Tag Archive: wildlife


RoadTrip12

After half a dozen trips across the West, I decided these travels need their own blog.

I do not hail from the West, but rather, the Midwest.  I fled to the coast as many do for work.  But as the West Coast explodes with housing and business development, I find myself driving away from the tower cranes, burgeoning condos, metastatic housing development. I live in a farming area, a river valley, surrounded by increasingly lush vegetation and rich wildlife.  But increasingly, it’s not far enough away.

So a couple times a year, I head east, letting the scenery fly by as I unwind behind the wheel on the interstate.  I end up in Montana or Wyoming, looking for wildlife, public access, open space, few people. I get to unwind, mull over my life, think about future adventures. Each trip, I travel a little farther, and disappear a little more.

These journeys need their own place to live.  To follow them, visit https://larkeyskip.wordpress.com/.

BisonSketch

crescentmoon

The first photographers who labored to put image to paper almost 200 years ago couldn’t have known that someday, a small camera within the budget of average Americans would be able to capture the crescent moon.  My little camera sees this New Year’s moon in more detail than the first photographers ever could. And  in another 200 years, we will probably live on the moon if we live at all.

golden_crescent_moon

Credit: Dcibillus, Wikimedia Commons, 2009

But using an electronic eye to see into the heavens doesn’t resonate like using imagination to daydream the moon and stars. Cultures around the world saw the sliver of waxing or waning moon and turned it into concept or goddesses or some symbol of the mysterious.

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Using that electronic eye catches scenes quickly, gives a nice visual to tell a story with, lets us race by and get to the next part of our lives.  But slowing down, seeing that symbol hanging in the dark sky far above and imagining its meaning and power, stays more with us.

I spent the holidays puttering, cleaning, slowing down, simplifying not making resolutions to do more and better, but just stopping to think and to reach back to the things that make me happy.  The things that should inspire gratitude.

In a busy life, it’s easy to forget to be grateful. It’s been unusually cold here, and the cold stretches on. The ground is hard and the water tanks freeze nightly.  I carry water for half an hour every morning. It’s bone-chilling damp and frigid when I get off the train in Seattle. But electronics give me pause and perspective:  The jet stream that is chilling us with arctic flow is pressing a massive incoming pineapple express into northern California, which will experience major flooding, avalanches, and landslides.  That storm would have been barreling down on my area – if it hadn’t been so cold, that is. make_img

mtbaker

Mt. Baker, with a little steam rising to remind us it’s an active volcano.

And we’re not dry cold:  we’re having a phenomenal winter season, a good ski/snowshoe year, so there’s still time to get out to the mountains and enjoy and get back in shape for backpacking season.

 

 

larkeyMy remaining horse, and all the animals I’ve cared for here are also a reason for gratitude.  I bought this house, located in such a perilous place, for my horses.  Here I am now, down from four horses, two dogs, and two cats that came with the house.  I one horse left, and he’s ageing and looking sore on one leg, and we can’t figure out what it is.  I’m feeling the loss of my other horse, and this animal’s aching.

This stage can seem like the twilight of a flawed day that started with a brilliant, hopeful dawn.  You become worn being the angel of death ushering beloved animal companions one after the other  into eternal night. You wonder what would have been had you done something different.

Well, here’s the deal.  My dogs and horses forced me outside to get fresh air and exercise even when I didn’t want to go. They grounded me and gave me a badly needed sense of responsibility. They gave me reason to locate in a quiet sanctuary that protected me in some major life changes and difficult situations.

hawk3This sanctuary is where I learned to heal the land and make a home for wildlife.  Teaching other people what I learned over a decade of habitat restoration has made me a better communicator. Volunteering to give workshops lets me give something back to the world. My habitat project has helped my really see and understand wildlife. Animals have driven my art, my interests, my travel.  The drive to restore even more every year keeps me moving, digging the earth, creating hedgerows and gardens and wild, tangled refuges.

And my home is modest, but at least for now, I have a home.  My own home. Many, many people do not due to poverty, natural disaster, and war. Or they share dangerously cramped space with too many people.

whitehorseBy the end of holiday break, I could see my house as far more than an object and investment again. I slowed down, puttered around, rearranged my space, reconnected enough to see it as more than a snapshot.  Not  racing by, on a schedule to get things done, as a place of chores and responsibilities and somewhere to rest between work days.

