I love the winter landscape and being able to walk in places that are inaccessible most of the year. Animal neighbors rarely seen suddenly can be counted, identified, and something of their habits can be discerned by the tracks they leave behind.
Sometimes these tracks make a record of fleeting dramas that can be read only until the next fresh white blanket covers them, or a warming spell turns them all to water. This is one such story.
It was early on Christmas morning. Six inches of snow covered the ground, and the sky was steely gray, pregnant with the promise of more snow to come. I had a couple of hours before cooking chores and the day’s festivities would keep me inside, so I seized the opportunity to get out for a long walk in the woods.
I live on Marsh Island, between the Stillwater and Penobscot rivers, home also to the University of Maine’s flagship campus. A short way across and down the road from our house is a parcel of conservation land that extends three-quarters of a mile southeast to the banks of the Penobscot. Bounded on one side by the road and on the other by the river, it stretches east for nearly two miles up to Old Town, with little development in between. That’s where I headed.
I crossed the road at a brisk pace, eager to get to the trails leading up into the forest. But about 30 feet up the trail I stopped short, at the sight of an incongruous crimson drop of blood. A few feet farther along, I saw another and another red drop, leading in the direction I intended to walk.
As I studied the ground, the first flakes of snow began to careen from the sky with the hissing sound that announces that they mean business. The wind abruptly picked up. Then, as I pulled my hat down and tightened my scarf, I noticed for the first time a man’s large boot tracks. From their condition, I guessed he had walked there two hours or so ahead of me.
Mentally I was now dragging my feet as they say. The combination of blood from an unknown source and a man’s tracks made me consider turning around and finding another place to take a walk. But my curiosity was aroused — and with the white flakes steadily falling, I knew that if I did not immediately follow the tracks, the new snow would fill in all the grooves, reclaim the white surface, and the answer to this mystery would be erased. So I talked myself into continuing up the trail — albeit at a slower, quieter pace, more alert and watchful than before.
The trail wound up a hill among dense pines, spruce and cedar, toward a high ridge of mostly hemlock, oak and beech. The tracks of many animals crisscrossed the main trail: a female fisher, red squirrels and lots of white-tailed deer. Occasional drops of blood and the man’s boot prints still coursed ahead of me. Several hundred yards farther, the trail forked. One way continued on toward the river, the other wrapped southeast, behind a series of condominiums, eventually leading to a neighborhood off Crosby Street.
Tracks showed that the man took the trail toward the apartments and that he had come back through. The return prints revealed that he was pulling an empty plastic toboggan. He then proceeded down the trail leading away from the houses, now pulling something in the sled, whose impression dug deeper into the snow. I backtracked a little, methodically searching the surface which was quickly becoming harder to read. I found where he’d laid something on the ground off the trail while he fetched the toboggan. There were a few more drops of blood and looking closer, I saw some coarse, short white and russet hair.
Relief flooded me. Now the mystery of what the blood was coming from was solved: a white-tailed deer. I concluded that the deer must be dead, and the man must have loaded it into the sled — but why? I followed as his tracks led farther into the dense woods. I reviewed a map of the trail system in my mind’s eye. I could not imagine where he was going or why.
About a quarter-mile farther, the man’s boot prints abruptly veered off the trail, into a thick copse of young balsam fir. Cautiously listening for any indication from the squirrels and birds that someone might be nearby — and hearing none — I stepped off the trail and into the tangled understory. There, I came upon a large mound, covered with freshly cut balsam sprigs and dusted with the new-fallen snow. The man’s tracks continued on, not retracing his path, but off toward another trail that would circle back to the one behind the condos. The empty toboggan meandered behind him. I wondered whether he’d arrived yet at the spot where he’d first laid the deer down, and seen the much smaller impressions of my mukluks. Or was the new snow already concealing the evidence of my having followed him?
The biologist in me kicked into gear. How old was the deer, what gender, what was the cause of death? Could the man have poached it, and taken the best meat for his holiday dinner before trekking way out here to hide the body?
I peeled away some of the branches and found the answers to my questions. A beautiful doe, born the previous spring, lay crumpled in a position that indicated she had suffered major trauma. There was no doubt that a motor vehicle had hit her as she was crossing the road, ending her brief life instantly. Before replacing the branches, I stood there a few moments, thinking. Like me, the man probably had just been out for a walk, getting some exercise before the coming feast. He had encountered the dead deer on the side of the road, not a pleasant experience — especially on Christmas morning.
He could have kept on going, past the violence of that sight. But he chose instead to give the deer the most dignified burial he could. He brought her out where there was no roar of traffic, where her body would be hidden from scavengers and further obscured by the new snow. Fitting for this day, he laid her to rest among a little forest of sweet-smelling balsam fir.
I replaced the branches and retraced my way back to the road. Just as I was about to cross, I glanced down and suddenly noticed what I’d missed earlier when I was in such a hurry to get up into the woods. Where the fawn had landed after being hit, the escaping heat from her body had melted the icy embankment, creating a perfect impression of her form. With the blustery white flakes filling it in — and no doubt obscuring what pooled blood there might have been — I thought it was the most beautiful snow angel I’d ever seen. There was no sign whatsoever of the trauma, only a sense of perfect peace.
Within a couple of hours, while families and friends gathered in homes and churches to celebrate the holy day, and food was eaten and gifts were exchanged, the story of that anonymous man’s compassionate act was completely erased. I have no idea if he even told another soul about what he’d done. But for me, the memory of what I chanced to discover always evokes the true meaning and spirit of Christmas Day.
Kathy Pollard lives in Orono. She studied wildlife management at the University of Maine from 1987 to 1990, focusing on research and scientific writing, then transferred to the nursing program. She continued to work as a research assistant in the wildlife department until 1992, working for the Maine Caribou Reintroduction Project and DIF&W to complete a master’s student research project on brain worm in moose. After a career in health care, she now is a full-time artist, sculptor and basket maker.