Why do porcupines cross the road? For all the usual reasons: to find food, to court a mate, or just to see what lies over the next rise in the ground. (Is curiosity a uniquely human emotion? I doubt it.) And there's one more reason for them to venture forth over the asphalt — to lick salt from the road surface. Porcupines love salt, as more than a few paddlers have discovered when they woke to find their best ash blades shortened by several inches, or even gnawed right in two. A lot of backcountry outhouses have also fallen victim to the porcupine's passion for salty snacks. Urine splashing on the wooden walls and seat leaves a residue of nitrate behind when it evaporates, and nitrates are salty. (As a matter of fact, urine was once a primary source of potassium nitrate for the manufacture of gunpowder.) The moral of the story? Aim carefully when you avail yourself of the comforts of a rustic privy, and be sure to rinse the sweaty residue from your paddles and packs before you turn in.
Back on the trail, I was ready to call it a day. The tracks I'd been following led down a steep slope into a hollow that afforded plenty of shelter. As I leaned against a maple sapling at the brink of the drop‑off, I noticed a place where the young tree had been stripped of bark. And the wound was fresh. It seemed likely that the porcupine who'd breakfasted early on hemlock had eaten a snack before turning in.
I stood there for a long time, studying the snow‑covered slope and its tangle of fallen trees. Suddenly, I saw a movement in the distance. Was it…? It was. But just as my conscious mind registered the presence of the porcupine, he disappeared into a dark crevice between two rocks. The slope wasn't far from the spot where I'd photographed the porcupine pair last summer. Could the animal I'd been tracking for the last couple of hours have been one of my old friends? Well, yes. He could have been. It really didn't matter, though. Whoever he was, I wished him pleasant dreams. And then I turned away and started back toward home, my breath fogging before my face and frost forming on my collar.