). I quickly crossed Churchill Road and re-entered the forest on the opposite side heading roughly northwest so as to move away from the vicinity of the road.

Snowshoe hare tracks

Near the edge of an old rock fence, now almost completely covered in snow, I stopped for another snack (waypoint #12). After some energy bars and hot tea, I continued my journey heading northwest further into the interior of the forest. Once I climbed over the rock fence at a point where it appeared to have collapsed I entered an eastern white pine stand. By clipping the edge of the white pine stand, I quickly entered a thick stand of red maple saplings. This thick stand required much bobbing and weaving on my part as the saplings were quite dense with many branches at or near my head level.

The dense saplings quickly gave way to a mixed mature forest (waypoint #13). Continuing along a northwest bearing, I finally encountered another snow-covered rock fence near an almost completely snow-covered stream. Suspecting I was quite far from Churchill Road, I pulled out my compass and took a new bearing to the northeast. This bearing should eventually intersect the road south of the posted restricted area.

Churchill Road

After climbing a hillside away from the stream bed I entered another dense Norway spruce stand. This mature stand required me to protect my head as there were many limbs at head height just waiting to poke out an eye or ear.

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After negotiating through the spruce stand I ended up along an old skidder road (waypoint #15). I followed this road to the northeast toward Churchill Road. The location of the road became more apparent as a snowmobile could be heard going back and forth repeatedly along the road. Apparently someone either became bored going around curves or was getting ready to leave for the day but could not resist burning a little more fossil fuels before departing.

Snow-covered rock wall

Arriving at the road (waypoint #16) just a short distance north of the place where I left the road several hours before, I turned north and headed for the parking lot. The bored snowmobiler made one more trip north. As the snowmobile passed me, the rider’s body language suggested surprise as if he/she had not realized my presence until right on top of me. Fortunately, I had stepped off the road and re-entered the forested border so as not to be struck. This was the last I saw of this snowmobile, either he/she left or was so startled by my presence that he/she decided to do their snowmobiling elsewhere.

Although it had been lightly snowing for the entire trip, the snowfall became increasingly heavy as I snowshoed the last stretch along Churchill Road.

When I finally arrived at the parking lot there were at least 10 trucks and SUVs, most with snowmobile trailers, parked just about everywhere possible. Since the snow was coming down steadily now I quickly changed and got going for my ride back home. The snow continued to increase with intensity for my ride home. At one point along Interstate 81 the snow came down so hard I could not tell which lane I was in and I simply followed the tire tracks of the unseen car in front of me.

Dense red maple saplings

My snowshoe tracks

Despite the heavy snow I made it back safely from what turned out to be a much longer but exhilarating snowshoeing experience in the forest of the Tug Hill Region. Hopefully I would get a few more chances to snowshoe this area before the season ends.

Spruce plantation

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