Shocks and Surprises as the Snow Recedes

The rewards for hanging in (and out) in a chancy season.

IMG_2846I returned from a visit to Texas on one of the last days in April. Boarding after a layover in Denver, I saw opaque ice crusting the window beside my seat. We taxied, got de-iced with orange spray, returned to the gate, de-planed, and waited for the weather in Jackson to improve.

Finally we were cleared for takeoff. An hour later, we descended at Jackson in heavy snowfall. I kept waiting for the jolt as the wheels hit tarmac, but the cloud ceiling was actually a few hundred feet above the runway and we came down smoothly.

When I departed from Jackson 10 days earlier, it had been mild, so I left my coat inside the car in long-term parking. Now, at 11 PM, it was snowing hard and I was wearing only a gauze shirt. I ran to the car, dragging my roller suitcase, found the coat and gloves, and scraped the windshield. It was 1 AM when I finally fell asleep in a motel in Jackson.

This is spring in our part of the West. The next day, the road over the Pass to Dubois was nearly clear; just slushy at the top. It snowed hard again that night, and leaving home the following morning I felt it might require a backhoe to clear my windshield. I took the picture above that same afternoon. As you see, the snow had vanished. Typical.

ElkMy husband is away on business, and I seem to spend more time than usual looking out the window. The day after my return, I was startled to see four unusual creatures almost the size of horses, grazing as they ambled slowly across the meadow to the east.

What else could they be but female elk? I actually had to look them up on Google to be sure what a female elk looked like. The usual pictures of elk show a handsome male with a rack, like the picture below.

This picture isn’t clear because she’s so far away.

We’re not accustomed to seeing elk in the valley, not females alone, and not in mere foursomes. They are supposed to migrate across the tops of ridges in large herds, heading westward this time of year, guarded by watchful males.

ElkMaleA friend suggested that these females may have been separated from their herd in the snowstorm. I hope they found their way back.

The next afternoon in the dining room I was startled by an eagle swooping past the window so close that it almost touched the glass. Magpies and swallows fly across the yard all the time, but eagles belong soaring in the updraft hundreds of feet above. I like to watch them across the valley when I’m up on the ridge after a hard climb. What on earth was this?

I raced to the other window to watch. He landed on the buck and rail fence down by the irrigation ditch, soon to be strafed by another eagle that sailed in from the east. They took their dispute on up the hill and out of sight.

hawkThe next day this lovely hawk chose to perch for a while on the balcony railing, just outside the netting that we use to keep the swallows from building mud nests under the gable. I’ve never seen a hawk so close, even in a zoo. Unfortunately the picture doesn’t show the lovely red feathered cap on the top of his head.

Today I was delighted to see a dove-gray female bluebird and her mate, which looked like a fragment of sky descending, as they inspected the birdhouse we have cleaned out for them behind the house.

At the ranch on the west edge of town, three wooly sheep have suddenly appeared in the meadow usually occupied by the cattle, which are now crowded into the next field over. There seem to be a remarkable proportion of calves. Maybe I never noticed them, scattered as they usually are on the large fields to the north of the highway. The other day, I saw a cowboy on horseback in there among them.

cattleThese are sights the tourists would covet — working cowboys, eagles, elk — but the tourists haven’t arrived yet. One joy of being here all year is that I can encounter these sights by serendipity — especially in this season, when so few visitors dare to come because the weather is chancy.

By the start of May, however, the snow is rare. Although days may be cloudy, the weather is comfortable enough in a windbreaker or light overcoat. Suddenly I can venture onto roads that were still snowbound when I flew off to Texas.

This afternoon, I reveled in one of my go-to hikes that has been off-limits until now. It felt great to stride through the sagebrush in my hiking boots, rather than trudging along across heavy snowpack. I didn’t see any wildlife, but then I was enjoying the walk and not paying much attention.

Again, I was startled. It was easy to recognize from these prints who else had followed the trail, and not long before. I paused immediately to look around. Fortunately, sight lines are broad and very clear on this hike, which is one reason I favor it.

IMG_2873A few steps later, I saw where it had come down the same slope I had just descended, but a bit farther to the west.

