Wildlife, Up Close and Personal

Pronghorns and coyotes and bears? Oh, my.

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We took my infant grandson to the zoo in Arizona. I wanted pictures of the little fellow in the same frame as the big creatures we read about in his board books, to give him evidence that they’re real.

Cows and cats, dogs and horses, no problem. But lions, tigers, and bears? Oh, my.

“We can skip the pronghorns and the deer,” I said to the woman who showed me the zoo map. “We’re from Wyoming.”

TigerThe first cage we came to held the tiger. It roared as soon as it saw the baby. (Feeding time.) We jumped, but the baby didn’t react.

The creatures in this lovely zoo are rescues, brought in by Game and Fish when they’re injured or orphaned, transferred from other zoos that have gone out of business, or confiscated (like the mountain lion) from people who tried to keep them as pets. It’s a wonderful little zoo that does as well as possible, but I felt sad for the residents.

I saw a bald eagle in a small cage, perched motionless on a branch that was almost close enough to reach. One of its relatives likes to perch on a gate in the field beyond our buck and rail. We watch it through our binoculars. I had no idea they are so huge.

Farther on, a coyote sat forlornly on a rock inside its enclosure. It looked like my dog when he’s bored on a hot day: No reason to run, no pack to run with. We almost never see coyotes at home, but we hear them often, rejoicing over a capture. I felt bad for this little fellow who lost his mother too young.

Antelope_100617The pronghorns were wandering around a space smaller than someone’s back yard. I had never before seen one up close and personal, how its horns seem to spring directly out of its eyes. I usually see them in the near distance somewhere nearby, grazing on a plain. They sometimes hang out in the pastures around town when food is short elsewhere.

I have read that they can run as fast as a car. I’ve never seen this myself, but out there, they actually could if they felt the urge.

We didn’t bother to take a picture of the baby near the mule deer. We can show him plenty of those near home.

BearOn seeing us, this huge black bear lumbered out of its man-made cave, approached the fence, and sat down — more sociable toward the baby than my own dog is.

“Bear!” we said to the baby. “Here’s a bear!” This time he paid attention.

Just what we wanted; close, but safe on the far side of a big fence. Then it waddled slowly over to its wading pool and demonstrated how to lounge in the bath. The baby could relate to that.

This brought back a memory: hiking with the dog near the Wind River, I saw what I thought at first was a father and son, both in dark raingear, fishing together. After a few steps, I turned quietly around and walked the other way. That’s as close as I’ve come to a bear – until yesterday.

071317_5We know from surveys that “wildlife viewing” is one of the main reasons people come all the way to the Dubois area for a visit. Going to the zoo for the first time in years helped me understand this better.

We don’t just live in a postcard, as someone once said to me. We live in an actual habitat.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018

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Mud, Slush, Trash, and Treasures

It seems a shame to call them “bad lands” when they are so wonderful.

DaybreakIn March and April, the town is ours at last. We see few out-of-state license plates, except for the spring snowmobilers heading up the pass.

Down-mountain, the snow may turn up now and then, but it doesn’t hang around very long. Everyone living nearby seems to have a new pond in their yard that freezes over and then thaws.

The streets are quiet. For motel owners who stay open all winter, this is the time to enjoy sleeping later and making repairs. You can probably count on a table at the Bistro without a reservation.

IMG_0196Some days it’s really cold; other days it’s mild enough to go out without a coat, especially where it’s not windy. Today the thermometer reads 20 degrees, but I’m quite comfortable in a denim shirt and down vest.

Still, the repeated melt and freeze are a challenge for a hiker. I have to strategize in order to avoid having to give the dog a bath after our outings. That’s why I revisit the badlands when early spring comes around.

BadlandsPlant2It seems a shame to call them “bad lands,” when they are so wonderful. Later in the spring, they will erupt with small wild flowers and the sage will turn green and fragrant.

Just now, the ground is barren, but it’s also fairly dry and rarely muddy. Each turn up a draw is a new adventure.

