Foot and Paddle: Late winter Nordic skiing and wildlife finds in Franklin County

15 mins read
Foot and Paddle
Larry Hall Trail, looking back, early morning

Opportunities for fine, late season Nordic skiing abound in Franklin County. A series of February and March snowfalls have built good cover, and overnight temperatures have generally held below freezing. We are fortunate to have well-established Nordic centers in our county, including the Rangeley Lakes Trail Center, Sugarloaf Outdoor Center, and Titcomb Mountain Trails. All three provide good trail grooming that extends the stability of the snowpack, and offer trails for both classic and skate-style technique. These centers also offer snowshoe trails, most packed for ease of use. Add in the Nordic trails at Mt. Blue State Park, groomed for classic technique, and also with a snowshoe trail network, and the outdoors on-foot traveler has many choices, all good.

Watching the weather – a Maine winter pastime in itself – I notice a light overnight snowfall predicted for the Rangeley area, followed with clearing skies by dawn. I contact a Nordic ski buddy, and we arrange to ski at the Rangeley Lakes Trails Center (RLTC), on the lower north slopes of the Saddleback Range, at the moment it opens for the day. The RLTC crew grooms very early in the morning, and conditions should be excellent. But we have another reason for an early start after fresh snowfall. That reason is to discover fresh wildlife tracks, and other signs, particularly along outlying trails in a network which crosses a vast acreage of woods, is cut by streams dropping down off the Saddleback Range, and borders Saddleback Lake.

Ours are the first vehicles in the parking area. We wave “Good Morning” to the trail grooming crew just returning from rounds, put on daypacks with water, food, and other essentials, and head out. Our day begins on the Larry Hall Trail, an up and down, west-east route that passes through a mixed softwood-hardwood forest, with clusters of young balsam fir along the way. The sun has yet to top the heights of the Saddleback Range, but there is plenty of light, and the sky is a bright and cloudless blue. Today is one of those days that promises, as we say, to be as good as it gets.

Foot and Paddle
Snowshoe hare track

It is not long before I see first tracks of the day, those of snowshoe hare, who prefer the thick cover of the low firs. Such tracks are quite prominent: four indentations, two large from the powerful hind legs, and two quite small, from the front paws. The patterns run across the trail, not along it, as the hare scamper from cover to cover, limiting exposure to predators form above – owls, for example; or those who “patrol” the trail, taking advantage of the packed surface to move quickly while on the lookout, such as coyote. Of course, coyote, and predators such as bobcat, red fox, and fisher, can travel quickly in the woods, too, but they take advantage of conditions – as we skiers do.

Bobcat tracks appear next, with a distinctive cat-like four-point paw print, rounded a bit in the front, and a trapezoid imprint from the heel of the paw. The pattern is alternating with the paw fall off-set to either side. Bobcat usually set the rear feet in the same track as the front foot, which, resulting in a zig-zag pattern, which is similar to that of a house cat. We would enjoy seeing tracks of lynx, which have been sighted in the Rangeley region, but to our knowledge not in the area where we ski today. These magnificent creatures are to be found in far northern Maine, and frequent country where snowshoe hare are common, but lynx but are not often sighted in Franklin County.


We watch for signs other than tracks. Among these are tree rubbings, gnaw marks on young maples, scat, and conifer cone midden on a stump or boulder. Midden is the pile of leavings after a red squirrel has made full meal work of a cone. We do see those, and the sets of small tracks the squirrels leave, resembling a hare track in miniature. Red squirrel are one creature we spot a number of times on our long ski outing, scampering across the trail, heading high in the trees as we pass, chattering annoyance or warning, at our presence. We spot a small cluster of scat mid-trail, with bits of fir in it. The leavings of a fisher, perhaps?

After a ski of nearly one mile, we meet the Upper Pipeline Trail, enjoy a long downhill run northward, pass a major trail crossing of the Bridge Trail, and continue towards Saddleback Lake on the Lower Pipeline. This is what Nordic skiers refer to as “ski candy”, a downhill run after considerable work on uphill or mixed terrain. We let our skis run. Through breaks in the trees we have good views of the main peak, of Saddleback and that of The Horn – both above tree line, summits blanketed in white, both among Maine’s 14 peaks above 4000’ in elevation. Perhaps there is a hiking party heading there this day, of people seeking to climb all the 4000’ peaks of New England – 67 in total – in winter. I have met such parties on some of my high peak ascents. They are in our Franklin County high country throughout the winter.

