I was top-roping an exposed and thin ’10c face. Even on TR, anything smooth, requiring healthy servings of finesse, throws me for a loop. A familiar 5.9 would be nice right now. Or a juggy ’10b. Give me some dynamic moves I can use to make my way to the next hold.
Below me, Geof Childs, who had effortlessly gunned up the rope and set up the anchor, hollered out the necessary beta and encouragement. The air carried the sharp bite of late season and the rock was a bit chilly. The sky was all gray and gloom and I noticed fresh snow creeping stealthily down from the high country.
Climbing is fun, but I was feeling surprisingly grumpy and gripped. Again, I was on TR, so it really was quite silly.
I was also experiencing a touch of performance anxiety. Childs was one of the first to establish routes in this popular cragging area. I have a signed copy of his book “Stone Palaces”and, from pages yellowed and fragranced by the incessant tick-tock of countless clocks, I have enjoyed reading his stories from the early days of the Mountain Gazette.
Childs is kind of a hero of mine.
So this is what Childs said to help me get my head around the thin nubbins generously referred to as holds, to ignore the possibility of a wide and painful swing and to move myself up to the anchor. Childs said, “You are wearing a little black dress and holding a martini. Because your dress is very tight and you don’t want to spill your very dry drink, you must take very small and delicate steps. It will also help if you extend your little finger when you move to the next hold. You are, after all, holding a martini. Grip the hold lightly with your little finger extended … and don’t spill your drink.”
Good god, I remember thinking, a little black dress? I haven’t worn one in years.
I have a sensationally smoky one sequestered in my closet. She appears to be shunned by whatever else is draped on the hangers at either side of her … Jealousy. I recall slowly pulling this slip of a dress over my head and working her carefully down by body (because she would not fall into place of her own accord). Then there were the awfully-high heels to complete the affect.
Time has passed generously since then. I now have scant use for a little black dress. I have a collection of well-worn ski boots and rock shoes, but my high heels are simply collecting dust. And yet, for some reason, I will not part with her, suspended so lovely and lonely from a pink silk hanger in my closet.
I have now paused about halfway up the route to slowly and carefully pull on my little black dress. I take a small and delicate step up and slightly to the right, lowering my heel and smearing so I am able to gingerly grip the next hold, my little finger properly extended. I blush a little when I think of Childs below me, adroitly meting out and taking in the rope. I am confident he will prevent his gaze from traveling up my dress, both because he is a gentleman and because he is happily married to a bright and beautiful woman. But, still, I am shy.
A few more moves and I have finessed my way to the anchor. Finessed! A smile has found its way to my lips and a few clouds part, allowing a glimpse of some much needed sunglow.
Climbing is fun.
I clip into the chains, break down the anchor and, feeling lazy, ask Childs to lower me instead of rapping down. The taste of gin is on my tongue and my skin relishes the familiar cling of the dress. Untying from the rope, my little finger extends … and I haven’t spilled a drop.
For information on climbing in my neck o’ the hills:
I was living in the true mountains, surrounded by untamed, sprawling ranges. This place is far and away and wild. From my aging cabin’s loft, I looked down onto three ancient apple trees, trees so ancient they do not have names. The apples are delicious, but they are not delicious apples, if you know what I am saying. Late one September, I had the pleasure of eating a few of those apples, picking one from time to time as I walked by, standing on my tippy-toes like some backwoods ballerina, picking one here and there that was almost ripe, but not quite.
A few days passed and the apples were gone from their branches, branches becoming bare and brittle, long bony fingers reaching out into the chilly air. There had been so many apples and I had taken so few. They were just becoming perfectly rosy ripe when the bears were in the backwoods hiding, grinning I imagined, their distended tummies stuffed, their lips sticky with apple juice.
They would come in the midst and mist of night, moon or no, after I had turned off the lights and brought in the dogs. After I was sawing logs. They graciously left their calling cards: great moist piles of applesauce shit, great broken branches. The berries had not been robust that summer, and the bears were hungry, I could understand. I just wanted to catch one in the act, catch one climbing a tree, catch one stuffing its gut with apples. Catch one crapping applesauce … wouldn’t that be funny?
Periodically, I walked the ragged fence line. The fence is there to keep out Ma Hill’s free-range cows. Ma Hill’s goddamn cows. I wanted to think they were cute, but really they were not. So the fence keeps out Ma Hill’s cows, but little else. It does not keep out the bears. Good. Late in summer, along the inside of the fence line, curled steaming lumps of purple bear scat, huckleberry shit to be exact. In autumn crouched browning piles of applesauce. Chunky style. Bears are not careful masticators.
Within days of running away to this bittersweet hamlet, I saw my first grizzly. The cinnamon bear was young, likely less than four years old and was hanging out a few fields over. The locals, some of whom had lived there for-evvv-er and had yet to see a griz, doubted my claim, thought the greenhorn was seeing a brown black bear. Big difference. I can tell. But later on, glory be! one of the locals witnessed my grizzly with their very own peepers.
A friend came out to visit and we hunted bears. No guns for us, just our ears, eyes, hearts. Another friend chose the bear as her totem. Or perhaps it is the bear who chose her? Years ago, we hiked to a peak named Bear’s Breast Mountain, and heard a bear call out to us (though some would have called it a long, loud growl). We froze for a moment, our eyes saucers, our spines electric, then skedaddled up the trail.
Many folks around this faraway mountain hideaway eagerly look ahead to spring bear season, a time when the bears are just waking up and still groggy. With sleep in their eyes and fuzz in their brains, they make for easy targets. It breaks my heart; the bears have so few places to go anymore.
My last winter there had been a mild one and it was early in the next season when I experienced my first bear encounter of the year. He was a beautiful, silvery black bear, about three years old, all paws and romp. He stopped about a dozen feet away, quickly sized me up, his eyes saucers, his spine electric, then skeedaddled back down into the trees.
I’ve had closer encounters since. One encounter that stretched the minutes out good and long, like Salvador Dali used to do. Breath held tight against my lungs, heart pounding to beat the band. Wondering how much the likely attack would hurt and if I would live to bear (no pun intended) the scars and tell the tale. But even that encounter turned out just fine. The big black bear decided, after his own ponderous moments, to leave me be. We could have almost reached out and touched one another. What a rush. After watching his backside disappear into the brambles, I giggled all the way back down the old, overgrown USFS road and back into the cabin.
