On the Black-Tipped Trail
Henrik Petäistö sets out to find a stoat, the black-tailed creature that has left a trail in Oulu – and to find his roots.
When I moved to Oulu three months ago on a mission to reconnect with my Finnish roots, the logo for the hockey team, Kärpät, a black-tail swimming in a sea of yellow print, seemed the next best thing to a town emblem. More than so any other detail I’ve rediscovered, it represents my family’s past history here. Oulu: where my mum built her wings to fly off and discover the world; weekend camping excursions; hockey after school with the neighbourhood kids. Especially the hockey. Fifteen years in the USA and you can get sentimental.
The immediate part of the mystery I’m determined to solve–what the animal is, what it’s really like– unfolds with a quick trip to the library. Stoat, reads the dictionary entry for Kärppä. “Best identified by their tail,” writes Birgen Jensen in his guide to Nordic mammals. The stoat is a larger, twice-as-heavy cousin of the weasel, a sort of super-weasel that eats mice, vole, rabbits and rats. “Escapes predators in a zig-zag,” reads the literature. “Has a black-tipped tail.”
At my first Kärpät game, my first game –at which the crowd shrieks “Kärpät taistelee loppuun asti!”; in which the team comes back from three goals down –I see why anyone might need bulk, guile, and ferociousness. The players–forwards like Kimmo Koskenkorva, Pekka Saarenheimo, Jari Viuhkola, or defenders like Mikko Nimelä and Teemu Aalto–use all of that and more to win 4-3 at the end of the third.
“Do you know what that animal is?” I ask Loris, an exchange student from France watching the match with me. “No,” he says, “Never seen one.” Most of the Oulu residents–of all shapes and sizes–I speak to have never seen a stoat either. “I’ve never seen one around here – and I don’t remember seeing one elsewhere, either,” declares Lasse, 40 –and from coffee shop attendants to bus drivers, everyone says the same–“though there was an article in Kaleva.”
In June, when Kaleva published a spread of a wild specimen in the front window of Yves Rocher, bang in the centre of town. 65 Degrees North didn’t cover the story, but four months later, Sanna, who runs Yves, is breathless to tell me about it. “When it first came up the steps I thought it was a ferret, it was so big!” she declares, pointing at the window it inhabited. “It was here until 11 am then it just left.”
Maybe the stoat had been dumpster-diving in MacDonalds and needs to watch Super-Size Me.
Risto Tomberg, supervisor at the Oulu University Museum of Zoology and an expert witness in the Yves-Rocher incident, is my next lead. “The incident clearly involved a stoat behaving in its usual manner,” he said in print. I mention as much the next day in his office. “In winter they may be easier to spot,” he intimates, “though with limited snow recently their white coats make them exclamation marks to predatory birds.”
In a moment of near-despair, I decide to commit field naturalist suicide. Ranua Zoo’s animal house, a few hours from Oulu, has a ball of fur, call him Martti, who I circle with my Canon, ready for any black-tips or flailing teeth. Martti is a stoat in name but looks like a stoat in life as much as a globe of fur curled up looks like anything. I remember Jensen’s book: words float before my eyes. “The stoat is active during the night, generally for a total of four to six hours a day.”
Unless I camp out in the enclosure, I have more chance of seeing a comet than mustela ermine.
Back in Oulu I make a real play for a stoat-on-returning immigrant interview. My cousin Tapio, who I’ve also been trying to reconnect with, is planning a hunting trip in the woods, and asks if I want to come along. I say yes, hoping to see a stoat while out there. We leave at two in the morning in his red station wagon for Kipinä, a small town near Pudasjärvi. On the way I ask Tapio what was the last time he saw a stoat. “The last time was as a kid one winter living in Oulunsalo,” he confesses.
We sleep at a cabin on the bank of the Ii River and crawl out of our sleeping bags at four am, Tapio determined to catch a duck for his dinner and me by the idea of finally seeing a stoat in the wild. I can hear the rain against the roof of the cabin as I pull on my long underwear and wollen socks. I set out into the darkness with a canteen of warm coffee in one hand and a camera in the other, and begin to miss my wollen mittens, which I’ve left on the edge of a shelf at home.
Walking into a forest clearing, I sit down to listen to the drops beat the hood of my raincoat while the trees creak in the wind. The sun begins to rise and the woods wake up with the beat of my heart. I hear a sound – almost cry out “Is that you, stoat?” but the sound turns out to be the flapping of a pheasant, who seconds later emerges above the tree line.
The aroma of the coffee keeps me awake for a while. I sit waiting, hoping, and eventually humbling myself to the thought that I won’t see a stoat in the wild that morning – then get up and head back to the cabin. Arriving at the comfort of a pillow, I dream of getting bitten on a finger by a stoat before the flash of my camera goes off to take a picture. When I wake up, I hear that my cousin didn’t get any birds, and we reflect on how our personal pursuits have brought us to spend the afternoon together.
While my mission to meet a black-tip remained unsuccessful, the trail had lead to a revelation – or a rerealisation, hopefully the first of many.
In the name of the stoat, my Finnish roots had lead me from Oulun Energia Areena to this quiet little town and a cabin in the middle of a forest, where, somehow, I feel at home. And the fact that I haven’t seen a stoat upfront just yet didn’t seem so important any more. I will, I’m sure, see one soon.