Ever want to know how to properly skin a deer? I thought so.
Check out this latest article in OutsideOnline. Plus, some very good advice from my dear friend Tyrel “Texas” Mack.
Ever want to know how to properly skin a deer? I thought so.
Check out this latest article in OutsideOnline. Plus, some very good advice from my dear friend Tyrel “Texas” Mack.
Gyrfalcon Falco rusticolus
Utukok River, Alaska 68°44’3.29″ N 161° 3’39.90″W Elevation 484 meters.
When Steve, a biologist specializing in Arctic birds, saw the gyrfalcon friends who’ve known him much longer said they’ve never seen him so excited.
Our adrenalized chatter turned to silence as the swift white arrow circled overhead scolding us with her high-pitched scream. If I’d stuck with Latin in college, I’d know that gyr refers to the Latin gyrus, or curved path. After all, this falcon is the only one that circles while seeking prey.
Gyrfalcons dress in a variety of colors—white, brown, black and anything spotted in between—Steve marveled at seeing one so white, pure as snow.
“The white ones are from Greenland,” he whispered.
As the falcon circled, a single white feather fell from the sky. I half-heartedly paddled toward it in my kayak—wanting to catch it; wishing it were falling instead towards Steve. In medieval times the gyrfalcon, because of the difficulty in capturing them for falconry, were reserved for royalty. Steve, passionate about the Arctic and its future; a king of conservation, seemed most deserving.
The journey from Greenland to this remote spot on the Utukok River was over 2,000 miles. Nothing, perhaps, for this hearty bird that spends much of the winter riding out the cold on sea ice far from land.
Our meeting lasted maybe a minute, but it was a minute that mattered. Years later I still remember the moment and the bird has evolved into a symbol of hope—hope that maybe my words can help. Help save what I hold sacred. Who knew when I’d be in the Arctic again.
Last week, three years later when I least expected it I met a gyrfalcon again; this time a speckled specimen. He was captive, in the hands of a falconer, but stunning all the same.
The falconer, Jason, introduced us to a great horned owl, golden eagle, osprey and a kestrel. The gyrfalcon was the final act. With each bird, he rattled off a list of facts that differentiate one raptor from another. Ospreys are the only raptors that rely only on fish. They nest on the tip tops of old snags, trees and telephone poles while bald eagles prefer to roost just a little ways below. Want to know how to tell a bald eagle from a golden? (When they’re immature it’s not always easy to tell the difference.) Golden’s legs are coated in feathers all the way down to their talons. Bald eagles are bald. We don’t have many goldens in the Tetons because we don’t have enough of their favorite delicacy, rabbits. But if we did, you might notice that the females (which are bigger) target different prey than the males in order to maximize a single territory’s bounty. Meanwhile peregrine falcons eat most anything. That’s why they’re so widespread.
Jason brought out a peregrine falcon, who surveyed the crowd with her deep obsidian eyes. He asked us to guess how much she weighs. 30? The bidding began. We were hopelessly off target. Jason stuck his finger into the bird’s chest, his finger disappearing up to his second knuckle in a thicket of feathers. The bird weighs just three pounds, the size of two fists stacked upon each other capped with a head.
Peregrines have been clocked at 250 miles per hour while gyrfalcons, the largest raptor of all, hold the record in straight flight. Owls, on the other hand, are extremely slow flyers, able to idle out at ten miles an hour as they listen for the sounds of prey hiding the dark. What owls lack in sight—they only see in grey scale—they make up for with their ears. An owl can hear your heart beating in your chest and can pinpoint prey buried up to 18 inches in the snow. The reason owls can turn their heads so far? 14 bones in their necks. As humans we have to settle for seven.
Listening to the traits specific to each raptor, I was amazed at the specificity of each species niche. As a result, there isn’t a singular King (or Queen) of the sky. Success takes on a wide definition; strength takes many forms. Each bird was born to do what it does, diverse as that may be. Maybe a birdbrain is a blessing—seems to me, our species spends far too much time building definitions that were never meant to be and in the process forgetting that power lies in our differences.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona: 36° 7’0.11″N 112°13’48.31″W Elevation 821 meters.
Ever hear the word “fretwater”? Know what it means?
