Solar Eclipse at Blueberry Hill

I shall only say that I have passed a varied and eventful life, that it has been my fortune to see earth, heavens, ocean, and man in most of their aspects; but never have I beheld any spectacle which so plainly manifested the majesty of the Creator, or so forcibly taught the lesson of humility to man as a total eclipse of the sun. James Fenimore Cooper, The Eclipse

On August 22, 2017, a large portion of the United States was witness to a total eclipse of our sun. In a swath some sixty miles wide, running from Washington to South Carolina, nightfall came progressively across this path in the middle of the afternoon. The rest of the country experienced various degrees of the eclipse, with accurate scientific predictions beforehand of the percentage of the sun that the moon would cover in sundry locales. Everybody wins, and although totality was only a fleeting few minutes even directly in the path, we all would see some of the eclipse. That was the word, but the reality of the event was not written so precisely but rather painted in much broader strokes.

In the portion of my home state of New Jersey where I reside, the moon would cover about three quarters of the sun. So we would experience something unique, but short of what was seen in other places directly in the path. Some family members had gathered on a farm in western Oregon for an eclipse watch camping trip, and had the textbook experience: sudden darkness, temperature drop, and eerie light in stages as the eclipse waned. The renown nature writer Anne Dillard wrote about viewing the 1979 eclipse near the same area in her essay Total Eclipse in her book “Teaching a Stone to Talk.”

The long range forecasts had looked favorable for clear skies here on the east coast, so optimism was high for the event and the sale of eclipse viewing glasses was brisk. But as August 21st drew closer, things got a little cloudier, literally. Clear skies coast to coast were hardly a meteorological possibility, but now larger numbers of people, millions on the east coast in fact, would not have anything coming close to prime viewing conditions. Here on the east coast we would experience an “unastonomical sky”, as no less a naturalist than Alexander Von Humboldt had described unfavorable viewing conditions during a Latin American eclipse. But undeterred, I and tens of thousands of like-minded skywatchers, chose to follow the Marine Corps slogan: Improvise, Adapt & Overcome. So with backpacks stuffed with cameras, viewing glasses, camp chairs and water, we set out to view the eclipse from atop Blueberry Hill.

Not to be confused with the fictional mound in Fats Domino’s iconic song, this Blueberry Hill was quite real. It is the centerpiece of the Blueberry Hill Conservation Area, a popular local hiking and biking area, a part of the county greenway initiative. At roughly 200’ above sea level, it trails by less than 50, feet the highest four points in the entire southern portion of the state. To be sure, Sir Edmund Hillary did not train on Blueberry Hill for the first successful summit of Mount Everest. But in the flatlands that are the Atlantic coastal plain, it offers some nice views through the pines, oaks, laurels and rhododendrons that comprise much of the vegetation on this sandy hill. And situated next to a former gravel quarry pit, the opportunity to view the open sky from the cover of the forest canopy, a key consideration on a humid summer afternoon. And while the Philadelphia skyline is visible from the east ridge, the western views are towards the ocean forty miles away, non- visible but always in your consciousness in this neck of the woods.

On the afternoon of the 21st as we pulled into the gravel lot below Blueberry Hill, there was just enough sunshine coming through the cloud cover to suggest sunglasses. But what did become clear as we walked through the marshy access to the hill, was that the we were in the improvisational and adaptation phase of our plan. The winding trails that lead to the top of the hill offer a couple of different surfaces, and we followed a familiar one, sandy and comparatively steep. We wound our way to the plateau that comprises the summit, and chose a shaded spot beneath a few pitch pines and white oaks on the edge of the old quarry. The sun, peeking intermittently through the clouds, still rode high in the August sky at 2:05 PM.

As we got comfortable in our little “eclipse camp” I began to record a some notes in the light that filtered through the branches. A few birds were chirping in the thicker brush behind us and a single butterfly, a tiger swallowtail, flitted amongst the milkweed on the edge of the hilltop. A pleasant breeze wafted up from the south, and within twenty minutes or so, a few buzzing flies visited our position.

A lone gull circled over the shallow, muddy pond that had formed at the bottom of the quarry. That small anomaly in a sea of sand and gravel mounds and potholes, was formed by the percolating aquifer, and enhanced by rain and snowmelt. Over time a familiar process will take place and this quarry will become one of many in the state that fills and becomes a lake, artificially constructed as it were, but filled eventually by nature. In Augusts yet to come, gulls will be joined by herons, egrets, swallows, redwing blackbirds, red-bellied turtles, bullfrogs, bluegills, pumpkinseeds & bass.