After a year, I moved away from that remote, Montana acreage, and it wasn’t because of the bears.
I now live at the toes of another breathtaking and wild range, and always feel real peaceful after seeing bears. Close up, far off, it doesn’t matter. And I love knowing they are right close by, even when I am unaware …
“ … I want to kill. I mean, I wanna, I wanna kill. Kill. I wanna, I wanna see, I wanna see blood and gore and guts and veins in my teeth … I mean kill, Kill, KILL, KILL.”
— Arlo Guthrie, “Alice’s Restaurant,” 1967
It was well after the last rifle season and as I recall Dave telling it, he was traveling down the Rendezvous in his big pick-’em-up truck and came up behind a slow-moving, white Subaru. An unfamiliar vehicle. Around here, one becomes familiar with the comings and goings of vehicles that belong. Big Dave watched as the car slowed to a crawl in the middle of the road, and a rifle was thrust out of the driver’s side window.
BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!
What the what? thought Dave (more or less). Mulie season was over and besides, the shooter was discharging from a moving vehicle into private property and near a rancher’s home. Big Dave tooted his horn and waved for the Subaru to pull into a nearby gravel drive. Which it did, oddly enough.
Two men sat in the Subie and one of them said through the open driver’s side window, that they were here from Sedro Woolley to take care of “your problem coyotes.”
Number 1, as Dave was more than happy to point out, we do not have problem coyotes.
Around the valley, we are collectively quite fond of our resident coyotes. They are not overly abundant and their presence helps keep down the rascally rodent populations. They are robust and beautiful. Their haunting yodels accompany our dreams, and one neighbor has enjoyed watching pups play around a nearby den.
Numbers 2, 3 and 4, as Dave was more than happy to point out, you cannot shoot from a fucking moving vehicle. You cannot shoot from a road. You cannot shoot near or into private property.
Next time we will be hunting more than coyotes, threatened the driver, more than likely missing a few teeth and high on meth. Sedro Woolley has a reputation. It is nice that the pass is closed for a good 6 months or more a year: It helps keep out the riff-raff, the coyote killers.
Dave called the county sheriff, and the white Subaru was later pulled over, the occupants given a good finger wagging. But that was it. A lot of good that did. Thanks for nothing, county sheriff. Luckily, our local game enforcement officer took more of an interest. Next time, white Sedro Woolley Subie, watch out. We have your number.
Killing Things for No Damn Good Reason
A while back, I lived in NW, Northwest Montana for a year to-the-day, roughly 30 miles east of Sandpoint Ideehoho, snuggled in betwixt the Cabinet Mountains and the Clark Fork River. I lived in an old log cabin plunked into a stretch of breathtakingly gorgeous inland rainforest. Every damn day I watched myriad wildlife activity right outside the creaking plank door, and sometimes right there on the old splintered porch. (Like the time I awoke at 4 a.m. to a baby moose literally tap-dancing on the porch’s weathered wood. “Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gal …”)
During my one year in NW, Northwest Montana, I watched — and sometimes this was face-to-face-awfully-close-for-comfort watching — black bear and grizzly bear, cougar and coyotes, elk and moose and deer, fisher and pica. I listened to wolves sing in the wee hours. And all of this was right out my door, on the other side of the log walls. It was really cool.
But I will tell you what, around those parts, folks are really into killing things.
During that year, I did a little substitute teaching at the all-ages schoolhouse the next town over, about the only time I was around people, and I grew weary of listening to kids talk about killing critters. Talk of shooting crows just to watch other crows land and scavenge the dead crows, and then shooting those crows too. During rifle season, talk of trying to give away an animal they had just shot because their freezer was already full. Talk of not being able to give away the meat because everybody’s freezers already seemed to be full.
And yet folks just kept right on killing things.
Even the school’s principal bragged about the trip to northern BC he and his wife were planning so they could fly in and bag a polar bear.
So please don’t tell me these folks were just trying to feed their families. They were bored and didn’t know what else to do, and hiking the phenomenally scenic trails and majestic mountains without a gun and without the sole purpose of killing something was apparently out of the question.
My friend Alison traveled over a few state lines and stayed with me for a week or so of hiking and exploring. It was well outside of rifle season, any kind of legal hunting season, and she was sickened by the number of fresh deer and other unidentifiable animal carcasses strewn about the otherwise empty trailheads and along USFS roads: Late-Season tags. AKA poaching. I was slowly becoming accustomed to the crazy carnage, but it made me sick, too.
From the get-go, I had intended to devote five years of my life to living in that old log cabin, but I made it merely a year. After my wolfish-looking dog Wolfgang was almost shot twice for hiking Forest Service roads with me and for looking wolfish, and after Wolfy sprung a leg-hold trap set just a few feet off a trail, I knew I needed to leave while we were both still intact. Just too much killing.
I borrowed the title for this post from lyrics intended to be anti-war, anti-massacree, but senseless killing is senseless killing in my book. Whether you are hunting man, or needlessly hunting non-human animals, the killing is indeed senseless.
Suggests Don Ashford of KTRT 97.5 The Root, Winthrop, WA
My Lonely Violin
About nine years ago, I traded my god-awful television set — I had eschewed goggling the goggle box for years, and a big oak table for a graceful violin. I do not have a background in music, save for a school year of cello when I was in third grade. (And I seriously doubt I have retained much of that.) But I adore Celtic and bluegrass fiddle and viola, and the telly and table were no longer doing me any favors — as well as being cumbersome to cart around during my nomadic period. I thought the trade would be a good one. And it was. Sort of. A violin is lightweight and easy to haul about.
I took one lesson.
I never followed up that first lesson with a second, and once the violin needed tuning, I tucked her away in a hard, dark case, leaning the case against one wall or another to collect dust. I silenced her. It was a cruel thing to do.
The learning curve for a violin is a steep one, so I started to dream of playing mandolin. But that never happened either. Now I dream of ukuleles. Yep, I think a ukulele would suit me well. I listened to Jake Shimabukuro play ukulele on NPR. He is a ukulele virtuoso, mastering everything from Classical to Queen. His playing is gorgeous. Inspirational. And yes, intimidating.
I aspire to “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” You know, Tiny Tim?