It doesn’t have to do with playing guitars. It’s a term I learned last week while doing some background research for an article on the Grand Canyon. Fretwater Press is the name of eminent Grand Canyon historian Brad Dimock’s publishing company based in Flagstaff, Arizona. But it’s something else too.
According to Dimock, fretwater is a term coined by John Wesley Powell and his crew during Powell’s second descent down and the Green and Colorado River in 1871. The men named one of the rapids in Desolation Canyon, Fretwater Falls, a testament to the tumultuous, fretting nature of the water. On his website, fretwater.com, Dimock writes;
“Powell’s men could have saved a day of toil, trouble, and abuse, by just floating down the middle of this insignificant riffle. Fretwater seems to signify fretting and stewing over something entirely trivial, as we so often do in life. We’d all be better off damning the torpedos and flying right down the middle, full speed ahead.”
If you’re interested in more of Brad’s writing, books and progress on his boat building projects, check out his blog, Fretwater Lines (http://fretwaterlines.blogspot.com/)
Along these lines, one of my favorite books is Homeground edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney. It’s a 449-page dictionary of the American landscape detailing lesser-known words for describing features of the natural world. The entries are not standard Merriam-Webster entries, but instead short essays scribed by writers that bring the word alive through experience and history.
The notion that Eskimos have dozens of different words to describe ice and snow is often quoted. Well, there are dozens of words for creek, forest, hill and mountain too—but we’ve mostly forgotten them, relying on a few over-used terms to describe things that are actually very different.
As someone that loves the challenge of trying to convey the power of a landscape to others, I felt like I’d found a treasure when I’d happened upon Homeground five years ago. It echoed of an era when more attention was paid to the land, and the nuanced differences between features were celebrated.
I especially loved the regional terms—a detail that can bring a deeper sense of place to a description. In a time when localism and globalism duke it out, utilizing region-specific terms for the land, seems like an important yet underutilized way to uphold local traditions and identity.
Finally, specific words paint a more accurate picture. You’d never call a river a rivulet; why would you call a tuckamore a krummholz? Only problem is we just have to remember (or relearn) what those two words means.
Here are a few of my favorites from Homeground:
In the Dutch language, kill, is used to describe streams and river channels, and is literally translated into English as brook. So it is not surprising to find the term commonly applied to parts of the American East originally settled by the Dutch. On maps of the upper Hudson Valley and the Delaware Valley one can find landforms, rivers and towns containing the word—the Catskill (Cats Creek) Mountains of southeast New York State, and the mighty Schuylkill River (or “Hidden Channel River”) that flows through Philadelphia. Although the Dutch also settled the lower Hudson Valley, kill is not widely used there, perhaps because the Dutch culture was subsumed after 1664 when the English captured the colony of New Netherland and renamed it New York. Elsewhere on the continent, landforms and communities are named for the act that involves the taking of a life. A mountain in North Dakota, once known by a Sioux phrase, Tah-kah-p-kuty, “the place where they kill the deer,” is now simply Killdeer Mountain. –Jan DeBlieu (page 200)
In the northeastern United States, lumbermen called the stagnant backwaters of lakes and rivers pokelogans. Th word appears to be cognate with pocosin. The root sense may have meant something like “land covered with shallow water,” but whereas a pokelogan is always a part of a larger body of water, a pocosin is landlocked. Thoreau heard the term on his first trip to Maine from George McCauslin, a log driver on the Penobscot River: “Now and then we passed what McCauslin called a pokelogan, an Indian term for what the drivers might have reason to call a poke-log-in, an inlet that leads nowhere.” Such places as Pocasset, a village on Cape Cod, are etymological cousins, at a greater or lesser remove, of pocosin and pokelogan, according to William Tooker, writing in an 1899 edition of American Anthropologist. Did the Euro-American settlers realize that they were naming their community something like Backwater or Large Puddle?
