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Category — Animals/Nature

Walking the Wild Trees Pt. 7: Fern Canyon, Prairie Creek Redwoods Pk.

Thursday October 13

Curley’s Motel

Crescent City CA

Here’s a photo album of our walk in Fern Canyon.

One of our best days ever. The waiter yesterday at the Japanese restaurant in Arcata mentioned that Fern Canyon was one of the best-kept secrets we had to visit. So we decided to do it this morning, not knowing much about it except that he suggested it, and a quick Google search said it was a location for the second Jurassic Park film.

By this time, we were euphoric as we descended into Fern Canyon.

We began with breakfast at some place not far down the road, the Good Harvest Café, where I had an actual chicken-fried steak and eggs. I have pretty much given up on reminding restaurants that deep-fried steaks aren’t chicken-fried steaks, so this time I just ordered without asking, and was surprised to get the first good chicken-fried steak I’ve had in years. A good omen, perhaps?

It was about a thirty minute drive to Davison Road, which took us on a slow, winding road through a wild redwood forest, much wilder than any we have seen so far. The forest floor was quite irregular, with deep gorges and hills and dales intersecting, the kind of area that Michael Taylor and Steve Sillett had bushwhacked to find the world’s tallest redwoods. Then we dropped down along the coast, paid the seven dollar parking fee and headed down along the coast past Gulf Beach for a few miles before we dead-end at the parking lot. We make the best decision of the day to change into our high-top hiking boots and wool socks.

Then we’re climbing into this dense, humid, wet jungle forest. A couple coming back looked at our boots and said we “should be all right” just before we finally have to cross the stream. It’s not too bad, but we wind up taking the coastal trail instead of the Fern Canyon loop, and we walked more than a mile out of our way before realizing that it was the wrong trail. So we walked back this muddy trail and began climbing awhile along another trail to a point near the top of the canyon in a redwood forest before finally finding the loop trail that dropped us down into the best part of the walk. All told, it probably took us about an hour and a half before we dropped into Fern Canyon proper.

These lush ferns covered the wall for much of Fern Canyon's length.

It was worth the wait and the walk. The next forty minutes we lost all sense of time as we moved along down through the stream, over logs and around fallen trees and debris. It was obvious from the start that there was no real trail. We must have crossed the stream twenty times. At first we tried to find the best place to cross to keep our feet dry. But after awhile, we realized that it really didn’t matter, and soon we just didn’t care, crossing back and forth with reckless abandon.

This became quite intoxicating. I felt like a little kid again, moving through a world that was equal parts Jurassic Park and Tarzan of the Apes. Any minute I expected a velociraptor to come into view. Or a half man/half ape with a chimpanzee at his side.

It was difficult to find a path through at several junctures. At one point, we ran into a fellow in his fifties who was trying to find a way around a particularly dense debris field created when an enormous redwood dropped into the valley. Knowing he was ahead of us working his way through helped a lot. The trip down was as exasperating as it was exhilarating.

Here’s the link to a photo album of our walk in Fern Canyon.

On the way home, I stopped for coffee at a little shop on 101. The woman there, when I told her we were going to Crescent City, said that when she was a child living there, they would go to the “north end of town,” where they would play among tree stumps that were enormous. After we got into town, I drove to the north end before realizing she had been talking about something that happened decades ago and that the directions were far too vague. But worth a try.

Finished off things with dinner at the Chart House, a short drive from Curley’s. It was close to the motel, and as we got out of the car and walked toward the restaurant, it looked like one of the docks in the marina was alive and moving. A close look turned up about thirty or more seals lying on the dock. Taking it over, in point of fact. Probably two or three dozen. They were also on other rocks in the harbor. Grunting, squealing, making noise. Like seals do.

Our dining companions in Crescent City. Click to enlarge and you can see construction in the harbor behind, where they're repairing damage from the Japanese tsunami earlier this year that hit Crescent City.

The seals – there are three species — have become quite an attraction at the Chart House. Noisy, smell and rude they are, but everybody loves them! All the seats with a view of the seals are already taken. Still, dinner was outrageously wonderful. I had fish and chips and a couple bottles of Alaskan Amber, first I’ve had in years. We drove over to get a look at the old lighthouse at the end of the downtown area and drove up the coast a bit, too. After extending our reservation for one more night with an old hippie dressed in black and silver, we fall asleep to a symphony of seals grunting and squealing.