I very much want to find a loving home for my elegant and lonely violin; she deserves a better life than I can offer her. And then I will welcome a lighthearted and goofy ukulele (apologies, Jake) into my life. I’m not saying it is going to be cake, learning to play, but I do feel a kindred spirit with the uke.
The Hills Are Alive
Even way out here, at the local brewpub in a small turista town 25 miles down-valley from my wee abode, my wee abode that sits at the end of a spur road a stone’s throw from wilderness (if you have a good arm), and one ridgeline over from a scenic mountain highway that is closed from around Thanksgiving until maybe sometime in May — but I digress — we get us some really good music. Our river and mountain valley is home to some amazing musicians, and Stephanie at the brewpub wrangles up some mighty fine musicians and bands. Come for the beer! Stay for the music! Pick up a Mountain Gazette! Trust me, the service really has improved!
Musicians travel here from faraway places like Seattle, Olympia, Portland and beyond. They travel here from both sides of the majestic slopes and from across state lines. They walk down the road from their cozy cabins and they play. And for the night, while they are playing, I fall in love with each and every one of them.
And then I make the long trek back up-valley, wink at my violin, and dream of ukuleles.
Taking a Breath
This poem saw print in the Mountain Gazette quite some time ago, I’m pretty sure. A former boyfriend was my muse for this piece, written well after I couldn’t find love and we had gone our separate ways. There will always be a warm place in my heart for a man who can play…
I COULD LOVE A MUSICIAN
He looks a little old
but he plays real young,
sitting there by the woodstove,
thick fingers dancing across thin strings,
toes a’ tap.
His sound is warm when I come in
kicking snow packed in worn lugs,
pulling pieces of ice from hair hanging down,
Playing the Blues
(always the blues)
he carves a long easy look my way,
glacier-gray eyes crevassed at the edges,
like his smile,
like the rest of him.
I don’t remember where he plays tonight,
but he is here,
Walking across the room,
I lift the back of his shirt just a little
putting chilled hands onto the heat of him,
against the small of his back,
and wonder what will happen next.
Dammit all to heck! I hate it when snowshoers ruin a perfectly good skin-track, plodding their thick and clumsy way uphill in their gall dang, clompy snowshoes. Don’t those big, fat, plastic platforms offer enough weight distribution to carry your galumphing arse across the snow without the necessity of poaching a skier’s up-track? Can you not put in your very own route? Isn’t that why they are called snowshoes, why you buy ’em, why you strap ’em on?
And why must you take a perfectly pristine backcountry run and scar it with your pathetic, pointless frolicking? There you go again, back and forth across the virgin snow, hither and freaking thither. The snow sets up later and your big honkin’ track-holes are indelibly Etch-A-Sketch’d into the new-fallen snow until the next big storm. Thanks for nothing, ’shoers.
I recently invited a few friends over for Sunday brunch to be followed up with some outdoor fun (more on the alleged fun later). In attendance were seven smiling people, four big dogs, two freaked-out cats … and a woodpecker in a pine tree. The dogs romped outside in the old snow. We ate an abundance of savory foods and sweet rum balls. Caffeine was heavily involved. My two anti-social and freaked-out cats hid under my bed way up in the loft. All the while, the woodpecker continued to peck contentedly away on his pine tree.
After the meal, we faced a known dilemma for the desired outdoor fun: Not all of us were skiers. Sharp intake of breath! Besides that, the snow conditions were far under par: Here we are in the midst of a blessed La Niña, with the glorious promise of colder, wetter weather conditions in our neck o’ the woods — more snow for us, hurray! — and, sadly, instead it has been nothing but blue skies for much more than a month. Blue skies. Just awful! The snow is old and crusty, especially beneath the trees.
As a group, we elected to go snowshoeing. Another sharp intake of breath! Know this people; I do have my own pair of snowshoes. I resort to snowshoeing at least once every year or two. But snowshoeing is not my winter activity of choice. Ever since I began to AT (alpine tour), or as the French say, randonnée, or as I say, “Lock your heel. Ski for real!” my snowshoes have pretty much collected cobwebs. AT is the best of both: you climb as on snowshoes, and then you have the pleasure of making alpine turns on the way back down. ’Shoes don’t really offer much glide on the way down. If you try, it’s more like ass over teakettle. I know. I’ve tried.
We took two vehicles to where the scenic mountain highway is closed for the season, having been buried by snowfall and avalanche. We parked among the 4WDs pulling snowmo trailers and transporting backcountry skiers to the gate. I recognized most of the trucks, vans and Subarus, but the parking area was now sans skiers and sledders. Thankfully, we were left alone to strap on our ’shoes and begin the climb up Silver Star.
It really was very pretty. We stayed to the far, creek-side edge on an old, considerate snowshoe route, and off an old, hard-earned skiers’ up-track. Evidently no one had been up there for a while. The snow was a manky crust through the trees, but easily navigable on snowshoes. It was punchy outside of the trees, but damn, if I wasn’t having a good time! The company was excellent, the scenery gorgeous, and we could listen to the calming sound of water flowing generously underneath the thick layer of ice atop Silver Star Creek … when we stopped for a break. You can’t sneak up on anything in snowshoes.
The pitch was a healthy one and my breathing took on the same cadence it does when I am skinning. I love that. My snowshoes’ crampons bit happily and heartily into the crust and detritus that would have been a challenge on skis and would have fouled my skins. Did I mention I was having fun? On snowshoes?
On the way downhill, after topping out beyond the first accessible bowl and through more tall trees that transitioned to a fairyland of snowy granite slabs and secret passageways, we took perfectly pristine backcountry runs and scarred them with pointless frolicking. It did not seem pathetic in the least. Back and forth across the virgin snow we ran and jumped, hither and freaking thither. We even ’shoed over skiers’ up-tracks and linked turns. We made a mess of things for sure.
I’m reasonably certain that, later on, after the snow set up even more, our big honkin’ track-holes were indelibly Etch-A-Sketch’d into the snow. At least until the next big storm. But I’ll swear on a stack of bibles, or I at the very least I’ll swear, that it was crazy fun.
Come to think of it, whenever I have been on snowshoes, I have had a surprising amount of fun. Yes, far more fun than I would have bargained for.