-Franklin Burroughs (p. 275)
The beaver meadow is considered by many to be the most valuable of all meadow types. Where waterways—creeks, streams or rivers—are blocked or slowed by beaver structures, a creeping wetland is created. In addition to the myriad species that thrive in such a locale, the wetland acts as enormous biological filters. Beaver-created wetlands not only cleanse the water, but in detaining it permit the percolation of that water to the layer that holds groundwater. When a given dam is abandoned—the beaver having eaten their way through he softwood trees (aspen cottonwood willow) and moved on—the land will quickly revert to forest but with a revitalized soil base. Such is the case with western New York’s Beaver Meadow Creek Park, as well as Beaver Meadow Falls near Lake Placid in the Adirondacks. The value of a beaver-created meadow was recognized by explorer Antonio Armijo in 1892. When he came upon a rich mosaic of springs, mesquite and grass meadows as well as an abundant population of beaver in what is now southern Nevada, he named the place “Las Vegas,” meaning “the meadows”—beaver meadows in this case. At that time millions of beaver populated the continental United States. In fact they are second only to humans in terms of the role they’ve played in shaping the American landscape. –Antonya Nelson (p. 31)
So much more to the Grand Canyon than just the rapids—just had an article come out in the Wall Street Journal all about it.
Check out out photos of friends Alyssa Firmin, Andy Tyson, Evan Horn and Andy Brown.
Check out this piece just out in Sierra magazine about Robert Thompson’s work:
When I was in the Khumbu I did some for work the World Oral Literature Project, recording Sherpa talking about their daily life. Among those was recordings with the Everest Ice Doctors. Ang Nima, the leader of the pack recently passed away. Here’s a link to an Alpinist article about it and some of my recordings. I know he will be missed by many.
Here’s the link:
Prince Albert National Park, Canada: 53°58’44.39″N 106°17’22.43″W Elevation 533 meters
This past September, as the sun set on Granite Creek, strange grunting sounded from the river. I left the campfire just in time to see five river otter—a mom and four pups—loping down shore, sliding in and out of the water. I chased them downstream, wistful to flow between liquid and land.
Otters aren’t something I think about much in winter, so when Brad pulled the car over and mentioned the otter tracks I didn’t know what to expect. Something like a beaver perhaps? A fat dragline in the snow bordered by scuttling paws. But instead, it was a long, smooth sliding mark followed by four prints. Again and again. The picture was painted so clearly—a leap then a long slide. It looked like pure, unbridled, foolish fun. But it turns out tobogganing around also serves a practical purpose. It’s a much quicker way to move between the safety of waterways, where the otter is inaccessible to the hungry jowls of a wolf or other predators. Running otters can reach speeds up to 16 kilometers per hour but sliding? 25 kilometers per hour!
I was chasing otters in Prince Albert National Park, smack in the middle of Saskatchewan. It’s a part of the North where water begins overtaking the land. The map shows a landscape pocked by lakes and rivers. Some, like the Churchill River, are so big and wide they look like lakes. Here, land crossings are the exception rather than the norm. So much so that they warrant their own vocabulary—portages. No wonder otters love this country.
Brad Muir, who works as an interpretive ranger in Prince Albert in the summer and runs Sundogs Sled Excursions the rest of the year, is a master naturalist and I’m fortunate enough to be spending the day with him.
He bends down in the snow for a closer look—four of them, he says and explains how otters typically travel in a family of four to six and will lay claim to a section of river or lake.
At the Lake Waskesiu Narrows, we walk to the shore, drawn by piled up snow on the lake, remnants of where the otters have bored through to the surface. Right at the dock’s edge, we find a small hole but it’s already iced over. Brad explains how the otters will find a patch of thin ice and crack the ceiling with their heads and noses until a portal breaks open. Pointing at the brown pile of scat beside the hole, Brad tells me otters are the only animal he knows of with two specific names for their droppings—wedgins and spraint. The lucky guys! Who would have thought? And don’t even think of calling them whiskers, they’re vibrissae of course.
Looking out over the snow-covered lake, Brad says that otters actually have it easy. With a dense, waterproof coat, they’ve got a built in dry suit. While wolves and terrestrial mammals have to worry about getting wet, drying off and staying warm in an environment where temperatures can drop into the negative double digits for days on end, the otter simply slips back underground where the food supply is abundant and the temperature is reliably above freezing.