One of the best days we’ve ever spent on the road — or off.

Next: Jedediah Redwoods State Park, Hiouchi

November 6, 2011   1 Comment

Return of the Datura

This datura flower lasted only one night.

The datura have returned to the yard this year, more a scouting party than a full brigade. They are volunteers, and they show up in only in a small area along a stone path just at the edge of the canopy of our spruce tree, so they exist in a place where they are shaded except in the afternoons. The plant has a way of wilting when the sun is intense and then rebounding after dark.

Datura bring forth mysteriously beautiful, often short-lasting flowers that bloom at night. Besides their natural magnificence, datura, when ingested, are both hallucinogenic and toxic, with a long cultural history. I have not ingested one of the enticing flowers, and after reading several accounts of people who did, I won’t be finding out for myself. But it makes the plant even more mysterious to me.

Last summer no volunteers showed for duty, after a banner year in 2008, when we had many blooms on several plants.

But this flower lasted only one night. The afternoon sun “melted” it, and it didn’t come back.

Click here to see a shot of our 2008 bumper crop.

August 5, 2010   No Comments

The Story of BC-03-M-02, Traveling Lynx

The Story of BC-03-M-02, Traveling Lynx
Just reading a story here in the Denver Post about BC-03-M-02, a lynx that was found in a trap near Nordegg, Alberta, Canada, on Jan. 28. http://tinyurl.com/y47hhtk
The cat, which was nine years old when found, had traveled 1,200 miles of wilderness, interstate highways, rivers and other parts of civilization in the last couple years. It had been trapped near the place where it had been captured six years ago, flown to Colorado and re-released at the edge of the Weminuche Wilderness Area near Creede on April 16, 2004. (The Denver Post story says 2003, but trust me on this one.)
Because, as it happens, Billie and I were in that open meadow just across from the Rio Grande on that crisp morning when BC-03-M-02 and three of its brethren were released.  The Division of Wildlife had invited volunteers from environmental groups to witness this release, part of an ambitious DOW program that had begun in 1999 to reintroduce lynx, which had disappeared in the state at least back to 1973. As a volunteer for Sinapu, I applauded the reintroduction program as a step toward keeping our wilderness areas intact and healthy and a positive move by DOW that was well received by conservationists, hunters and environmentalists.
The DOW tracked BC-03-M-02, recording that he sired at least two kittens in 2005 and four in 2006. He was last heard from April 20, 2007. He walked farther than any lynx has ever been known to travel. (Fly from Creede to Nordegg on Google Earth for some idea of the enormity of the journey.) When he was found, he was in good shape, two pounds heavier than when released. And he was almost home.
Except perhaps in a cage, we had never seen a lynx. From my journal:
“It was about a forty-five minute drive from South Fork to this gorgeous setting in a small meadow along the Rio Grande. A high bluff rises behind us along the road, and a spruce forest before us stretches up a couple thousand feet. Off to our right are snow-covered peaks that stretch up the valley.
The two pickup trucks with the lynx park on a dirt road at the edge of the meadow. The cages, made of steel, are covered with white tarps. As we pull in behind them, a little ground squirrel is bouncing around on the grass in the meadow. He will soon have new friends.
More cars arrive, about ten in all, and perhaps forty people have gathered, including, for some reason, a member of Sen. Lieberman’s entourage. One of the new wildlife commission members is introduced, in a spiffy fleece jacket with a DOW patch on the right sleeve.
The crates are taken from the trucks and carried, four persons to a crate, out onto the grass, all facing the meadow with the humans all gathered behind.
DOW interim chief, Bruce McCloskey, gives a short talk and answers questions. The lynx, he ensures us, are in the best shape they can possibly be; they have been probed and checked and are healthy as lynx can be under the circumstances.
This quartet was captured in Quebec and British Columbia in late December and have been kept on private property near here that a donor is in the process of turning over to the DOW. The lynx have been in pens about four months
While waiting for the release, we chat with Laurie Harvey, who describes herself as a “lynx technician.” She says the lynx have been in separate enclosures that measure about 12 feet long, five feet wide and five feet in height.
They stay in their cages and consider them a “nest box,” she explains, a quiet place where they can go and be by themselves. They have areas to climb on and exercise, and the lynx take advantage of the chance to work out. They are fed mostly rabbits, and she said the animals exhibit no signs of cage stress.
The most interesting thing she learned about the lynx, she said, was the wide range of behavior they showed toward people, from one animal that would allow her to get close to it and work in the cage to others that would get defensive whenever anyone so much as touched the cage.
The lynx each weigh about 26 pounds, and their blood and body fluids have been checked. They are in prime condition for release, Harvey said. She is in her second year of working with lynx and plans to sign up again for next season, though she admitted the work is hard and that “you shovel a lot of shit.”
The meadow is free of snow, but little patches still hug the spruce at the edges. Spring is popping up. Two fellows who look like McCloskey describes them – “snowshoe extremists” — stand and tell stories of following lynx and putting new collars on them. They trap them with cages much like those that bore them out here, except that they have a guillotine door. When the lynx goes for the meat in the back of the cage, the door closes down on them.
They explain that the pine forest just above us is perfect lynx habitat, with plenty of snowshoe hares and cover for these sensitive predators. The DOW is releasing some more down near Durango later in the day, and McCloskey and a few other honchos are heading there after this is over.
These lynx are radio-tracked by airplane and followed on foot by these trappers, ready and seemingly eager to follow lynx tracks at 11,000 feet in snowstorms. Like the guy from Washington, they are in Western wear that look like they’ve worn the same clothes for a month.
Chief McCloskey, in overalls, and the guy from Washington who looked as if he bought the jeans and the bright blue bandana around his neck for the occasion, each spoke about what a great thing the reintroduction program is. McCloskey introduced the people who would be allowed to actually pull the last barrier off the cages and let the lynx loose. Then we all gathered behind the four cages.
The one at the far left went out first. The DOW officer cut the wire and took off the first door. Two people stepped up and pulled the second metal door up and out.
Within about ten or fifteen seconds, the first lynx walked out. It took one look back, and within about a minute it was out of sight off to the right into a grove of pine trees.
It seemed smaller than I expected from photographs, but the long ears and bushy tail grabbed my immediate attention. I could also see what appeared to be part of its radio tag around its neck.
The second one is freed about two minutes later. It heads off to the left into some trees in the direction of the picnic tables. The third goes straight ahead into some trees; the fourth can be seen walking past a wooden platform along an established trail.
All four vanished within a minute. Heading into a brave new world, hopefully one with abundant snowshoe hare and a sexual encounter with the patter of little lynx two and a half months later.
I looked around and noticed tears in some people’s eyes. I was welling up, too, proud to be witness to this. For one who believes that our wilderness needs predators for its general health, this is as sweet as it gets. We were watching standard-bearers for a new generation of lynx in Colorado, a foreign land for them, bound for their individual fates. Where will they wind up?”
At least now, for one of those, we have the answer.

