The Moon-lit Waters of a Costa Rican Cliff

moon night on the sea with waves and rocksIt’s very misty up here, and the windy road’s edge seems to fall into nothingness. Fog makes the trip up the mountain look like a horror movie. When I reach the top, we go down, but this time the sun greets us, just as it is getting ready for bed. Splashes of red blue purple yellow and orange create hypnotic patterns in the sky. The sun begins to kiss the horizon line, and the orchestra of exotic birds, animals, and bugs comes to an end, with soft light provided by the moon. Just as a day on a Costa Rican cliffside ends, the night begins.

At night I look up to the night sky and see every star as if it was as bright as the sun, while the moon illuminated the ground beneath me. I could see constellations, and watch the shooting star pass by. It seems almost magical, unreal even, and yet there I was; witnessing the beauty of the glittering sky above.

I look down, and see a small patch of sand where I could stand. I climb down the rock face and plop myself in this small area. It had to have been almost two in the morning, and somehow I never get tired of standing on this little sand bar, I didn’t even get a single fear of the nocturnal predators around me. I see a fin poke out of the water, and now a second one as well. That’s when I begin to feel that these creatures are giving me some company, enjoying the moonlit shallows. The light makes the patterns as the bottom of the water, to which is when I would jump in.

I could see so much beautiful sea life, and confront the finned creatures. With the help of the moon I could see them, and the flow in their movement. I came face to face with one, and learned their real secret. They are afraid of us. They don’t know what they do, and all they want to to be shown true respect. They are afraid of us because we are afraid of them, so to speak. We should treat them as equals to us, because all life is significant. I learned all of this while sliding my hand down their sand paper backs, and with my eyes open. They shall now forever be opened, always. Whether it be warm water in the cold night, or cold water in the heat of day, I now see them clearer than ever

I wake to the dancing of colors across the sky of dawn. Splashes of red, blue, purple, yellow, and orange create hypnotic patterns in the sky. The sun rises from the edge of the forest and over the cliff. I am back on the sand bar, and begin my way up the face of the cliff. Just as a night on a Costa Rican cliff side ends, the day just begins.

Photo by Pavlo Vakhrushev

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.

Doubling Back

woman hiking along riverThe Valency Valley beckons me inland, eastwards, across what I remember was a meadow behind the row of shops, and is now a car park. The ground is tightly netted and gabionned against the vandal fingers of water. I’m soon walking through an aisle of trees, alone on a quiet path that follows the north bank of the river. A duck flies low and fast ahead of me, embodying purpose. Like the jets I see skimming the locks at home, it adjusts its angle in expert increments to steer the central course of the winding river, then disappears around a bend. But this flight defines the landscape as miniature; a narrow valley with secret corners. A scale and nature I’m here to re-learn.

Doubling Back: ten paths trodden in memory by Linda Cracknell, Freight Books, 2014.
Photo by Goran Bogicevic

Night Light

Mountain sunset silhouetteIt was nearing sunset and we still hadn’t made camp. Standing on a dusty hill overlooking the valley below and the mountains in the distance, the farthest of which formed a neat little indent into the orange-pink sky, with a stream of water behind us filling up our water bottles, we prepared to settle down for the night and to pick up where we left off once again on the long journey that had led us here — the Appalachian Trail. And yet we just stood there watching, waiting, wondering about that brilliant setting sun and its magnificence and beauty and all of it to finally reach its end under a forest of pine and cedar and fade until the night sky arises from its place and yet the beauty does not fade away with the falling sun at this hour of dusk as you would think; rather the stars and the moon illuminate the world. It is in that moment, I remember thinking: So this is Nature.

Because in that moment, light had faded. Not a single lamp or flashlight or fire but instead of complete darkness, the rolling mountains and valleys were bright with moonlight shining off of every surface and the stars filled the dark sky twinkling and twirling so that you realized that there were just too many stars that you had never known existed before and that they shimmered ever so slightly you could not help but think: Where was this before? How could this brilliance go unseen? It was only later that I would realize the irony in why the sky was invisible to me. The lights of civilization blocked out the lights of the natural world.

tent against the milky way and starry skyMy whole life, I had been in or around cities and towns and civilization. I had been camping before but nothing like this: nothing where the car wasn’t a 5-minute walk away or the nearest Walgreens wasn’t a quarter of a mile drive, but a real camping experience where getting stranded or losing the trail meant losing the world and your only hope was to find the trail again or begin a new life as the ’Squatch. But severing that connection to the artificial lights of civilization also meant the re-connection to the night and to the deep blues and purples of the Milky Way. And so if you ever venture out into the wild, into Nature where the animals roam free and the trees reach towards the sun and the night descends and casts everything into its moon light, I have two words for you: “Look up.”

Top Photo by the author. Bottom Photo by qliebin

Nature’s Flowing Force

Pine needles crunch under my sneakers as I make my way up the steep slope. Their fresh earthy scent strengthens as I go deeper and deeper into the woods. It’s hard to maintain balance as we go further off the trail; rough tree bark aids me in preventing myself from toppling over. Beads of sweat roll down my skin as the sun peeks its way through the thick canopy of trees. I pray that we have almost reached our destination as my tired feet begin to ache. The sound of trickling water fills my ears, alerting me that we are getting close.

As we reach what seems like the top of the hill, it finally comes into view. The waterfall, approximately 45 feet tall, flows into a small water pool surrounded by dozens of boulders. The water flows downward over them in the form of a small stream. The boulders are warm; they’ve been baking in the sun’s rays all day. I drop my belongings onto them and begin taking off my t-shirt to reveal my bathing suit underneath. My toes embrace the boulders’ smooth surfaces. The only sounds I hear are those of nature: birds calling out to one another, insects buzzing among the tall grass, and the sound of water falling to the ground below. There are no cell phones ringing, no computer games beeping, no TV’s blaring; everything is the way it should be. That’s what I love about this place most. It provides me with a break from our normally stressed out world. It is in places like this that I truly feel connected with nature. Nothing stands in between me and the natural world.

I step into the cool pool of water, quite a contrast to the warm rocks. The pool is rather shallow, in fact it only reaches up to my knees at its deepest point. The bottom of the pool is covered in small rocks with larger ones in between. I step carefully from one to another making my way over to where the water falls from above; I do not fear standing under it. I finally come face to face with the shimmering curtain of water. First I stick my hand under; my skin embraces its cool and refreshing touch. I turn and face away from the falls, then take a step backwards into them. A smile spreads across my face as the water flows over me.

I think back to this moment often. It was the closest I had ever felt with the natural world. Nothing prevented me from touching, feeling, and enjoying nature. There were no barriers or fences telling me to stand back. Part of me desires to go back again to re-experience the serenity of nature and holds onto this moment deep in my soul. It proves that people not only shape nature, but nature shapes people.

Photo by efired