The views, as ever, are splendid. I heard somewhere that Dubois was voted as having the most scenic drive to the town dump anywhere in the country. Whether or not that ever happened, I believe it could be true.

GreenandRed_editedThe road beyond the dump heads over the badlands and on up toward Table Mountain where at some places the scene over the edge looks like a miniature Grand Canyon. Hiking closer to the dump today, what I notice are the ever-changing colors of the soil — which is the most striking feature of the badlands in any case.

Returning down a draw after an hour’s hike across this vast expanse of  wrinkled ridges, I come across a spot where the ground turns suddenly from badlands green to badlands red. I’m used to seeing this as changes in the stripes on the slowly melting slopes, not as fields of red or green, like this. I wonder what caused that transformation. (You can see the buildings of the dump ahead, at the top right in the picture. The white patch to its left is a snow-covered slope in the distance.)

BadlandsCarcass080616This close to the dump (and the start of the road) you always encounter some trash in the terrain: empty beer cans, cardboard, construction debris deposited out here for free (rather than paying the fee, at the dump). The ground is cleaner farther out the road.

There’s always some of the kind of refuse that my dog appreciates, the kind predators leave behind.

That’s another good reason to bring the dog here during mud and slush season. The bones are clean and dry, and won’t cause him any problem if I take them away before he chews off a chip. He just likes to carry them around like trophies, anyway.

Usually I follow the abundant game trails through this labyrinth, but seeing my car in the distance, I decide to strike out overland, crossing a draw and climbing a fairly steep slope on the other side.

RockerBadlandsNearing the top, I encounter a very large discarded object. Someone wanting to avoid the discard fee must have pushed this over the edge just beyond the dump, driving no farther than necessary on the rutted road in order to avoid being seen.

The wood is weathered, and most of the nails have pulled free. Nevertheless I turn it back upright, and tug at it. Wouldn’t it be great in our back yard come summer — bolted back together, given a new seat and left out behind the house, facing up our valley?

Alas, it proves too heavy to drag even a few yards uphill.  I leave it turned toward the distance. Fine old chair as it once was, it at least deserves to crumble facing out across the same uplifting terrain I have just enjoyed.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Holiday Special on a Mountain Top

I wondered why a horse would be on the loose so far up-mountain.

JacksonView_121117When I came down the steep, snowy slope a few minutes later, leaning on my walking stick, I could see why she had started to run.

In a spot like that, when you have strong legs and plenty of traction, it’s only natural to take advantage of gravity and momentum.

It was a beautiful winter day, but I hadn’t set out on my workout hike with a sense of joy or anticipation. You know how they say to seize the day? Sometimes it’s the day that seizes you.

For me this far, it had been all uphill. I had been keeping a close watch on the time, and my knees were complaining. A half hour up, I told myself, and then back down.

At the point when I’d clocked the half hour, I could see the road curve ahead and dwindle to a trail. I couldn’t resist. In hopes of a splendid view, I went on.

Then suddenly, the sound of galloping. Briefly I wondered why a horse would be on the loose, way up here on the mountain. But of course this was no horse.

Moose_121117There she was, huge and beautiful. She skidded to a halt, and I stopped too. We looked at each other, motionless.

I have never had the privilege of looking a moose in the eyes before. I do not try to get close to moose. They are powerful and unpredictable, I know. But we were staring.

Her gaze was like my dog’s–gentle, brown, and intent. I sank down on the steep slope beside the trail, hoping to look as much as possible like a boulder (an eggplant-colored Thermasilk-lined boulder with a fur-edged hood, wearing a houndstooth visor cap).

I risked snapping a picture. She watched quietly.

Moose_121117_croppedAfter several heart-pounding moments (my heart, I mean), she moved slowly toward me on the trail, then stopped and stared again. She turned hugely around and paced back uphill a ways. Then she reversed course and came slowly toward me.

What would she do? Was she going to sniff me? Or kick me?

Perhaps five feet away, she turned again and ambled down the slope into the woods.

