During the long hikes recounted in The Dying Fish, I encountered strange creatures from time to time, always when I was least expecting it. Normally though, I just saw signs that they were present, such as tracks crossing my own path. But always they were there, just beyond the ring of campfire light, watching me as I watched the shadows between the trees.
The great temperate Allegheny forest of the Keystone State is on the rise, moving steadily in the direction of pre-Columbian old growth. And along with this trend has come a few creatures hunted and trapped to extinction, or nearly so, by about 1900. I learn more and more about these creatures and hope to see them one day. We’ve certainly crossed paths in the night.
The first I’ll mention is the mink. This one I have encountered here in Pennsylvania and elsewhere too but it’s always a treat. They either disappear immediately or they come over and investigate you, dodging around and under rocks and logs. Mink at times seem almost tame or seem that they haven’t seen humans before.
This brings us to the fisher, a secretive creature I’ve never seen in Pennsylvania or elsewhere. Sometimes called “fisher cat,” this predator would probably never be described as tame. Typically, fishers eschew all human contact only emerging from the deepest woods to eat roadkill at night or stalk squirrels around the fringes of our parks. I snowshoed in to a deep woods old growth tract once in the state’s northern tier and tracked it for a while through blow-downs and deep snow only to give up and go home.
And while we’re on the subject of weasels, there’s the river otter, a species which has flourished in our waters in recent years, spreading through virtually the entire state. Still, though, I haven’t seen one. I always feel I’m close, I spot mussel shells and suspicious streambank slides but the otters have moved on by the time my kayak pulls into view.
Then there’s the bobcat, another resident of the state who lives perpetually in the shadows. Bears should probably be mentioned as well. For most of us a bear sighting is a rare treat though it’s certainly possible to spend years in the woods without sighting one. On the other end of the size spectrum, flying squirrels are always present, yet seldom seen. And on the outer fringes of possibility, there’s a cat much larger than the bobcat rumored to haunt Penn’s Woods.
If all the animals were as half-tame as whitetail deer, I think the wilderness would lose much of its wonder and mystery.
I’d like to see the fisher and the otter too but they shouldn’t give themselves up too easily.