Just reading a story here in the Denver Post about BC-03-M-02, a lynx that was found in a trap near Nordegg, Alberta, Canada, on Jan. 28.

A lynx released in April 2004 near Creede, Colorado.

The cat, which was nine years old when found, had traveled 1,200 miles of wilderness, interstate highways, rivers and other parts of civilization in the last couple years. It had been trapped near the place where it had been captured six years ago, flown to Colorado and re-released at the edge of the Weminuche Wilderness Area near Creede on April 16, 2004. (The Denver Post story says 2003, but trust me on this one.)

Because, as it happens, Billie and I were in that open meadow just across from the Rio Grande on that crisp morning when BC-03-M-02 and three of its brethren were released.  The Division of Wildlife had invited volunteers from environmental groups to witness this release, part of an ambitious DOW program that had begun in 1999 to reintroduce lynx, which had disappeared in the state at least back to 1973. As a volunteer for Sinapu, I applauded the reintroduction program as a step toward keeping our wilderness areas intact and healthy and a positive move by DOW that was well received by conservationists, hunters and environmentalists.

The DOW tracked BC-03-M-02, recording that he sired at least two kittens in 2005 and four in 2006. He was last heard from April 20, 2007. He walked farther than any lynx has ever been known to travel. (Fly from Creede to Nordegg on Google Earth for some idea of the enormity of the journey.) When he was found, he was in good shape, two pounds heavier than when released. And he was almost home.

Except perhaps in a cage, we had never seen a lynx. From my journal:

“It was about a forty-five minute drive from South Fork to this gorgeous setting in a small meadow along the Rio Grande. A high bluff rises behind us along the road, and a spruce forest before us stretches up a couple thousand feet. Off to our right are snow-covered peaks that stretch up the valley.