Another sign of the season. This is a track I have never before seen up close. How huge it is, next to my bear spray!

This was one creature I was very glad not to see. It’s as close as I’ve ever come — and I have no idea how close I actually came.

What a relief that it was heading in the opposite direction from my car.

(Yes, I hear you, honey. I’ll stop hiking alone after the snow melts.)

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Field Notes From the Far West

Where no passport is needed and most natives speak English.

 

pile of rocks on ocean beachI will view this, I told myself as we set off, as an interesting journey to an exotic foreign land.

It is, after all, fairly alien. The political system seems to be quite different. The culture and customs are, from all I have heard, strange and remarkable compared to our simple, humble, straightforward way of life in Wyoming.

Their culinary habits are somewhat unusual from our perspective, having an almost limitless access to fresh produce at any time. Some residents don’t eat any meat at all.

The people here seem to view us as equally alien. “Wyoming?” they say, after asking where we’re from. And then: “You drove all that way?” (As if none of my kind have ventured this far before.) And then, invariably, nothing more. I feel some empathy for the Lewis and Clark team; these natives seem less interested in my culture than I am in theirs.

ocean beachWe have focused our travels this month on the predominant feature of their habitat that is entirely unfamiliar to us in Wyoming: the seaside. Having attained it, of course, I had to take a hike on the beach, early on the first morning after our arrival.

Which revealed the first and most elementary evidence that I am a stranger in this land: The natives know that in the morning, the tide is in, and there is, in fact, precious little beach to hike.

(Who knew to think about tides? Evidently I should have done more research.)

I strode happily along, enjoying the sound of the surf at my left as it crashed onto the shore. I looked down, as always when I hike, watching for interesting objects at my feet, and entirely oblivious to the waves that were creating that gentle, insistent murmur nearby.

sneakers being washed in tide

Once over my surprise, I ventured on.

The rocks at my feet were interesting, but not noticeably different than those I can find on any hike back home. After all, our own landscape was once, millennia in the past, also at the edge of a great ocean. Like many I find down walking any draw back home, most of these stones were washed smooth and round.

dead sea creatures on beachThe flora and fauna are quite different, of course. As were the carcasses of dead creatures I found on the beach. Was this an animal before it washed up here, or some sort of plant? I have no idea.

What looks like a stick may also have been some sort of creature once. It bore more resemblance to a tube than to a branch.

Many of the true branches washed ashore had been buffed as smooth as the round stones.

I picked one up to bring home for a walking stick.

swimmer offshore

In due course, I noticed what appeared to be a creature some distance offshore. Back home, I am adept at identifying rocks that look like bears. But I’m not familiar with sea creatures. As this was bobbing in the water rather than being constantly washed over, I decided it could not be a rock.

I’ve heard there are sea otters to the south, and later we would see elephant seals basking and molting on the shore. But what was this?

Only after I took the picture did I notice the strange, long-necked shorebird in the middle of the image, in the foreground. I believe it was a curlew.

surfer in ocean riding waveAs I walked farther up the beach, the mystery of the sea creature solved itself. You can see another there in this image, on the right.

This is referred to as a surfer.

The species is never encountered in Wyoming. Having just arrived from the land of deep snow, however, I can approximately imagine the sensation of riding the wave. I have done something similar on skis. You have to become one with the surface beneath your feet.

I wonder: When the surfer’s legs and feet fail him, is the landing softer or harder than a wipeout in cold white powder?

fisherman on ocean beachReturning south on the wet sand, I noticed a species I recognize well from back home.

Not being an angler of any sort, I have no frame of reference. I wonder how his experience — and his catch — differs from that of those I see along the Wind River, similarly kitted out.

His line seemed to be tangled, which did make me wonder about the wind. That, we know about.

I will say this about California: Most of the people here speak excellent English, and it requires no passport to visit. The natives are exceedingly friendly (if perhaps sometimes a bit distant to drivers of cars with Wyoming plates).

rocking chair and view of oceanThe landscape is as spectacular as our own, although much different. Notably, it is capable of producing excellent wine.