I watched her descend and disappear into the trees before I rose from my crouch and regained the path. She didn’t turn to look back at me.

MoosetracksShadow2_121117I stopped to take a picture of her huge hoofprints at full gallop in the snow.

Then I continued on up into the woods whence she had come, returning later down that same steep slope that had set her off on her joyous run.

 

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Racing Thoughts on a Winter Hike

I was a little nostalgic, but not for long.

JH_emptylift3A friend from back East has graciously lent me her ski condo in the late off-season. New trails take me to unfamiliar places, with sights I will not see back home in Dubois.

For instance: An unused ski lift waits motionless and silent, a ghostly reminder of another life. I recall the creak of the lift chair as it swings around to grab you from the rear. The reach back and up to grab the overhead bar and bring it down across your lap.

I recall the enforced strut of skiers in molded boots, conveying a sense of arrogance as they clattered past in the slopeside cafe.

I used to love downhill skiing. In fact, it was my enthusiasm for my first ski trip, at the age of 19, that made my husband notice me in the college dorm.

JH_emptylift1Once we took ski trips every winter, as a matter of course.

On this morning, at the spot where the lift chairs swing around and dump you off, only footprints led away. I remembered the exhilaration of the smooth, winding sail as the momentum carried you on downhill. The wonder (on the first run) of what awaited around that curve. The sense in my knees of being one with the slope.

For this one morning, I was a little nostalgic. I quit skiing a decade ago, after I got a mild knee sprain in deep powder.

JH_snowytrailWas that an early sign of aging? I don’t think so.

I didn’t want any more injuries to deter me from hiking, because I knew there are better ways to understand a mountain.

This trail led off away from the top of the motionless lift. I saw that a man and his dog had gone that way not long ago. It beckoned, and I followed.

Just as I can learn a back road far better on foot than in a car, I gain a much closer friendship with a slope by pushing off the boulders on my way uphill and sidestepping over the rocky gullies on my way back down than by gliding down a well-groomed avenue.

The challenge I seek is not for the speed downhill, but for the strength uphill.

The pleasure I’m after is not the joy of following a crowd or a well-marked route, but the difference between getting lost and just exploring.

TracksFar better than the jostle of strangers speeding past is my own solitude, and the delight of unexpected encounters. In truth, I’m the stranger this morning, to the foxes and deer who own these slopes when there are no crowds.

Yesterday, we ran across each other in person. We did not stop to introduce ourselves; we just stared. This morning, I see they’ve been here ahead of me.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Watching for Wildlife on the Road

Encounters of surprise and delight (we hope)

SheepAs a volunteer, I’ve been helping the Chamber of Commerce to survey visitors to Dubois about their vacation plans. What, asks the questionnaire, have you come here to experience?

The same three words recur: Mountains. Scenery. Wildlife.

Mountains and scenery are guaranteed, but not the latter, unless visitors are willing to go out of their way and out of their comfort zone. It’s fairly rare to see creatures other than cattle near the highway (although we must watch out for deer). We don’t have an elk preserve, after all, and the bison are all on the other side of the pass.

Stay around long enough, however, and they do come your way. These encounters are often moments of surprise and delight — like the time I came upon these bighorn sheep at the base of the red rocks.

But we hope not to have any encounters of surprise and terror. A neighbor caught a mountain lion in her night camera. I once saw a lone wolf at the edge of the aspen grove from the safety of my dining room window. I have yet to see a bear up close and personal, and I do all I can to avoid it.

Here’s what turned up on the back road beside a neighbor’s house last week. My hiking companion took this picture, and showed it that evening to a friend who is a wildlife specialist.

BearScatAs we had suspected from the color and the contents: Bear scat. Probably a small bear, said our expert. All week, everyone who drives that back road has been detouring around this specimen, as if the evidence itself is dangerous.

Can we ever hike in the back woods again? “Don’t be chickenshit!” said another neighbor. “Of course you can! We’re all going to die sometime! Just make lots of noise.”

