The Devil of the Woods
By Tamia Nelson
March 9, 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
Not that it wasn't already cold enough. The thermometer was still registering zero degrees Fahrenheit when I set out, and the new snow squeaked with each step I took. The sun was little more than a wan promise of warmth in a milky sky. But I was dressed for the weather, and only the very tip of my nose was chilly as I climbed toward a sheltered hollow high on the flank of the ridge. I figured deer might still be bedding down there, so I planned on giving the hollow a wide berth. Meanwhile, I continued to climb, pausing every few steps along the way to study the latest scrawls on the snowy palimpsest. These told a familiar tale. Red squirrels and mice had certainly been out and about, and I soon discovered that I was right about the deer, too. Their tracks became increasingly numerous as I approached the little hollow. I decided then and there that I'd come as close as I should, so I stopped climbing and turned to follow the contour along the ridgeline, a route that would take me to a stand of mature pines where the red squirrels made their nests. And that's when I saw the sign of the fisher, a fresh trail recorded in new snow:
At first, I didn't know what I was looking at. A mouse had crossed the spoor, not once but twice. His tracks gave the scale. Closer inspection also showed where a grouse had danced a quick two‑step. (Look just above the hemlock sapling on the lower left in the photo above.)
My eye darted back to the tracks, and I puzzled over what I was seeing. I quickly eliminated fox, dog, coyote, and cat. What was left? The pattern was that of a weasel, but the pug marks were much larger, larger even than those of the marten. In any case martens prefer old‑growth spruce‑fir forests, not mixed woodlands like those along The River. Could it be a river otter? Not likely, I decided. The tracks were far from water, and there were none of the otter's characteristic slides. About then it dawned on me that I might be looking at the spoor of a fisher, and that he — I figured I'd call him "he" until I knew otherwise — had passed this way just a few hours before my arrival on the scene.
I knelt down to get a closer look:
The dusting of new snow on old crust recorded the tracks faithfully, and while the flat lighting and monochrome background made photography difficult, the shot I took shows clear impressions of the pads and toes. Then, having made a record of the tracks and satisfied myself that I'd learned all I could from the individual pug marks, I got to my feet again and looked back along the animal's trail. By now I was pretty sure I was staring at the track of a fisher. And it continued on, right through the mixed beech‑maple‑birch wood, heading in the direction of neighboring pine and hemlock groves. Since this was where I was going, too, I tagged along. Whatever it was that the fisher was about, he didn't seem interested in any of the mice or squirrels whose diminutive tracks he crossed. Was I closer to him than I thought? I picked up my pace a bit, hoping against hope that I'd catch a glimpse of the Devil himself.
No such luck, though. The fisher's path dropped down the flank of the ridge until he reached the portage trail along The River, not far from the Narrows. Hikers had packed down the snow here some time back, but no one had passed this way in several days. And just then I found a second set of tracks, paralleling the ones I'd been following.
Those are my pug marks in the middle, by the way. I shot the photo looking back along the trail. The tracks of the first fisher are on the right. He followed in the footsteps of the hikers (and their dogs). The second fisher traveled alongside the first. Her tracks — let's assume she's a "her," shall we? — are on the left. Confused? OK. Here's an annotated version of the same photo:
The red line identifies the track of the first fisher, while the yellow line shows where the second animal went. The blue line follows my own rather wobbly approach. How did I know that I'd stumbled across the tracks of two different animals? I didn't, at least not right away. In fact, my initial thought on seeing the second set of tracks was that the first fisher — the one I'd been following — had doubled back and then returned along his original path. But closer examination showed me that the second animal was noticeably smaller than the first. So it was clear that there were two fishers. (If they were fishers, that is.) My Devil had company.
I was now doubly curious. I followed the pair for a mile or more as they wound their way along the slope, ending in a hemlock woods. The two sets of tracks stayed close together throughout, never straying more than a few yards from each other and frequently crossing. Their pug marks never once overlapped, but it was clear from the fresh appearance of the sign that both sets of tracks had been laid down at about the same time — and that they'd been made not long before I picked up their trail.
By now I was pretty near certain my quarry were fishers and not something else, and I pressed on, hoping to catch at least a fleeting glimpse of the Devil of the Woods before I left. But I had no luck, and time was pressing. I had to abandon the chase. Once back home, I ransacked my library to verify my provisional ID. And the upshot? I'd been following a fisher — no, two fishers. Of that I was now almost certain. I had indeed been hot on the Devil's trail.