By 2:30 there is enough light to see the shadow of the moon partially obscuring the sun between the clouds. But there is still enough light so that the shadow of the pine tree in front of me is still sharply defined on the ground. Two crows are calling to each other now from the woods to the southeast, and I hear but do not see an aircraft above. I wonder in what way, if any, their view is different than mine. By 2:45 the crescent shadow on the moon was perceptibly receding. The light at this point, and throughout the event, had varied little, and it was never darker than a normal overcast day. Something small scrabbled in the underbrush, and another swallowtail appeared. Both creatures moving right to left, the same path the moon was tracing across the face of the sun. Having seen photos from the eclipse in its totality in the western states earlier today, I remembered some of what Anne Dillard had written of her eclipse experiences during a couple of events. She compared a partial eclipse to a total eclipse, to flying in an airplane and falling out of an airplane, the one not in any way preparing you for the other. I knew I was missing what wasn’t available to me, but I tried not to miss what was.

The minutes passed and Blueberry Hill became noticeably quieter. Other than the sound of breeze passing through the tree, one had to strain to hear the faraway call of a cardinal or the trill of a robin. As I pondered whether or not light variations that were too slight for me to observe, might be affecting other life forms, a red blinking light commenced on the radio tower at the old military installation across the quarry. Was that a photosensitive reaction, a malfunction, or just a timer kicking on? I walked along the hilltop edge, trying to sense any other indicators that something was different, but other than the silence, I concluded there was not. As 4:00 arrived, the only notable change in the environment was increasing silence. Even the other small group of observers some forty meters away, had grown quieter, eventually trekking away silently. There had not been an ooh or ahh moment, but the experience was unique though definitely subtle. Sometimes the finest of nature or ourselves, is just so.

We took a longer route down off the hill, encountering a squirrel or two and a few leopard frogs on the far side of the swamp. A warbler could be heard now and then, and towhees and sparrows were darting among the branches, and a scolding blue jay sat on the post of the trailhead marker. Perhaps what I witnessed this afternoon was the world pausing, almost imperceptibly, for the rife st of moments. I gathered the eclipse viewing J glasses from our group ad slipped them into an envelope in my backpack. I sent the glasses to Astronomers Without Borders ( where they will be distributed to school children in South America in time for the eclipse that will cross that continent in 2019. As they look at the world through these same lenses on that day, I wonder what they will see?

Photo by he author

The International Appalachian Trail

“Of the eons of geological periods recorded in the stratification of the earth: of the myriad minute entomological organic existences concealed in cavities of the earth…” James Joyce, Ulysses

Rugged coastal cliffsThere exists an International Appalachian Trail (IAT), a continuation of our iconic Appalachian Trail in the eastern United States. It extends along a path from Mount Katahdin in Maine, through the Maritimes, Greenland, and Ireland and the UK on its way to its terminus in Morocco. Portions of the IAT exist from Scandinavia through Western Europe as well. The trail traces as best it can, the former mountain range that existed in the epoch of the supercontinent Pangea, which our present day Appalachians were a part of. Plate tectonics rendered that land mass into the now familiar continental configuration humanity has called home, filling the gaps between modern day continents and islands with sea water. So while the IAT can be accurately traced and mapped, it cannot be hiked in its entirety. Small price I think, for how cool a concept the trail really is.

Although I have not come close to through hiking the original Appalachian Trail, I have hiked in various segments in most of the states that it passes through in the US. And most recently, I had an opportunity to spend some time in Ireland to hike the International Appalachian Trail where it “comes ashore” as it were, on the Emerald Isle.That particular spot, the beginning of the Irish portion of the trail, is at Slieve League on the often storm tossed North Atlantic coast. It travels from the impressive coastal cliffs of Slieve League Mountain (Sliabh Liag in Gaelic) in County Donegal, making it’s way through the Blue Stack and Sperrin Mountains, and reaching it’s terminus at Antrim in Northern Ireland.

The IAT in many areas is in it’s infancy, and information about it is not readily available at this point in time in Ireland. Other major trail systems are well marked in both the Republic and Northern Ireland, and I’m sure the IAT will eventually follow suit here as well. But for anyone interested in the current configuration of the trail, the Ulster IAT website is a good place to check it out. But the oceanic trailhead at Slieve League and the surrounding area, has always been, as they say there, a brilliant place to explore, long before it’s connection to the International Appalachian Trail.

Slieve League is less well known, and less visited. than the massive sea cliffs at Ireland’s impressive Cliffs of Moher National Park farther south along the coast. Although lacking the visitor amenities that exist at Moher, the more remote Slieve League is actually the more precipitous landscape. Located on the ocean near Teelin on the west coast of Ireland, Slieve League cliffs are actually a amongst the highest in all of Europe. After spending several days hiking and clambering over smaller rock formations on the Fanad Peninsula to the north,we tackled Slieve League on a breezy but uncharacteristically (for Donegal) clear day in August time, as the locals refer to the eighth month.

There were some aspects of Slieve League that were reminiscent of Point Reyes, California. If you have ever driven out to visit Point Reyes Lighthouse, you noticed the cows grazing in the fields during your journey towards the sea. Just replace the cows with sheep, and you have an idea of the approach to Slieve League. But while you won’t find the heifers actually along those California cliffs, the agile Irish sheep are found grazing all over Slieve League. Even the most wind swept and chancy purchase along the rocky slopes are utilized by the sheep transversing the coastal mount.