The Last Laugh
At the end of the afternoon, after we poked our heads out of the trees at the bottom, our cheeks all rosy and lips all a’grin, we joined in with the skiers who were slogging exhaustedly across the snow and toward their parked vehicles. I wouldn’t say that their cheeks were rosy, but their faces were indeed red. Come to think of it, they weren’t really smiling either.
I picked out Dave from the group as he shuffled along on his splitboard. “How was it up Delancy?” I queried cheerfully. “Breakable. Nothing but breakable,” said Dave, shaking his stocking-capped head. Eyeing my snowshoes, almost enviously I would say, Dave looked away as he added, “I’m sure you had more fun today than we did.”
Two Very Good Sites
Check out these beautiful images and words found in my new friend Gin’s blog, who’s Snowshoe Action Shots graced this post.
And Hobie’s amazing images, Wild Hare Photos, from the wilds of greater Yellowstone, the Northern US and Canadian Rockies, Alaska, the US Desert Southwest, and more.
I have lived in my present paradise for seven hunting seasons. The high-country hunt, black powder, bear and bow seasons are quiet and relatively non-intrusive. Unless, of course, you are a bear or ungulate. However, rifle season for our resident and abundant mule deer population — a money-making population artificially enhanced and aggrandized — is a circus and thankfully short. Shake your money makers, little mulies!
For the last five of my seven rifle seasons here, I have taken holiday during these ten days of massacree. I get the hell out of Dodge.
My first two rifle seasons were a shock to the system. Three hundred and fifty-five days a year, our river and mountain valley is a peaceful, quiet and litter-free blip on one’s GPS device (if one has one, which I do not). The liquor store slash real estate office — buy your booze upstairs, buy your getaway downstairs — is pretty dang quiet most times, but upstairs rifle season is their busiest time of year. Get liquored up! Shoot your buck!
During these ten days of massacree, all hell breaks loose, with load after load of folks traveling eastbound in their pick-’em-up trucks, RVs and motorhomes (many hauling quads), speeding down the mountain highway while crawling, nay, trolling our byways and yes, neighborhoods, tossing empties and chip bags out their windows. Every year, there are reports of hunters stalking their prey along private drives and fence lines, near porches and patios. “Hey, do you mind if I come onto your yard to shoot (or finish off) that mulie buck or whitetail doe?” We mind.
I am not anti-hunting! I am against factory farming on so many levels it hurts. I believe with all of my heart that it is far better for a hunter to skillfully and legally take an animal for food from its natural habitat than to buy factory-farmed flesh. I believe that, if one is going to eat the flesh of animals, one had best be prepared to lawfully kill and chop up a critter from time to time. I believe the flesh from mindfully hunted animals is healthier and happier, absent of antibiotics and a life of continuous pain and misery. And if you do eat factory-farmed flesh, you are indeed responsible for the animal’s suffering: It’s supply and demand, baby.
Unfortunately, barrels of bad-apple hunters negatively affect my attitude toward our valley’s rifle season. Honest to Dog, I am aware that not all hunters who travel here are mealy and wormy and liquored up. Most (I hope it is most) respect private property and designated national park boundaries, the age and sex of their prey and whether it is nighttime or daylight hours. I am reasonably confident many of our visiting hunters actually park their vehicles and hike out into the forests and meadows and mountains, respecting boundaries, the land they move across and the animals they take. Goodonya.
I made noise as I drove up the gravel byway to work, slowed by the trollers, some stopped in the middle of the narrow road with guns hanging out of their windows. I taped No Hunting sign’s to my wrangler’s side and rear windows. Armed with my jalopy’s horn and a camera sitting on the passenger seat, I was ready for action. While I pissed off some folks, others gave me hugs and encouragement, grateful I had brought much-needed attention to the disrespectful and dangerously armed wildfire that had been spreading out of control.
My first three or so years in the valley, I was a stringer for the local weekly rag, a very fine and well-read small town newspaper. I chose to write some pieces on the illegal road hunting, trolling if you will, I witnessed on my way up the canyon and off to work. I wrote a piece on the poached one-point someone shot from the road as the spike peacefully masticated on sweet apples from an old and gnarly apple tree not 15 feet away from where the vehicle had stopped. I wrote about the mulie doe shot up with arrows who had died along the highway. You could still see where her breath and blood had warmed the chip seal.
I wrote more pieces on various other topics, but some remembered only that I had shined the printed spotlight on their illegal hunting habits. And that I had made noise. I received more than one violent threat. They didn’t forgive and I eventually stopped submitting anything to our little weekly. I quieted down.
Every rifle season, I now peacefully pack up my rig, load up the big dogs and travel someplace safe. This year I spent some time snug as a bug in a log cabin by the mighty Koma Kulshan. My old stomping grounds. Some critters there were in season, but I merely crossed paths with one hunting party of two and heard four rifle shots over five days of hiking and back-country skiing (it was mid-October and I booted up to Artist’s Point, making six whole turns on the way back down!).
As I consider submitting this journal post to Mr. Fayhee, my stomach tightens a bit: Will there be any local backlash? Will the likes of Idaho Dave and “tlm” grow more agitated and even less lucid in response to my words?
Well, what the hell! This is my truth. It doesn’t need to be yours.
On my way west on 542, watching Grandpa Kulshan fade in my rearview mirror, I swung wide into Bellingham and entered Old School Tattoo. Shortly thereafter, Mikel inked the inside of my right forearm with a fair-sized Pacific Northwest-style line drawing of a lone wolf.
The process felt good.
Mikel was cool and talented, and I hope he writes that graphic novel.
You see, I often feel as I imagine a wolf may feel, if wolves’ thoughts were filled with linear language instead of circular images: I am misunderstood! I am a scapegoat! Outside of my small pack, I am on my own.
I am marked.
Taking a breath
Nope, no poetry, no self-amusing little ditty … I am holding my breath this time.
Late August 1999, and the trail is crisscrossed with windfall. Above treeline, it is covered in deep snow. My pack is heavy in preparation for the fire lookout being locked and shuttered, in case Wolfgang and I need to camp out after we top out.
I frequently throw off my pack, slinging it over or shoving it under the otherwise impassable toppled trees and limbs — gargantuan, rainforest limbs having been amputated by harsh winter weather — now resting horizontally, almost strategically, across the heavily wooded trail. There is much of this heaving and ho-ing. It takes an hour for each of the four miles along with the 4,500 feet of elevation gain.
