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.

Balancing Between The Trains

Parallel rails
divide the mining camp,
and the world passes through
on steel.
In dimly lighted passenger cars,
wealthy merchants steal
our poverty from the night.
Our curtains wave
through open windows
as we sleep among the whistles,
our only way to welcome strangers.

In daylight, between afternoon trains,
we learn to balance
on the tracks
and gather spilled coal in buckets
for the night fires.
The new-coal smell
keeps strangers at bay.
The burned-coal clouds
hem guardian hillsides
that frame the sooted shacks.

Our world is lonely,
and we are trapped
in a valley of despair.
At the company store,
we smile without teeth
and pose for disposable cameras.

By Harding Stedler

After graduating valedictorian of his high school graduating class, Harding Stedler went on to earn his B.S. in Ed., M.S in English Education, and his Ph.D. in English Education as well. He taught writing courses under the umbrella of the English Department in universities where he taught. In 1995, he retired from Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio, with 34 years of service. He now makes his home in Maumelle, Arkansas, and is an active member of the Poets’ Roundtable of Arkansas as well as the River Market Poets in Little Rock.

The Dark Green Conifers

another day in the woods. on Strawberry ridge
looking out over undulating green hills to
the next great wall ridge of mountains. the last
morning clouds left from last night’s storm
hanging in the valley mistily. the sun eventually
burns them away.

the respect between old Paul Karlsen and I continues
to exist. even though he’s a Mormon and I’m a fallen
New Yorker. the work is comparatively easy, lifting
hundred pound bags, so you can just imagine what
we do other days. in fact, it’s fun, especially for
young Bates. we get all white (and our lungs dusty).

on the way to and from the work site I read
in Silent Spring, the chapter against herbicides, gathering
inspiration for the upcoming controversy. in the end
perhaps I’ll be fired for refusing to lay down Tordon
beads. realizing this, as I drive with Bates,
I see the dark green conifers and begin to miss them.

Rocks and rattlesnakes, bluebells
and mountain daisies, grasses and cactuses, mahogany
bush, lodgepole pine and quaking aspen, lush forest
and dry sun-tortured mountainside, wind and seed
carried by wind, ants, streams, hummingbird
and hawk, deer, badger, ground squirrel, wolverine.

By Robert Ronnow

fir trees by meadow overlooking foggy mountain valley

Robert Ronnow’s most recent poetry collections are New & Selected Poems: 1975-2005 (Barnwood Press, 2007) and Communicating the Bird (Broken Publications, 2012). Visit his web site at

Photo by Mykhaylo Pelin

The Empirical River

view of small town in Canada from the Saguenay River

The window above my kitchen sink faces the street. On summer evenings, as I am washing dishes after dinner, I watch people from the neighbourhood walk toward the river. The public beach at the end of the road is not large, but it is beautiful. The shoreline faces a pristine wilderness on the opposite bank, and the water stretches two or three kilometres wide. Its expanse is dotted with islands, most of which are only a couple dozen metres across. The corridor of old-growth forest that separates the town from the river has been divided up into acre-lots, each lot having a clear cut pocket in the trees in order to make room for the beautiful homes of the town’s older, more affluent residents.

The families that pass by my window are usually quite young and full of energy when compared to the established home owners who live along the riverbank. The young families bring wagons, floaty toys, coolers, collapsible chairs, toddlers, pre-teens, teens, in-laws, blood-relatives, fireworks, volley ball nets, marijuana, the cheap plastic masonry tools required to build sand castles, nerf footballs, snorkelling equipment and all kinds of other paraphernalia one might need on a small beach in a quiet country town. Occasionally, a young married couple will portage a canoe past my driveway as they trek to the river.

The lively particularity of the beach-goers certainly makes them more exciting than the sedentary old folks, but even their transient energy seems inconsequential when compared to the ancient and stoic river. It sits in the lowlands of a rift valley formed by two of the earth’s largest fault lines. The tectonics of the last 175 million years have formed a riverbed that stretches over a thousand kilometres long, at times very deep, and often very wide. It trends generally northwest to southeast, carrying bitingly cold water from the top of the province. It is a serpentine pattern of raging white water interspersed amongst broad basins of deceptive stillness – deceptive because the still water is rapid-locked and thus conceals a violent undercurrent. Also misleading are the verdured river banks. When viewed from the water, they lead one to believe that the surrounding topography is a lush and static woodland. In actuality, the gallery forest obscures huge swaths of rolling farmland, the result of hundreds of years of logging and aggressive commercial interest in the primeval forests that once surrounded the river.