I can’t say whether or not the sheep enjoyed the sweeping panoramas of the North Atlantic or the raw beauty of the massive sea cliffs as much as I did. But they certainly focused on the foliage, and so did I, but for different reasons. The sheep were feasting on the same heathers, thistles, and wild carrots that slowly drew my attention away from the seascapes. I find I can often assimilate only do much panoramic majesty while outdoors, before my attention is drawn to more minute aspects of the environment. Looking for “organic existences concealed” as Joyce wrote. But existences concealed not necessarily in crevices or cracks, but hiding in plain sight, obscured merely by perception and a willingness to look away from one form of beauty to another. Beauty not of a lesser value, just a lesser scale. Being able to see the forest and the trees.

Trailhead on cliff above oceanI accessed Slieve League from the lower parking area, roughly at the base of the split mountain that rose before me. It is a longer route, and requires more effort, but if one cannot handle the grades and contours of this portion of paved track ,it would be unwise to plan to hike the more difficult portions of the trails here that rise from the upper parking area. Especially under wet and windy conditions, unsteady or unfit hikers could truly be at risk, and there are sad tales. This is especially so as you advance to the higher, narrow, ridge lines. This is hiking, not mountain climbing, but it is not a closely monitored National Park like the Cliffs of Moher. And if one stumbles on Slieve League, there are few soft landing spots. And the length of two football field is a very long way to fall. On the way to the trail heads there are sweeping coastal views: to the south, towards the harbor mouth at Teelin and eventually to the north along the sheer cliffs plunging into the foamy sea some 600 meters below. My longer route had given me a chance to warm and stretch my muscles and tendons before ascending the rocky paths to even more spectacular views of the coastline. As I hiked, I filled my lungs deeply with the strangely soft and fragrant Irish air, here enhanced even further by the sea breezes,

view of hills and ocean along trailAfter climbing some distance, I sought out a place to sit and observe the hills and moors bordering the coastal cliffs. Here and there, tiny bubbling brooks tinkled downslope, and shallow glacial ponds afforded a habitat for a few curlew. Ravens filled the air with intermittent raucous explosions of sound, and terns, gulls and bitterns, rode the waves below and soared along the cliff faces. I made my way out into a small, sloped, rock strewn meadow and found a suitable flat chalky rock to sit on and observe. Lichens and mosses of many hues seemed to be painted on small outcroppings of rock like minute Jackson Pollock paintings. Looking seaward, the North Atlantic was blue, choppy and deserted over countless nautical miles. Only a couple of small tourist boats that appeared late in the afternoon from nearby Teelin Harbor, broke the hypnotic undulations of the sea. The sound of crashing waves far below along the cliffs was almost muted at times by distance and the constant sounds of the winds.

As scientist/ author Hope Jahren noted in her wonderful book Lab Girl, “A cactus doesn’t live in the desert because it likes the desert; it lives there because the desert hasn’t killed it yet”. I thought of this while sitting in this harsh, windswept seaside environment, and I was moved to reflect on not only the beauty of this place, and in Ireland in general, but on the surprising local fauna or more accurately the lack of same. The visible lack of mammals in particular. For with me amongst the heathers and thistles, were not deer, hares, hedgehogs, or weasels, but sheep. During the past eight days spent in what should have been prime wildlife viewing areas, a single rabbit was the only non bird or fish we encountered. There had been no shortage of avian life, and ravens, magpies, jackdaws, terns and gulls were common, and here added their calls in chorus, above the background sounds of wind and wave at Slieve League.

But although not wild in anyone’s mind except probably their own, the sheep that populated even the most unlikely areas of the slopes and moors were fascinating. These sheep are “color coded” by paint markings so that the shepherds (unseen but inevitable) can keep track of the individuals in their flocks. Since the sheep wander freely on on public lands like Slieve League, it added a necessary but bizarre curiosity in an already unexpected encounter. The sheep were extremely agile, bounding from rock to rock on downslopes like overweight mountain goats. With relatively barrel shapes and spindly legs, an image of Babe Ruth rounding the bases came to mind.

white mountain goat along trailI was snapped out of my reverie by the realization that I was under close scrutiny myself, by a pair of burly rams slowly approaching upslope. I realized that the path I had taken out into the moor was a sheep trail, and the rams were coming to reclaim the right of way for the lambs and ewes in their flock. At first I was going to sit quietly and see if they passed me by without incident. However as they approached more closely, the massive curved horns they sported suggested another course of action might be more prudent. As I slowly backed away and exited the pathway stage right, the two rams seemed to relax and slowly angled off in an opposite vector. Almost at once, an enormous ewe astride a boulder began bleating loudly, alerting the other sheep in her small flock that it was time to move. Having climbed a large granite outcropping myself for a better (read safer) view, I watched as the flock loosely gathered and made its way across some scree to a higher meadow.

