Monday, June 8, 2015

Lady Bighorns on the Edge



I thought that they were mountain goats, two adults and two babies. I wondered if they might be a family, not knowing the family structure of these ungulates. From my vantage point, on a higher cliff on the trail up Mt. Washburn (Yellowstone National Park), the animals won my heart. The babies shared their parents' boldness for walking on the edges of cliffs; however, they always made sure to keep within a leg's-length of mom. I saw a baby nurse. I zoomed in with my cameras, and clicked away. I lamented that mountain goats are not native to Yellowstone. I should not glorify or romanticize an exotic invader, no matter how majestic said animal might be, I had thought.

I put away my cameras and hiked the rest of the trail, to the fire lookout tower at the top. All of the tower except for the very top was open to the public. Inside the glass-windowed panoramic viewing room, there was a sign duct-taped to the wall. It showed a photo of a mountain goat and one of a female bighorn sheep. My subjects clearly belonged to the latter category. Female bighorn sheep can look suspiciously like mountain goats; I should have known better, having met a lady bighorn previously on a trek through the Grand Canyon.


Relieved that my animal friends had been vindicated, I ambled back downhill, and found the spot from which I had seen the wily ungulates. On the cliffs below, those bighorn sheep were still around! Evidently, these rock outcrops were lush with plants—comparatively speaking in the harsh tundra world of 10,000 feet! There were lichens of many colors, oranges and blacks, growing all over the rocks around me. And, where the sheep grazed, patches of grasses, almost fluorescent green in color, and maybe a quarter of an inch tall. Nonetheless, the bighorns munched on this sparse vegetation, a feast for them. The lambs took some nibbles from the plants, then returned, each to nurse from their respective mother. Back and forth the babies scurried, with the spastic energy of youth. It was charming to see these two mother sheep out together with their youngsters. Were the ewes sisters? Friends? Of the same herd in any case, and they liked to keep together, the fearless four. One of the moms rested, belly to the ground, evidently taking a break both from foraging and her lamb's frequent attention to the teat. Through the binoculars, I had a good view of those spooky eyes that sheep and goats have, the horizontal pupils, suggesting an alien intelligence within that elongate head. And since people are naturally acrophobic, the lifestyle of the bighorn sheep seems foreign and hard to imagine. Perhaps more amazing is how the sheep find sustenance on these barren mountains. Somehow, a tiny green stalk at a time, they find the energy to not only survive, but thrive. Lactation takes a great deal of energy—making milk for a baby requires the mother to give so much of her body and her self. And these sheep were able to do it, in the fiercest of lands. Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum) of Jurassic Park was right: “Life will find a way.”

Monday, June 1, 2015

Peace in the Valley



Hayden Valley is frequented by bison, elk, bears, and wolves. And it has (for me) the virtue of being close to my Canyon home base. I am often in the valley in uniform on roves, where I meet devoted older tourists with spotting scopes, who share volumes of knowledge on Wolf 755 (and adult male who roams the valley), and generally know more about the wildlife than I or most rangers ever will. On some early mornings or evenings, I come to the valley in civilian attire, with my pencils and brushes and pastels. The Yellowstone River, with its serpentine undulations, unifies Mother Nature's grand composition of landscape. I may not be able to capture it fully on paper, but it's a learning process. And, in the quietude, after the mobile homes have roared to their next stop, elk emerge from their hiding spots and trek downhill. Ravens soar to and from their nest in the trees, unconcerned with whether people are watching. And I hack away at building layers of pastel on the page. I become a shrub by the road, with that curious musky person-smell, which the beasts of the field have come to know.  