In the headlamp’s narrow beam, we literally claw our way up the last icy chute. Up high, on the tippy-top, the lookout is neither shuttered, nor occupied. Wolfy and I doggedly (which is easy for him) climb the three flights of steep and rickety stairs and I un-batten the hatches. No padlock on the door and we are in!
Making hot water for tea. Eating crackers and cheese. Wolfy crunching his crunchy dog granola.
Time to crawl into the sleeping bag I have rolled out onto the small bed. How many others have flopped onto this lovely, tattered mattress? Dreamed? Made love? Laid awake and watched the stars? A storm rolls in and out. Another storm rolls in and not out. The wind kicks up its heals. The lookout sways back and forth, back and forth, pacing along with the gusts. Big, dark, rainforest clouds weep big, heavy tears, ratatatat against the lookout’s shingles and glass.
Daybreak and it is still socked in. A good day to read, take a nap, write a little. I make an entry in the lookout’s logbook and date it 26 August 1999, because it is. My entry includes a poem, a few sentences about the continuing storm and of my dog and gratitude.
Wolfy and I saw our logs another night while tucked into this lofty loft, and awake to a sky as blue as we have ever seen. I haven’t crossed paths with another humanbean since before pulling off at the trailhead’s modest pull-off two days ago.
On our way back down, three-quarters of the way down, we meet a trail crew working their way up with saw, pulaski and shovel. The crew leader considers me hearty and I am offered a job on the spot with the USFS working trails. I never follow up on this, but maybe should have.
After my pack is back in the Jeep and Wolfy hops in, I turn the key. Space and Time roughly take a hold of us and hurl us back into the continuum.
Someday I will return. I promise.
Late August 2011, and the trail is sparsely crisscrossed with windfall. Above treeline, scattered patches of snow cling to short stretches of the trail and slopes. The remaining snow isn’t very deep. My pack is heavy in preparation for the fire lookout being locked and shuttered, in case Arrow and I need to camp out after we top out.
There is no need to throw off my pack and sling it over or shove it under otherwise impassable trees and limbs — I am able to circumnavigate off-trail a few switchbacks, avoiding the few clusters of windfall. Yet, it takes a considerable amount of time for each of the four miles along with the 4,500 feet of elevation gain.
Up high, on the tippy-top, the lookout is neither shuttered, nor occupied. I doggedly climb the three flights of steep and rickety stairs and I un-batten the hatches. No padlock on the door and I am in with plenty of daylight remaining! It takes several attempts over the course of a couple of hours to coax Arrow up the steep and rickety stairs. Once I have him on lead, he sheepishly makes the climb and enters the lookout. Trust. A sheep in wolf’s clothing.
Time to crawl into the sleeping bag I have rolled out onto the small bed. How many others have flopped onto this lovely, tattered mattress? Dreamed? Made love? Laid awake and watched the stars like I am about to do? After the sun sets gorgeous on Grandpa Koma Kulshan, there is no moon, only countless, countless stars in an octopus ink sky.
Daybreak and the sky is as blue as we have ever seen. A good day to take a hike and write a little. I make an entry in the lookout’s logbook and date it 27 August 2011, because it is. My entry includes a poem, a few sentences about the sunset, the stars, the sunrise, and of my dog and gratitude.
I haven’t crossed paths with another humanbean since before pulling off at the trailhead’s modest pull-off.
In the early hours, I can see where a good-sized black bear had padded tracks into the snow surrounding the lookout, before the snow froze solid in the starlight. He had walked from the ridgeline toward the base of the lookout, and stopped. Then, instead of retracing his original paw-falls, he V’d back into the trees nearby. From the lookout above, the pattern made by the tracks he left behind looked just like a boomerang.
And I had kept my promise.
Tamarack torches fool my eyes into seeing
Saffron on jade.
The sun, circumspect, moves behind
a five month fortress of grey
Sterling on slate.
Rifle shot smacks his deadly lips.
More terrifying than thunder.
Midnight soot on my elbow
I smell of burning trees,
“Can anyone tell me what’s good about wolves?” asked nine-year-old Irene Popp of Kamiah, Idaho, during a public meeting in Salmon. The 27 July meeting preceded the Idaho Fish and Game Commission vote the next day which set the hunting and trapping — leg hold and neck snare (read, strangulation) — season for the Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf.
I wasn’t at the meeting and I don’t live in Idaho. From my wee abode in the shadow of Last Chance, I listened to this story on NPR by Jessica Robertson, NW News Network. Maybe little Irene had been reading wolf-vilifying fairytales such as “Little Red Riding Hood” or “Three Little Pigs”? How could one so young form such a definite and angry sentiment against wolves? I went so far as to locate little Irene’s telephone number through her father’s listing. Mike Popp, Irene’s daddy, was also mentioned in the story and the two were listed as a father and daughter anti-wolf team. I simply wanted to call up little Irene and ask her why she felt so strongly against wolves. No harm intended.
While searching for Mike Popp’s number, I discovered that papa Popp owns an outfitting and guide business and is licensed for bobcat, deer, bear, cougar and, last but not least, wolf hunting. OK, so I no longer needed to ask little Irene why she felt so negatively toward wolves. I had my answer. I could only imagine what she’d been hearing around the dinner table. I did not pick up the telephone.
“Open ’em year round. Hunt ’em, trap ’em, run ’em over. Don’t make a collared wolf illegal to shoot. Shoot ’em!” Mike Popp exclaimed during the meeting in Salmon. Papa Popp was also there with a group called the Committee for a Safe and Wolf-Free Idaho. Scary stuff.
I typically find myself rooting for underdogs such as the Big Bad Wolf, who was cooked up in a pot in the conclusion of “Three Little Pigs.” I feel pity for the Big Grey Wolf, who was strung up by his tale and later paraded off to the zoo in “Peter and the Wolf.” I am horrified when the hunter cuts open the belly of the wolf to release Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmamma, filling the gaping cavity with stones so he will drown. (After all, maybe granny and Lil’ Red had it coming?) I even want Wile E. Coyote to catch that damn, smug roadrunner, to stop falling from cliffs, being crushed by various heavy objects.
