Winterkill

 

Not far from where I live, in northwestern Montana, the land opens up and the people disappear. Skiing through tall trees toward a ridge, we see two ravens chasing a magpie through a glade up ahead. A moment later, three bald eagles appear, all sitting at the very top of trees. These normally quiet woods are alive with ravens, hollering like monkeys.

Something is dead ahead. We veer into the forest, where everything changes once we're off the trail. Our senses sharpen. The raspy calls of magpies go eerily silent. The eagles back off a little, flying to other trees. Trickster ravens try to lead us away from whatever they've been feeding on, leapfrogging between trees ahead.

Then my wife points her ski pole at a big cat track. It's crisp, but headed away. We slowly ski on, looking in every direction like wary deer. Near a big cedar, we find snow stained the color of watermelon and clumps of deer hair.

ot far away, we find the kill site. It's a blood-stained depression in the snow, surrounded by a mishmash of tracks. Behind a nearby Douglas fir, we see where the mountain lion inched toward the deer, each foot placed silently atop frozen snow. Then, in a flash, it pounced, probably seizing the neck from behind.

It happened fast. There was no fight, no tumble through the snow. In that one sunken depression, a life quickly ended. And a meal was secured.

But the lion didn't feed here. It stood for a few minutes as the deer bled, then dragged its victim away.

We cautiously follow the trail of hair and occasional drops of blood as it passes through low willows, over snow-covered logs, across melted-out tree wells. The kill must have happened hours earlier, near dawn, when the snowpack was frozen. Even when it was lugging the deer, few of the lion's footsteps broke the snow.

After nearly the length of a football field, we reach the secluded cache, tucked into a clump of saplings. It's not pretty: A young deer lies on its side. Its bright red ribcage is open and vacant, but for a pool of crimson, still warm-looking blood. The head, with hair so neat that it looks combed, is twisted backward on a broken neck. The nose is concealed in snow, but the ears are oddly erect, as if frozen in the moment when the deer realized something must be wrong.

The snow is flattened with lion tracks, stained with a blend of blood, urine and scat. A single set of lion tracks leads away, toward thicker woods.

We don't linger. We ski back to the trail, then watch as the birds reclaim the site. I'm sad to see the young deer's broken neck, knowing that it was feeding with its mother just this morning. Yet as a predator myself, I'm happy for the lion. The hard work of hunting is over for a few days. I can appreciate the earned meal, even the swift efficiency of the broken neck.

We return the next day. The ravens are still here, a raucous mob playing among the trees. But the deer, so near to life yesterday, has now become just a carcass. Its ribs are faded maroon, and its hair has lost all its luster.

There are no new lion tracks, but a fox has been by. Its tracks interweave on the snow with those of magpies, ravens and eagles. I think about how far the deer is spreading. It's now in the bellies of ravens, magpies, a fox. Somewhere, perhaps clear across the valley, its energy fuels the spread of an eagle's wings. It has become the lion, too, and will soon power the search for another deer.

But that's not all. A coyote will eventually arrive and tug away a leg. As the snow melts, mice will chew on the bones. This summer, the pine saplings will stretch upward, boosted by the mix of flesh and scat. Beetles and ants will prosper, then get licked up by a bear. It's all connected, a web woven by a mountain lion's hunger.

The deer comes away with me, too. I take it home in my mind and write about it, sitting here by the woodstove. I share it with you, my neighbors in the West. And maybe you feel what I do: the magic of this exchange, the rightful place of predators on the landscape and -- perhaps most of -- a deep sense of gratitude. Gratitude for being alive, well fed, and right here in the middle of this circle.

Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes from Whitefish, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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