When traveling the extensive river trails in the Smokies, you should keep your eyes peeled for the American Mink. The mink is a semi-aquatic animal that makes it’s home in burrows along stream and river banks. These crafty critter’s burrows generally have several openings to allow them to appear unexpectedly close to prey, though they may leave the burrow for extended periods of time to hunt elsewhere.They make their homes by digging dens or by living in hollow logs. They can also make a den using tree roots, leaves, stones and branches. They often make their dens a little cozier by adding grass, leaves or fur leftover from prey. Minks are found near bodies of water, such as streams, lakes or ponds that have nearby tree cover. Main predators of minks are birds of prey, lynx, foxes, coyotes and humans. The mink’s fur is usually a rich chocolate brown, but can look almost black. At first glance, it is easy to see why trappers back in the day coveted them for their coats. However, in this day and age with high tech synthetic fibers, it is hard to fathom why anyone would use animal fir in the first place. They have a long, sleek and muscular body about two feet long. It has short, stubby legs; a long neck; small ears and eyes with a long, thick tail. In fact, one third of the mink’s length is its tail!
They are most active during the dawn and dusk hours, spending their time marking their territory and looking for prey. When they find a potential meal, they bite down on the creature’s neck to kill it. Muskrats, rabbits, birds, chipmunks, field mice, water fowl are all part of the mink’s diet. They are also skilled at catching fish, worms, crayfish and frogs. These small, semi-aquatic carnivores can dive to depths of 19 feet and swim underwater for up to 100 feet to look for potential prey. They have been known to swim a speedy 1.5 to 1.8 feet in the second. They have adapted well, with slightly webbed feet for hunting in streams and lakes. With 3100 miles of waterways in the Smokies, it is no wonder that we have a healthy population of them. It’s fur is very soft and thick and covered with oily guard hairs that make the mink’s coat waterproof. Minks can survive 3 to 4 years in the wild. They will give birth to a litter of one to eight babies. Babies are wrinkled and blind at birth. They depend on the mother’s milk during the first 6 weeks of their life. These babies are called kits, and are obviously extremely cute.
My first encounter with one was deep in the Marble Mountains of Northern California. I was traveling cross country to a lower river trail when I encountered this sleek critter while taking a lunch break by a small cascade. It was riding the current downhill like a water slide, when it popped out onto a bank about 6 feet from me. Startled at my presence, it dove back into the water and swam away in a flash. I was blown away with it’s swimming abilities and tact, surely utilizing it’s small build to the fullest. A couple of years passed and I moved here to Tennessee, where I had my second encounter. I was guiding a day hike by the Sugarlands Visitor Center with a family from Ohio that have never been to the mountains before. The father was asking me about some of the animals that he had seen at the Visitor Center, when a pair popped out across the river. After seeing us, they high tailed it up stream in a jiffy and were out of sight. Animal sightings, in my option, are one of the most exciting aspects of wilderness travel and I look forward to my next one of this dynamic little critter.