Friday, June 22, 2007

Little Foxes

For the record, I was out in the woods hunting for a big rock. Not just any boulder, but one of mythic proportions. The “Bluff Headlands,” the crown jewel in the county park of the same name in Door County. I had driven right past it the day before, evidently blind as a bat to its immense grandeur. I was taking another stab, this time with directions from a local. “There’s a path that runs along the top of the bluff. Take it to the left, and you’ll know when you’re there!” he said with enthusiasm. A sucker for a pretty overlook, I took the bait.

Basted from top to toes in Deep Woods Off, I locked up the car and set off with a tapestry tote bag full of notebooks, pens and a camera. Figured on sitting and writing for a while once I located this most perfect place. In my mind’s eye, I pictured a small-scale version of the Rock of Gibraltar in those old Prudential insurance ads. Bare rock face glowing in the sunlight, a beacon of solidity amidst the lesser, lower countryside. A spectacular view of the horizon from an immense height, with elbow room to spare.

I followed the first leftward path I found. It led jaggedly and steeply downward. I clambered and slid and grasped at tree roots and saplings to steady myself, trying to commit to memory the way back up. I ended up all the way down at the shore. It had felt like mountaineering to get there, and at the end of it I was as far from the top of the bluffs as you could get. But the view was gorgeous, and I had found both solitude and elbow room. I made myself comfortable on a rock slab, and basked in the scenery and the splendid isolation. It wasn’t the Rock of Gibraltar, but it was beautiful nonetheless.

A pair of kayakers came past. “Have you seen the bluff yet?” they asked. No, I seemed to have missed it somehow. Go figure. They pointed back north from where they’d paddled. “Go back up and follow the trail along the rim. You can’t miss it.” I’d heard that before, but packed up and set out again. I scrabbled back up, trying to recall which slide of fractured limestone and tangle of mossy tree roots had marked “the easy way” down in the first place. I followed what looked like footpaths but proved to be dead ends, then retraced my steps and looked for another opening upwards. Climbing higher and higher, I finally homed in on what looked like the road less traveled, but still traveled a little. The path rose gradually, then leveled in equipoise.

Was I there yet? I thought so. There was a relative break in the trees, and the blue lake waters lapped at the shoreline far below, a tumble of rocks illuminated by the afternoon sun. Yes, this was a very far piece up from the shoreline! But here, a confessionary aside from your narrator. I love the woods, and I love being “up north.” I find an incredible peace amid the lapping of waves along the undisturbed shores of Lake Michigan. But despite all that, here’s a little-admitted fact of nature: after a certain point, it all looks the same. Cedar trees, pine trees, birch trees, branches tossing with white-capped blue water in the distance. Not unlike shopping for wallpaper—it’s all pretty, but after one book one page looks a lot like another. There are many things in this world that have taken my breath away…but this exact spot wasn’t one of them. Maybe it was more imposing when seen from a kayak bobbing on the water below. From where I stood, it looked more like a very long fall from a very tall cliff.

Still undeterred, and determined to make sure I hadn’t missed the headlands a second time, I pressed on, noticing dimly that the path seemed to be going gradually down, and that it appeared to be close to vanishing altogether.

Shafts of sunlight broke through the canopy of trees ahead, catching my eye, and sudden movement stopped me in my tracks. I caught a flash of light gleaming off a tawny coat, and thought there might be a deer or two nearby. It was so much better than that.

One, then two, then three young foxes gamboled together in a small clearing, utterly unaware that that they had an audience no more than a hundred feet away. Identical in size, they jumped and stretched, flopped down in the grass beside a huge tree trunk, pounced on each other. They tumbled together ass-over-teakettle in a riotous tangle of tails and paws and ears and jaws, as fluid as a basket of kittens. White tail-tips flashed in the sunlight as they darted from light to shadow and then back again. They chased each other around trees and under deadfall, then sat, briefly apart, to take a break scratching their ears or their chins with dainty and fastidious grace. Then the game was once again afoot.

These weren’t baby foxes, not like the wee bits of fluff that clustered around the paws of a red fox vixen who commandeered a woodchuck hole for her den in the back of my land a few years ago, all Disney-cute and comically helpless. They were nearly the size of adults, but still clearly in their first summer. They were more like “middle-school” size pups, practically grown up in size but with a baby-fur cast to their tawny red-gold coats, bellies full, an unguarded abandon to their full-tilt wrestling matches. Not for them the pinch-waisted silhouettes and hair-trigger vigilance of adults fending for themselves in a harsh world. As wild foxes went, these guys were almost…plump.

For a quarter hour I watched, entranced. For the most part I stayed as motionless as I have ever been without general anesthesia or really good sedatives. But I managed to sneak a few inches closer every time they were preoccupied with each other, or blocked by an enormous tree trunk between us. This was easier than you’d think. The ground was damp and spongy under my feet from the heavy rain the night before, and for the most part as quiet as a plush carpet. I slowly, carefully, let my bag drop to the ground and inched forward again.

Once in a while one of the kits stopped and looked straight toward me, and I stopped breathing and froze. In the shadowy part of the surrounding forest, dressed in dark blues, I must have looked convincingly like part of the scenery. I imagined myself as James Fennimore Cooper’s fabled Deerslayer, making my way silently like a woodland wraith…and almost laughed out loud. My target was a snag of fallen branches just a few feet ahead. If I could just make it that far, I thought, I’d be content to sink to the ground, to just hide and watch for the rest of the afternoon. A few more inches, and the foxes played on, unaware. Another few inches, and I moved in slow motion. Almost there…and then with a snap of a branch under my foot, the foxes and the sunlight both vanished.

I finally found the “bluff headlands” two days later, with a third set of directions proving the charm. They were big. They were tall. And they were rocky…though not the Rock of Gibraltar. I suppose even the gateway to the Mediterranean looks more imposing from sea level. I sat on the bluff top and basked in the sunlight as long as I was there. A turkey vulture glided past, twenty feet below along the rock face. And the rustle of large wings and branches proved to be a bald eagle startled from his perch above me in a tree along the bluff.

But as I said earlier, after a few days in the woods, one rock looks pretty much like another. When I think of my quest to find the bluff headlands…it’s the foxes I’ll remember.

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