What sort of tracks do you leave?
Ever had a phrase from a song refuse to go out of your head? I frequently do, and one of them is an especially poignant couple of lines from Randy Travis's song, "Three Wooden Crosses:"
"I guess it's not what you take when you leave this world behind you. It's what you leave behind you when you go."
The bigger message, of course, is that how you live your life is far more important than how much you accumulate along the way.
Strangely enough, though, I couldn't get that phrase out my mind as Ken and I skied around our small lake a few days ago. With all of the activities of the holidays and the bitter cold, snow and freezing rain, we hadn't gotten out on the lake since well before Christmas. The cross country ski track we'd made around the perimeter of the lake had long since filled in with fresh snow which was then whipped by the wind, and all that remained of it were two minor indentations.
Last Sunday dawned bright and sunny, and we could hardly wait to get out on our skis, re-establish our trail and explore the lake once again.
Ken went ahead and broke trail as I brought up the rear, gazing eagerly around me as I went. A trip out on the lake in winter always tells a host of stories of the activities that have gone on there. While to some it may look like a vast winter wasteland, there are clues all over the place, left behind by the creatures (and sometimes the people) who were there ahead of us.
We hadn't gone far when we spotted the hoof prints of a herd of deer along the shoreline where they paused to nibble on the cedar trees overhanging the lake - a clear sign they were having a tough time getting around back in the woods. Around the corner of the bay, we saw where one of them had paused to paw through the layers of snow atop the ice until he or she broke through to a layer of slush, no doubt to satisfy its thirst.
A little further down the lake, we spotted rabbit tracks looping from one shoreline to the next. Upon further inspection, we realized that there were two distinctively different sets of them. One was the classic cottontail track, of fairly uniform size and stretched out in an extended pattern of hind legs and front paws. But woven in among them were the unmistakable tracks of a snowshoe hare. The deeper indents made by the feet of the back legs bore distinctive paw prints, and they were huge - like miniature versions of the snowshoes from which the rabbit gets its name. I could almost envision them darting about the lake at night, playing a game of tag in the moonlight!
Then, I spied the tiny, delicate tracks of some small creature such as a vole or shrew as it scampered along the snow, leaving the faint trace of a tail behind it. It disappeared in the same way it started - into a tunnel under the snow - as though it knew it was vulnerable to predators if it stayed atop the snow for too long.
Along the way, I discovered an eruption of wing prints in the snow, as though some large bird such an owl had dropped down on top of a defenseless creature in pursuit of lunch.
The snow on the lake also bore the tire tracks left by our neighbor as he skidded his fish house to the other side of the island, the tread of a snowmobile as it was driven in giddy circles by some youthful rider, and the broad swath left by the runners of the dogsled belonging to another neighbor down the lake.
We spied an eagle as it circled above us, as though casting an eye about for one of those hapless creatures crossing the lake with no cover.
By the time we made it all the way around and back to the trail leading up to our house, we hadn't encountered a single soul anywhere out on the lake (except, of course, the eagle).
But we had witnessed the drama of the lake in winter nonetheless - by keeping our eyes open, observing the world around us, and discovering all those wonderful "things you leave behind you when you go."