Little Irene Popp, wolves help keep our forest’s creeks and rivers healthy by bringing ungulate populations in check. In this same circle of life, wolves help keep healthy the deer populations your father hunts and guides other folks to hunt. Wolves help keep your daddy in business and food on your table. Wolves play harmony in the music of the wild, and pepper the forests with magic and mystery. We would be less in the absence of wolves.
We Had Wolves
During the summer of 2008, the Lookout Pack in the Methow Valley, a mountain and river valley in north-central Washington I call home, was confirmed by WDFW as being the first wolf pack in Washington State since the 1930s. Some of us in the valley cheered! Some set traps, picked up guns, laced meet with arsenic and got busy. Shoot, shovel, shut up!
By 2010, the radio-collared alpha female was missing and presumed dead, nay poached.
Once numbering upwards of 10 or 11 individuals, the pack has now been diminished to two males, likely the old alpha and one of his sons. However, there has not been much proof of their continued existence over the past couple of months.
Thankfully, the ranching family who “got busy” is pretty dang stupid, and while you can’t shoot stupid, you can convict. Three area residents were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of killing several endangered Washington gray wolves: One family member tried sending a pelt to Canada and was caught when a shipping agent alerted authorities to a box leaking blood. Another emailed a relative in Alaska asking for help in trapping wolves, later emailing that he and others were hunting wolves near his property. In January 2009, he again sent an email claiming he and others shot two wolves in a group of nine, and one wolf in a group of three.
The ranch had not experienced any loss of livestock due to wolf predation and is being investigated on other charges of illegal hunting, e.g. deer out of season, hunting cougar with dogs, baiting beer.
So when Idaho Dave responded to my May blog post offering, “If you’d like, Idaho would be happy to share a few extras [wolves] with your area,” I only wish we could oblige…
Over the Mountain and Through the Woods
A bit farther south in the Cascade Range, another wolf pack has been found in the middle of a USFS allotment. The Smackout pack, as it is being referred, is small with an alpha female and male, and three pups. The alpha female weighs in at a whopping 65 pounds (who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?) and has DNA ties to the once thriving Lookout pack. Hope springs eternal.
• And this Guest Column Piece written for the Omak-Okanogan County (WA) Chronicle by Conservation Northwest’s Outreach Associate, Jay Kehne. Used here with Jay’s permission:
Many people in the Okanogan are talking about wolves since they returned to our county a couple years ago. If you believe everything that is being said about wolves at public meetings, coffee shops and on the internet, you may not be getting the whole story. You may have been fed a line.
Such is the case of the recent resolution by the Okanogan County Commissioners asking the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) to remove protections for the wolf. Its allegations are mostly unfounded, it will not succeed, and it will be remembered largely as a waste of energy and time. I predict that the WDFW will send Okanogan County a letter explaining the well-established biological and legal basis for protecting wolves as an endangered species in Washington. Then we will be right back where we started, needing to separate facts from myths about wolves so we can move forward and learn how to live with them. Take into consideration that the results of a recent poll show a whopping 70% of Washington residents support wolf recovery in our state.
As a friend, acquaintance and neighbor to many people in Okanogan County, I want to share information about wolves and help stop the unproductive and unfounded fear-based rumors, untruths and wild stories that are going around. Hear me out; I’d like to take them on one by one:
Wolves will infect us all with Echinococcus tape worm! This tape worm is found in canines around the world, including dogs, coyotes, wolves and fox. The eggs of the tapeworm can spread to wild and domestic ungulates, like deer and sheep when infected canid feces are ingested. Ungulates also can give the tapeworm to canines when an infected ungulate is eaten. But people will not get tapeworms from eating infected deer, elk, or sheep. The Tapeworm can only be transmitted to humans that ingest infected canid feces. The risk of infection to humans remains infinitesimally small and certainly won’t change significantly because a few wolves are spread out over millions of acres of woods.
Gray wolves are not native to Washington! It is scientifically documented that wolves first migrated into Washington from the southern Great Plains about 10,000 years ago, and wolves were routinely observed and trapped by pioneers. With territories of over 350 square miles, and excellent dispersal capability, wolves have been wandering back and forth across the Canadian border for eons. Gray wolves living in Canada and Washington, were and are, all the same species. When wolves disappeared from Washington in the 1930s due to trapping, poisoning and hunting, the same gray wolf species still existed in Canada. And now these wolves have wandered back into Okanogan County. Same wolves, same species. In fact, recent research involving DNA from hundreds of wolves from Canada, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming found there is no genetic difference between them.
Supposedly there are sworn affidavits that people saw wolves being released in Okanogan County! I’m sure somebody saw something, but to believe these were wolves you’d have to ignore a whole lot of things. Even highly trained biologists and trappers need more than a quick sighting to verify a wolf. To verify a wolf you need pictures, photos of tracks, or DNA evidence to be sure what you “saw” wasn’t a wolf-dog hybrid, coyote, or some other big dog. People dump unwanted pets every week in our area. Think about it, who would have the skills, motives or funds to track wolves (most likely in Canada) trap them, dart them, transport them unnoticed across the border, and release them in our county? Not to mention the alleged sighting took place in 2005 and the signed affidavit didn’t appear until 2011?
We will have monster 200 lb wolves! The Idaho Department of Fish and Game would beg to differ. Of the 188 wolves taken in the 2009 Idaho wolf hunt, the record weight was 127 lbs and the average was 95 lbs. The myth of monster wolves comes from “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Three Little Pigs” children’s stories, not from reality. And the pictures of giant wolves you see on the internet … well, even Photoshop or a wide-angle camera lens can make the fish I catch look big!
But what about all the livestock loss because of wolves! Fortunately, there is good data on livestock predation. With 1,500 wolves in the Rockies and 3,000 in Minnesota, only 1% of cattle losses were due to predators. Of that 1% percent, coyotes accounted for 53%, domestic dogs 10% and wolves 4% of all predator losses. Neighbors’ dogs kill three times as much livestock as wolves! After the poaching of the Lookout Pack in the Methow, we only have two confirmed adult wolves in Okanogan County and a few scattered sightings of lone wolves. Even if Okanogan County’s wolf population grows to what experts expect (about 4-6 packs or 40-60 wolves), livestock losses will be extremely low. Let’s get proactive now so we can have plans in place to avoid wolf and livestock conflicts and funds to fully compensate ranchers if conflicts do occur.