The two pickup trucks with the lynx park on a dirt road at the edge of the meadow. The cages, made of steel, are covered with white tarps. As we pull in behind them, a little ground squirrel is bouncing around on the grass in the meadow. He will soon have new friends.

More cars arrive, about ten in all, and perhaps forty people have gathered, including, for some reason, a member of Sen. Lieberman’s entourage. One of the new wildlife commission members is introduced, in a spiffy fleece jacket with a DOW patch on the right sleeve.

The crates are taken from the trucks and carried, four persons to a crate, out onto the grass, all facing the meadow with the humans all gathered behind.

DOW interim chief, Bruce McCloskey, gives a short talk and answers questions. The lynx, he ensures us, are in the best shape they can possibly be; they have been probed and checked and are healthy as lynx can be under the circumstances.

This quartet was captured in Quebec and British Columbia in late December and have been kept on private property near here that a donor is in the process of turning over to the DOW. The lynx have been in pens about four months

While waiting for the release, we chat with Laurie Harvey, who describes herself as a “lynx technician.” She says the lynx have been in separate enclosures that measure about 12 feet long, five feet wide and five feet in height.

They stay in their cages and consider them a “nest box,” she explains, a quiet place where they can go and be by themselves. They have areas to climb on and exercise, and the lynx take advantage of the chance to work out. They are fed mostly rabbits, and she said the animals exhibit no signs of cage stress.

The most interesting thing she learned about the lynx, she said, was the wide range of behavior they showed toward people, from one animal that would allow her to get close to it and work in the cage to others that would get defensive whenever anyone so much as touched the cage.

The lynx each weigh about 26 pounds, and their blood and body fluids have been checked. They are in prime condition for release, Harvey said. She is in her second year of working with lynx and plans to sign up again for next season, though she admitted the work is hard and that “you shovel a lot of shit.”

The meadow is free of snow, but little patches still hug the spruce at the edges. Spring is popping up. Two fellows who look like McCloskey describes them – “snowshoe extremists” — stand and tell stories of following lynx and putting new collars on them. They trap them with cages much like those that bore them out here, except that they have a guillotine door. When the lynx goes for the meat in the back of the cage, the door closes down on them.

They explain that the pine forest just above us is perfect lynx habitat, with plenty of snowshoe hares and cover for these sensitive predators. The DOW is releasing some more down near Durango later in the day, and McCloskey and a few other honchos are heading there after this is over.

These lynx are radio-tracked by airplane and followed on foot by these trappers, ready and seemingly eager to follow lynx tracks at 11,000 feet in snowstorms. Like the guy from Washington, they are in Western wear that look like they’ve worn the same clothes for a month.

Chief McCloskey, in overalls, and the guy from Washington who looked as if he bought the jeans and the bright blue bandana around his neck for the occasion, each spoke about what a great thing the reintroduction program is. McCloskey introduced the people who would be allowed to actually pull the last barrier off the cages and let the lynx loose. Then we all gathered behind the four cages.

The one at the far left went out first. The DOW officer cut the wire and took off the first door. Two people stepped up and pulled the second metal door up and out.

Within about ten or fifteen seconds, the first lynx walked out. It took one look back, and within about a minute it was out of sight off to the right into a grove of pine trees.

It seemed smaller than I expected from photographs, but the long ears and bushy tail grabbed my immediate attention. I could also see what appeared to be part of its radio tag around its neck.

The second one is freed about two minutes later. It heads off to the left into some trees in the direction of the picnic tables. The third goes straight ahead into some trees; the fourth can be seen walking past a wooden platform along an established trail.

All four vanished within a minute. Heading into a brave new world, hopefully one with abundant snowshoe hare and a sexual encounter with the patter of little lynx two and a half months later.

I looked around and noticed tears in some people’s eyes. I was welling up, too, proud to be witness to this. For one who believes that our wilderness needs predators for its general health, this is as sweet as it gets. We were watching standard-bearers for a new generation of lynx in Colorado, a foreign land for them, bound for their individual fates. Where will they wind up?”

At least now, for one of those, we have the answer.

April 24, 2010   No Comments

Bird Ballet Above Martin Acres

A crow (top) gets ready for another pass at the turkey vulture below.