As I started my descent back along the narrow ridge line I had ascended previously, my impressions of Slieve League, this gem on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, began to evolve. While I still held in awe the geology of this oceanfront ecosystem, I pondered how we fit into all this, as surely humanity had put its mark here as well as the elements. And it was the sheep that came to represent to me this interaction of humanity and nature here, that in fact exists everywhere.

Scientists (like the aforementioned Hope Jahren) in the field of geobiology, study the interaction and impacts upon each other of the earth and it’s biosphere. As humans are certainly part of the biosphere of our planet, I guess feeling that at Slieve League was a natural, although hardly original, perception on my part. And in these interactions we have precipitated, and will continue to do, not only people but environments, are often changed. Maybe something along the lines of the Butterfly Effect, or for that every action there is a reaction.That is perhaps yet another of the hidden aspects or concealments of nature that James Joyce was thinking of when he penned the introductory quote above.

Desert Musings

“The heat was hot and the ground was dry But the air was full of sound” from “A Horse With No Name” by Dewey Bunnell

From the very first time that I visited our Southwest, it became clear that the “barren” deserts were far from barren. Not unlike the areas of the eastern coastal plain that are dubbed “pine barrens”, the label is as inaccurate and misleading as it is evocative. And with a few notable exceptions, the southwestern desert does not resemble the dunescape depicted in old movies about the French Foreign Legion, or Lawrence of Arabia, or even, well, Dune. There is a lot of life, beauty, majesty, and yes, heat, in our deserts.

I recently spent some time camping before monsoon season, under the open skies in the area of the country where three of our four major desert systems, the Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan converge. That geographic and ecological merge takes place in the ”three-corner” area where Nevada, Utah and Arizona come together. This area covers from portions of the north rim of the Grand Canyon, northwest through the Valley of Fire, and northeast towards Zion National Park. Flora and fauna representative of all three eco-systems can overlap here, making it an extremely interesting destination for a desert naturalist. Although daytime temperatures quickly soared into triple digits, once topping out at 127 degrees, it strangely enhanced the experience of spending time in these environments. In this type of heat, there are not herds of critters thundering down most arroyos. However a quiet approach and practiced observation can reveal not only uniquely beautiful landscapes and vegetation, but the birds, animals and insects that inhabit the region. Add a good pair of binoculars, and a cooler (read shady) place to rest and scan, and you can check off even more boxes on your life lists or field guides if so inclined.

Author's son by desert wilderness signThe Colorado River and it’s impoundments, Lakes Mead and Mojave are the best known and most popular recreational water in this region, and with good reason. Lake Mead National Recreation Area offers water-based sports and eco-tourism opportunities surrounded by desert habitat remote enough to be inhabited by the occasional Gila monster. But this is not the only water here, although fishable options require a little more exploration. You can find fish in various parks in or near Las Vegas, like the oasis that is Floyd Lamb State Park near Tule Springs. However, my favorite spots in the region are near St. George in southwest Utah. In the foothills above the town, it was a unique experience to catch a few largemouth bass in 114 degree temperatures on my last trip. Obviously water temperatures were much lower, but the lack of cover and discernible structure left few options for places where fish might congregate. In this case, it was a few floating weed mats that provided secure ambush points for the bass to forage from. Terrestrial creatures similarly seek out protection and cover in their sun baked desert home. And although the sighting of a Gila monster or even a desert tortoise is rare, there are plenty of other critters scurrying about, hiding in the mesquite and creosote or scrambling amongst the crevices in the sandstone rocks.

On this trip, we hiked up to and camped on a high butte in the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Recreation area, administered by the Bureau of Land Management. In the Parashant, dispersed camping (primitive/backpack) is allowed, and we spent our nights in the Mount Bangs/Paiute Wilderness portion. The view on all sides of seemingly endless desert was serene as the light faded, the grub sizzled in the fry pan, and the temperature moderated somewhat. The air would began to stir, and the first of seemingly endless waves of cooling breezes arrived. Aromatic winds of varying velocity and sound would sweep up and onto the butte with us all night. As the desert disappeared beyond our immediate campsite, small creatures like pack rats, whiptail lizards and geckos could be seen in the beam of a lantern at times.