I commend the seaside destination as an alternative way to contemplate realities deeper than the mundane details of daily life. In Wyoming, I am drawn to the mountains that seem ageless and unchanging, the sight of which always brings a long glimpse into the incomprehensible past long before I arrived.

The ocean offers a contrasting vision of eternity. It renews itself endlessly as I watch, second after second, rolling always to shore, and will do so long after I am gone.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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

Saturday Stalkers in the Snow

A happy morning exploring and pondering puzzles.

I chuckle inside whenever someone says: “Wyoming! How can you put up with those brutal winters?”

Sure, once in a while there are days when we really prefer to stay indoors. But often, like today, it’s clear, bright, windless, and we yearn to be outside. Wear the right layers, and you’re perfectly comfortable when you go out exploring. Soon you’ll shed the hat and gloves.

One of our favorite pastimes is pondering the puzzles that hint at stories in the snow. The image above is my trophy. Some friends gasp a little when I show it.

“You got a bird print!” You can clearly see the marks of the wings. Is that a head and a beak at the center? And if so, why did it come down sideways?

This isn’t as prized, however, as an imprint of a bird nose-diving into the snow to catch its prey.

What happened here? The tracks at the right went nonchalantly past, either before or after the bird alit. But a few yards away, on the other side of those willows at the upper left, I found clear signs of a scuffle. Alas, the dog tramped all over them before I got there, so I was never able to decipher what kind of creature this bird might have stalked and then caught.

That was a while ago.

On a day like today, how could I resist when a friend texted with an invitation to join her and two other women on a snowshoe trek? We arrived to find the surface clean and newly groomed by the volunteers with DART.

I was glad for sunglasses. The sunshine was almost painfully brilliant. Not a cloud in the sky.

Squirrels chattered overhead, and we could see their tiny tracks everywhere, crossing and recrossing the trail. I recognize the rabbit tracks in my driveway, but in the woods, in general, I don’t know what I’m looking at.

Unlike my friends, I’ve not yet joined an excursion with naturalist Bruce S. Thompson, who can read the animal tracks like a book. He’s the founder of an invitation-only Facebook page, Togwotee Trackers Exchange, where members pursue what he calls “foot-writing analysis” based on images of what they have seen on the ground.

We’re just discussing the shapes of tracks when K turns and points her pole at these strange hourglass-shaped traces of a passerby. “Snowshoe hare,” says K_, who has been practicing this for a while.

“Right,” says A_. “Not a weasel. They’re shaped more like a dumbbell.”

“I wonder why they call them snowshoe hares,” I say, looking down at my own boots clamped into cumbersome contraptions.

“Perhaps because they can walk across the top of the snow,” says A_, who is an amateur naturalist in her own right. “Or maybe because their feet stay white all summer.”

The conversation drifts to tales of other creatures we have seen while trekking in the winter. Meanwhile we peruse the field of white for other signs of life gone by. Someone mentions a sage grouse. “In the winter?” I ask.

“Come back this way!” K_ calls out, and we trudge back up a slope. “What’s this?”

There you see it, at the far left next to the shadow of a branch. Something has landed in a splotch, and then headed off to the right. The tracks are three-toed, and slender.

“Good for you!” says A_. “I think that must be a grouse.”

She turns around, and we can follow the traces on the other side of our own trail, up the slope and off toward the cliff and the fabulous long vista over the valley, which is carpeted in pines and blanketed with snow.

K_ leans over and grabs a shot with her IPhone. No doubt she will post it on Bruce’s invitation-only Facebook group, where we share puzzling and amusing tracks and debate what they might be portraying–or just document what we ran across.

“Why did the chicken cross the road?” drawls A_. “To take a look at the view.”

Many yards later, after navigating over several downed trees, we stop for a long chat with our Forest Service rep L_ (who’s out on Nordic skis on Saturday checking the trails, government shutdown or not). A_ recalls the time that she was out with another group on a day just like this, also standing around, yakking.

Suddenly, in the middle of their circle, a weasel pops up out of the snow. It looks around amazed, left, then right, and pops right back down again.

As we near the highway and the parking lot, K_ calls out again, “Come back!” She points with her pole to something beside the trail.