Wolves will multiply to unmanageable numbers and overrun the county! Predator populations are self-regulating. Their numbers don’t grow beyond the natural prey base or the territorial space they need to occupy. Okanogan County only has enough physical space (territory) for a limited number of wolves, and they will kill other wolves and predators to defend their territory.
But what about us — wolves are known to attack and kill humans! This is where the facts can really help set aside irrational and unfounded fears. There is only one confirmed human life lost due to wolves in all of North America. For perspective, compare that to 34 fatal dog attacks in the USA in 2010 alone, and that 1,000 people are treated every day in the States for bites, maulings and attacks by dogs. Fear of wolves is not something to lose sleep over.
Wolves will decimate elk and deer herds! To really look at all the facts, research, and hunting statistics with an unbiased view, would take another whole article, which I would be glad to write. To get you thinking, 23 of Idaho’s 29 game management zones have elk numbers within or above management targets. With 150,000 elk, Montana is 14% over the state management objective, and Wyoming with 120,000 elk is 50% above objective. As an avid elk & deer hunter, I realize wolves change herd behavior. In order to remain successful, hunters will have to adapt, which in turn will make them better hunters.
To learn more about wolves, rancher compensation, wolf ungulate interactions and the basis for wolf recovery in Washington State go to: http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/gray_wolf/mgmt_plan.html and take a look at the Washington Wolf Conservation and Management Plan. You will be surprised in its thoroughness, fairness and balanced approach to the return of wolves in our state.
Jay Kehne is an avid hunter, backpacker, skier, wildlife advocate, and livestock owner, who makes his home with his family along the Okanogan River. He has degrees in Wildlife Biology and Soil Science from WSU.
On my way to northwest Wyoming, I stopped over in Rock Creek, a bit east of Missoula. Rock Creek is a startlingly gorgeous narrow river valley, edged by steep slopes and popular to anglers. It is also embarrassingly known for its annual Testicle Festival. The latter being the reason I had not before ventured into this nook of the planet, instead passing by merrily and purposefully along I-90. I stopped at the Rock Creek Lodge for camping beta and was sent up the road about 12 miles to the Grizzly Campground, well off the beaten path and down a rocky, pothole-y, somewhat washed-out dirt spur.
On my way to Grizzly, I stopped across from an unlikely rock outcropping and slide area, snuggled up to a rustic cabin with a vegetable garden surrounded by prayer flags atop wire fencing. Beautiful. A mirage. Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep, all ewes, were eating the tender leaves and spring green grasses growing outside of the prayer-flagged garden. Some ewes climbed amongst the neighboring towering rock, their lambs running, nay veritably skipping, effortlessly up and down class-5+ scrambles. I turned off the engine and turned on the parking lights — I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon and, although I was stopped in the middle of the narrow byway, I hadn’t seen another vehicle since turning off the interstate.
Two lambs were especially playful, following one another up and down the slides, mystically leaping uphill from one rock to another. I caught my breath in one hand and held my heart in the other as one lamb ventured the highest of all before becoming airborne, leaping several feet outward and downward, directly over its playmate below, continuing her frolic up and down and over and over and up and down, tirelessly.
As daylight was waning and I still needed to find Grizzly, I reluctantly started up the engine and continued down the road. Once at Grizzly and still feeling buzzed from the prayer flags and Bighorns, I promptly backed into a good-sized rock strategically hidden by an evil clump of salal. I pulled forward and heard a nauseating clunk with a metallic scraping sound. After taking a peek under the car, I ascertained that it looked about as bad as it sounded, with much of my exhaust system now resting slothfully on the pine needles and loam below.
Ray and Mike, camped with their wives a few sites down and just about the only other human souls in Grizzly, walked commandingly toward my car, their superhero capes blowing confidently in the fragrant valley breezes. After exchanging very few words, the two immortals promptly crawled under my car, assessed the situation, and returned to their campers for supplies: metal coat hangers and pliers. Their wives returned with them to watch and take pictures as 86-year-young Ray and his son-in-law Mike, crawled under my car and MacGyver’d up the exhaust system so that I could maybe make it to a shop a couple of days later (it was currently Saturday evening).
We sat by their campfire that night and jawed into the wee hours. In the morning, before both couples took off for home in Missoula, they invited me back over for cowboy coffee percolated on a grill set over low flames. Later, I ventured down the road — car guts staying in place over the bumps and boulders — and borrowed Deb’s phone at Trout Bums fly shop, to see about finding a mechanic. I scored zero, so, making lemonade, I returned to Grizzly, pulled on my hiking boots and found a trail for me and my dog Arrow. Tsunami and her old shepherd-mix hips, stayed back at the tent to watch for squirrels and chippies. Along the trail, I met Daniel, who was successfully hunting the season’s succulent morels. Found out Daniel lives in a cabin with a garden and prayer flags and itinerant ewes and lambs. Beautiful. A mirage.
Wringing It Dry
Monday, I successfully made it from Rock Creek to Idaho Falls with the coat hangers still holding up the car junk (blessings upon you, Ray and Mike). In Idaho Falls, I stopped at a tire shop asking for a muffler shop; they sent me up the road to a local’s. After waiting to be squeezed in, about an hour or so with my big dogs in a grassy park nearby, it took all of 25 minutes and a modest $87.50 to have my car made whole and back on the road to the Hoback and beyond. I arrived at Sonja’s that night, somewhere between Daniel and Big Piney, in the midst of sage-filled fields back-dropped by three glorious northwest Wyoming mountain ranges.
For my entire stay, Earl, god of weather, fouled our backcountry skiing and camping plans with bouts of snow and hail tempered by daily rain and lightning storms. A late-spring melt rendered the USFS roads navigable only a short distance from pavement. The best laid schemes of mice and women … Making lemonade, Sonja and I arose early each day to visit her horses in the neighboring field, followed by dayhikes in the Wind River, Hoback and Wyoming ranges before the weather would hit, as it did each day by noon or so. I slept out in Sonja’s horse trailer along with the two big dogs, as indeed her rented hillbilly shack is diminutive. Afternoons would find us lounging in the shack with books, or settled in at the GRB enjoying shots of single-malt whiskey and a draft of beer.
Whatever, Earl, we put our arses to the wind and we rode it out. We wrung it dry!