A crow (top) gets ready for another pass at the turkey vulture below.

I was driving down Moorhead, waiting for the heat to come on in the Subaru, the sky flint gray with bursts of clouds running north to south, when I first saw the three black shapes.

Three birds. All pretty large. And it only took a couple of glances away from the wheel to notice that it was two crows dive-bombing a turkey vulture. I pulled over as soon as I could and jumped out of the car with my camera. They were high enough that I couldn’t hear any sounds. I’m not that great a photographer, but I managed a couple of shots, including his one, which shows the larger vulture at the bottom with its white underwing markings. The crow at the top is about half the size of the vulture, with a black undercarriage.

The birds must have found some wind thermal up there in the cold air, and the vulture was soaring in the way vultures do, flapping its wings only when necessary and sweeping across the sky on the rising current. The two crows were flying recklessly around it, coming in from different directions, their wings fluttering as they tried to swoop in close without actually hitting the much larger vulture. (Well. That’s the way it looked. There is documentation of crows attacking turkey vultures, but I’ve never been inside a bird’s brain, so perhaps they were all just enjoying themselves up in the rising air current.)

Their ever-widening circles took them away from me until they were almost out of sight in less than a minute. Jumping back into the car, just thinking about how much fun that (at least) the crows seemed to be having, and marking up my first turkey vulture sighting this early in the year made an otherwise cold, miserable day lighten up considerably.

January 9, 2010   No Comments

Turkey Vultures and Buzzard Hank

sunvultures

I was on my way to meet friends for breakfast Saturday morning, riding the path that bisects CU’s east campus approaching the location called the Confluence, when something caught my eye across the lake to the west.

It was this group of turkey vultures perched high in the trees letting the morning sun warm their wings. I count 13-14 of these wonderful, huge birds. When I first saw them, at least four were opening their wings to the sun’s warmth.

I was reminded that a large group of vultures used to roost in an old cottonwood on the other side of the bike path until it fell in a storm several years ago and is now a pile of old wood.

I am always watching for turkey vultures , and I have seen a lot of them high in the air, especially on the trails near the East Boulder Rec Center, but this is my first good group sighting this year. I was late and didn’t get to spend enough time with this bunch, but what a sight. Vulture wingspans range from four to six feet, and even from this distance, you can see how enormous “buzzards” really are.

Vultures are common migratory visitors in the spring and fall along the Front Range, and provide a valuable recycling function by cleaning up carrion and carcasses otherwise left to the elements. The bald head which many consider “ugly,” is actually an adaptation to its diet, since it has to put its head inside rotting meat and feathers are bacteria-prone.

When I was a student at St. Paul’s College in Concordia, Mo. I was skinny (!), and somehow I got the nickname Henry Hawk, after a comic-book character at the time, and then Buzzard, and finally Buzzard Hank. I found this photo, circa 1966, of Buzzard Hank trying his best to look like one. Do you notice the resemblance?

buzzard hank 2 copy

October 2, 2009   1 Comment

Your Dog is More Dangerous Than a Coyote

A coyote heads off near the Boulder Reservoir last month.

A coyote heads off near the Boulder Reservoir last month.

A columnist in the Denver Post today talks with some common-sense Greenwood Village residents circulating petitions to stop the killing of coyotes in their city.

After a spike in dog/human/coyote incidents, the city hired sharpshooters to kill “aggressive” coyotes with high-powered rifles within the city’s park system.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife has killed several coyotes in the city of Broomfield in response to a couple of well-publicized dog/human/coyote interactions in that city earlier this year. The DOW, which knows that killing the animals doesn’t address the problem – its spokesperson recently said that if the entire United States were paved with asphalt, we would still be living with coyotes — is instead overreacting to mostly misguided public fears that somehow “more aggressive” coyotes have become a threat to our well-being and our way of life.

These knee-jerk, appease-the-populace reactions will almost certainly guarantee that the cities will continue to experience dog/human/coyote interactions. Greenwood Village says its main goal is to educate, and to its credit has generally good advice about coyotes on its website.

But instead of vigorously enforcing current leash laws (which is the underlying reason for almost every one of these so-called “attacks”), the city has decided to blame the wild animals. It’s so much easier than actually dealing with the problem.

I think most people who have been around animals understand that most animal-behavior problems are really human-behavior problems. Even people who experience the harshest of wild-animal interactions – being mauled by a grizzly – generally understand their own culpability in an “attack.”