Monday, May 25, 2015

Bear in the Valley



In Hayden Valley, a young adult grizzly bear was out and about, on the far side of the river. Likely to be a female who is known to roam the valley. Many people pointed their cameras and binoculars from the field by the road, and luckily kept their distance. The bear chomped away on some carcass in the field, then trotted towards us. I was a ranger on duty, and so I told folks to step back and keep the 100 yards distance. The bear hopped into the river. She waded out to grab hold of a bison carcass (mostly a skeleton with a bit of flesh still clinging.) She spun the carcass about and reared up on top of it, sunk her jaws deep into the abdomen. She attacked the carcass from every angle, and tried to extract every last morsel of meat, all the while braving the chill water. Then she went back to the far side of the river, and ran downstream. The people followed, most in their cars, to the next pull-out. A pair of law enforcement rangers arrived there, and I left the crowd control to them. In this event, had to refrain from photography, so as not to look like a tourist. I did get some fine views of the distant bear through the binoculars. The bruin, in classic fashion, exploited the remains of animals who did not survive the winter--a brutal time for the large ungulates. Yellowstone astounds!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Be wary of animals large....

I asked my supervisor at Yellowstone Park her opinion about solo hiking. She said that she did it regularly, and called it a “calculated risk.” The next day, I was out alone, hiking stick in hand, wide-brimmed hat on head, in a lodgepole pine thicket, after a meadow. I had my canister of bear-spray clipped to my hip. I had sent my friend Lesley a last minute text message about where I was going, which I consider as passing with a “D” when it comes to notifying an outside party of one's travel plans. I had hiked solo in black bear country countless times, but Yellowstone is also home for the larger and less predictable grizzly.



As I went, I spoke “Yo whazup bears, I be passin' through.” (They normally walk away at the sound of a human voice.) It felt odd, talking to myself, and the one-sided conversation was hard to maintain. I passed a wetland where the chorus frogs sang  their continuous “Creek-eek.” There were many patches of snow among the fallen timber.

In the forest, it was scarier. I glanced about, wondering what lurked in the shadows under the trunks. My senses heightened halfway to the level of a deer, the ever-vigilant prey. My imagination turned a small branch breaking in the wind into the footfall of a massive animal; a crunch of rocks under boot became a bruin's grunt; a boulder into a hairy beast. Then I came to an indisputable sign of the grizzly bear—tracks in the mud, with long claws prominent.



I splashed through some muddy trail to Cascade Lake, my destination. I turned around and headed back.

I strode faster on the way back, my confidence increased. Still I periodically checked for my canister of spray, and made my voice quietly heard to the trail ahead.

The next morning, in the shower, I felt a little bump somewhere on my buttocks. After out-ruling potential scabs or zits, I knew what I had to do. I grasped the tick with my fingernails at the front of the head, and ripped it out forcefully, some skin along with it. With abdomen full of blood, the critter slipped out of my hand and down the drain of the sink. With its little legs waving, I failed to identify the type of tick, but regarded it as certainly larger than a deer tick. Now, a week later and with no symptoms, I am in the clear.



However, the irony was not lost on me. While I was distracted by the thought of large and fearful mammals, a silent but deadly beast, the miniature septic tank, easily crawled up my pants leg. A tick check the same day as my woods walk would have saved me some blood and concern.

Precautions for bears and sharks are important. However, the deadliest animal in the world is the mosquito, for its spread of disease. Ticks rank second as disease spreaders. Bees are another force to be reckoned with, as 53 people per year in the US die from allergic reaction to their stings. We can share the wilds with all these creatures, with the right precautions. Enjoy the woods, my friends, but be wary of animals large and small!

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Ravens in the Steam


 
Another vignette from my visit to Yellowstone last year:

“The ravens were everywhere. They watched from trees, soared above on ebony outstretched wings, owners of the domain of yellow rocks. Along the “back basin” of Norris Geyser basin, a group of three ravens cackled and cawed and croaked, in a three way dialog of some kind. Perhaps gossip about the goofy bipeds who pass in the thousands by day, and point their gaping cameras at the steam.”

This year, I have moved in to Yellowstone for the next five months. My inaugural field sketch, below, I made at Norris Geyser Basin. New stories await!


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

CAVE Exodus, the freeing of a trapped Spider


It has been a trying winter at Carlsbad Caverns. We recently had a collective going away party for the last five seasonal rangers to go off to their new parks and new adventures. They asked us each to give an informal exit speech. Reluctantly, after urging from my peers, I stepped to the “podium.” A slightly-edited version of what I said:

“As you all know, my childhood hero was Spider-Man. I wanted to be Spider-Man: to scale sheer walls, to swing from webs, catapult myself from a web-slingshot, and kick-out villains with both feet. It never quite happened.

