Archive for February, 2014

Yoo Hoo. . . . Yeti

 Yeti Search

On our drive north the sky transitioned from blue to the murkiness of dusk. The landscape of birch, spruce, pine and alder lost its detail. Yard lights illuminated the occasional house but mostly we passed boreal black.

The smell of a cooling  pizza, bought an hour earlier in Grand Rapids, was only faint now. It was slated to be  the following day’s lunch for a snowshoe trek.

We finally approached the small community of Northome, population 199, which is located just east of the massive Upper and Lower Red Lake. Up ahead, I spotted the small, isolated motel with an infinite wild backyard. We eased into tracked  parking lot. The snow had not been plowed and by the looks of the tire marks in the snow. Easing the truck  into the nose of  a snowdrift, I was glad we had driven our four-wheel drive Toyota Tundra, known fondly in our household as “Big Ass.” It’s really not such a big truck, but compared to our 10 year-old Prius, which we fondly call “Sipper” (sips gas), the truck is a big ass.

The porch where the Office entry was located was crowded with stored bicycles of various colors, a battery charger, coils of electrical cords and a winter-retired gas grill. While the place might have looked deserted or a little ominous like the famed Bates Motel in the Hitchcock classic thriller, Psycho, its owner, Mike, dispelled any moments of creepiness. His loquacious and pleasing manner was a relief.

“My Bobcat is broken down so I can’t clean up the parking area very well,” he explained.

As he registered us to a small but tidy room we made small talk. He wondered if we were going ice fishing over on Red Lake. “No,” I answered and then hesitated to admit, “we’re going snowshoeing up into the Red Lake Peatlands.” I noted the slight raise of Mike’s eyebrows. With a polite sneer, he said, “Well we don’t see many snowshoers. . . mostly ice fishing folks and snowmobilers.” Tearing my receipt from his book and handing it to me he queried, “Are you going to look for the Sasquillions?” Momentarily puzzled , I saw the twinkle in his eye and somehow quickly deduced that he was referring to a family unit of Sasquatch or Yetis. With an equally polite sneer, I answered, “That’s my hope. And one good photo . . . and move over Bill Gates!”

“Well, have a good night’s sleep,” he said as he handed me the room key. “And good luck up in the big bog!”

This Yeti fascination is a North American phenomenon. However, I suspect every culture has their bogie man that roams the wilds and is super shy of human encounters. But the fact that it is there adds to the mystique and dread of exploring wild, dark places. While Mike might have joked about our looking for the Sasquillions, some folks shudder at the thought of such critters.

We have a burly neighbor, up at our Yukon Territory Outpost, who is generally a nice guy but he can be brusque, mean, and isolated. One night he and his family of four kids and his wife had stopped by for an impromptu visit. We were just sitting down to eat a late supper. We explained that we had been out for almost 12 hours on a mountain biking exploration on an old mining exploratory road known to locals as the Alligator Lake Road. There are no gators or for that matter no reptiles in the Yukon and only a handful of amphibians. The lake, shaped like an alligator head, is in the midst of some very remote country.

Burly Neighbor looked startled upon learning where we had gone. “You went to Alligator Lake!?  Are you f—–g nuts!” Nancy and my vacant, puzzled looks only fueled more expletives that I would be hard pressed to use in front of manly miners. “Don’t you know there is a Yeti that lives back there?!” And just to be sure we understood he heaped even more searing expletives while his family looked as calm as a Sunday picnic. I wanted to calmly respond, “Cool,” but my ancient reptilian brain would not allow such an answer. Survival was paramount.

Ten minutes later, the conversation was successfully steered towards more urban matters and my digestion resumed. Less than two weeks later, I was talking with three of Burly Neighbor’s  oldest kids and they asked, “Tom do you believe in Yetis?”

“Well,” I enthused, “I hope they exist because I thing it would be really cool to see one.” That was not the answer they expected but I like to think that hearing a positive response might give them another perspective.

So now here we were again facing the ever-elusive phantom Yeti. The next morning we left the Northome Motel with fresh snow falling in the predawn blackness. In less than an hour we would be at the edges of both the Big Bog and the imagination. With luck, we would come across the Sasquillions and get a family portrait.

A Student of Impressionism

Red fox in snow

With the long Alaskan snowshoes strapped to my feet, I shuffled in the cold air and across the fallow field towards my lesson in the slough.

I am a student of Impressionism. Though I can be entranced with other Impressionistic masterpieces,such as Monet’s serene paintings of lilypads or the simple sensuality of Degas’ bathers, I have learned  far more from the teachings of Vulpes.

Vulpes demands my complete attention. A lapse of focus always results in the loss of valuable lessons. Vulpes is tireless and teaches me the value of perserverance. For the most part Vulpes’ teachings have been offered to me through a correspondence course in which I rarely ever saw the master teacher but instead had to decipher the lessons.

 Vulpes vulpes is the scientific name that the famed Swedish scientist, Carl Linnaeus, considered the “father of classification,”  penned  for the red fox in 1758. Little did the famed Swedish scientist, “father of classificiation,” realize that red foxes are the most widespread of all carnivores in the world.

