Even when you’re hiking alone, you’re not

Wild turkey tracks in sand

I’ll admit it. I like hiking by myself.

Blame it on being the mother of two boys. Or my introverted nature. Or too many years working directly with the public. Whatever it is, I treasure long periods of quiet. That’s when I can really find peace — thinking aimlessly, scanning the world around me for signs of its perfect, impersonal, seasonal order.

It’s a good thing, too, because it’s a rare person who would accompany me on a hike and agree to shut up and leave me alone the whole time. Who wants to walk silently with somebody, only to be spoken to once every hour or so? I know one or two, but they like being alone too much to ruin that and hike with me.

What I discovered after a few years of ambling around is that even when there were no humans around for miles, I wasn’t ever really alone in the woods.

When you’re hiking a public wildlife area, state park or trail, you’re just traipsing through the living rooms of a bunch of critters. Most of them won’t let you know it, since they’re sensible and figured out a long time ago that humans are dangerous creatures. Despite the sensational stories, you could hike hundreds of miles and never be approached by a growling bear, rabid raccoon or hissing snake. For the most part, these animals (except the rabid ones) will quietly exit an area as soon as your boots shake the ground. You wouldn’t know they’d been there, except for the clues they leave.

These signs are some of my favorite discoveries in the woods now…the calling cards of creatures who occupy the territory I’m invading for a little while. Every animal track, chewed-up tree trunk, broken bough, scattering of nut hulls, pile of scat (poop) tells me who I’m sharing the woods with. For some people, this is a scary notion — that the forests are not empty, but full of wild occupants. For me, it’s one of the best parts of being outdoors.

Critter tracks in the mud.

It is smart to know something about the wild places you choose to explore. Find out what creatures live there, when they’re most active and where to avoid to stay out of their way (think rocky areas for snakes). There’s plenty to read about wildlife in your area, if you want to check with your state’s Division of Natural Resources or state wildlife agency. West Virginia’s has several pages of interesting information.

Some really memorable tips I’ve read about identifying critter tracks and habitat in the woods have come from my kids’ books…check out Jim Arnosky’s Crinkleroot series about a bearded outdoorsman who guides kids through the woods and what they see there. I’m also lucky enough to know some super-smart outdoor experts who, shockingly, don’t seem to mind when I ask them what kind of animal poop or tracks I’m looking at.

Birds, reptiles, bugs, mammals big and small are all over the woods we pass through, and along the streams we step over. If we’re quiet and settle down enough, they make their presence known.

Several times I’ve crossed paths with wild turkey on my hikes through Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area — a massive public hunting area in eastern West Virginia that I like a lot. Each startling encounter with the turkeys happened miles and miles into a hike, when I had reached that mindless state that comes from letting your boots lead the way. Striding silently over a rise, I’ve disturbed a single bird, or flock of gobblers, and have been greeted by the frantic flapping of huge, clumsy turkey wings as the birds hefted themselves into the air to fly to safety. One time I rattled a wild turkey that didn’t flap away, but strutted back and forth just 50 yards away making terrible squeaking noises at me. She kept at it until I was well out of sight. Later, I figured out she was guarding a nest of eggs and wasn’t about to leave the area while I was around. Her warning sounds did the job, running me out of her nursery area where I didn’t belong.

Tracks in snow, scratched-up leaves, chewed branches…all these are the proof that the woods and fields are never empty, even when we go there looking for some time alone.

Scratch in the woods in winter.

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