There's More Than You See or Hear

We got some snow last night! Only an inch, wet and sloppy, like one of Meadow's kisses. Still, better than rain! Meadow hardly noticed the snow. She wanted to bring some inside for me to see.

Recently the girls and I hiked through the open fields around us, stretching our legs on a late afternoon bathed in waning sunlight. The snow was then cold and packed enough to support our weight. The girls were off leash, playing, sniffing, exploring. I watched, delighted as always to observe them, enjoying the setting of the sun over the hills to the west. All was quiet, except for the crunching sound of our footfalls. Or so I thought.

My two malamutes have distinct personalities. They also have distinct hunting styles and preferences. Maia focuses on the small stuff, always looking and listening low to the ground. There is nothing more fun, for her, than scaring up a bunch of quail, or making a barn cat run. Meadow prefers the big stuff, and so scans the far distance hoping to catch the movement of a deer. Or moose. (This propensity has led to some alarming encounters in the woods over the past several years.) As soon as Maia acts as though she's heard or seen something - a bird, a squirrel, a vole - Meadow quickly comes alongside and pays attention; she totally cues on Maia. Similarly, if Meadow throws her nose high in the air, scanning a hillside, Maia comes to attention; if I don't stop the "hunt" before it starts and Meadow darts off trail after something, Maia generally follows, knowing she's spotted something big. They make a good team. And I've learned to spot all sorts of forest animals, based on the body language of the girls.

On this particular snowy stroll, Maia frequently stopped to do what she often does: cock her head to listen intently at something out of sight, in the ground or under the snow. This time, she was right in front of me when she stopped, so I also stopped. And watched. Within a couple of seconds she leaped straight up, about a foot into the air, all four feet off the ground, landing with her two forefeet punching through a foot of snow until it was up to her armpits. Then she was utterly still, but intently listening and looking at the place where her feet were buried. I was stunned by how wolf like this maneuver appeared, as if I was watching a PBS program on Yellowstone wolves. Meadow ran up alongside Maia, and was also watching intently. We all held our breath. Maia started moving her two front legs, as if kneading an unseen blob of bread dough, rapidly pushing first one leg deeper into the snow, then the other. This was something new. After maybe 3-5 seconds of kneading, she stopped, and suddenly thrust her head right into the snow, between her legs, until even her ears disappeared! Just as suddenly, she pulled her head out with her prize in her mouth: a squirming and bloody mole. A large mole.

Oh man, now what? I hate it when either of them succeed in such endeavors.

"Drop it!" I demanded, and to my surprise she did.

Meadow always has a soft mouth with critters she happens to catch. When she drops them at my request, they scurry away, wet with slobber but none the worse for wear. Maia, however, knowing I'll let the prize go, often tries to gulp it down before I can get to her. But this time, she complied, leaving me with the quandary of how to put the poor creature out of its misery. There was nothing I could use to kill it with - no rocks, to sticks, nothing but a huge field of snow. It appeared as though Maia's toenails, or perhaps teeth, had punctured the mole's stomach, and entrails were already falling out, staining the snow an awful, bright read. Meadow seemed almost as surprised as I was at this turn of events. At least, she didn't try to steal Maia's catch.

With no good plan and feeling utterly terrible about the mole's suffering, I put some snow on top of it, hoping the cold would at least numb its pain as it died. We left, walking on down the slope. Within minutes, I saw a red tailed hawk circling over the spot we'd left, and was thankful that Maia's hunt would result in a warm meal for a bird of prey.

It wasn't until I learned to let my dogs show me their world - began trying to see and hear what they do, as they do - that I fully understood how alive the earth is under its mantle of snow. As the winter snows began melting last spring, we walked the forest roads and I was amazed at the tube-like rodent paths the sun exposed, their winter labyrinths for finding food without having to show themselves to those hungry birds of prey, foxes, coyotes, wolves...and malamutes.

Ah, but hunters - good ones, like Maia - can hear their movements, even under the snow. It's like an entire, hidden city.