Foot and Paddle
Coyote track
Foot and Paddle
Bobcat track

Down here, on the lower north slope, we come upon the discovery of the day – an otter slide. In fact, there are a number of them, in the vicinity of Haley Brook, which flows down from the bowl between Saddleback and The Horn, and into Saddleback Lake. Speaking of fact, Haley Brook is a headwater to the South Branch of the Dead River, which meets the North Branch by Stratton, passes through Flagstaff Lake, meets the Kennebec River at The Forks, and empties into the Gulf of Maine at Merrymeeting Bay. We two skiers, and an otter or two, enjoy time on the snow at this headwater location. Something to think about.

One otter slide runs in the freshly fallen snow along the brook course inches from moving water. Other slides head away from the brook at a 90-degree angle into an alder bog. Conditions for a slide seem just right – an inch or two of fresh powder over hard crust. Prints show a bit of a running start, followed by a five-six-foot half-pipe, and then tracks again. Quite the find. Alas, we do not see the otter in action, but while skiing in this vicinity earlier in the winter, I spotted an otter loping across nearby Saddleback Lake. There are resident otter here.

Foot and Paddle
Otter slide and tracks

On other days I have spotted otter sliding down a mudbank on the Allagash River on a September morning. Also, I have been surprised while paddling a kayak or canoe in Maine to find an otter or two pop up out of the water nearby – usually in small, set apart, ponds. Even when otter are in open water, there is a playfulness about them, as they raise their sleek heads like periscopes, peer at me, duck under the water, pop up again. Much fun.

Such are the joys of on-foot travel in winter. Moving at foot speed, continually scanning the ground to wither side, I have good opportunity to spot wildlife signs. Making little or no sound, I increase chances of seeing not only wildlife signs, but the creatures themselves. My ski companions and I make a point of keeping our talking to a minimum, as the human voice is a sure giveaway to wildlife that humans are near. There was that otter on the lake on that earlier day, for example, a rare treat. Had we been yapping, that otter might have become long-gone by the time we gained a viewpoint over the lake.

Foot and Paddle
Otter slide, Haley Brook
Foot and Paddle
Sisu Trail, Saddleback foothills beyond

Today, before we complete our ski trek, we will flush out a few ruffed grouse. Some we see, others beat the air, thumping as they spring out of a snowbank or from fir cover and we do not see, but rather hear that distinctive take-off. On other winter outings I have come face to face with a coyote, seen red fox, encountered porcupine. There will be more track signs this day – of fisher, and of coyote, among them. Winter birds are out, of course, singing black-capped chickadees and noisy blue jays quite common, and the occasional rasping raven. Speaking of birds, I have come across large wing impressions on snowy open ground where an owl, I surmise, has swooped down in a hunt for a field mouse, or something larger. Imagine that – fresh wing-tip marks, snow scuffed up at the point of landing, talon marks. Quite a sight.

Such signs stand out against the basic background colors of winter. They are far easier to spot in winter than in the seasons when forest floor and mountain meadows are verdant in full growth, and the hardwoods and brushy plants are fully leafed-out. For all the winter signs we discover today, there are those we do not see – but are to be discovered elsewhere in Franklin County. I have found moose tracks in deep snow on high ground in the Tumbledown-Jackson Range, a porcupine trail in a remote foothills hemlock stand, timber dropped by beaver and the beaver trails that lead to a remote lodge. Truly, I never know what I will discover on a given day – which makes me eager to get outside on foot in winter, enjoy the quiet, eyes and ears open.

In the course of this day, after skiing the full length of the Upper and Lower Pipeline, we continue on Hoffmans’ Run; on Sisu, Bridge, and Zapolsky Trails; and finish up on Geneva Loop – a total distance between 10 and 12 miles. Along the way we take food and water breaks, and even stop by the headquarters yurt for some hot soup to fortify ourselves for the remainder of our ski outing. The parking lot has filled up with Nordic skiers and those heading out on snowshoes. Plenty of room for all on this extensive trail system.

The high sun warms the snow. Sharply delineated tracks we inspected early in the day are softening, losing their detail, though still quite visible. Creatures of the woods are now mostly under cover, awaiting darkness to resume their travels and the hunt for food.

Alpine skiers look to spring skiing for some of the best conditions of the season. So, too, do those on Nordic skis have the opportunity to enjoy the Maine woods in these days of extensive hours of daylight, relative warmth, and increasing activity of wildlife. I hope to see you out there!


Text and photos copyright Doug Dunlap 2022


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