And far away from the light pollution, and unobstructed by an overhead tent roof, the magnificent June night sky presented itself. As we laid back on tarps and accordion sleeping pads, our entire field of vision was consumed by stars. Clusters, constellations, the Milky Way and even three meteors, provided the evening’s entertainment. The display was almost surrealistic, and it seemed as if a giant talking head of Neil DeGrasse Tyson might suddenly materialize to help explain exactly what we were witnessing. But in a way, no explanation was required to savor the experience. The visual art of the southwest night sky in this setting was visceral. Perhaps somewhat like walking into a room in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and confronting a wall size Jackson Pollack painting for the first time. Just seeing and feeling can be enough in both cases.

campsite in desertAs dawn approached, the waning wind and the morning calls of the birds worked like an alarm clock, stirring me off my sleeping pad and coaxing me to the east facing edge of the butte. Sitting on my haunches with my arms wrapped around my knees, I sat waiting for the world, as far as I could see, to awaken. Of all the beauty that you can encounter in the desert, this time of day takes a back seat to none. As spectacular as the red rock formations or distant peaks and neighboring mesas and buttes can be bathed in full sunlight, this is something else yet again. The light of false dawn through daybreak offers an opportunity to see this desert world revealed through yet another magical and incremental lens. As the sky begins to glow over the farthest ridge line, you can imagine you feel the warmth rise up the slope towards you. As the sun crests the rocks and begins it’s slow pursuit of the shadows across the valley floor, you no longer need to imagine the heat, increasingly an unmistakeable but pleasant warmth at this hour. The few places that will hold shade during the sunrise are now becoming clearly defined. Picking my way carefully down the rocky slope, I sought to find footfalls that would not disturb the somewhat delicate crust of the desert soil.

On the desert plain surrounding our butte, chuckwallas and banded geckos were present, probably in greater numbers than The few I noted among the brush, small cacti and rocks. Being quick enough and pretty well camouflaged, horned lizards were even more difficult to spot, and unfortunately not a hint of a Gila monster. No tarantulas either, but a few scorpions scouted the terrain much the same as I did. Voles darted in and out of a few sagebrush varieties, and a raven called from a small juniper bush. The birds were wary and distant, but the one phainopepla I identified was the first I’d ever seen. It was feeding on the random buzzing flies that popped up occasionally in the area. That wasn’t really too surprising, but the number of whitish, gray and muted brown colored butterflies was unexpected, considering the relative scarcity of plants in flower. Exploring slowly around the buttes where we camped at night in the relative cool of dawn and early morning, always revealed a varied mix of interesting desert species.

I found it interesting that the yelping and howls of coyotes were not among the sounds we heard in the evenings, although they were certainly present. Our major encounter with a larger mammal came on our final day, when we sought out the relative cool of the mountains in Spring Mountains Recreation Area, part of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in Nevada. I say relative, because although the trail to the summit of Mount Charleston led to snow and ice fields, the trek upwards began at the trailhead lot where the afternoon temperature read 101 degrees. It was nearby in the Willow Creek section of the Spring Mountains that we encountered the megafauna of our trip, a herd of six mustangs. Slowly moving through a sea of scrub some fifty meters in front of us, the largest mare led four of the wild horses on their pre-selected vector. The large roan stallion slowly walked in our direction, positioning himself between us and the the rest of the herd. Calmly, but alertly watching us watching him. When the other horses had made their way deeper into the desert, he turned and followed them down a dry wash, around a hillock, and out of sight. A horse with no name perhaps, but he will always be “Unforgettable”, a fitting enough moniker, my mind.

Photos by the author

Marmot Country

“Human attention on wildlife naturally falls on the glamour species. Nowadays everyone wants to save the whales, but how many people are campaigning to save the krill on which the whales depend for their survival?” E. Donnall Thomas Jr., Montana Peaks, Streams and Prairie, A Natural History

Marmot on granite bouldersThe climb from the visitor center to the top of Pompey’s Pillar along the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana is not a long or strenuous one. And although the contrast of this rocky sandstone formation to the plains surrounding it can be of great interest and of a certain beauty, that is not why most people visit here. Pompey’s Pillar is of historic importance as an area where Meriweather Lewis and William Clark spent significant time during their journey as leaders of the Corps of Discovery at the dawn of the 19th century. The excellent museum at the visitor center there documents this history with displays of their travels and artifacts from the period. And high up in the rocks themselves, behind a frame of plexiglass, is the signature of Clark himself, etched into the stone. Depending on your point of view, this can be understood as an historic relic, a latter day pictograph, or early graffiti. However, the ghosts of these famous explorers are not the only things one finds inhabiting this geographic incongruity.

As you take in the sweep of the prairie and the curve of the Yellowstone River below, you are probably being watched as well. And if the chatter of birds coming from the large cottonwoods in the floodplain along the Yellowstone contain some odd whistles, don’t be surprised. You are in prime territory of the yellow-bellied marmot (Marmota flaviventris), and those inquisitive and watchful balls of fur sunning themselves on the rocks probably have just given you a whistle or two. That sound is the reason that the pudgy marmots are sometimes referred to as “whistle pigs”, and their whistling communications are just as appealing to me as coyote howls. The town of Whistler, British Columbia, now a popular resort, conference center and Olympic ski venue, even got it’s name from the call of a member of this vocal mammal family, the hoary marmot (Marmota caligata).