(Bear scat. Chicken shit. That night all my dreams were of animal waste. It was not a pleasant sleep.)

That day, we decided to turn away from the woods and on up the back road, where we had a reward of sorts. “Look!” gasped my companion, who is an amateur birder. “There’s a grouse!”

grouseEvery once in a while, I scare up a female in the sage–usually in the spring, when she flits about protecting a nest I haven’t seen. This one was a resplendent male.

Amazingly, the dogs didn’t even see him. He stood stock still watching us warily, and eventually decided to strut right across the road, only a few yards ahead.

That was a safe road crossing, back between the second-home cottages. Where I live, it’s a perilous passage.

Early this evening, I took my cup of tea out to the front porch to keep the dog company as he sniffed around the yard in the fading light of the day. While he was hunting up an old bone somewhere, I saw movement on the other side of the garage. I was startled to watch as a small herd of white-tailed deer emerged: two females and three fawns grown large after a wet summer.

Four of them moved slowly toward the highway, grazing. But the female at the back sensed me there, and turned. I sat frozen.

The last thing I would do would be to run back into the house for my camera! All I have to show here is the empty scene.

DrivewayI watched with some concern as the small herd headed up the drive toward that highway. Traffic is light this time of year and that time of day, but it is also fast — especially the semi trucks racing downhill toward town. And the light was fading.

What should I do if, as so often happens, one of them was struck while crossing the road? I’ve never witnessed that particular surprise and terror as it is happening.

As they neared the highway, I stood up for a better view. They stopped to graze again on the other side of the gate. Now and again the large doe looked back warily. But they had no concern as they began to amble across the highway, as if they had all the time in the world. I heard the hum of tires uphill.

A small white SUV approached from the west. It slowed, and then stopped on the other side of the highway, pulling to the shoulder. It waited there several minutes. Some lucky visitors got their wish. (Thanks to their vigilance, I also got mine.)

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Why Orange Became My New Black

I enjoyed the venison and elk burgers. I ignored the contradiction.

camovestsIt’s time to wear orange when we hike: Me in my vest and the dog in his kerchief.

It’s that season again. On the highway, pickups now outnumber the huge RVs from out of state. I’ve begun to hear rifle practice in the distance once in a while. The bow hunters have gone up into the hills.

When autumn comes around, I’ve learned, many of my friends will be away for a while. For them, this is not negotiable. Everyone understands.

Everyone except me, that is. Much as I love tramping around in the wilderness, I’ve found it difficult to relate to this custom of going out into the woods, tracking animals down, and killing one.

As the child of two teachers in a Midwestern city, hunting was never part of my experience. I lived for a while in England after my marriage. Over there, I thought of hunting as something done by the nobility (whom I never met), chasing a fox while riding horses (which I had never done).

At the sound of the word “hunting,” I reacted instinctively with disapproval, as if someone had tapped my knee with a hammer.

Then, much later, we moved to Dubois. I made many good friends here–earnest, deeply moral people. Some of them, I soon learned, go out hunting every fall.

As I enjoyed venison and elk burgers, I didn’t spend time thinking about the contradiction–any more than I have thought much afterwards about a conversation with a vegan who discussed the living conditions of the animals that provide the eggs and milk I buy at Superfoods.

There are cattle right over there in the valley out my window. I am aware that they are future steaks. But I wouldn’t want to shoot one or extract the meat. We all choose our own moral imperatives, and this one just doesn’t run very deep with me, one way or another.

Lucas6And I’m very interested in the people who were hunting here as early as people arrived here in the first place. I’ve hiked up to the remains of ancient hunter’s blinds. I’ve visited sheep traps where they presumably bludgeoned wild sheep for their tribe’s dinner.

I’ve heard the artist and historian Tom Lucas describe his decades of effort learning to make some of the swiftest and strongest bows ever made, just the way the native Shoshone must have done it, from bighorn sheep horns.

That’s him in the picture, talking to some bow-hunters who were deeply interested in his craft and skill. Until we moved to Dubois, I had no idea that many people still hunt wild game with bows.

