Mar 10 2010
I’ve been poking around in the backcountry all of my life, usually with some specific end in mind. Most of the time I’m hoping to learn more about wild things: Wild birds and wild animals. Wild trees and wildflowers. Wild woodlands and wild waterways. I usually have a pretty wild time of it, too. This winter has been no exception. I’ve been getting to know a pocket wilderness in my corner of Canoe Country — the forested hills overlooking one of the swiftest reaches of The River. It’s been a fruitful season. I now know where the porcupines go to find shelter and food, where the foxes make their dens, and where the deer yard up when the cold begins to bite. I’ve also learned where the red squirrels cache their cones, where the chickadees and mourning doves roost, and where the turkeys scratch for food when the snow drifts deep. This local knowledge pays off. Because I’m on “speaking terms” with so many of the woodland’s full‑time residents, I’m quick to sense when something disturbs their forest community, and lately I’ve felt a thrill of apprehension in the air — a current of alarm, even of outright fear. It’s what I call a Macbeth moment, after the familiar couplet from the Scottish play:
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
And that’s exactly the feeling I got, starting about three months ago. Something wicked had entered the woods, and I wanted to find out what — or who — it was.
I didn’t have to wait long. One animal has eluded me in all the time I’ve been venturing into the backcountry, an animal with a well‑deserved reputation as a stealthy and cunning predator. Even my grandfather never got a good look at it, despite having spent a lifetime exploring the remoter corners of the southern Adirondacks. Grandad called this elusive killer the “Devil of the Woods.” And the way he spoke the name suggested that this was a title that deserved being set off in capital letters. It’s true that Grandad was known to embellish a story from time to time, however. I put that down to the years he spent taking big‑city sports into the woods and then having to entertaining them around the campfire in the evening when the trout weren’t biting. But there was something in Grandad’s voice when he talked about the Devil that indicated real respect. That said, Grandad never got very near to one. The Devil had always kept its distance, with the sole evidence of its presence being a darker shadow moving somewhere in the deep gloom of a spruce hell. Or a trail of tracks in fresh snow. Or the bloody scraps from some hastily bolted meal.
Other than these none‑too‑close encounters, Grandad knew the Devil only by reputation, a collection of trappers’ tales and local legends, handed down over many generations. And I knew the Devil only through Grandad’s stories. But at least I knew the name of the beast: the Devil was none other than the fisher, a cat‑sized weasel with a fondness for rodents, and one of the few predators willing to tackle a porcupine. In the end, however, all my knowledge of the fisher came second‑ or third‑hand.
Then, on a frigid morning in mid‑December, I finally got an inkling of what it was that was putting a little added chill in the air, deep in the hills overlooking The River. For the first time in my life I saw the track of a fisher.… Read more…