However, the families are not concerned with the river’s abiding or ambiguous qualities when they return to the beach night after night, year after year. They are attracted to the river’s flowing energy. Their interest is not without precedent. Heraclitus, a philosopher who worked sometime around 500 B.C., while trying to describe the ultimate nature of reality as a flux that cannot be pinpointed in time, said we cannot step into the same river twice. The ancient Greek poets, starting with Hesiod, believed that in order to enter the underworld, the dead had to drink from the river of forgetfulness; and Virgil, in the Aeneid, argued that until the souls did so, they could not be re-incarnated. Joseph Conrad, in Heart of Darkness, began his tale on the Thames River and recounted Marlow’s journey into the depths of madness and human evil while travelling down the Congo River. Mark Twain built his career out of his experiences on the Mississippi River, setting his most famous creations, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, on those waters. George Orwell, at the time of his death, was planning a trip down the Mississippi because he loved Twain’s descriptions of it so much.

My neighbourhood resembles Twain’s descriptions of the small towns that sprang up along the Mississippi, except it is populated by the people of my time and not the characters of the author’s great novels. They train for triathlons with waterproof iPods, and perform figure eights on jet skis that offend many of the town’s older citizens. Sometimes, while I prepare to go to sleep, I listen to the teenagers as they return from the beach. I will walk out of the bathroom as I brush my teeth and stand in front of the largest window facing the street, while they proclaim their love for the river loudly into the night and throw beer cans on my neighbour’s lawn. They remind me of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

small farms and houses along riverThe energy of the river appears majestic when considered in its social, historical, geologic, and literary dimensions; it binds families, animates the young, and motivates retirees to settle down on the acre lots. But it can also be destructive. There has been a growing field of study in Canada called hydrology, because the continual flooding of large rivers in several provinces regularly claims entire towns. The earth has a hydrological cycle: drainage basins collect surface run-off that forms as a result of precipitation and condensation caused by temperature changes. In the high-country, those basins then pool and eventually the water moves itself over the land. That energy can destroy rock and power hydro-electric dams. It can also make my elderly neighbour enter into yelling matches with drunk teenagers. It is both sublime and commonplace.

Clayton Garrett is an aspiring writer originally from Toronto, who has spent the last ten years living in remote regions of Canada. In keeping with the conventions of publishing, he always writes his author bio in the third person but can be reached in the first person at

Photo 1 by Sylvie Bouchard

Photo 2 by Senorgogo

Wind Memories

Before I moved here, I never really noticed the wind. When I was younger and living in Oklahoma, I only noticed the wind on cold days; most of the time it seemed calm in my memory. But here in the Fort Worth subdivision, the wind blows constantly. Whether warm or cold, I notice the wind every day I go outside. Around here, the wind blows hard with no large trees to block it, and the numerous houses do nothing to stop it. Going outside in the winter and summer, the wind is most noticeable, whether blowing north or south, whether cutting cold or warm and arid. When I look at the sky, the clouds drift by at a speed I can’t fathom, my gaze watching as they drift beyond my line of sight.

Walking with my sons, the stroller handle gripped in my hands, I am always fighting with the wind while we walk around the subdivision, it buffeting my body while I pull the canopy down to shield the twins. Most times I try to ignore it as best I can as I push, and on cold days the wind cuts razor sharp, speaking in a way I can’t ignore. But there are those days where the wind isn’t so unkind, blowing softly, warmly, like an old friend to visit. It is then I try to embrace it as best I can, to take notice and watch as it touches everyone and everything.

Walking on the creek path under a grove of cottonwoods, the wind rustles low hanging limbs, leaves shaking and calling to one another in hushed whispers. It is that sound I savor the most, the sound of the wind blowing through trees. When I hear it, I become a boy walking home at night under a large pine tree in a neighbor’s yard. Enjoying the night air, the sound rustling the pine needles made me think I wasn’t alone, that some great being was watching overhead, keeping me company as I safely made my way home. That sound carried with me until now, and every time I heard the wind blowing through the trees, for a moment I am a child and everything is good in the world. Pushing my sons, I hope I can share this with them with words when they’re older. For now, I can only share the experience and hope they feel the same way.

young boy watching sunset clouds

This article is from my Subdivision Journal series. I am trying to use mindfulness to observe nature in my neighborhood. Other articles in the series:
An Encounter with a Falcon

The Carrying of Sounds

The View from My Window

Author PhotoCarl Wade Thompson is a poet, essayist, and the graduate writing tutor at Texas Wesleyan University. He has published poetry and memoir essays in The Mayo Review, The Concho River Review, One in Four, Anak Sastra, The Galway Review, The Blue Collar Review, Piker Press, The Eunoia Review, Blue Minaret, Nebo Literary Magazine, Alphelion Literary Webzine, and Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas. He lives on the outskirts of Fort Worth, Texas. His poems explore the link between the urban and the rural.

Photo by Jasmin Merdan