| Secrets of the Woods|
|by William J. Long|
|Vivid sketches of the wood-mouse, otter, kingfisher, red squirrel, partridge, deer, and other wood folk. Through his anecdotes the author shares with the reader what can be learned of the habits of animals through keen observation over a long period of timeódetails that elude the casual visitor to the woods. Ages 9-12 |
 ONE day in the wilderness, as my canoe was sweeping down a
beautiful stretch of river, I noticed a little path leading
through the water grass, at right angles to the stream's course.
Swinging my canoe up to it, I found what seemed to be a landing
place for the wood folk on their river journeyings. The sedges,
which stood thickly all about, were here bent inward, making a
shiny green channel from the river.
On the muddy shore were many tracks of mink and muskrat and
otter. Here a big moose had stood drinking; and there a beaver
had cut the grass and made a little mud pie, in the middle of
which was a bit of musk scenting the whole neighborhood.
 done last night, for the marks of his fore paws still showed
plainly where he had patted his pie smooth ere he went away.
But the spot was more than a landing place; a path went up the
bank into the woods, as faint as the green waterway among the
sedges. Tall ferns bent over to hide it; rank grasses that had
been softly brushed aside tried their best to look natural; the
alders waved their branches thickly, saying: There is no way
here. But there it was, a path for the wood folk. And when I
followed it into the shade and silence of the woods, the first
mossy log that lay across it was worn smooth by the passage of
many little feet.
As I came back, Simmo's canoe glided into sight and I waved him
to shore. The light birch swung up beside mine, a deep
water-dimple just under the curl of its bow, and a musical ripple
like the gurgle of water by a mossy stone—that was the only
"What means this path, Simmo?"
His keen eyes took in everything at a glance, the wavy waterway,
the tracks, the faint path to the alders. There was a look of
surprise in his face that I had blundered onto a discovery which
he had looked for many times in vain, his traps on his back.
"Das a portash," he said simply.
"A portage! But who made a portage here?"
 "Well, Musquash he prob'ly make-um first. Den beaver, den
h'otter, den everybody in hurry he make-um. You see, river make
big bend here. Portash go 'cross; save time, jus' same Indian
That was the first of a dozen such paths that I have since found
cutting across the bends of wilderness rivers,—the wood folk's
way of saving time on a journey. I left Simmo to go on down the
river, while I followed the little byway curiously. There is
nothing more fascinating in the woods than to go on the track
of the wild things and see what they have been doing.
But alas! mine were not the first human feet that had taken the
journey. Halfway across, at a point where the path ran over a
little brook, I found a deadfall set squarely in the way of
unwary feet. It was different from any I had ever seen, and was
made like this:
That tiny stick (trigger, the trappers call it) with its end
resting in air three inches above the bed log, just the right
height so that a beaver or an otter would naturally put his foot
on it in crossing, looks innocent enough. But if you look sharply
you will see that if it were pressed down ever so little it would
instantly release the bent stick that holds the fall-log, and
bring the deadly thing down with crushing force across the back
of any animal beneath.
Such are the pitfalls that lie athwart the way of Keeonekh the
otter, when he goes a-courting and uses Musquash's portage to
shorten his journey.
At the other end of the portage I waited for Simmo to come round
the bend, and took him back to see the work, denouncing the
heartless carelessness of the trapper who had gone away in the
spring and left an unsprung deadfall as a menace to the wild
things. At the first glance he pronounced it an otter trap. Then
the fear and wonder swept into his face, and the questions into
"Das Noel Waby's trap. Nobody else make-um tukpeel stick like
dat," he said at last.
Then I understood. Noel Waby had gone up river trapping in the
spring, and had never come back; nor any word to tell how death
 I stooped down to examine the trap with greater interest. On the
underside of the fall-log I found some long hairs still clinging
in the crevices of the rough bark. They belonged to the outer
waterproof coat with which Keeonekh keeps his fur dry. One otter
at least had been caught here, and the trap reset. But some sense
of danger, some old scent of blood or subtle warning clung to the
spot, and no other creature had crossed the bed log, though
hundreds must have passed that way since the old Indian reset his
trap, and strode away with the dead otter across his shoulders.
What was it in the air? What sense of fear brooded here and
whispered in the alder leaves and tinkled in the brook? Simmo
grew uneasy and hurried away. He was like the wood folk. But I
sat down on a great log that the spring floods had driven in
through the alders to feel the meaning of the place, if possible,
and to have the vast sweet solitude all to myself for a little
A faint stir on my left, and another! Then up the path, twisting
and gliding, came Keeonekh, the first otter that I had ever seen
in the wilderness. Where the sun flickered in through the alder
leaves it glinted brightly on the shiny outer hairs of his rough
coat. As he went his nose worked constantly,
 going far ahead of
his bright little eyes to tell him what was in the path.
I was sitting very still, some distance to one side, and he did
not see me. Near old Noel's deadfall he paused an instant with
raised head, in the curious snake-like attitude that all the
weasels take when watching. Then he glided round the end of the
trap, and disappeared down the portage.
When he was gone I stole out to examine his tracks. Then I
noticed for the first time that the old path near the deadfall
was getting moss-grown; a faint new path began to show among the
alders. Some warning was there in the trap, and with cunning
instinct all the wood dwellers turned aside, giving a wide berth
to what they felt was dangerous but could not understand. The new
path joined the old again, beyond the brook, and followed it
straight to the river.
Again I examined the deadfall carefully, but of course I found
nothing. That is a matter of instinct, not of eyes and ears, and
it is past finding out. Then I went away for good, after driving
a ring of stout stakes all about the trap to keep heedless little
feet out of it. But I left it unsprung, just as it was, a rude
tribute of remembrance to Keeonekh and the lost Indian.
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