You hurried, as only caterpillars can do.  

You hustled past Miss Nancy and me as we sipped our hot coffee on your island up in Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario. Nancy noticed you first, pointing down at your neon-yellow body as you undulated past us like a hairy two-inch slinky. 

We marveled at your blazing attire. Your thick yellow suit was quite natty with six black spikes projecting above your back.  Seeing those spiny hairs evoked memories of a similarly dressed moth larvae that I encountered over thirty years ago in the forest in northern Minnesota. 


I had found a nice diamond willow to convert into a handsome hiking staff. After cutting the sapling, I peeled the bark to expose the “diamonds.” I didn’t see the caterpillar feeding on the underside of the willow leaves and as I trimmed the branches, my hand and lower forearm brushed over the insect. Within minutes I experienced a burning and irritating sensation followed by nasty welts. 

It turns out that I had brushed against the primary defense tools of the American daggar caterpillar. This animal is named for the clusters of “daggers” of urticating or poisonous bristles. From that experience long ago I knew not to touch you. Your bright yellow was a warning to birds and other predators that they should not mess with you.

We decided to postpone breakfast so we could follow you to see what was on your mind. You crawled with a purpose.

Coffee cups in hand, heads down, we shuffled behind you like monks on a pilgrimage following your circuitous path. Bending closer we could see your black compound eyes on your shiny black head. Like a grazing cow, your head moved back and forth. But it appeared that you were not eating. And that seemed odd since a caterpillar larva is generally an eating machine. Instead, you were seeking.

“It’s so busy out here it’s hard to relax,” said Nancy as we hunched behind the little furry nomad. “That is a lot of energy output. There has to be a reason for its march.”

You remind me of the flustered white rabbit in the classic tale of Alice in Wonderland. “I’m late, I’m late! For a very important date! 

You appeared to traveling at a rate of about one foot every minute. We were now beneath a small stand of jack pines some ten human paces from where you first interrupted our morning coffee. 

Now you passed a group of ants carrying cream-colored bundles that were likely eggs. We wondered if this was house cleaning or simply moving the ant colony. Such a busy world underfoot. 

We also noted that this is the first morning that the male spruce grouse, with his bright red eyebrow hasn’t strolled into our camp gleaning seed heads off of grasses. Nancy wondered if the grouse had considered you over grass seeds? Or does it know better to mess with the likes of your brilliant warning?

After an hour of tailing you, Miss Nancy declared, “This is hard work, I’m going to cook up some pancakes.”  I approved as I love Nancy’s recipe that calls for more berries than batter. Soon we were both holding our bowls of blue pancakes peering at your erratic peregrinations.

I took a break to fetch my journal and returned to find Nancy seated on the ground intently staring. I am reminded of the image of Jane Goodall sitting quietly on the African jungle floor observing wild chimpanzees. 

A pause. You had crawled up on top of a spent jack pine cone and you lingered. You seemed so very interested in it. But within a minute or so you slink down and move into the canyons of Cladonia lichens. Also known as reindeer lichen, these clumps must be like a maze of small hills with abundant fissures and cracks to check out. 

You left the lichen fields and moved beneath our hammocks hanging between two jack pines. You didn’t even look up at the brightly colored nylon.

We were distracted for a moment when you explored beneath a small birch sapling and a spruce. Unbelievably we lost you. Almost frantically we got on all fours and carefully scanned the ground without disturbing anything and taking care not to squash you. After several minutes of our fruitless searching you  suddenly reappear, trudging uphill right towards me. I froze as you negotiated climbing the heel of my shoe. Nothing worthwhile here, so you moved on, looping back towards the little stand of jack pine.

“Aren’t you getting tired? Hungry?” I asked you. “Is your drive powered by a shifting going on in your  fuzzy body?  Are you seeking out a shelter to shed your bedazzling attire to transform into a pupae?” The larvae continued its slinking, march without responding to my query.

After three hours of tireless travels you had covered at least 180 feet. Nancy left to wash our dishes. I should not have been scribbling notes because in that span of inattentiveness you once again ditched us. Nancy returned and we both searched as if nothing else mattered.

After some time we gave up and walked away feeling a little sad to lose you. I fetched my book and returned to stretch out in my hammock. Just as I was about to climb in, I spotted you heading towards me! Was this an enthusiastic reunion?

Nancy returned at my shout, and we continued to follow you with more astute diligence. 

Within ten minutes you paused, raising the front half of your body up off ground as if to get a better view. Inches in front of you was a half-rotted jack pine stump. After a short pause, you disappeared beneath the leaning piece of pine. After five minutes we lay on the ground for a better vantage to see you. All we saw was your rear end easing up into the wood.

“Ahh so this is your changing room! Drop your fur coat, try on a cocoon and ease towards becoming an awesome moth.”

I could swear I heard a tiny sigh and a whisper, “Ahhh. . .home.”



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