On a muddy USFS road up the Wind, Sonja and I hiked beside fresh BIG black bear tracks running parallel with wolf tracks laid around the same time. The wolf tracks were at least three times the size of Arrow’s — and he weighs in at nearly 90 pounds. No recent sign of human activity was present, besides the boot prints Sonja and I were putting down.
Sonja’s recipe for Indoors S’mores, the absolute pick-me-up for stormy weather and thwarted back-county travel plans:
Bamboo shish kabob sticks
Stove burner (electric or gas)
Skewer marshmallows onto kabob sticks and toast over a low burner. Sandwich hot and bubbling marshmallows between graham crackers and chocolate. Allow chocolate to melt before biting into the gooeycrunchy mess. Laugh and point at the marshmallow and chocolate speared on your friend’s lips and cheeks, knowing you are suffering the same indignity. Chase this simple, childhood treat with one or two grown-up shots of whiskey. You will find this surprisingly refreshing!
It had been 10 days, so I packed up the big dogs, turned my car west and headed north to home in the upper Methow (Met-how). Through Montana, I traveled into more lightning and jellyfish rainclouds, their rain tentacles stinging the rivers and creeks into swollen anaphylaxis. Home again, home again, jiggety-jig.
It feels I have returned to Mother Rainforest, Grandpa Koma Kulshan towering over my right shoulder, cousin Nooksack at my feet. Rain. A gob of rain has been falling. Rain like the rain from clouds stacked against the west edge of the northern most peaks, peaks due east of clammy Puget Sound. I sit at the eastern toes of this same northern range. And while any clouds that make it up and over these mighty mountains drop their wet and wonderful bounty here on my head, it is not rainforest by any stretch of the imagination. On the East Slopes, the occasional grove of cedar clutches the earth near a river or spring, but predominantly our forests are of fir and pine, with punctuations of tamarack. The trees stand farther apart from one another and grow from ground all powdered sugar dry not long after snowmelt. Little moss and infrequent mud.
But I hail from rainforest, my roots wending and waning from there to here, while remaining planted in the mud and moss and dank of it all.
It is because of this season’s rain that I have been spending more time watching the window channel. (So simply and yet not so proudly, I have become a fair-weather trekker.) LGBs and resident squirrels are busily scattering seeds from the feeder, and I have spotted two red-headed woodpeckers on a few occasions. A gang of hummers sip the sweet nectar I brew for them, their tongues darting eagerly into the sugary mix.
On a recent dryer day, Susan joined me up here for trail run. I was all lope, lope lope, nose to the trail-stone, when I heard her sharp intake of breath and an excited, “Bear! “ Said bear quickly crossed the trail right in front of us, and I looked up just in time to catch sight of his ample two-year-old rump skedaddle into the brush. We must have scared up the sable-hued teddy from his pond-time down amongst the aspen. Quick, quick like a bunny, off tore my long-legged, long-tailed puppy, after the bear and out of site. “Shit!” was of course my first utterance before I called his name. Being the good dog that he is, Arrow quickly returned, much like a boomerang and straight as an arrow. And thankfully sans bruin. Susan and I were all giddy and grins for a while, like everyone is after a friendly bear encounter. Yes?
Soon I will be ROADTRIPPING (all one word, capitalized) to northwest Wyoming. There, the big dogs and I will explore the Gros Ventre Wilderness and the Hoback River, and visit Sonja. Some years ago, Sonja traded in her city life for a pair of faded jeans, a beat-up cowboy hat and a big truck. She has two horses in a sprawling, sage-filled field next to her rented shack. Sonja and I will head up to Jackson for a day and find a good cowboy bar (after all, cowboys are her weakness). I have never been to Wyoming. I will probably write about that next.
“Many of us support biodiversity — but the wolf thing has gotten over the top. They are fully recovered and well beyond the goals for a sustainable population. On the other hand — we’ve gotten to where we see them in regularly in remote small town, We are loosing [sic] a large number of big game animals — esp. elk, and a few people pets (a friend’s dog). All I ask is some balance — we seem to have more than enough. If you’d like, Idaho would be happy to share a few extras with your area.”
It is apparent that Dave and I are on opposite sides of the wolf fence, and never the twain shall meet. As Dave writes from Idaho, I thought I would do a little look-see into their “over the top” wolf population. I stumbled across the Idaho Fish and Game’s Wolf Population Management Plan, 2008-2012, in which it is stated (I have added the bold): “Based on cause-specific mortality of radio collared elk in the Lolo Zone… wolf predation on cow elk is a significant factor in that population’s inability to stabilize or increase, particularly in Game Management Unit 12 (IDFG 2006). Similarly, wolf predation may be causing reductions in harvestable surplus in other areas, even if elk populations are not declining. Wolves are likely impacting behavior and habitat use of elk during hunting seasons, thus possibly reducing success rates for some hunters.”
It would appear, then, that while the Lolo Zone elk herds are presently neither stabilizing nor increasing and have indeed been on the decline, other zones in Idaho are merely exhibiting reductions in “harvestable surplus” and that elk behavior and habitat use may be making it more difficult for some hunters. This seems to be more of an issue for the hunter than it does for the elk. And as wolf populations often self regulate, at least partially in response to prey limitation, it is conceivable that left well enough alone even the Lolo Zone elk herd populations may subsequently stabilize.
Idaho Dave tells us that a friend lost a pet dog to wolf predation. I do not disagree that domestic dogs may be lost to wolves from time to time. No life is lived without risk. My cat I.B. was taken by a coyote one dark and stormy night. And while I really loved that cat, I knew the coyote was hungry and just wanted dinner; it wasn’t anything personal. We, two cats, the big dog and I, lived in the woods by a mountain called Baker, and it was a bit wild around my cabin back then.
Remember too, that a mind-numbing number of dogs (and cats and other critters) are lost to human-caused neglect and abuse: Think Michael Vick, think Outdoor Adventures Whistler.
Interested in learning more about the delisting of wolves and predator control? Read these two recent articles in High Country News:
Coffee is my morning lover, my morning ritual. An addiction. I boil water in an old grumpy teapot, pouring it into the press over cheerful, freshly ground beans. One cup with real cream in the morning, and maybe, just maybe, one more a little later on. Don’t deny me my steaming, aromatic potion. Coffee, baby, you always treat me right.