Every year we write a story about life in our village of Otter Creek in the 1950s. These reminiscences of seasons past by village patriarch Dennis Smith reveal a less technological time and a sense of village life.
“Fox are easy,” Dennis says. He is referring to tracking them in the snow. “They make a simple straight trail. Coyotes have bigger prints, and are not quite as focused and unswerving as a fox’s trail.”
We follow tracks when we see them, usually just short distances, but often we get a glimpse of another creature’s life. We might learn what they ate, or where they slept. Fox tracks, and most animal tracks, are pretty much the same today as they were in the 1940s and early 50s, when Dennis was a boy. Following tracks was something he grew up doing.
His grandfather Lawrence Senior used to hunt fox in Otter Creek. Like many in rural Maine he made a living weaving together different jobs and ways to earn an income. He was a caretaker for the Dunham family in Seal Harbor and hunted foxes for their fur. Dennis loved listening to his grandfather tell stories of long days on Dorr Mountain trailing a fox through the hillside, with the long shadows of the bare trees on the snow. Back then foxes were plentiful, even a nuisance.
His grandfather used dogs, two blue tick coonhounds, to do the running and the legwork, under alder brush and around rocks. He and his hunting partner Mart Davis followed a more leisurely route, and stayed out of the thickets. There was a photo of his grandfather and Mart after they had returned from a full day’s hunt. Their dogs were at their feet. Beauford, Dennis’ grandmother, always shook her head when she saw that photo, “The men looked worse than the dogs!” she would say.
Dennis wanted to hunt foxes like his grandfather, but by the time he came of age the land was park land, and there was no more hunting. He imagined himself a hunter, though, and one day stalked a red fox. He spent half the day tracking that fox, through the black woods, along Hunter’s Brook, losing the trail and picking it up again. “I decided that fox was going to go further than I was, and just back-tracked home.”
Hunting was not a sport, but done for survival. Pelts were traded for money for tools, or meat was used to feed a family. Dennis was hunting for rabbits for the stewpot with Paul Richardson and Bobby Hopkins, members of the Otter Creek family. An ermine popped its head up from a woodpile, and Bobby raised his gun. “You shoot that ermine and I will shoot you,” Dennis said. “Why did you stop him?” I asked, expecting to hear how beautiful the ermine was, and that it’s death would be pointless. “Bobby had a 12-gauge, it would have made a mess of the pelt.” Dennis replied.
They had been tracking snowshoe hare in six inches of snow in January or February when the ermine popped up.“Rabbits are full of fleas in November and December, it’s hard to clean them and not have fleas in everything,” Dennis explains, “and forget March hares! They can run for miles.” He tells me about how hares court in March, leaping high in the air and spraying urine on each other. I had never heard of this, and that spring when we were walking in the grainy snow we followed some hare tracks. There were tracks on top of tracks, coming and going, going in circles. Crazy. “Looks like a hare party,” I said, and we saw red-orange drops splattered about. The red in the urine is not blood, but caused by pigments in the evergreens the hares eat.
Dennis also followed mice trails. This was not for the dinner table, but just because he liked to. “They leave such beautiful little trails, dragging their tails in the snow, then disappearing under a tree root or some other place.”
Days are short in winter, and almost every day after school Dennis would meet his grandfather and walk in the woods. If the dogs were not with them, they often startled a partridge out of the snow. “They fly right into snow banks to escape the cold,” he says. “It always made us jump!” Partridge didn’t always plan wisely when they were making an escape dive, though. Dennis tells of them flying right up between someone’s legs and into their coat, although it never happened to him.
“Gordon Robbins told me he had a partridge fly right up under his raincoat,” Dennis says.”He reached down to hold his coat closed, killed it and ate it.” I asked if he cooked it first. Dennis said he thinks so but doesn’t know.
I tracked, too, before I met Dennis, and our first date was a hike on the pothole trail in Otter Creek. He had never hiked it. The fog was what he calls “dungeon thick,” and we kept losing sight of each other. Coyotes were more populous then, and I squatted to look at some scat on the granite ledge that was our trail. He came back when he realized I was not right behind him. When he saw me crouched he got down beside me and broke off a twig to poke. “Bone and fur,” he said. We looked at each other over the scat, and knew there would be many more trails in our future.
You may read the entire book here.