I can’t imagine the skill involved in taking down a huge elk with a mere bow and arrow of any kind. But I’ve come to understand that the passion goes much deeper than mere sport.

“It’s the challenge,” Michael said when I asked him why he enjoys hunting. “I mean, I go way, way up into the wilderness — above 10,000 feet. I set up my little camp, with the tent and the PVC tube running out from a stream for my drinking water.

“It’s wonderful. When I’m out there I don’t see another soul. I don’t even care if it snows. You can’t imagine how many elk I see, huge ones, dozens of them. Until the last day, I just let them pass, because I don’t want to have to go back down earlier.”

gorgeI like the way his eyes crinkle when he smiles.

“So it’s the mountain man thing?” I asked. “The survival?”

“Well, not just that. You know, my grandfather was a commercial hunter. I must have been 4 when I shot my first quail. This goes way back for me.”

So there’s a strong element of family tradition and nostalgia as well. I can relate to that; it’s just not my history.

Also, he actually needs the meat. Like so many here, Michael is in a seasonal business, and his wages don’t come in year-round. Just like the ancient Shoshone, many local hunters are going out to put food on the table. But Michael mentioned that reason last.

“So how do you get up there?” I asked. “Do you go in a four-wheeler?”

“Naw,” he scoffed. “I walk. I love the walk.”

Now that I can relate to.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Tiny Dubois Shines Through the Great Eclipse