The word “attack” has all sorts of negative connotations. This YouTube video, for instance, is labeled as an “attack” by a polar bear. My immediate reaction to the video is that there was no attack, except perhaps that the woman could be seen as attacking the bears by jumping into their enclosure. But had the bear chosen to “attack,” the woman would certainly not be alive to tell her story. The bear, though it appears to bite her on the ass, seems more curious about the intruder than anything else.

Despite the biblical injunction about dominion over animals, humans have never been good stewards of wildlife; indeed we seem incapable of “managing” wild animals beyond exterminating them when they become nuisances.

Think of the consequences of the United States’ decision, for instance, to eliminate the top predators, wolves and grizzly bears from the entire Western ecosystem to accommodate ranchers with cattle and sheep, The consequences of that decision still reverberate across the Western landscape, with no end in sight.

One of the effects is that about half a million coyotes, along with hundreds of thousands of other animals, under the guise of “wildlife management,” are killed every year under the Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services division. Despite the annual slaughter, which in 2008 was almost five MILLION animals, coyote numbers are increasing around the country, even in places that have never seen coyotes before. (For more on coyote behavior, here’s an excellent report from Marc Bekoff in Canid News.

In Colorado, the DOW and Greenwood Village council members over-reacted mostly to appease the fears of a small percentage of citizens. And instead of concentrating on human behavior (“my dog is under control, even without the leash,” “I left my leash at home,” “My dog wouldn’t hurt a fly,” “Why aren’t you out catching real criminals?”), we seem to easily defer to expecting the animals to change theirs. And if the animals, in this case coyotes, don’t comply: Bang, you’re dead.

There’s one constant in the spike in dog/human/coyote interactions in the Denver area: Off-leash dogs were involved and often initiated contact with the coyotes. The inference is, of course, that coyotes, because they’re wild, “attack” dogs, which are “tame.”

If you’ve been around animals, you know that’s not a given. The coyotes might have attacked the dogs, but it’s equally probable that the dogs, off-leash and curious as all dogs are, approached the coyotes, who, perceiving them as attackers, responded accordingly. We won’t know exactly what happened – eyewitness accounts are wildly inconclusive  — but what if the dogs were the aggressors and the coyotes just defending themselves or their territory? Would we shoot the dogs?

But it’s easy to make some sort of distinction between wild animals and pets, even if domestic animals are just wild animals bred to be tame. (Consider, for instance, that if your housecat weighed 105 pounds, she might consider you a snack instead of a food provider and a lap to sit in.)

Our general fears in this regard are completely out of balance with reality. Domestic dogs are inherently more dangerous to humans than coyotes ever will be. Domestic dogs actually do kill people — and many dogs that kill were trained to do so by humans.

Only one or two human deaths in history have ever been attributed to a coyote. More than FOUR MILLION Americans are treated for domestic dog bites EACH YEAR, and 10-15 people annually are fatally attacked by domestic dogs.

But hey, it’s easier to blame the coyotes than change our behavior, right?

June 17, 2009   No Comments

They Found Everett Ruess’s Body …

A CU scientist used forensic science and Photoshop to identify the remains of Everett Ruess, missing since 1934.

A CU scientist used forensic science and Photoshop to identify the remains of Everett Ruess, missing since 1934. (Photo by Dorothea Lange)

Amazing news today that CU scientist Dennis Van Gerven has identified the remains of Everett Ruess, the eccentric young vagabond who, with his two burros, disappeared in the Utah desert in 1934, leaving behind a short life, a few snapshots and a sheaf of letters and paintings that have inspired naturalists, environmentalists, wilderness lovers and one of my favorite songwriters.

I’m happy for Ruess’s family, which finally learns the answer to a mystery that must have vexed its members over the decades. And the discovery is an astonishing story that will no doubt show up as a future episode of CSI. The mystery was solved through a captivating combination of ancient oral Indian family history and modern-day forensics technology and Photoshop.

But I feel a twinge of sadness about the discovery, too.