I once again see home as a living place filled with stories and memories, souvenirs and mementos, many good times and some tough ones; the silent, non-judgemental keeper of my dreams and decisions.  My land is a driver for my best aspirations and successes. My horse is a welcome anchor, a creature who needs me as a familiar herd member, not a burden.

Sure, I wander around with my camera some, taking pictures of wildlife, the New Year’s Day sunrise and the crescent moon.  But I also stop, listen, imagine the moon and the hooting owls and trumpeting swans as symbols of something unearthly, daydream a novel of a mystical place where they are all gods- and well, you know.  Become human again.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

In a nation where-yes, even now in 2016- many of us still have choices in life, you might be wondering why someone would make this choice.  Why anyone would sign up for this.

Maybe the house knows the answer. It has been standing since 1908, watching people come and go, live and die. The house has stood through flood, massive windstorms, and earthquakes.  It was perched on piles before being placed on a foundation and surrounded with fill from the abandoned Northern Pacific Railway line. It was abandoned at one point. The house survived the local dike wars and soldiers leaving for two world wars and the Vietnam War.

1995-flood

Before my time- the 1995 dike breach in front of my gate

Every November, I wonder if I’ve lost my mind, or maybe lost the courage to face one more flood season.  I obsessively watch the weather for the trifecta:  A typhoon near Asia, warm winds coming up from Hawaii, and the jet stream pressing down on us.  Add an unconsolidated snowpack in the Central Cascades, and voila! You have an atmospheric river, and a major  flood in the Snohomish River Valley, overtopping farmer engineered dikes and sweeping across the fields.

I’ve been through two major floods:  the Great Pumpkin flood of December 2006 and the January 2009 flood.  Now, the locals said neither of these should have happened. Once you get past Thanksgiving you’re okay, they said.  Ya sure, as we would have said in Minnesota.  Ya sure.greatpumpkinflood2

I watched the 2006 flood from across the valley, my horses safely ensconced in a boarding barn atop the hill.  The flood hit at the end of pumpkin season, before they were tilled into fields.  I would walk to the bottom of the hill and peer across the water, trying to see if my foundation was still dry.  The first night water filled the valley I stood and listened.  I could hear fins and tails slapping through the waters:  salmon on their way to spawn swept into the fields with no way out after it was over.  The pumpkins bobbed along illuminated by the neighbor’s farm light, with dark blobs on top.  When my eyes adjusted, I realized the blobs were rodents riding the pumpkins like rafts.  Then I saw the owls. I counted eight-great horned, screech, barn- swooping down to grab rodents from the pumpkins.

When I returned home after the storm swept away, I drove past a pack of coyotes stretched out on the dike in the sun, bellies round with rodents.  Waiting for the rising waters to run rodents toward your waiting jaws is a risk, but if you’re a coyote, maybe you’re a born gambler.  A muskrat was in the barn, with the water line not very far behind.

The 2009 flood was harder.  My hip was deteriorating and getting horses out and sandbags down was no joy.  I had a little help, but preparations were slow and I drove out as the water was slowly starting to pool on the road. It’s the first time I heard the river’s voice change.  It started out high-pitched as water splashed and spilled over tree limbs bobbing in the water.  Then octaves tumbled as deep, rolling boils swirled like watery tornadoes.

This flood threatened to be worse than 2006, and I wasn’t sure the dikes would hold.  I stayed in a hotel. My neighbors, who ride these events out at home, walked the dikes and sent reports.

The dikes held, with some calving, caving, boils, and piping. Julie got some great photos flying the river in Bunky’s float plane.  More than the post-breach picture of Mary posing at the gate,  Julie’s photos cemented my resolve to leave in large floods.

house-4

The barn and house are left, located between overtopping dikes and inundated fields.

overtopping2

Overtopping behind barn, horse paddocks at right.

Because I’m the downstream property, I get everyone’s debris: plywood, power poles from a replacement project, prescription bottles, dead pigs, and this unfortunate victim:

flood-victims_edited-1

 

Cleanup reminds me why I live here, as I watch a young heron slowly stepping through the pooled water behind the house, catching worms.  The raptors have arrived in droves, and I watch a bald eagle and hawk lock talons and roll in the sky. The County piles up road debris 8 feet high , and as I’m walking by at night, I see a dozen owls perched on the mound, waiting for more rodent meals.

heron2

I moved here for nature and privacy.  It’s obvious why this area doesn’t get developed, and I’ve got nature at its most rhythmic and normal, oblivious to whatever stuff we put in its way. The river is a voice thousands of years old reminding me that belongings are transitory, along with human life.  It’s about living in the moment, feeling the place.