“Oh my gosh,” says A_. “I think that’s a weasel. What else could it be?”

K_ whips a small measuring tape from her pocket, spins it out beside the track, drops her glove next to it for perspective, and takes another shot with the IPhone.

Another post for Bruce, no doubt.

But then A_ calls us to turn around. “There’s the hole back to his burrow,” she says. “And this is on a cattle guard. Perfect.”

It’s the dark image in the center of the picture below. The slots in the cattle guard, now buried in snow, offer easy access downward for a small, slender critter.

Beneath our feet, A_ says, lies a world we cannot see. It’s called the subnivean zone, an open layer between the surface of the ground and the underside of the snowpack. In that vast chamber, beneath that roof, small animals like voles and mice live out the winter protected from the cold, from predators, and from noisy interlopers like us who crunch deafeningly overhead on snowshoes. (Who knew?)

We trudge back to the car. Two and a half hours. Maybe a mile and a half. Who bothered to click that app on their Apple watch? Who cares? (We stopped a lot.) We’re pleasantly tired and happily edified. Lots of vitamin D through our faces. Clean, fresh air in and out our lungs.

Back in the day, back in the city, I might be sitting in a bistro on a beautiful Saturday like this, lazily downing eggs florentine and a mimosa, talking nonsense.

That never gave me this kind of buzz.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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



So the Doctor Came Over the Pass in the Snow …

Another blessing for our health on the heels of the new pharmacy.

IMG_1782“What happened to your hand?” friends were asking yesterday.

I explained that it’s really nothing, and then we tried to come up with an amusing answer. I got injured fending off a grizzly attack? (Not funny.) Got caught up when I was dallying the lasso? (Not even remotely plausible.)

In fact, the bandage is there to protect the minor laser burns sustained during my latest biannual ritual at the skin doctor. She found more of those pre-cancerous spots, and zapped them away. It’s ugly, but not painful, and it will heal quickly.

Why am I sharing this? Because of another blessing that has come to town, hot on the heels of our new pharmacy.

PassHighway022514_2For this visit, I didn’t have to take the usual 90-minute drive over Togwotee Pass to Jackson to see the dermatologist. This time (on the morning of our first snowfall, as it happens), the dermatologist and the rest of her team came to me.

This could have been their last monthly visit at the end of a six-month experiment. But they’ve decided to keep coming every month, year-round.

This is no small favor. That a specialist and her team will come over the Pass to spare dozens of us driving the other way in order to detect early skin cancer is a very important benefit in this remote town. At around 7000 feet, the sun is deceptively brutal here. It’s not hot, but it’s dangerous–especially for someone with a family history of skin cancer, but actually for anyone. I never go outdoors without a generous application of sunscreen and a hat with a brim.

Grandad_BarnDoorThere would not have been any sunscreen available to my grandfather, who was a Nebraska farmer with fair skin. I’m guessing there were no public-health messages about the risks of the sun during the Great Depression, and as you see him standing here in the barn door, he was not wearing a hat.

He died from melanoma that arose on the back of his neck. I envision him laboring for hours on his tractor, head bare, sun at his back as he plowed the furrows.

My mother (not a rancher but a teacher) regularly had pre-cancerous lesions taken off her skin. Now so do I, as do many of my neighbors. Thank heaven.

And thanks to Storey Donaldson, office manager of Western Wyoming Dermatology & Surgery, who proposed adding Dubois to their satellite offices in Pinedale and Afton.

IMG_1784_editedThis week was the end of a six-month pilot project to see whether the practice would attract enough patients in Dubois to justify the effort. Not only have they gained new patients from our town, Storey told me; about half of their visits in Dubois are from people farther down the valley, in Lander and Riverton, who would not want to make a 3-hour trip all the way over to Jackson.

Back in the day, someone would ride on horseback all day and hope to be able to bring a doctor back in time before the injured person died. Today, we have two clinics and regular access to preventive care. One clinic now offers dermatology visits once a month; the other offers telemedicine links to specialists at the best hospital in the state. There’s also an ambulance service with response times that match national standards, air lifts to regional intensive care centers, and search and rescue crews that venture out to help people injured in our wilderness.