There are fifteen species of this interesting overgrown squirrel worldwide, six of which are found in North America. That would include the most familiar and widespread member of the family, the groundhog, aka woodchuck (Marmota monax), a prime specimen of which lives under my garden shed. But the habitats of the predominantly western marmot species more often consist of rockier terrain and even alpine environments. But not all members of the species are regularly encountered. The Olympic marmot (Marmota olympus), for example, is confined to the Olympic Peninsula there. But it an iconic enough creature to be designated as Washington’s state animal. A few of the marmot species like the Vancouver Island marmot (Marmota vancouverensis) are endangered over all or some of their range, and that is a problem not only for the herbivorous marmots, but the carnivores and omnivores who consider them prey. Marmots are to varying degrees, food for species including hawks, eagles, wolves, cougars, bobcats and bears. So to the point Don Thomas makes in the introductory quote above, helping the marmots also helps many of the more esteemed western wildlife we so admire.

a yellow bellied marmot in the sierra nevada of california

But beyond that, I think marmots are quite frankly, engaging creatures in their own right. They appeal to me on a visceral level like a Jackson Pollock painting. My first encounter with marmots was at the aforementioned Pompey’s Pillar. Attracted at first by the singular whistling sound, I was pleasantly surprised to find a number of the animals in plain view. The number increased as I began to study the terrain more closely, sometimes noticing some slight movement, but most often just staring long enough to spot a stationary marmot sitting still. And often enough, staring right back at me. I found this behavior quite endearing, even over the span of the thirty or so meters between us. Spotting wildlife is sometimes like spotting a fish while looking down into the water. If you try to see the fish, you probably won’t. But if you look past the fish towards the bottom, you will often find that the fish materializes before your eyes. Once I subconsciously applied this technique to the outcroppings and ledges on the rock formation, I noted even more marmots. Although at the time, I was unsure of exactly what species of animal I was sharing my afternoon with. After spending longer than I had realized watching the creatures, I sought out a park ranger to find out what I had seen. Before I had fully spoken the question, the ranger smiled and said “Yellow-bellied marmot, we’ve got quite a few of them.”

I suppose it was somewhat fitting that my first encounter with a marmot occurred at a site commemorating the journey of Lewis and Clark, since they also encountered the species during their expedition. In various entries in their journals they note the animal as a monax, a name their “boss” Thomas Jefferson previously assigned to the related groundhog in his Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson based his designation of the groundhog found in his native state, on Carl Linnaeus’ nomenclature, which in turn would have been based on the Eurasian species of monax. Both Lewis and Clark took their lead from Jefferson, and dubbed the animal we now know as the yellow-bellied marmot, simply a monax. Their notes recorded observations of both the marmot in the wild, and it’s fur being utilized by the local Native American tribes such as the Shoshone and Mandan. What their field notes did not mention, was any marmot behavior similar to what I stumbled upon more than two centuries later.

I last encountered the marmot a few short months ago, in the pages of a well imagined book by Dan White entitled Under the Stars: How America Fell in Love With Camping. In a chapter about car-camping, he recounts his experience with marmots in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park in California. At the Cold Spring Campground there, his vehicle and those of other campers were set upon immediately upon arrival by marmots. Folks who have camped in areas with raccoons, might very well be familiar with the aggressive and ingenious assaults upon their foodstuffs that those bandits perpetrate. Hardly endearing, but understandable. However, the marmot behavior White writes about is bizarre to the extreme. The Kings Canyon yellow-bellied marmots have developed a taste for automotive fluids and gnaw through lines and hoses to get at the liquids inside. The website for Kings Canyon corroborates White’s report, and has an extensive marmot warning page, complete with photos and instructions of how to wrap your vehicle in plastic tarps to discourage the wily whistle pigs. Other parks such as Yellowstone scarcely issue more cautionary notices about grizzlies, buffalo or mountain lions.

marmot crossing wildlife caution sign on mountain road.

This remarkable aspect of marmot behavior triggered a bit of research on my part. I followed up with the NPS about why this might have occurred, and their consensus was that it was the combination of people feeding the marmots and “socializing” them with human presence. They think it is likely this allowed them to eventually find that the salts found on vehicle engine areas, were a substitute for salt that they lacked in their diet during drought conditions in the Mineral King area. These conditions continued over a long enough period to inculcate the behavior in this population. The extremely aggressive marmot activity common to Kings Canyon seems to be the outlier, as many locales across the west have no mention of this automotive predation, and some others have noted it to varying degrees. Sue Griffen who conducts marmot research in Olympic National Park in Washington, shared the following when I asked her if she had noted this behavior. “Yes, marmots do chew on car engine parts. I have seen them myself and heard many stories. As we had radio tagged marmots that lived near a parking lot, we were able to determine that an occasional individual would develop the habit. Other animals were never seen under cars. It was enough of a problem that I have seen hikers encase their car in chicken wire.”