How we conquered the Eclipse invaders

Dubuois WY Eclipse
The emotion was just the same as I had felt while being wheeled into the operating room. This is real. This will happen. This is not just some story we have been telling.
Dubois WY eclipse
Would our village triple in size during Eclipse weekend? Would 10,000 people turn up, diverted from Yellowstone? Would nobody come after all? We would shrug our shoulders. Who could say? But we worked so hard to make it a great visit. Only a few dozen turned up on Friday to hear local amateur historian Steve Banks describe how to live like a mountain man.
Dubois WY eclipse
But they were clearly captivated, as he loaded and fired an antique rifle and then started a flame, right before their eyes, using nothing more than flakes of rock and dried grass.
Dubois WY eclipse
The crowd had grown by Saturday. Tom Lucas had an attentive audience as he told how the ancient Shoshone must have used bighorn sheep horns to make their legendary bows, using water from hot springs and stone tools. Or so he thinks. Nobody knows for sure. They left no records or direct descendants to tell us how. “I never meant to become a bow maker, but somehow I did” said Tom, who is skilled at making Native American crafts but better known for his oil paintings. (The town had run out of folding chairs, so his listeners sat on hay bales and cardboard. Nobody seemed to mind.)
Dubois WY eclipse
Meanwhile in the background, the joyful but unfamiliar noise of many children playing at once. The Kiddie Karnival sponsored by the Boys & Girls Club was a brilliant plan to please parents and children who had so many hours to kill while waiting for the Big Event.
Dubois WY eclipse
The flow of car traffic passing through town was steady. I actually had to wait several minutes to make a left turn off the highway. But the classic car show had only a handful of entries, and viewers were few. We are a very tiny town, I thought. We’ve done the best we can to amuse you. We are who we are, and proud of it.
Dubois WY eclipse
But tempers were also frayed, and old rivalries emerged. This was probably inevitable. We were already exhausted when it came time to set up for the concert, which would take place on that big stage at left. No instructions came along with this huge canopy! We spent a long time figuring out the geometry, then had to take it all apart again to fit the hooks for the canopy into the right little holes! Then we moved it back and forth, unsure where it was supposed to stand. One of the event planners had a family emergency, and disappeared.
Dubois WY Eclipse
Meanwhile a bomb scare was taking place nearby, when a cameraman from the Google Megamovie Project left his equipment (complete with battery and timer) unattended in the park. Here, the other planner was shouting at the volunteers: “Alternate the Honda banners with the Chance Phelps banners, one per section! Not too low! Make them straight!” I took her aside for a moment, forced her to stand still, and ordered her to breathe deeply from the base of her abdomen out the top of her head, three times. She smiled. We will survive this! Really we will.
Dubois WY eclipse
Only a few hundred people turned up to hear our great local guitarist Mike Dowling on Saturday evening, not the thousand we had been hoping for. Some of them seemed to be leaving during the break. I had to leave too, because our relatives from out of state had arrived, so I missed Sarah Darling. Everyone obviously enjoyed the music, but I ached. My muscles ached, sure, but I ached more for those who would have to take everything down afterwards while I was having dinner with family. And the question remained: Where is everybody?
Dubois WY eclipse
The answer dawned on me Sunday morning, during this hike in the badlands with my niece. A few people did enjoy the events we had worked so hard to plan. But many more chose to enjoy the entertainments Mother Nature has been providing for visitors long before we arrived. She blessed us during the Eclipse week: The skies were gloriously clear throughout. Our family did not attend any events in town. They went mushroom hunting on Union Pass, which was packed with people out dry camping. Other relatives drove toward Yellowstone, hoping to see bison. Some folks in this picture enjoyed parasailing over our badlands.
Dubois WY eclipse
The big day arrived, clear and cheery. Nobody was trying to park on the side of the highway as I closed the gate behind my car, so the dire predictions of hordes descending from Yellowstone had proved false. I raced to town to help Scott arrange the sound system for our expert speaker from NASA, Craig Tupper. Craig was already speaking when I arrived, without benefit of technology. Both he and the eclipse watchers, of course, had arrived early.
Dubois WY eclipse
Others chose to skip the play-by-play in favor of a higher elevation. But the view was great from either vantage point.
Dubois WY Eclipse
So what’s he going to say? I wondered beforehand. “It’s 10% now. There you go, it’s 15%!” But Craig was fascinating. He talked about the shadow bands and the corona. He told why it didn’t make sense to try to take pictures (though people did). He talked about his cross-country cycle trip. He answered many questions. He joked around.
Dubois WY Eclipse
Here, people are watching for shadow bands on a white sheet, as Craig had suggested, as totality approached. (Can you see how the bright sky has begun to dim?) The bands we saw undulating all over that rocky ground were even more eerie.
Dubois WY eclipse
A crew from the NBC TV station in Salt Lake City turned up to film the total eclipse from Dubois. Here, the camera turned on Craig.
Dubois WY total eclipse 2017 Craig Tupper
He had realized that he’d been talking about the partial eclipse but never looking. So he paused, put on the glasses, and looked skyward. For all his expertise, he seems just as awed as the rest of us.
Dubois WY total eclipse 2017
“Can you feel a chill?” someone asked. And the sky began to darken. At first, I think we were quiet.
Dubois WY total eclipse 2017
It’s not possible to describe the quality of the light at totality. It’s like twilight, but not really. It seemed much darker than this as I was wandering over the uneven ground, hoping to capture people’s reactions on camera. All around me, I could hear them. Oh my gosh, this is unbelievable. Wowwwww. Amazing! I was probably saying these things myself.
Dubois WY total eclipse 2017
We had barely two minutes of totality. Somehow it seemed longer. It was startling how quickly the light re-emerged. And then it was over.
EclipsePlanViewSouth
The rest of my family were watching from the top of Table Mountain, where the view is spectacular but the viewing point is difficult to reach. I think it rivals the Grand Canyon. I took this shot a week earlier, while we were scoping out the location.
prairiedog
I suppose this permanent resident of Table Mountain and his relatives went underground for the Big Event.

Sheridan Creek Dubois WY
At last, we could all exhale. For a day or two after the Eclipse, the stream of cars passing through in both directions was almost uninterrupted. The restaurants in town were still packed. I took the dog and escaped to one of our familiar hikes. As we walked back toward the car, I had to stop often and pull the dog aside to let the departing campers come past, on their way down from Union Pass. I waved each time, smiled, and gave a thumbs up. Everyone seemed to have a great time. And we survived intact.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.