IMG_1778In New York City, I left behind some of the best medical care in the world. But I don’t spend much time even thinking about that.

So what did I do after seeing the dermatologist on Wednesday, instead of spending 90 minutes driving back from Jackson? I put on my hat, of course, and took the dog for a ramble.

© 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.

Reveries and Memories as Days Grow Short in Dubois

High time to get to the bucket list.

AutumnCloudsThe autumn solstice passes. The days of daylight savings time are numbered.

But the days are still warm and bright. The crowds are gone, our days are not so busy any more. It’s time to enjoy those pleasures we promised ourselves back in midsummer, when we were just too busy.

High time to get to the bucket list.

I’ve been looking forward to this item on my list for more than a year. Finally I’m in repose, on the warm bed in the tiny log cabin at the back of the property on Mercantile Street, surrounded by lace and fabrics with fields of roses. I’ve been far too busy to take time for this, and she far too busy to accommodate me, but now we’re not.

MassageCabinThe wise and knowing hands of Helping Hands Massage Therapy are exploring and unwinding the knots and kinks in my muscle tissue. I have been to some of the best musculoskeletal specialists at the best hospitals in New York City, but Reenie’s exquisite skill has done more for my particular woes than all of them combined, and she is doing it now. What a blessing for me that she found her way here, before I even came.

There’s the comforting fragrance of oils. An endless loop of lyrical melodies spins gently in the background: Flute, harp, cello. I am lost in a reverie, half attentive to my body and half asleep.

LakeLouiseStream_MomentSomewhere there’s also the sound of trickling water, which brings me back to one reason why I’m here now: The mingled joy and stress of my last serious hike. A friend and I took the day off and clambered up to Lake Louise, a hidden glacial lake which is the splendid reward after more than an hour of trekking, much of it straight uphill on rocky ground.

It’s been years since either of us came this way, and we both have pleasant memories to revisit. For her, it is passing through a quiet glade carpeted in pine duff, after a long stretch of trudging uphill on a path littered with boulders the size of bricks that here and there becomes a stairway for giants. Often we have to step carefully; sometimes we halt to take in the ever-higher view across the valley.

The vision I want to relive is the broad stream that tumbles merrily and noisily down a channel of rocks beside the trail, toward a splendid waterfall at the bottom. The clamor is wonderful as we approach, and we can’t help but pause to enjoy it and the fragrance of pine. I’ve dreamed of that sight and that sound for years, and the little fountain in the massage cabin brings it back.

LakeLouiseHere’s one reason I need a massage today: The hike to Lake Louise ends in a rising field of solid granite, where the trail vanishes . You’re left on your own to clamber up any way you can, on hands and feet if all else fails. At the top, it’s so windy I fear I might be pitched over the edge. My friend remembers that, years ago, they brought fishing rods but could not fish. It was too windy.

But that view at the top! Breathing hard, we stop and stare, buffeted by the warm wind. Then we creep forward and downward to find a sheltered place where we can unpack our lunch. We are alone, in a patch of heaven at the top of the world.

Clambering, creeping, and holding yourself erect against a stiff wind does take its toll, which Reenie undoes oh, so slowly and carefully, in the little cabin. I wonder and dread when she is going to finish and I will have to rise from the table. Eventually she leaves the cabin, and then so do I. Checking my watch as I close the door behind me, I see that she has graciously given me two hours of her time, for less than the price of a dinner for two in New York.
Rainbow_100218_2
There’s no chance of a hike afterwards: Heavy, black clouds are speeding toward me as I drive home. I try to take the dog outside, but he looks at me as if I’ve lost my mind, and I turn back.

The drops beat on the roof for a few minutes, but as I’m starting to make salad the house suddenly glows with light. Out the window, I see a pair of rainbows that rise from the aspens and soar all the way across the valley, plummeting into a pasture full of cattle.

Beyond every challenge, ache, and disappointment here, I find a blessing.

© 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.

Red, White, and Blooms in the Dubois Desert

Explosions of color in what looks like dead landscape.

A few weeks ago, I hosted some visitors from England. We hiked up a long draw in the badlands. They were especially interested in seeing the red rocks up close.