On the other hand, when I contacted the Marmot Recovery Foundation on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, neither wildlife veterinarian Malcolm McAdie, who has worked with Vancouver Island marmots for past 20 years, or Executive Director Adam Taylor have ever seen Vancouver Island Marmots show any interest in vehicles. However Adam did add the following. “We’ve had cases where yellow-bellied marmots have stowed away in the underside of vehicles and chew wires, and even accidentally arrive on the Island when the vehicle next gets used. However, we’ve never seen one of our Island marmots do the same.” Interestingly, Dan White also recorded instances in his book of marmots “hitch-hiking” under the hood of vehicles, making it all the way to San Francisco on one occasion. Why were they under the hood? Maybe to warm themselves on a cold night, or more weirdly perhaps, just looking for a midnight snack.

Don Thomas, physician, naturalist, wilderness guide and author of the quote at the beginning of this essay, had a slightly different view. He told me that he has heard of such behavior in both Montana and Alaska where he has resided, but never prevalent enough to require preventative measures. And biologist Rebecca Flynn, who studied marmots on the National Bison Range in Montana asserted she had never observed such behavior there. To be certain, I have by no means conducted a scientific study. But in addition to the people I spoke with or corresponded with, I have utilized some University of Pennsylvania databases in my research. And many of the papers and articles about marmot behavior I reviewed deal with how we effect marmot behavior. This is usually recorded by the researchers and scientists in terms of metrics like population, breeding and distribution. The absence of references to the anomalous behavior I was looking for, suggests to me that in some instances the vehicle feasting marmots are actually influencing our behavior in a most singular fashion. I mean, what would it take for you to wrap your car in a plastic tarp or chicken wire every time you parked it?

Here on the east coast, I have heard reports of groundhogs chewing through underground electrical cables, but as a burrowing animal, that can possibly be dismissed as incidental gnawing. Groundhogs, including the one under my neighbor’s shed, can be destructive of gardens and even crops to some extent. But that is normal foraging, far removed from guzzling transmission fluids. So a creature that I originally found intrinsically engaging, has now become a fascinating mystery. Additionally there are conflicting reports about the effect on the marmots, if any, of the chemical fluids they slurp under the hood. The same goes for their resistance to certain sedatives. Some wildlife biologists have experienced nothing unusual in laboratory settings, while some reported marmots showing immunity to dosages effective on bears. Nature is full of surprises, especially if you look long and often enough. So the next time I see a marmot, I will regard it with new interest, as an animal no less appealing, but far more complex than first impressions indicated.

Hiking the Grand Canyon

“This landscape is animate: it moves, transposes, builds, proceeds, shifts, always going on, never coming back, and one can only retain it in vignettes, impressions caught in a flash, flipped through in succession, leaving a richness of images imprinted on a sunburned retina.” From Downcanyon: A Naturalist Explores the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon by Ann Zwinger

I’ve always liked Jules Verne’s writings, and from my first reading, I was captivated by his novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. The fantastic adventure commences in Iceland, or rather under Iceland, for the most part. The movie versions never could compete with the fantastic images that Verne’s words produced in my mind’s eye. And as a child, I became curious about this place called Iceland, and was captivated by the photos of the landscape I found in the library and National Geographic. And amongst the photos that most evoked the sentiments in me that Verne’s book had, were the ones not of volcanos, but of the canyons. It was at that point that I made an emotional connection between canyons and the Journey, and I can’t separate the two very easily to this day. I have not explored Iceland yet, nor attempted my own visit to the center of the earth, but I have found some caverns and more than a few canyons. And in truth, I have not fully abandoned the whimsical dream that the Lidenbrock’s Path that Verne wrote about might exist somewhere at the bottom of a canyon, probably a grand one, at that.

south rim view of the Grand Canyon.When one refers to the Grand Canyon, it is usually the magnificent 277 mile long gorge cut by the Colorado River through Northern Arizona. Usually, but not exclusively as it turns out. There are canyons and gorges in many states that are referred to as “Grand” in some fashion. Kind of like the way iconic people are referred to as the “Babe Ruth of” whatever it is they do. There is Letchworth State Park’s “Grand Canyon of the East” in New York, not to be confused with Maine’s Gulf Hagas or West Virginia’s New River Gorge, both also dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the East”. Alabama’s Walls of Jericho is called the “Grand Canyon of the South”, as is the gorge in Breaks Interstate Park in the Virginia portion. The “Grand Canyon of the North” is an open pit mine in Hibbing. MN, and the Waimea Canyon in Hawaii is known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”.

Wyoming has the “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone”, while the “Grand Canyon of North Carolina” is Linville Gorge, and “Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon” is Pine Creek Gorge. Features called “Grand Canyon Of ” are found in Michigan, Tennessee, Idaho, Oregon and Texas as well. Interestingly, “Little Grand Canyons” also are found in Vermont, Mississippi, Illinois, Utah, Nebraska, Missouri, Georgia, California and Washington. That’s Washington State, not DC, although I’ve scrambled along some pretty steep banks fishing along Rock Creek in the District, our first National Park incidentally. I am sure I’ve missed a few “Grands”, but you get the picture. The park services, chambers of commerce or tourist bureaus are not trying to deceive you, they are merely paying homage to the ultimate one in Arizona. And for the record, Arizona is not immune to a little hype either, their state moniker being “The Grand Canyon State”.