But when I arrived for work at Carlsbad Caverns for the first time in May 2013, I learned that my proving ground would be Spider Cave. I was nervous. I had been on one wild cave tour before, when I was twelve. That was long ago. Had I become claustrophobic? There was only one way to find out.

I emerged from Spider Cave covered in red dirt, having belly-crawled through the narrow passageways, with the red crusts of corrosion residue all over the walls, the ghostly calcite formations—the gnome and the Medusa room and the pirate ship. I emerged victorious—I had survived Spider Cave. Therefore, I must be a Spider-Man!


Later that summer, I delivered my first bat flight program, at the amphitheater overlooking the natural entrance to Carlsbad Cavern. I spoke of the Batman symbol and Native American stories of bats as heroes, and the heroic feats that real bats perform, such as keeping insect populations under control. And the bats emerged, the counterclockwise spiral cloud, which has graced our landscape in summer evenings for many millennia. The people watched in awed silence as the bats filled the purple sky. They flapped and whizzed around me, inches from my nose and 500 feet overhead. And so I was Batman.

At what other job do you get to be BOTH Spider-Man and Batman?


My favorite Spider-Man story was “If This Be My Destiny....!”, from the original 1960s run, by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee. This tale remains a classic, an influence and inspiration to generations of cartoonists and readers. After a battle with Doctor Octopus, Spidey has recovered a rare isotope needed to cure Aunt May from a deadly disease. But unfortunately, Spidey is pinned to the ground by a block of fallen machinery the size of a building. Cold water drips on his head and soaks his body. At first, he remembers his failures and gives up, and prepares to die alone under the crushing weight. Then he thinks of his family and all the people who need him, especially Aunt May. He musters the strength and will to lift the machine. You can feel the force and the power, as trembling with agony, he rises to his feet, hoists the titanic hunk of metal and casts it backward.

It reminds me of this winter season at Carlsbad Caverns. We went through 'breaking bat' and 'sewergate' and the rest. We faced broken water lines and broken sewers, and walked on iced-over pathways through winter gusts to reach the port-o-potties. We filled jugs with water in White City, and filled buckets from the trickle off the rooftops. We took hell from the powers that be over minutia and things not our fault. And, by strength of this family, this community, we still lifted the machine. We kept Carlsbad Caverns a world-class National Park. A pristine cave and home for bats, and an unforgettable experience for the people who visit. This victory is collective.



Whenever Tales of the Uncanny from About Comics comes out, look for a parody of the lifting scene, written and drawn by yours truly!

Batflight photo by NPS, public domain. 
ASM #33 cover by Steve Ditko, copyrighted to Marvel, used here for educational purposes only.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Bear of the Northern Wilds



A vignette from my Yellowstone trip (with my parents) last year:

At one point along the North Loop Road, we came upon another backlog of cars—elk jam, I guessed. With so many tourists gawking and aiming cameras, we too decided to scoot our station wagon barely off the road, and join them. Some place in the woods, to which all the cameras pointed. One could imagine lines projecting from the cameras, all to converge at a point—on the nose of a small black bear. A young one. He attacked a shrub, probably fruited with currants, from every angle. He reached munched and picked, berries, leaves and all, first from one side of the bush then the other, then above and then below. From any available clearing in the vegetation by the road, the binoculars and cameras pointed and clicked. As thorough as a kid with a bag of M and M's, the bear ate for every last berry, and then shuffled on to find another bush. My mother remarked that when she visited Yellowstone as a child, the tourists would gather by the road to feed the bears bread and candy and turn them into overweight beggars. What an amazing shift between now and then, that we now capture and light up our computer screens with pictures of bears practicing their natural habits in their natural habitats! The young bear is probably out shuffling through the woods somewhere today, with pine smell in his nostrils and food on his mind.



(I don't know the bear's gender, so my male pronouns have a 50% chance of being correct.)