Snow gives those of us who are fascinated by the whitetail a window into their behavior.


And though the long-range forecasts call for a relatively mild winter here in the Northeast to continue through January 2020 and beyond, we will get our snow.


Snow has upsides, including that without the white stuff, the goings and comings of the whitetail would be much more mysterious than it is.


But with a dusting of snow, when it settles fresh on the forest floor and adjacent fields, deer write their story for us to read.


It's a true story.


But here we have to read. Understanding is not just handed to us.


There are exaggerations, understatements, mistakes, and incomprehension to trip us up.


So just like reading a book, a newspaper, or even a Facebook post, the attentive reader gets more out of what the writer is saying.


For instance, some might not realize that when a whitetail walks, they put their back foot into the track of the front hoof. So, when we see tracks, they are almost always, a combination track of the back hoof and the front hoof, unless they are running.


As a whitetail runs, it pushes its back feet ahead of the front feet.


A very common exaggeration in the snow is that over time, a track widens, especially if there is a slight thaw. Tracks get larger sometimes to an amazing degree.


Sometimes a small deer will leave a track the size of a huge buck if that mark in the snow is allowed to freeze over night and then thaw a bit during the day. It's ironic how proportionately the track may open up, with little distortion. It just gets bigger.


Another exaggeration in the size of a deer track is determined by the speed of the animal. The faster a whitetail moves, the longer the track. When a deer is picking its way along, slowly browsing on twigs, shriveled leaves and exposed clumps of grass, the tracks are dainty. The animal is up on its toes.


But when it decides to run off, the hoof becomes splayed and its dew claws (actually toes which are up on the back of its legs above the hoof) become evident in the tracks. And of course the faster the animal is moving, the deeper the track. Of course heavier animals make deeper tracks.


We may like to imagine a large animal making a deeper track. But all things being equal, the whitetail which is loping along to catch up with its buddies will splay its hoof, making a bigger impression, even though it may be of identical weight or even have slightly smaller body size that another deer walking carefully along.


Many times we fail to see or realize the significance of what we read in the snow. And then, once in a while, it will hit us like a bolt out of the blue. And there it is. Understanding.


I was tracking a lone deer. It was a big fresh track, all alone and seemed to be moving with a singular purpose. It cried out to me that it was a buck. But sometimes we are fooled by tracks made by big, lone does.


Countless times I "back track" a deer, trying to decipher as much as I can about those few moments in its life by reading back into the older past, where it had been.


Suddenly, the tracks veered slightly to the right, and came up behind a dense stand of poplar trees on the edge of an old goldenrod field. It was evident that the deer had stopped, stood for a moment, shifted back and forth in the same place, then whirled and bolted back down the trail, parallel to the way it had recently come.


Obviously the animal had spooked.


Why?


Curious, I walked about 50 yards further and found the answer. A heavily beaten snowmobile trail, but not used for at least a day (I could tell from the dusting of snow) had spooked the whitetail.


Often deer seem not the least afraid of snowmobiles or their tracks. In fact they often use the snowmobile trails as paths for ease of walking.


But this deer was evidently out of his area and smelled the "wall" of residual human scent along the sleds' trail and it signaled danger to this deer. The next deer it may not.


And it's very easy to get mixed up when attempting to follow a deer because they seem to always cross another's tracks in a short distance. And then we have to decipher, and unravel which track is "ours."


And to make it even more difficult, deer seem to like to walk down the same trails and feed under the same bush. Unraveling the knot of a confusing trail becomes all but impossible sometimes.


Mistakes are so easy to make when tracking deer.


We can easily leap to conclusions when the empirical evidence is woven together on a whitetail's track.


"Many a beautiful theory has been ruthlessly murdered by a gang of facts."


Some buck tracks can be distinguished from doe tracks. The average doe does not grow much larger past her third year of age, while bucks continually grow in size, especially weight, up to six or more years.


A large buck, especially when rutting, will leave a distinct track, often dragging its toes with a tendency to toe out slightly. Doe's and smaller buck's tracks appear to be more "lined up" as they walk.


But sometimes the deer track in the snow will lead us to a point of incomprehension and we can't figure them out.


The tracks may lead us to the edge of our knowledge, the edge of the windswept field in the snow.


And once in while we can get lucky and find a shed antler along the way by reading the story in the snow.


Oak Duke writes a weekly column appearing on the Outdoors page.