Sure, I’d rather trade the growling bass tones of a rising river for the gentle honking of trumpeter swans, the barking of snow geese, the spring chorus of frogs. But they wouldn’t be here if the river wasn’t here, and the river owns this valley once in a while. Maybe it’s a good reminder as I face another winter that we are ephemeral, no matter how mighty and eternal we believe we are.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

madisonbuffalojumpsign

Visiting the buffalo jump at American Prairie Reserve was a little like falling down a rabbit hole.   I’m positively the worst for spying something new (to me at least) and following it where ever it goes. I already heard about buffalo jumps  a couple years ago from a state park employee and fellow workshop trainee. After my first visit to the APR jump, the rabbit in the waistcoat appeared, and after him I went.

What’s a buffalo jump? For thousands of years, Plains Indians staged complex, collaborative efforts to lure bison toward a carefully selected cliff, then trigger a stampede that would send them running over it to their deaths.  Runners were trained from youth, like Olympians.  Their hunting life may have been equally short.

Buffalo jumps hold their secrets. Maybe the practice started with bison, as legend tells it, or perhaps early humans hunting woolly mammoths figured out it was safer to trick them into plummeting over a cliff than hunting them on foot.Use of North American buffalo hunts supposedly ended 1500-1700-ish, when horses allowed year-round hunting of bison, but there is at least one later account that involves horses and guns. Earliest hunters used less of the animals than later groups, and there is evidence of “gourmet butchering” at an early Folsom site.

130808202buffalojump

Diorama of a buffalo jump

The details will be worried over by academicians and tribes, but you can skip the intellectual discussion, visit the places and fire up your imagination.  I was lucky enough to find Madison Buffalo Jump State Park completely abandoned on a September Tuesday and spent a few hours hiking and imagining the dramatic hunt.

Montana State Parks did a great job with the language on the signs:  one walks through the entire process, from pre-hunt rituals to buffalo runners luring grazing bison forward, running them into drive lines with buffalo “frighteners” on either side, then causing them to stampede over the cliff to a slope below.  The front runners would have to leap to safe places on ledges below.  The bison that survived the fall would be finished off and then a mass effort to process commenced.

It’s obvious in this Google Earth aerial what made the Madison Jump a good site, but I suggest going there and walking it to imagine the logistics and danger involved first hand. After all, the Plains Indians didn’t find the site on the internet, and neither should you.

madisonbuffalojumpaerial_edited-1

And if you’re blessed to find yourself without other people distracting you, the lonely site is a perfect place to walk and imagine you’re wearing a buffalo runner disguise. You can hear the bison herd vocalizing in low rumblings that drift in from far away.

Your walk begins at the end of the hunt. As you hike up the old buffalo trail leading around the north side of the cliff, look at the processing area and imagine groups of women killing bellowing, immobilized bison after they’ve fallen. Imagine a staging area for processing, with the same women energetically removing hide, meat, organs, sinew for housing, clothing, tools, and food.

jump-topography-640

From a park sign

madbuffalojumpbelow

Farther up the trail, the grazing and driving areas start coming into view.  You can see the natural ramp that winds toward the jump and imagine runners luring the animals forward, careful not to start a stampede too soon and lose the whole herd.  Rock cairns along the way would guide the animals and hide “frighteners”. The animals would be restless, unsure, but move forward warily.  They would be twitchy, ready to bolt and turn the whole herd into a boiling mass of big brown bodies, horns, and hooves.

And then toward the top, on the last rist to the cliff, the frighteners would make thunder happen.  Runners disguised by wolf hides would leap out whooping, yelling, scaring the animals into a blind stampede.  Runners up front might have to leap to ledges below and out of the way as the pounding herd ran straight for the cliff edge and over.  As you stand with a bison’s last view, you understand.  You can feel your blood pounding in your ears, hear the bellows and people shouting and grass and insects and dust kicked up into a storm around you.  You hear the thuds below.

madbuffalojumpbisonview

It would be quiet afterward once the last animal bled out and expired.  The hunters would be drained, completely spent from exertion and adrenaline.  Maybe some would be injured.  Maybe part of the herd balked, peeled away, and stampeded away to safety, or ended up in the forested bowl below the other side of the cliff.

madbuffalojumpfirs

I sat on the cliff and drank a bottle of water, gazing at the expansive view as the imaginary hunt faded in my mind.  A few hunter-leery deer tip-toed into view before they caught sight and scent of me and bounded away.  The loud rattling calls of sandhill cranes rose from the river snaking through the Madison River Valley past green crop circles.