A few days earlier back in La Ronge, a town of 10,000 and 111 miles to the north, I stopped in Robertson’s Trading Post, a cultural landmark and hodgepodge grocery store, trophy room and fur-trading outpost. I’d run my hand along the long oblong shape of a beaver hide. There was a large box of otters ready to be packed up and sent to fur brokers. Personally I prefer live otters to dead ones, but this is Canada after all where trapping is a rich part of the history, although apparently First Nations people considered it bad luck to hunt otter. By the early 1900s, European fashion demands had driven the river otters into a dangerous decline. In some areas they were successfully reintroduced. In others, like the U.S.’s Southwest, they still haven’t recovered.
We stand quietly by the water watching the snowfall, listening to the cluck of ravens and the hammer of Pileated Woodpeckers. But mostly what we’re listening for is the muted sneeze of the otters making noise under the ice. Finally we hear one and then another. It’s soft but undeniable evidence of the vibrant, underwater world carrying on underneath winter’s blanket of snow.
With cold toes and miles more to go, we turn to leave otterless. We haven’t seen the creature we’d hoped for but whose to say seeing is better than hearing? I never knew otters made such sounds. Turns out listening was just as rewarding.
Trumpet of the Swan Cygnus buccinator
Harriman State Park: 44° 20’09.97” N 111°28’01.52” W Elevation 1869 meters
“Those who spot trumpeter swans this week are asked to contact the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, which is doing its winter survey.” -Jackson Hole News and Guide 2/6/13
The request caught my eye. Does Idaho count? Just that weekend I’d been skiing in Harriman State Park and watched two trumpeters rise out of the Henry’s Fork River and head north upstream—their feathers as brilliant white as the fresh snow covering the ground.
This winter an injury has kept me from the high country. But instead I’ve been gifted a chance to explore areas I’ve never been, like Harriman, and linger in neighborhoods I usually race through as I head for the hills. As a result, I’ve never given much thought to swans—they just don’t hang out in the elevations I frequent. Little did I know that while many birds leave our region as winter’s cold sets in, trumpeters actually seek it out.
Yellowstone is a haven for swans and each winter thousands migrate here from Canada drawn to open waterways like the Henry’s Fork, Madison and Firehole rivers, all kept clear with the help of geothermal heat. Looks can be deceiving—when I think of “tough”, an animal that doesn’t just survive but thrives through the long Teton winter, I picture a snarling wolverine or a cougar stalking its prey. Not an oversized flawlessly white bird, waddling around sounding a ridiculous honk. How easily my mind lapsed into that stereotype alarms me; time for a shift in my paradigm.
That unique honk that echoes like well, a trumpet, takes special effort. The swan must extend his neck upwards while keeping his head parallel to the ground and maintaining a partially opened bill. Reminds me of patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time. The loud sound comes in handy when fending off predators from their nests. Cobs (the males) will rush the intruder, beating their wings and pumping their necks. Having been charged by a friend’s goose, I know I’d skedaddle. Another trumpeter strategy for keeping predators away is removing plants encircling their nesting area. This keeps the water clear and minimizes the chance of a predator sneaking up on them. That ring of clear, calm water surrounding the swans isn’t simply some groovy halo set down by Mother Nature.
I suspect it’s too early for those swans at Harriman flying north to be initiating their journey back to Canada. Although the temperatures certainly have been warm recently. That is if they even were Canadian, eh. I’m a big fan of Canada and their approach to politics and people. But these northern winged neighbors are overtaking the resident population, which has caused local trumpeters to be listed as a Species of Concern. Last year the Wyoming Game and Fish Department survey revealed that more than 92 percent of the 6,100 swans tallied were from Canada. Less than 10 percent (207) live year round in western Wyoming and last winter it was reported that Yellowstone’s resident population had declined to less than ten.
I think of my home in Teton Valley, an hour to the south, and the complaint by old timers, families who have lived in the valley for generations, that the newcomers are pushing them out and taking over. Not unlike the swans, I guess. But as far as I know there’s no way yet to designate the farmers as Species of Concern.
Beaver Castor canadensis
Moose Creek Canyon; 43° 34’07.11” N 111° 04’10.48” W Elevation 1990 meters
“Mamaaaa! The Lorax!” Zoe’s scream’s interrupted us. I looked at her mother waiting for the translation. Zoe’s pink mittened hand pointed at the grove of trees and bushes lining the road. It was the toothpicked trunk of a thick aspen that had Zoe so worked up.
