Every village should have a fox. Chignik Lake’s resident representative of Vulpus vulpus recently found himself on thin ice… very thin ice.
This handsome fellow had been trotting up the lakeshore, pausing occasionally to have a look at me or to stick his nose into the snow for a better whiff of whatever happened to catch his attention. And then something drew him out onto the slushy ice covering a protected cove. Rather cat-like he repeatedly tested the chilly water at the edge of the ice with his paw, lured by something I couldn’t quite make out.
Surely aware of his somewhat tenuous position, now and then he looked over his shoulder across the ice back to shore. Perhaps he was calculating escape routes. Perhaps he was marveling at his own bravery… or questioning his own judgment.
Ah… the object of desire. Left behind by an eagle, the remains of a salmon head after gulls and magpies had also had a go at it. Well, a cold winter’s day is no time to be choosy. But those few feet of freezing water separating him from his prize, what a bother.
At regular intervals while jogging up the shore as well as while out on the ice, he looked at me. Behind my camera and tripod I was stationary and posed no threat. So after a glance to assure himself that such was the case, he’d turn back to his work. But this look was different. It’s easy to ascribe human thoughts to wild creatures, and who knows? Some of those attributions might contain truth. The expression on his face appears downright beseeching, as though were I to offer help in solving his dilemma, it wouldn’t necessarily be turned down.
And then, assuming a “now or never” attitude, he tentatively stretched forward and gingerly placed his forepaws on a shelf of ice extending beneath the water. Unfortunately, the shelf broke free, though it still supported his weight. If you’ve ever found yourself in a situation where you had one foot on a dock while the other foot remained in a boat that hadn’t been secured and was slowly drifting away, you can guess what happened next.
With a little splash and a look of dismay, he tumbled in. Paddling toward the coveted salmon head was of no avail, as he succeeded only in pushing it further away. Things were not going as hoped.
There was nothing for it but to climb out, bedraggled and still hungry, water sheeting off his beautiful red coat. From that point on, he didn’t make eye contact with me again.
Nonetheless, ever resilient (one of the characteristics I admire most about foxes), he gave himself a good shake…
…and bounded across the ice and up the hillside along a familiar trail. Perhaps his inclination to run was a form of displacement behavior, the equivalent of a cat licking its paws after it has missed a mouse. Or perhaps he was compelled by some instinct to give his wet coat a good airing out. Or, maybe, he felt some fox equivalent of embarrassment over the recent events.
I should add that it’s not entirely true, as stated above, that after he pulled himself out of the lake’s icy waters he didn’t look at me again. In fact, about half-way up the hill he abruptly turned around, ran straight back to the place the above photo was taken, sat down for a moment and briefly fixed me in his gaze. Rather than snap a photograph, I found myself moving slightly away from the camera to meet his gaze.
And then he turned and disappeared for good into a thicket of alders and a world of squeaky little voles, secretive woods sparrows and timid snowshoe hares.
That evening I removed three plump salmon heads from our freezer to thaw for the next night’s dinner – one each for Barbra and myself. Broiled with a little salt and pepper, they are wonderful. The third I gathered up along with a headlamp and in the winter dark walked along the lakeshore to where I’d last seen my friend. I placed the salmon head under low alder branches where magpies would be less likely to find it but where any sharp-nosed village fox might easily sniff it out.