Tag Archive: wildlife watching

The weather said, “Go winter camping!” with clear days and the night sky lit up with a fullish moon.  Camping below Mt. Rainier, or high on Artist Point, with coral sunset bathing the mountains followed by the radiant moon and a billion stars.  Bundled in wool and fleece and down in unearthly quiet and silvery cold air sounded like peace.FrostyTreeThreeFingers

But it’s pretty here, too, out in the boondocks of the Puget Sound area.  If I left, my neighbors would have been slogging warm water for the horses because the cold got to my tanks, faucets and hoses before I did.  I never really finished cleaning up after the last windstorm, and another system is coming in with wind and rain this week.


Sun rising through freezing fog and illuminating the pasture

It’s also been a long year, with ups and downs, travel and learning and people and change.  We are in a truly crazy and endless election season. Terrorism rages at home and abroad. Home alone for four days, with a break to eat Thanksgiving dinner with friends, started to sound pretty good.  Anyway, those sunny mountains would be trampled by people in droves out for fun and pretty pictures on a long holiday weekend. Good for all of them- enjoy, people!


Trumpeter swans flying at sunset

Oh, and there’s a new kids’ animation movie out- beautiful graphics with doe-eyed creatures and a neatly packaged coming of age story.  “Never growing up” doesn’t have to mean arrested adolescence; rather, it can be the crazy dreams and imagined adventures of childhood. As someone stuck at age 10, with a collection of animal puppets and kids’ adventure books, I was sold.

So I stayed home, doing my usual weird routine of cooking a turkey after spending Thanksgiving with friends- just for the leftovers, mind you.  Filling the house with the scent of savory soup and freshly baked bread the next day. Raking up the last leaves, and wandering out with a camera when the light and animals cooperated.  A quiet, kinda sustainable holiday.  A break.


The sign said

The sign said “Camp” but what it really meant was “Goat Camp”.

When I die, I plan on returning as a trail sprite.  When I hear hikers and backpackers having conversations about becoming a licensed engineer, the trials of office politics, or bad relationships, I will sprinkle people with amnesia dust, or cast a spell so that they can’t speak, and only hear the sound of wind brushing through pine trees, birds, drumming of woodpeckers, water, and the scratching of chipmunk nails on bark. I went on this hike to only the sounds of nature, and walked out a trail becoming crowded with weekend traffic to the sound of busy people like me just not letting it all go.

With a rare midweek break, I spent a couple nights under the spell of mountain goats at Lake Ingalls in the Teanaway region of the Cascades. I posted about the goats at Ingalls Pass a couple years back, and found they are just as pervasive as they were then.  A conversation with a passing (likely retired) long-time hiking couple confirmed my impression that the advent of fearless goats at Ingalls is a recent thing.  James Luther Davis’s “The Northwest Nature Guide” is already out of date after 6 years because he describes them as fleeting and hard to view, and doesn’t identify Ingalls as a place to see them.

A veritable gang of goats at my (their) campsite

A veritable gang of goats at my (their) campsite

From my short backpack,  I have about 300 pictures of goats, and learned a lot about goat heirarchy in a herd by the time I left.  I was chased away from a pee stop twice by goats that could hear me depositing a source of salt on dirt or rock, and 12-20 roamed through my campsite whenever I appeared.  I quickly realized that shooing them away was futile, and that they were patrolling, not confronting. Trained opportunists, not wild assassins.

We developed a sort of working relationship.  This was clearly their turf. The goats had a worn circle around the tent site and eating area, and they nabbed the best dinner spot on a big flat rock for goat repose. They walked that circle meticulously, alert to what I was doing but relaxed and impassive.  I could tell they were eyeing my gear, but only a couple adolescents looked directly at it, then ran away when I rattled my poles together. One lovely camping couple said they had to guard each other during bathroom breaks because they kept hearing the clatter of hooves on rocks the minute they tried to pee.

I kept a grizzly-clean camp and took my food with me when I day hiked.  Voila, no goat or rodent raids.  A hard sided food container might also be helpful, and I saw one campsite with food hung in a tree.

I haven’t been to Lake Ingalls in snow free condition in 20 years (usually I camp on snow and snow scramble), so I don’t remember the trail at all.  The last time I was there in summer, you could camp at the lake. The final approach to the lake seems different, more of a scramble than I remember.  People were missing the easy way to the first cairn because the trail looks like it continues, then ends and if you look up, there is the cairn.  I saw a couple folks who were going straight from cairn to cairn instead of winding around on the fragments of trail (easy to do coming up- the trail is more visible looking down than up). One woman was distinctly nervous and her partner didn’t look too confident in the route. On the way out, I talked to two women, one of whom remembered the final approach as “chaotic”.

“Watch for the rock that- pardon me- looks like a monkey’s butt, with two rounded protrusions at the top,” I told them. “You’ll see dusty footprints on the ledge to the left of that rock. Head for the first cairn that way, and look for fragments of trail on the way up.”

These are crazy directions for such a popular trail.

I spent Thursday wandering the basin and scrambling around the lake. Wildflowers in the seeps and wet areas were still pretty, with exotic colored paintbrush, some lupine, and a white umbel (haven’t found it yet).  Hummingbirds buzzed my pink headwrap. In one area along Ingalls Way, I saw mountain bluebirds hovering above the greenery, flapping their wings like harriers do, then plunging. A marmot lay stretched out on a rock below, listening and watchful.