IndianPaintbrush

Turning a corner toward a steep ridge, we encountered masses of bright red Indian paintbrush. “You’re very lucky,” I told them. “Usually we only see these much higher in the mountains.”

They took out their phones and snapped away, as did I.

They had been worried about encountering snow in late June, and it was not a foolish concern. The ground underfoot was slippery with mud — an unusual feeling in this desert climate.

Flowers060516Back on June 5, at Sheridan Creek, I had encountered my first harbinger of spring: This tiny white blossom. I don’t know its name.

I found it hiding in the straw-like dead grass. There were no signs of green yet.

It had burst forth only a few feet from some remaining patches of snow.

Recently, I took my cousin and a friend on the same hike I had enjoyed with the visitors from England. The ground was already dry and cracked.

Badlands_062418I couldn’t resist a calling out in pleasure: “The lupines are out!” These lush blue flowers — my favorite of the wild flowers we see every year — had arrived in force, to join the Indian paintbrush.

Could I write about mere flowers on Independence Day? Of course, I realized earlier today: The first flowers I saw during my wanderings this year were red, white, and blue.

I have so many pictures of flowers that I never get around to posting here: Small orange blossoms hidden beneath the sagebrush, purple daisy-like blooms that pop up on the sides of dirt roads, yellow cactus flowers that bloom and are gone in a few days. I can’t resist taking their pictures, because to look from a distance (say, in a passing car) this landscape often appears dead, or at least boring.

We know that many visitors want come to this area hoping to see wildlife, and we do see plenty of it crossing the fields on four legs or swooping across the sky. But this, I remind myself, is another wonderful form of wild life — and one which many passersby will miss.

JadeLakeWildflowers0817_5Soon, if not already, at higher elevations the wildflowers will burst out in explosions of colors, as bright and extravagant as any fireworks we see on this day every year.

A friend told me that it sometimes makes her feel wistful to see these vistas, thinking of others who are no longer fit enough to get up into the mountains to see them. I also feel sad for those who don’t know, or don’t bother.

Seize the day, and always cherish your independence …

BrooksLakeWildflowers_0817_2

© 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.

Life on the Edge at High Water

Flood reports on the radio and other concerns.

A neighbor who keeps track of these things tells me that the river has crested. It seems to be true.

Last week, approaching a section of the riverwalk around a curve, I had a sense that something was wrong. The river wasn’t where it should be in that direction. Today, it had receded considerably. Soon I’ll be able to walk across there again.

FloodedRiverwalk“Risk of flooding in Dubois,” I’d hear on Wyoming Public Radio a week or two ago, and friends down-county would ask with concern: So how is it in Dubois?

WindRiverFloodingDuring Hurricane Sandy, I watched on Twitter videos as the East River filled subway stations in New York. During hurricane season last year, I worried as my daughter fled her apartment a few blocks from the beach in Fort Lauderdale.

We listen with horror about people in Hawaii who are airlifted away from the lava flows.

This is not that. This is the snow melt coming down, urged on after spring thunderstorms, as it does every year about now.

The river turns to chocolate milk and roars merrily along, breeching its banks at every turn. Sometimes a piece of the bank calves off, and someone’s backyard becomes a transient lake as it slows the surging water.

Anglers know it’s not time yet to tie flies and pull out the rods. The river is much too wild just now. The air may be warm, but this is still spring.

NewHouse“Seems to be a lot of building on that flood plain,” said a visitor in passing. “Not a good idea.”

Actually, it’s a perfectly good one. We know how the river rises and falls, and we know where it tends to run aground.

This is not the Hamptons or Cape Cod. These folks aren’t tempting fate; they (or their realtor and contractor) have been around here long enough to know the ups and downs of the Wind River.

WildIrisesBut there are small surprises. In one of my go-to short hike spots today, a small pond had materialized in the duff beneath the pines. The dog had a wade. Little rivulets were wandering across the meadow trying to create new islands, and my boots got wet.

Those fragile wild irises were flamboyantly abundant, as they are this time of year. They too will subside and sink into the silt after a few days, alas.

© 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.