Or had I? Try as I might, I couldn't entirely stifle a nagging doubt. But I knew a way to put all doubts to rest. I had only to go back and reexamine the tracks, searching until I found further evidence — a den, some scat, or something else — that would settle the question once and for all. And there was a bonus. While I was at it, I'd also learn…
How the Fishers Spent Their Day
So, the following morning I walked in to the point where I'd turned back earlier and took up the trail again. Despite the passage of time, conditions were good — dry and cold — and the sign was still clear. The paired tracks led me into the hemlock grove higher up the ridge, where they circled the base of a towering tree, one of the grove's patriarchs. This looked promising. A porcupine had climbed down from the tree before the pair had arrived. Fishers aren't shy about tackling a porcupine, and the evidence suggested that the two predators had ascended the hemlock, just to be sure their prey had fled. Then they'd set off in pursuit. I followed after them. My quarry headed downriver, staying on the shoulder of the ridge, sometimes returning to the portage trail, sometimes diverging from it, and seldom missing a chance to explore a downed tree:
Finally, the track broke away from the portage trail for good, as the pair climbed higher. Now they were hunting separately. Their tracks zigzagged independently up the ridge, only to converge at a den recently occupied by a porcupine. But their prey was no longer in residence. The fishers — by this time I was as certain as I could be that this was a pair of fishers — circled the now‑empty refuge to make sure the occupant had fled. Then they continued on.
I trekked after them, going all the way to the crest of the ridge and beyond, as the pair doubled back, retracing their earlier steps. But I was forced to abandon the chase for good when my quarry entered an impenetrable tangle of scrubby hemlocks and ancient windfalls. Once again, I left the woods without seeing the Devil.
And what had I learned? Well, I'm now convinced that I had indeed stumbled across the tracks of two fishers, hunting cooperatively. Were they a mated pair? Or were they siblings? In either case, they were defying the experts. The guidebooks speak with one voice in insisting that — except for a short breeding season in March or April — fishers are solitary and unsociable. (One reference notes that "pair bonds are temporary or nonexistent." That's pretty unequivocal.) Of course, wild creatures don't read the guidebooks, do they? Maybe my Devils were the exceptions that prove the rule.
Nor was this the only unanswered question. Why did the predatory pair show so little interest in the many mice and squirrels that crossed their path? Why were they so single‑minded in their pursuit of larger prey? I can only guess. Perhaps chasing down small animals simply doesn't pay in harsh conditions. Perhaps a mouse just doesn't have enough meat on his bones to fuel an active, cat‑sized killing machine in zero‑degree cold. Perhaps only a fat porcupine repays the necessary investment of time and energy. It makes sense to me, but only the fisher knows for sure. And he's not talking.
Still, even though I'm left with more questions than answers, and despite the fact that I trudged home from two days in the woods without so much as catching a fleeting glimpse of my elusive quarry, I think myself lucky to have seen as much as I did. Driven almost to extinction in much of Canoe Country by unregulated trapping and habitat loss, the fisher also suffered from a (largely undeserved) reputation as a killer of fawns. This certainly didn't help his standing in sporting circles. It may even have given rise to his infamous sobriquet. But that was a long time ago. The fisher now enjoys a measure of protection. He's still a rare and secretive predator, however, notable more for his ruthless efficiency than his fecundity. He'll dine on any animal smaller than himself, including the young of both foxes and coyotes, not to mention the much larger porcupine. He's also said to kill and eat domestic cats who wander too far from home. (A case of the biter bit, I guess.) Not even the tree tops offer a refuge from his claws and teeth. The fisher is a skillful climber, equally at home both on the forest floor and high above it. About what you'd expect from the Devil of the Woods, eh?
Nearly three months have come and gone since I first stumbled across the fishers' sign, and I haven't caught up with them yet. In fact, for the last few weeks, I've seen no fresh fisher tracks at all. Am I disappointed? Yes. A bit. But I'm of two minds about the whole business. Predator and prey are necessary complements, of course. They're the warp and weft of life, the threads that weave the fabric of woodland community. Remove either one, and the fabric falls apart. So I can't condemn the fisher for doing what comes naturally, even if I'm happy that the porcupines and red squirrels whom I've gotten to know so well can now breath a little easier.
And what about me? Well, I'm out on the snowy hillsides, stalking my prey in my own way, and still hoping to catch a glimpse of that elusive, enigmatic, eldritch creature, the outsized weasel known as the Devil of the Woods.
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