It turns out the Lorax is one of Zoe’s favorite books. She and her mom read it together most nights and Zoe has taken to her three year old heart the repercussions that come with cutting down trees and how our endless need for thneeds plays in.
What Zoe didn’t realize is that this was the work of North America’s largest rodent, the beaver. Absorbed in conversation about who knows what, Cara and I had walked right past this evidence of the other world surrounding us. I’ve seen kids do that before—pick out things in the wild that adults miss either because we’re too busy looking at where we’re going or because we hold such tightly pre-conceived notions based on where we’ve been that we simply don’t see. At least someone in our trio had their eyes open instead of their mouth.
Under the cover of night beavers, with incisors like chop saws, had whittled the aspen tree down into tell tale points that no one around these parts takes the time to make when cutting firewood. A few more scrapes with their teeth would have fallen the tree, readying it to be dragged towards the water. Maybe they decided it was too big; maybe a coyote or one of the Chagrin wolves that frequent this drainage interrupted them. Maybe they just got lazy. I wondered how far away their lodge might be, if they’d adequately sealed the walls with grass, mud and rocks or if they were feeling the nip of winter’s chill.
Despite the low temperatures we were braving, if the beavers had done their job right their lodge wasn’t freezing. In part, that’s where the infamous dams come in. The dams, built upstream of the lodge, help submerge the structure so that it doesn’t freeze as the temperature drops. Dams also help access food all year round.
There are 25 different species of beaver. I couldn’t tell you whose handiwork this was except that it likely wasn’t the C. c. carolinensis from Carolina (unless it came in with the building boom) or the C. c. missouriensis. I’m guessing it was the C. c. Canadensis from our northern neighbor.
About seven miles down the road from where we were walking is one of those historic highway signs that I admit I rarely stop to read but nonetheless hold in high regard. It tells the story of the famous Rendezvous that occurred in Teton Valley (aka Pierre’s Hole) in 1832. This rowdy gathering of trappers, traders and Native Americans was one of the largest in the Rockies and beaver pelts were just one of the wares the men bargained for. Eventually the Rendezvous disintegrated into a battle between the Gros Ventre tribe and you guessed it, the white guys when one of them shot a member of the Gros Ventre unprovoked. Approximately three dozen men, women and children from both sides died.
As long as we’re talking about beavers and Pierre’s Hole, Beaver Dick Leigh is worth a mention. Yes you read right—that was his name. Beaver Dick Leigh was a Castor Canadensis trapper who came to Teton Valley a few decades after the disastrous Rendezvous. To honor him for his help in guiding government survey teams around the region, Grand Teton National Park’s Leigh and Jenny lakes are named after The Beav and his wife Jenny.
This summer one beaver and her family became quite the cause célèbre in Grand Teton National Park when they began construction on the Park’s Moose-Wilson Road. The industrious animals’ dam caused a back-up that threatened to flood the road, not to mention the threat of vehicular manslaughter charges against frustrated local drivers impatient with tourists parked in the middle of the road taking pictures of said beavers. (Although I admit getting stopped by a beaver dragging an aspen across the road was pretty cool.) Yellowstone has “bear jams.” Grand Teton has “beaver jams.” The Park did its best to trick the beavers with all sorts of clever inventions that would maintain the dam’s structure while allowing water to drain. Reviews were very mixed (and very firey). Good thing winter came. Stay tuned for next year’s series on the saga.
But Moose-Wilson commuters and Grand Teton National Park Engineers aren’t the only ones who regard beavers as pests. Around the world they’re relegated to vermin status. True, they do transform their environment (sort of like another species near and dear to our hearts), but scientists actually consider beavers as a keystone species in North America. (Patagonians on the other hand, rightfully have cause for concern as introduced beavers wreck havoc on Tierra Del Fuego. There’s legitimate fear about their reaching the mainland.) Their presence indicates a healthy level of biodiversity in which beavers play a key role. After all, their transformation leads to creation. Like meadows to wetlands, which support not only a range of aquatic and riparian flora and fauna but 43 percent of North America’s endangered species.
Suddenly, I’m inconsolably jealous.