I guess everyone who has been to the Grand Canyon has a memory of their initial reaction to standing on the rim and beholding what was now in front of them. Most people don’t say behold to describe what they see, but it is the only word that fits, and it is not really enough. We all have seen the pictures and film, or read accounts dating from the Spanish explorers to John Wesley Powell to the aforementioned National Geographic. But as cliche as it sounds, all that doesn’t do it justice. First fully explored by Powell after the Civil War, it was dedicated a National Monument by Theodore Roosevelt roughly forty years later. Roosevelt’s words on the plaque with his likeness at Roosevelt Point on the rim pretty much sums it up. “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, and for all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American … should see.” It is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and the superlatives and awe are all warranted.

Hiker on a Grand Canyon TrailMy first visit to the Grand Canyon was in winter, when we took a break from trout fishing along Oak Creek near Sedona, Arizona. Driving north through Flagstaff, we approached the Grand Canyon traveling along a sagebrush plateau dotted with pinyon pine and juniper, and revealing an occasional pronghorn. My first view of the canyon was then of course from the South Rim. The exact spot was at the Bright Angel trailhead. Because of icy conditions there, we did more viewing than hiking. My clamp on ice creepers or a pair of YakTrax would have changed that, but they were 2,600 miles away in my ice fishing bucket. But the viewing was ample and the landscape was like none I’d ever seen. As I stated, I love canyons, so I’ve seen a few, but nothing remotely like this. Not only in terms of scale, but of vantage point as well. And perhaps the single most compelling thing to me from there and several other vistas, was the narrow green ribbon snaking along the bottom of the the gorge as far as you could see.

Although I knew what is was, I could not reconcile easily the appearance with the physical reality of the flow at first. It was of course the Colorado River, but I’d never seen any water so far below me except while on a plane. The virtual trivialization of this mighty river was stunning. The sight of the Colorado looking more like a varicose vein than a river is one of my most vivid memories of the canyon, right up there with the overall surreal scale of the landscape. We often use the phrase “as far as the eye can see”, and probably use it accurately enough in most cases. But here on the South Rim, glassing the otherworldly aspect that the Canyon evokes, it took on a new dimension. And in that moment when my breath was literally taken away by both the scope and beauty of my surroundings, I was re-filled to bursting with a particular thought, quickly becoming knowledge.I knew beyond a certainty that there were more places lying before me than I could ever explore in a lifetime. And right there, under my moon-eyed gaze, were places no one else had been. Boulders where no one else had warmed themselves in the sun, box canyons as narrow as city alleys that no one had followed to the end, rock faces no one had scaled, tiny gravel beaches no one had stretched their legs on, pools that had never seen a lure, and seepages that had never filled a canteen. It both thrilled and amazed me, and scarcely a day passes that I do not re-visit that feeling, a lasting gift of the Canyon.

But, there were other aspects of our initial exploration of the Grand Canyon that allowed a more measured observation of the landscape. A deserted trailhead access for the Hermit Trail provided a rare solitude that day along the rim. On the way there, we passed many coyotes and mule deer, the larger mammals most frequently encountered in the Grand Canyon National Park. Hiking down into the Canyon pleasantly afforded us a more micro view of the environment, micro of course, only in comparison to the rim views. The Hermit Trail is rough and steep along much of it’s 4600 elevation drop to the river. But the upper third that we trekked along was not unreasonable, and unlike the upper portions of Bright Angel Trail, the Hermit Trail was ice free that February afternoon. Hiking through the rocks, sagebrush and a few Englewood spruce, gave us a chance to bask in the below rim experience. Two golden eagles, several ravens and a peregrine falcon soared overhead on the thermals as we made our way down the trail. At a switchback we chose as the terminus of our hike, we sat and watched the lenticular clouds forming over the rapidly shadowy Canyon.

As the temperature perceptibly began to drop a well, we headed back up the narrow but relatively stable trail, I felt secure in the fact that our packs were weighted not only with an extra fleece and water bottles, but headlamps and flashlights as well. All but the water bottles never left the packs, as despite the fatigue of a long day, our pace was quicker ascending than it had been descending. That was so, partially because there was less to see in the fading light. Reaching the trailhead parking lot just before dusk, the Canyon had one final surprise for us. As we drove around a sharp bend, a small herd of elk crossed the road in front of us. The size of these animals is awe inspiring, especially to one whose home woodlands have only the whitetail deer as ungulate representatives. An enormous bull elk stood in the middle of the road staring at us until the cows and calves had moved well into the trees, before trotting away and disappearing like a ghost into the dusk and brush, but never from our memory.

Photos by the author and Sherry Yates