Of all the animals whose tracks, or impressions, I love to follow the most, it is the fox that tells the most interesting story. To follow the meanderings of a fox, or any other animal, is to gain silent access to their respective life story. By noting the pattern of the tracks, the distance between the impressions, the pauses and scratches, and stained snow from their prey’s blood or from their own urine, I can, with some imagination, unravel the story they leave behind. Tracking has all the elements of a good mystery in which I get the opportunity to deciphers clues.

Though foxes are in the dog family, their track is more straight-lined, like a cat. Foxes are more purposeful than most dogs who tend to frolic all over the place and leave a sloppy track. Cats, though more straight-lined in their trail are rounder in the foot and leave no claw marks because they can retract their claws. Each cat footprint tends to be more round in shape than a foxes.

The small band of French Impressionists broke away from the Romantic style of art that was popular in the mid-1800s. They believed in observing nature closely and to look with scientific interest in visual phenomena. It is no different if one wants to learn the art of reading the comings and goings of creatures over the landscape. It is simply observing their spoor.

In my early teens, I spent many winter Saturdays following fox tracks in the snow. My mother would drive me down to the “meadows,” located a couple miles northeast from town and drop me off. I carried my single shot .22 rifle and an old WWII rucksack bearing my lunch and an old white bed sheet that had been converted to a crude poncho so I might blend with the white landscape. With a wave goodbye, I left the road and set off hiking through the knee-deep snow across the meadows to find a fox track. I hiked a lot in those days. The fox tracks I followed  paid no heed to property lines. Nor did I.  In those days I don’t recall encountering “no trespassing” signs, or for that matter, many fences. Eventually, after trudging several miles and with the sun dropping to the west, I would break from tailing the fox and hike  for home. I never shot a fox on one of those winter treks, though I did see several as they glided like an October flaming leaf over the snow covered fields. They were usually at least 10 acres from me.

The meadows I hiked, no longer exist. In the span of thirty or so years, the ragged expanse of grasslands and willows that covered more than a section of land have been ditched, drained, and cleared for growing acres of carrots or potatoes. I suspect foxes might cross it but it would hardly be worthy of spending time to look for food.

In following foxes, I discovered that they were opportunistic in their diet. Mice, rabbits and even leftover cobs of field corn would provide needed calories. These solitary hunters have to maintain their weight of 10-12 pounds. Most biologists who have committed thousands of hours in following red fox find that they are not all that successful in catching birds and that in the summer months they eat a fair number of insects such as crickets and grasshoppers.

Late January and early February  is my favorite time to follow a fox because this is the time of the year that the usually solitary animal joins up with a second fox. Their tracks, born seemingly overnight on a canvas of snow, show me their tireless gait. January, to the fox, is like November to the deer and May for the scarlet tanager. It is the season to find a mate.

In following paired fox tracks, one can “see” here and there where they frolic and play with each other in the throes of courtship. At this time of the year one can almost predict where they will scent mark. In the winter, scent marking is easily found as snow grafitti where the fox urinates or defecates.   These frequent scent posts are like a Hallmark card that simply states, “Thinking of You!” or “Keep out!” Foxes typically scent mark or leave their droppings on  landscape bumps like a small hillock or even a gopher mound.

I recall snowshoeing with a small group of girl scouts and their two leaders. We came across a  fresh fox track. It was somewhat of a surprise, because in recent years with the  increase in coyotes, there has been a corresponding decrease in foxes. Coyotes consider foxes food; just as wolves consider coyotes supper.  Not many years ago, I followed a fox track crossing a frozen lake. Half way across the tracks turned into a scene of carnage. Several coyote tracks converged on the lake with the fox. All that remained was one black fox leg and tufts of orange fur scattered on the blood-stained snow.



The girl scouts and I followed the fox trail. The strand of tracks moved just offshore of the frozen lake and arced over towards the nearby shore where the fox must have inspected a dead branch sticking up through the snow. It was a perfect spot for scent marking. Sure enough, there on the tip of snow was the dribbled yellow/orange stain. I got down on my hands and knees and put my nose up close for a sniff. The girls wrinkled their noses and their leaders raised their eyebrows, but after my  coaxing about what an interesting smell it was, they each bowed to the pee. What might seem like a whisper of a smell to each of us is a loud proclamation of heated desire to a fox. The musky smell was similar to a skunk, very organic, and a welcome sensory note during a month when odors seem all locked up in winter.

The slender snout of the fox is tipped with a sharp, black nose, but encased in their long nasal passage, are approximately 200 million smell receptors. Us two-leggeds are equipped with a piddly 5-6 million olfactory receptors. But then most of us don’t have to hunt any further than our fridge for sustenance. Foxes accurately read and communicate with great selectivity through the soup of smells that make up a landscape.

I was warmed as we met the rest of the girl scout troop upon returning to the cars. The new converts to Impressionism excitedly told their comrades about their pee-sniffing session and why they did it. I hope the impression of the outing was strong enough to become a story to their children someday.

The slough is deep with snow and the cattails, hummocks and muskrat houses each are potential magnets for a fox. Now if only I can catch up the sinuous message of Vulpes, master Impressionistic.