This is a new aspect of my blog called Found: The Natural History of Everyday Things. It’s a weekly installment dedicated to taking the time to investigate the life of things found outside that I, and maybe some of you too, hate to say but take for granted. A chance to become better acquainted with the quiet, yet defining, characters of the skis, climbs, hikes, rides and paddles that are so much a part of my life. Maybe yours too..
Darby Canyon; 43 40’ 35.82” N 111 02’ 31.49”W Elevation 1,989 meters
Elk Cervus canadensis
Ever think about how to spell the word “curl-e-que”?
Until yesterday, neither had I.
My dog Kali, a proud member of the Wydaho Negris muttacious, the breed so prevalent in this region, is one of my favorite trail partners.
It isn’t just the joy I get watching her tear up hillsides, plunge through creeks and roll ecstatic in the dirt with an intensity that can only be broken by the taunting chirp of a squirrel. It isn’t just the endearing habit she has of racing back to check in with me, tail wagging so hard it’s a wonder her feet are still on the ground.
It’s the other face of the forest she shares with me. The things I can’t smell; hear; sense or see.
Yesterday we headed up Darby Canyon—one of my favorite valley haunts. It wasn’t long before Kali was trotting back triumphant, her head cock-eyed from the weight of the large skull she was carrying.
It was an elk’s. Fairly young considering its healthy line of teeth still coated in enamel, not yet dulled by years of chewing on willow and elderberry. (Or if it were a cow, from stripping bark off young saplings to create a territorial marker. Bulls do it with their antlers.) Apparently, in the 19th century, elk were killed en masse for their two upper teeth, a coveted adornment for watches.
I’ve seen lots of femurs, scapulas and hoofs, which are one of Kali’s favorite, but she’s never brought me an entire a skull. While Kali sat patiently, her eyes expanding into doleful saucers, a line of drool dripping from her jowl, I traced the circle of the eye socket with my finger, marveling at the head’s weight in my hand.
Planar cuts incongruous with the skull’s smooth lines ran in a rough line across the top—the spot where the bull’s rack had been sawed off his head. A decapitation of sorts acceptable and encouraged by interior designers the world over. However, what most decorators don’t think about is that shed antlers provide an important source of calcium for all sorts of resident rodents and even porcupines. Next time you find an antler, check it out for little nibbled edges. A subtle reminder of a kind of interdependence we so often overlook.
But what fascinated me most what the nose. In either side of the nasal cavity, a delicate spiral was suspended in air. A curlicue of cartilage. (Curlicue can also be spelled curlyque, although that iteration is less common)
Does it hang in every species’ nasal cavity? Is it unique to ungulates? What is this beautiful structure’s function? I typed every combination of “Elk Nasal Cavity Curlique Structure” could think of into the Google search bar. No luck. Emailed naturalist friends and hunters. Finally, Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Jim Dau provided the answer—they’re nasal turbinates. The spiraled structure helps increase the surface area which not only provides more room for smell receptors, but also warms the air before it enters the lungs and captures water to help moisten the nasal passages before the air is exhaled. In bears the turbinate are a delicate lattice.
The fontanelles played in ragged lines and two small holes marked the area just below the empty eyes like tribal tattoos. A small tuft of fur still clung to the cheek suggesting the kill had probably occurred last year. A healthy bull can run up to 35 miles an hour, but apparently this one wasn’t quite fast enough.
Right about now, about 20 miles east as the crow flies, hundreds of elk have picked their way down through the hill, directed by an internal GPS to the Jackson valley and the nearly 25,000-acre National Elk Refuge where they wait out winter as part of the world’s largest concentrated, congregation of elk. (The feeding strategies that keep them there is another very contentious story.)
Eventually, I return Kali her treasure. Lucky dog. She’s never been one for store bought toys. Bones and sticks are the only things that hold her interest. She prances away, only stopping to sniff and chew once she figures she far enough from my reach; far enough that she can pretend not to hear when I call her.
The sun sinks behind the Big Hole mountains, bringing a chill. Back at the car, I negotiate the skull out of Kali’s grip, then toss it into the bushes where it will wait to again be hunted—now for its bones, not just its meat. I wonder when, if ever, the elk will rest.