These jumps were abandoned long ago by native hunters, and then excavated for bone to use as fertilizer.  I’m sure artifact pilfering has been common.

But the feeling of the place is powerful enough that it will draw me back.  I’ll read some books, look for documentaries, research Native American perspectives on the jumps.  I’ll go to First People’s Buffalo Jump in Ulm the next trip.  I’ll walk where the bison walked, be the animal next time, and not imagine myself as a specatator of a movie in my head.  It’s that crazy rabbit hole again.

restingbuffalorock

Resting buffalo head rock- you see it, right?

madbuffalojumpritualstage

This has to have been a ritual stage- I would make it one, anyway

prariebrush

Blessed to see some fresh fall flowers…

prairielushness

But the faded ones have their own rich beauty.

madbuffalojump2

These rocks look like they calved from the cliff and tumbled in a line down a ravine, but they’re so- well, orderly.  Your mind starts to see the imprint of ghosts everywhere.

 

 

 

fallscene

Elk and bison feeding on dry grass in late fall along the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park.

Even when you’ve been a veterinary student, a scientist, a pet and livestock owner- even then, and maybe especially then- it’s hard to watch animals suffer in the wild.  You should know better, right?  Animals live, animals die.  Even without the hazards humanity poses for wild animals, a host of potential killers lurks behind every rock and bush. Weather, predators, disease, childbirth, battles with competitors, broken bones, rotten teeth, wildfire, and the list goes on.

elkcowcrossingriver

We always want to see them cross to the other side of winter and make it to spring

My trip to Montana coincided with the cooling fall winter that heralds subzero temperatures and snow to come.  Winter drops a curtain between the robust and the weakened or just weaned.  On one side of the curtain, animals move on into the next spring. On the other, they become food for everything from insects and mice to birds, wolves, and bears.

In Yellowstone National Park, I saw for the first time in several trips young bison calves in late fall.  I have a pasture-bred horse that was born late August in Idaho, which isn’t optimal.  His mother likely “threw” the first fetus and rebred too late the previous year.  He made it, and is 20 years old now, but these young bison calves may not. They will  not benefit from human intervention in the way that my horse did.

bisoncalflatest

This frost isn’t a spring morning, but late September- a bad time for a little red calf to be puttling on weight.

bisoncalflater

This calf isn’t far behind the one above, just shedding the last of the baby fur.

bisoncalfearly

This calf is taller, older, and in good weight.  It still may not survive, but has a better chance.

On a trip to Red Rock Lakes Refuge, I found a decent herd of pronghorn antelope leaping around the grasslands crossed by the road.  When one that was lying down stood, I gasped to see its condition- no body fat, and a withdrawn look that says the animal is giving up and preparing to die.

skinnypronghorn

Protruding bones and sunken eyes- it just hurts to see it.

healthypronghorn

Healthy animals that will be able to cope with winter.

injuredcowlying

At a pullout on the Madison River, a crowd of us watched this young elk cow lying in the grass, seemingly contented to chew her cud while other cows browsed nearby.

elklyingdown

The cow occastionally made a peculiar, grimacing expression.

injuredcowstanding

When she stood to eat, it became apparent that she’s walking on a very tender hind foot. This could make her vulnerable to predators, getting bogged down in snow, or reducing her ability to keep her weight up.

elkcrossingfence

These elk look healthy, but the young one on left kept fighting to follow the herd, getting caught in barbed wire cattle fencing.  Elk calves can get hung up in fencing and struggle to death within 15 minutes according to a USFWS Refuge ranger. 

Something different happens when we’re out wildlife watching.  We want to see animals frolicking wild and free in nature.  We want to feel hope for wildlife.  It’s hard to watch suffering and death.  Maybe the sympathy we want to feel for the sometimes hateful human race gets subverted as we gaze on sick and injured animals.  Maybe it’s the same gut-wrenching sadness we feel when children, the elderly, and disabled people suffer.

At least with wildlife, we can take comfort knowing that there is a circle of life.  The emaciated pronghorn will feed the food chain.  Wolves and bears may survive the winter on bison too young and too old to make it through.  It’s not the end: the rest of the herd, and the beneficiaries of death will make it through to the other side.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.