The Way of the Fox

If the Way of Saint James were to be named after an animal, it would have to be the fox. Fox scats have been more constant than the yellow arrows and way-mark shells of the Camino from the first day that we started in Irun.

I have to wonder how many of these elusive creatures have secretly watched us pass from the shadowy stillness of the gorse, shrub oak or heather. We have been snacking on many of the same foods as the fox as evidenced by the pits and stones and seeds in their leavings: cherries in the Basque Country blended into plums as we progressed into Cantabria, then back to cherries in the high elevations of Asturias and now the occasional blackberry meal is in evidence. Only on rare occasions have we seen evidence of fur or the shiny black of organ meat, but sometimes copious amounts of shiny beetle wings. Never once a fox itself.

If I were to travel this trail alone, I would get up an hour earlier (5 AM) and take an hour to go down some side trail away from the Camino hikers and sit still in one place to let nature come back to equilibrium during different times of day, but especially in the early morning, hoping for a fox. As it is, I am quite happy to be through-walking, keeping an eye out for tracks and signs and an ear to the birds. I still hope to see a fox one of these foggy mornings when we get up extra early, but I know it would only be by the grace of the fox at the pace that we are hiking. Still, it is fun to follow their scats, look down the deer runs where they intersect our path, put little stories together in my imagination. We see scats at trail intersections, scats on nice flat obvious rocks, scats on other scats, what look like fox kit scats. . . . and literally a fox scat almost every 200 meters, often more frequently than that.

I learned today that the red fox is the most widely distributed mammal species on the planet, except for humans. Pretty much the entire northern hemisphere is its range. A remarkably adaptable creature and one that I have grown fond of on this trail, even though I only get to see what it leaves to be seen conspicuously on the trails we are walking, the invisible owner of everywhere!

We have seen track and sign of deer, boar, badger, squirrel, mole, shrew, rat, fox, and . . . . wolf!

Several days ago we hiked to the highest elevation of our journey, 1100 meters, and spent the day traversing rolling open semi-alpine heather and grass summer rangeland cut deeply by extremely steep ravines that dropped into largely unroaded wooded canyons. That is where unmistakeable wolf scat appeared on our trail, large in diameter and full of fur (which I suspect to be wild boar fur.)

More very similar scat appeared the next day even closer to human habitation and we saw Hershey kiss shaped “dollops” of shiny black organ meat scat that reminded me of the alpha wolf scent scats we saw in New Mexico when tracking wolves there. It is always exciting to become aware of the presence of wolves. The literature says that the wolves are valued by the farmers for keeping down the boar population. I suspect that these wolves have learned to stay away from domestic animals for the most part as they have lived near human agriculture for such a long time. I did not expect wolves here at all. What a treat not only to learn that they are here, but to see evidence first hand.

I really wanted to find actual fox tracks and have spent many days looking for them any time we were walking on substrate that would hold a clear imprint. But we are never the first ones out on the trail and often near the last. Two teenagers can be hard to move in the morning, even though they are sincerely doing their best. So the dusty substrate is always trampled with fresh pilgrim boots by the time we pass, as well as the soft muddy places. Foxes and pilgrims walk on the flat, easy part of the trail. Cows, domestic dogs, deer have all left tracks in the muddy edges, but not fox. Then finally I found three preserved tracks in a little soft spot that had been mud.

There must have been some scent or rodent or such thing to investigate, but I was happy to see some footprints that I am pretty sure belonged to a fox, though as I’ve looked at tracking resources on the subject I now have some doubts . . . . I suppose doubt is always good when tracking . . . . .

Yesterday we departed Lugo for the last 100 kilometers of our journey to Santiago. I think we have seen the last of the wolf tracks for now, but I’m quite sure the fox will be with us all the way!

(I tried for hours to upload photos for this post but ultimately failed. Maybe when I get home.)

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