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird

Wednesday night, the winds started up.  Lying in my sleeping bag, I felt like a witness to the gods bowling with wind gusts that screamed past the face of the Stuart Range, rattling and shaking the tent. The winds died a bit at dawn, but Thursday morning arrived cool and breezy, especially at the lake.  Washington has been historically hot and dry, so I enjoyed the weather, especially with adequate clothing to stay comfortable.

What I do remember well are the wonderful scramble rocks around the lake- nicely graded orangey slabs with friction, cracks, and occasional splashes of shiny green serpentine type coating. I do remember the routes to North and South Ingalls peaks, and the way up them, but I didn’t do that- just scrambled and then lounged like a goat on a warm slab in the cool breeze.


Friday morning was windless and warmer- and then the mosquitoes appeared. Not too many, but I’m a bug magnet, so I was glad to be leaving.

But I’ll miss my campsite goats, though they are not as wild and fleeting as they should be.   They made an impression on me even in a couple days. There was Short Horn Mom, with one stunted horn and a small baby she seemed reluctant to nurse (it pooped one morning, so it’s getting something for food). The big, robust male had a scratch down his face from fighting, and pushed other goats around (but not babies, interestingly).  The teenagers were more brash toward older goats and me, but were nimble enough to get out of the way when they pushed their limits.  All were following people around waiting for that inevitable deposition of salt.

ChristmasSwans9I walked out to see if the swans were still there. Well over 100 trumpeter swans arrived in the district the night before Christmas, even landing in the fields behind my house.  Their chattering woke me up at 3 a.m., so close that I opened the window to check whether I was dreaming their voices. I walked to see them when the sun rose over the cold valley.  That was days ago, and despite the chilly Fraser River winds that turned their lake to ice, they returned every night.  The weather then changed, a Pacific storm ushering out the arctic air, and I could no longer hear them from the barn.

The night was still warm with the visiting tropical storm, which pelted mountain snow with rain sending a surge of water downriver to flood the land.  The unsettling warm winds rush toward the mountains, sliced by powerline wires and hissing and seething as they pass.  There is moon almost full shining serene somewhere above the racing shreds of clouds.

The swans were there.  The wind drowned out their murmurs from the back door of my barn, but I could hear them as I walked the road around my neighbor’s run-down farm and approached the fence by old District 6.

I decided the swans were a Christmas gift to me.  These elegant, softly feathered birds with their inky black faces came at some godly behest to remind me that soon I will travel far north, as northerly as their summer breeding grounds. I will follow them home, to a place with fewer people and buildings and roads than this place.

I once sat on a frozen bay along massive Lake Superior, gazing at the Northern lights shimmering across the sky. I sat huddled in a big ugly snowsuit, sorel boots, wool hat, and lined wool mittens.  I was as lonely and bent toward the future as any teenager stranded in a foreign and isolated place. I wanted to be far away from trailers, cabins and shacks, the smell of propane heaters in ice fishing huts, and the choking fumes of diesel, gas and oil that ran chainsaws, logging skidders and snowmobiles. I wanted to run from a strange world of drunkenness and teen pregnancy and domestic violence punctuated seasonally by the puzzled eyes of well-appointed city tourists seeking natural beauty.

If I could dissolve into light, I imagined, I could rise to the sky like the Northern lights and catch a ride on stratospheric winds to some faraway place where my mind’s eye could already see sunlight and hear laughing, chatter, music.

Now I think about paying to travel to the Northern lights, take two planes to Yellowknife and sit quietly watching the sky, wanting the stratospheric winds to blow the loud, cluttered and bloated world far away.  I want to sit huddled in a snowsuit and hide under a kaleidoscope of light, maybe stay there forever. This year I will pay to walk a long trail in the Arctic Circle.  I will get there on a journey resembling travel in the 1940’s, not the new millennium:  one plane that leads to another followed by a long boat trip on almost frozen waters to be left ashore on a barren coast.  This place is not unpopulated with visitors, but not popular.  I will pay to find a place as lonely as the place I fled decades ago.

Today, I have swans.  A gift of swans, a valley resplendent with swans. Silky white long-necked birds.  Birds so large that gaining flight requires running on water with large black webbed feet while pumping long wings. They rest and preen, reaching remote itchy spots by retracting, stretching, and curling their necks to the tune of an invisible waltz, covering the water with snowy down.  Then some swan gives the call to fly, and the staccato sound of feet slapping and wings pumping shoots across the water.

The swan behind is still running on the water as it gains flight.

The swan behind is still running on the water as it gains flight.

Today, I have swans.  For now. I say I won’t walk out every night to see them, but then the laughing moon smiles into my bedroom, and I open my window to let gentle honking and murmuring drift into the house.  I put on a long coat over bathrobe and leggings, shoes over silly pink-striped socks, and walk the two miles to see the swans.  The moon goes dim as valley fog rolls through, so I can’t see them when I arrive, but I hear them, talking amongst themselves, always murmuring, ruffling and preening.

They will fly to the Arctic after the long winter night and the northern lights are gone there, and they may never return to my neighborhood again.  But they are here, a gift, for now.

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