On an early morning walk in the woods, I pull up short at a scent: musky and pungent and very localized. My sense of smell isn't refined enough to distinguish between skunk and male red fox, but this deep in the woods I assume the former. The dogs, of course, are positive of the source: I often wonder if a scent identification to them is as definitive as a sight ID is for me.
These chance encounters -- wisps of scent, a stray footprint, a yawl, a fleeting glimpse of movement -- always remind me of the sheer quantity of lives that unfold, casually and unnoted, outside of the periphery of my senses. Never mind the microorganisms in the air, the water, the soil, never mind the creatures like worms and fish that inhabit a medium hidden from human view: there are literally thousands of mammals all around me, in plain sight, that I will never have any sensory contact with.
Once in a laundromat a few hundred miles from where I grew up, I ran into a man wearing a t-shirt with my high school logo. Of course, I struck up a conversation with him. Turns out we'd graduated in the same class, inhabited the same building for four years, and yet both of us swore that we'd never seen each other until that chance meeting in the laundromat.
A chance encounter in nature is always a gift, scales that fall from one's eyes like paper wrapping at Christmas time. A glimpse into another world, another life. Separate but parallel and heretofore unknown, at least for me with my crude human senses. I can't speak for the others: they may have been observing me for weeks or even years, if not visually perhaps by auditory or olfactory traces more wide ranging, more obvious and unerring than sight. My human surprise and wonderment at the encounter is probably not mirrored by the other: the prevailing emotions -- fear, annoyance, curiosity -- dependant upon the species, the individual, and the mood.
The Badger area of the Lewis and Clark National Forest in Montana is a de facto wilderness which has been excluded from protection under the Wilderness Act because of the presence of subsurface deposits of natural gas. The Badger is located directly south of Glacier National Park along the front range of the northern Rockies: the richly faunaed, delicately balanced zone where the ecosystems of east slope mountain and short-grass prairie overlap.
I enter the Badger Creek drainage from the south, down Elk Calf Mountain from the Bob Marshall Wilderness: a lowing sky, shivering drizzle, and mud. As soon as I've crossed into the Badger I see grizzly prints on the trail: a sow and a half-grown cub, and a bigger set of tracks, probably from a boar. Bear tracks, particularly the rear feet, are very similar to human prints, with five toes above the curving instep that leads into the wide butt of the heel. The cub track is especially provocative: if I could just ignore those five wedge-shaped claw prints cut into the mud above the toes, I might imagine a bare-foot child had preceded me along the trail.
I continue hiking until I discover a pile of scat directly in the center of the trail, still steaming. The droppings are black from digested blood but liberally laced with bright green blades of grass, looking none the worse for wear after traveling through the entire length of the bear's digestive tract. The pile is so large that it covers the entire width of the trail.
(Some experts advise that campers in grizzly country festoon their packs with bells: the reasoning being that the constant jangling will alert a bear to human presence and thus prevent a startled attack. Q: How can you tell grizzly scat from that of a black bear? A: The grizzly scat has bear bells in it.)
I move on. It's late and I've traveled over twenty miles today but I don't want to camp where there's so much fresh bear sign.
The main trail follows Badger Creek through a sweeping, U-shaped glacial valley. At the head, where I crossed into this drainage, I saw a few western white pines and larch trees among the Doug firs and lodgepoles, but as I descend I begin to see aspens, then cottonwoods and even a few sage brushes. The currents in the wide streambed braid and interweave like rivers far to the north. The cottonwood leaves chatter in the breeze.
I cross the creek following a trail that's barely discernable: budget constraints have restricted trail maintenance and here the main access trail -- the route that outfitters use to bring in hunters in the fall -- has apparently received priority attention. Off the main trail, the bear sign evaporates. I set up camp in a little opening where the feeder stream that I will follow tomorrow over the west pass and into the Flathead drainage dumps into Badger Creek.
There's a forest fire now in the thick west-slope jungle around the Yaak River. It's not a hazard -- almost 200 miles away -- but if the wind is right I can smell it, and the smoke is smudging my western views. So the next day when I climb my final mountain of the two week trip -- I plan to follow the Middle Fork of the Flathead River to Highway 2 and a waiting rendezvous -- the sky looks so gray and dingy to the west that I backtrack a few hundred feet down from the peak so that my view is restricted to the clean blue sky in the east.
I've just settled in, leaning against the soft bottom of my pack, my notepad and pen in hand, when some movement above -- where the trail mounts the peak -- catches my attention. I glance up and see a black and white border collie -- the unofficial state dog of Montana -- galloping toward me. For an instant, I register this as a normal encounter -- nearly every outfitter or horse camper in the Bob is accompanied by at least one border collie -- but something about the way this dog moves seems odd. I look at it again, more carefully, and realize that the animal is not running with the steady, side-to-side gait of a canine but with the curved back, sinuous, humping lope of a weasel. But it's much bigger than any weasel -- fifty pounds at least -- buff colored markings on a dark brown body. It is a wolverine.
In the time it takes me to positively identify the animal, the wolverine has continued its running course down the trail: a trail that hardly exists. Up here there are no trees, no shrubs: it's just grass and forbs. The trail is a six inch wide path where the grass has been slightly trampled. But the racing wolverine -- why in the world is he running so hard? -- does not detour from the path even though it will take him within five feet of me. He sees me, I know -- how could he miss me? -- but he doesn't acknowledge my presence, doesn't break stride, doesn't turn his head as he runs past. His mouth is open: I hear him panting, his breaths labored. Once the animal has past me, I stand for a better view, watch the wolverine's undulating stride as he negotiates the sinuous switchbacks until the creature’s body is swallowed by the day and disappears into the forest and the mountain and the wilderness and all of the thousands of unnoted lives that surround the two of us who -- for one brief moment -- shared an instant of common recognition.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources