I open my eyes and realize it’s Valentine’s Day! I am excited because I get to spend the whole day with Tom, as he’s taken the day off from his compulsive work schedule to appease me. I roll over and pinch him. He squints open one sleepy blue eye.
I say, “Happy V.D. Tom!”
He yawns and stretches. “So what do you want to do today?”
I say, “What I really want to do for Valentine’s Day is to look for fox blood in the snow.”
Tom rolls his eyes up and looks at the ceiling. He stares for many minutes before he sighs, “Some people really know how to party.”
Probably not the sexiest thing he had in mind.
I learned the day before, when I did a winter mammal-tracking afternoon with a naturalist for the NH Forest Society, that in mid-February fox pair up as mating season begins. The female fox territorially marks the snow with her blood as she enters estrus, announcing that she is fertile. I have never seen this before.
Tom gets up and begins to dress. “I’m pretty sure I know of a place where we will see this.” What a good sport. I quickly pack a picnic lunch.
Tom grew up in this countryside and when he was a kid, he and his brothers, the Lajoie boys, used to roam the woods far and wide. We drive to the hills that surround the water reservoir for the City of Concord. We park in front of a sign that says:
NO TRESPASSING. PUBLIC WATER SUPPLY.
We start hiking up a walking trail, our boots crunching in the snow. Our two black mutt-girls, Gladys and Phaedra, are running around insanely happy to be in the wild, sniffing every little piece of scat they can find, and then peeing on it. It really is so good to be out in the woods.
After several minutes, the trail opens out on to a wide frozen beaver pond surrounded by snow-covered hills. I whisper, “Wow. I never knew this was here. This is beautiful.”
Tom grins, “Yeah, I used to fish this pond when I was a kid.”
We walk around the perimeter of the pond checking out animal tracks. Snowshoe hares, fishers, coyotes—although it is increasingly harder to distinguish the coyote prints from our domestic dogs who are still bounding around looking delirious with their tongues hanging out and their eyes bulging with excitement. We find several moss-covered porcupine dens in the banks along the edge of the pond, the entrances filled with porcupine poop and tons of quills that have rubbed off as the porkies go in and out.
We head off the pond and scramble up a ravine and up a hill that has the remains of an old fire tower at the summit. It is pretty steep going, and half way up the hill I feel like I just might keel over and die. I am gasping for air. Tom is bounding up ahead with the dogs, although in my defense, even the dogs have slowed down a little bit. They keep looking back at me as I haul my pathetic 60+-year-old butt up the trail. Gawd. I have got to start exercising.
Tom waits for me near the top as I huff and puff up to him, my face beet red. He looks down the hill and says, with a trace of nostalgia in his voice, “My brother, Ken, and I used to ride our mountain bikes up this hill when we were in our twenties.”
I look at him. Is he kidding? That was, like what, last year for him? Jaysus, what a weisenheimer.
We go over the top of the hill facing the north side where we get a clear view of Long Pond, the water reservoir, through the winter barren trees. The sky is overcast, leaden with coming snow. We find a great dry log and kick the snow in front of it in a circle to make a little fire to cook our hotdogs for lunch. I don’t usually make a habit of eating nitrite-laden tube-steaks, but for some reason, there is nothing better in the whole world than a hotdog burnt to splitting over an open fire—with a little Grey Poupon mustard.
Getting the fire going with snow-damp leaves and miscellaneous wood takes a little patience, but Tom gets a rip-roaring, spark-crackling fire going soon enough. It gets cozy and warm. We sit together on the log with our hotdog sticks stuck in the coals, listening to the wiener fat start to make the coals sizzle. We place two tube-steaks on mustard-covered bread and we share a bottle of Chardonnay. (I know, I know—hot dogs with Pouilly Fuisse—or “Fussy Pussy” as Tom calls it. Yeesh, how tacky.)
I look at my husband. I am filled with such fondness for him.
I toast him, “Tom, it doesn’t get much better than this. Happy Lupercalia!”
He grins at me, “There is nothing else in the world I’d rather be doing right now. This sure beats being home on the couch watching the Daytona 500.”
At this moment, for some reason, Gladys and Phaedra get into a horrible fight over a prize stick. This hasn’t happened in years. Why this stick is so important is beyond us, but they are seriously locked in a death grip. Both dogs were happily chewing at each end of a long stick, an arrangement that was fine until they got to the middle of the stick—then bedlam ensued. Neither one will back down. The racket is deafening. It looks potentially physically damaging. The only thing I can think of to do to break them up is to stand up and klonk each dog on the head with the empty wine bottle. This gets their attention. They remove their teeth from each other’s throats.
Tom just looks at me. He says, “Honey, that’s the most redneck thing I have ever seen in my life.” (Coming from him—that’s something.)
When we are done our Valentine’s snack, we trample out the fire with the snow and pack up to leave. Tom walks over the hill and I go to pee behind a pine tree. Peeing in the snow is a feat in itself, and the only sage advice I have for women in the winter is to be sure that you are not inadvertently squatting over the back of your parka. Otherwise, you will be soggy and will have to pretend all the way home that you spilled wine on your coat. (I speak from experience here.)
I follow Tom’s tracks to where he is standing looking out over a cliff. He turns to me and his eyes are sparkling. He points down to the huge granite out-cropping below and there they are. Woven in and out of the myriad caves is a network of bloody trails in the snow. Vixen blood!
I am speechless. I feel so honored and grateful to be able to witness this. I guess only a midwife would think that stumbling upon estrus blood in the wild is the coolest thing she has ever seen. Looking at all the blood, if I hadn’t known in advance what was going on; I would have assumed it was carnage from the bloody demise of many hapless little varmits.
This grisly scene makes me want to know more. Later I research “Estrus in Vulpes vulpes.” Here’s what I find: Estrus refers to the phase when the female fox is sexually receptive (‘in heat’.) The vixen exhibits a sexually receptive behavior, a situation that may be signaled by visible physiologic changes. Proestrus, judged by vulval swelling and reddening, begins 7 days before estrus and is accompanied by sanguineous (bloody) discharge. A signal trait of estrus is the lordosis reflex, in which the vixen spontaneously elevates her hindquarters. A single mating, followed by an extremely long “copulatory lock,” can average 1 hour 58 minutes.”
OWWW! No wonder fox scream so loud and so long in the night.
Satisfied that we have found what we were looking for, we slide and side step our way down the steep, snow covered incline back to our truck. Such an awe-inspiring, wonderful day. I so appreciate Tom for being such an understanding guy.
Guess it’s time to go home and practice my lordosis reflex.
Coming next Monday…”A Scream in the Night”