Sunday, October 10, 2010

Close Encounters with Foxes

I’ve been fortunate to enjoy close encounters with wild things in my life, all of which have left a lasting impression. Two of my favorites involve foxes.

Back in the early days of my marriage I used to go trail riding on my beloved Appaloosa gelding Winterhawk. We were closely bonded, two rebels who connected and enjoyed being alone together on sunny days. I was fortunate that there were many trails in the area, long paths along canals built to drain the swampy land that was Pitt County. Most of the farmers in that rural area didn’t mind our trespasses, for I always closed gates behind us, never rode into plowed or planted fields, and was careful not to litter, leaving only footprints to mark our passing.

On one bright day I saddled up and headed out, crossing the street and making my way through a small pasture of yearling cattle. As I was closing the gate at the exit of the pasture something caught my eye. A red flash of movement streaked across the open field before us, which had lain fallow for a year or more. As I followed the movement it materialized into a red fox. She ran along the edge of the field in plain view, even though she could have ducked into cover at any time. I knew she intended to be seen, and the only reason that came to mind was that I was disturbing her den.

Hawk dropped his head and began to graze on the lush pasture grass by the gate as I studied the field closely. Sure enough I saw a mound in the center of the field, contrasting with the flatness. It was about the size and shape of a pitcher’s mound on a baseball field. The she fox disappeared into the woods and we were left alone. Minutes passed, the only sound was of Hawk’s chewing and the occasional squeak of leather as the saddle shifted. Soon enough my patience was rewarded. A tiny nose appeared in the center of that mound, followed by the head of a small fox cub. He peered around and then disappeared again. But almost immediately he reappeared and was joined by another, then another, until there were four of them, spilling out of the hole that marked the entrance to their den.

I watched, fascinated as they grew bold and began to wrestle and play like puppies, never straying far from the safety of their den. Our ride forgotten, I concentrated on the wonder before me while Hawk took advantage of my inattention to him and gorged on the grass. I watched them for a long time, maybe thirty minutes, before picking up my reins and clucking to Hawk to move on. As soon as he stepped forward, all four cubs dived back into their den and did not reappear. We enjoyed our ride and when we returned later through that same field all was quiet, but I didn’t forget my glimpse into fox life.

From then on I’d often stop on the return trip and sit while Hawk grazed under a tree beside the path. More often than not we’d see the fox family, and enjoy their antics before heading home. One day as we trotted down that path, heading home after a long ride I was dismayed to see a pickup parked under our tree. I recognized it as the farmer’s truck, the man who owned the property. The cubs were playing boldly and I knew he had seen them. I knew also that this would mark their death. Farmers don’t generally like foxes, as they kill chickens, and this man had a chicken house too.

As I approached the truck the farmer turned and saw me. To my surprise he made a shushing motion with a finger to his lips, and then pointed to where the cubs were wrestling. I pulled up beside the truck and Hawk dropped his head to graze. The Man was smiling, obviously happy to be witnessing the same glimpse into the wild as I had so often done over the past few weeks. He whispered to me then, saying he loved to watch them, and that he hadn’t plowed or planted this field in three years, because the female fox made her den there yearly. My new friend and I talked quietly about how lucky we were to witness such a thing, and he cautioned me to never say a word to anyone about our secret.

Hawk and I moved on then, not disturbing the fox play as they’d become used to us and we no longer posed a threat. I moved the following fall and never again saw the field, the farmer, or the fox family, but I knew they must still be there, protected by a farmer’s simple appreciation of the wonders of nature.

A few years later I had another encounter, this one even closer. I loved to hunt deer, and I’d go out into the forest behind property we now owned in another part of the county. My husband built several tree stands and I’d go sit in one and wait for my deer to pass. I was lucky to bag a doe each year, and was a good shot, so each one I shot dropped in her tracks. On this particular day I headed out about an hour before dusk. I had a habit of using fox pee on the bottoms of my boots to mask my scent. The stuff had a pretty strong odor to it, and I held my nose while I applied a few drops to each boot, then hiked along my trail to my favorite stand.

This stand was on a fallen tree, a big maple. It had been down a long time, years, but the roots were still in the ground and several large limbs jutted straight up from the horizontal trunk. On one such limb was a natural V, several feet from the trunk, maybe eight feet from the ground. I had a nice board nailed across the V, with a nail to hang my thermos from, and a good view of the trail that ran alongside the tree.

I walked on past the tree to lay tracks, then turned and made my way back to it, climbed up on the trunk and settled into my seat to wait for dusk and my deer. As I waited my thoughts wandered, traveling to many subjects while my body remained as still as the limbs of the tree. About an hour later dusk began to fall, and I heard rustling along the path. The rustling turned into footsteps, and I carefully slipped the safety off my rifle and pointed it toward the place my deer would appear.

What appeared was not a deer, but a gray fox! A dog fox, who, with nose to the ground, was tracking something intently. He was tracking me! I watched as he followed my tracks to the point where I turned around, then straight to my tree. I sat as still as I could and was rewarded when he stopped under my tree and gazed up, looking straight into my eyes. I held my breath and he continued to approach, hopping up onto the trunk and standing on his hind legs he sniffed the bottom of each of my boots. Then he looked up at me quizzically, as if to ask why on earth I had fox pee on my feet! I had to choke back a laugh, he was so comical and clearly confused as to why a human would do such a thing. We stayed that way for a minute or so, watching each other with wonder. Then he turned and hopped down from the tree and continued along the trail. I waited for several minutes, then climbed down myself in the now almost dark and headed slowly home, as excited as I had been the day I shot my first deer, and every bit as proud.

I bought a camera soon after that and always had it with me on future hunts, but I never saw another fox. I still have the photographs my mind took, I still remember the bright eyes looking into mine, and I cherish those memories.

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