I came across Dave Alvin’s song “Everett Ruess” while working at KCUV (remember Colorado’s Underground Voice?) in 2004 when Ashgrove, the album it first appeared on, was released. Ashgrove was, to these ears, a concept album, a group of songs loosely arranged around the concept of growing older and learning to accept that fate. The title track was an unabashed look back at the former Blasters’ guitarist/songwriter’s days at the storied Los Angeles folk club where, as an underage teenager, Alvin was schooled in the ways of the great blues and folk musicians who inspired him. “Nine-Volt Heart” is a nostalgic memory of an older man’s youth, and “Man in the Bed” a penetrating snapshot of an aging man in whose dreams he is a young man again.

But “Everett Ruess” sealed the deal for the concept. Alvin had obviously read Ruess’ letters, and his song, written in Ruess’s own voice, tells the young man’s story as he builds a case around a notion that nags us all as we age.

I was born Everett Ruess
I been dead for sixty years
I was just a young boy in my twenties
The day I disappeared.

Into the Grand Escalante Badlands
Near the Utah and Arizona line
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Ruess was twenty when he disappeared after leaving Escalante, Utah, in late 1934. But Alvin notes that among the many mysteries about Ruess is that there was no particular rebellion involved in his journeys. He wasn’t leaving because he wanted to get away from his family but because he found something particularly fascinating and illuminating about the wilderness.

I grew up in California
And I loved my family and my home
But I ran away to the High Sierra
Where I could live free and alone.

And folks said “He’s just another wild kid
And he’ll grow out of it in time,”
But they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Ruess traded prints with Ansel Adams, studied with Edward Weston, Maynard Dixon and Dorothea Lange and sent letters, drawings and poems of his travels to his friends and family beginning with his first Southwestern pilgrimage in June 1930. Though his 1934 journal wasn’t found, he never stopped writing. Were it not for those letters, nobody would have known or cared, and today’s newspaper headline would never been written.

I broke broncos with the cowboys
I sang healing songs with the Navajo
I did the snake dance with the Hopi
And I drew pictures everywhere I go.

Then I swapped all my drawings for provisions
To get what I needed to get by
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Alvin speculates convincingly upon Ruess’ continuing detachment from civilization.

Well I hate your crowded cities
With your sad and hopeless mobs
And I hate your grand cathedrals
Where you try to trap God.

‘Cause I know God is here in the canyons
With the rattlesnakes and the pinon pines
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Everett Ruess and his two burros prowled the desert Southwest in the early 1930's.

Everett Ruess and his two burros prowled the desert Southwest in the early 1930's.

Ruess left Escalante, New Mexico, on November 11, 1934, and was last seen by two sheepherders near the Kaiparowits Plateau several days later, who reported that he said he was heading for the Hole-in-the Rock area, a Mormon landmark where the Colorado River could be crossed.

Ruess’s burros were found in Davis Gulch, and the search for his remains was centered in that remote area of the Escalante. Most theories were that he was killed by cattle wranglers, fell to his death, took his own life in that same area or on Kaiparowits Plateau or disappeared and is living in Mexico. One major problem with any benign death theory is that his paintings, paint kit, journal, cook kit, food and money were never found.

This lends further credence to the Ute Indian murder story. His body was buried about thirty miles east of the area where the burros were found and the search for Ruess took place, so he must have crossed the Colorado and headed toward Monument Valley, which he had visited before. Without his burros, food or supplies, it would be difficult but not impossible to reach the Bluff area where his body was finally found.

Alvin weaves in several theories about Ruess’ death before putting everything into context in his last eight lines.

They say I was killed by a drifter
Or I froze to death in the snow
Maybe mauled by a wildcat
Or I’m livin’ down in Mexico.

But my end, it doesn’t really matter
All that counts is how you live your life
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

You give your dreams away as you get older
Oh, but I never gave up mine
And they’ll never find my body, boys
Or understand my mind.

Billie and I visited Escalante, Utah, in 2005, where we first came into contact with the Ruess saga. There we bought Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty, the W.L. Rusho biography that included his writings. At times we felt we were following him around the wild areas in Escalante where he went missing, all the while staring in majesty and wonder at the same mind-boggling vistas that captured his imagination.

Reading Ruess’s words, and Alvin’s poetry, especially the lines “all that counts is how you live your life,” “you give your dreams away as you get older” and “they’ll never find my body, boys, or understand my mind” put a spin on his story that I still find deeply compelling. I really liked the idea of Ruess being lost, and staying lost. One part of me wished that he would remain unfound, a mystery – “they never find my body, boys.” Today’s news means that I will now only be able to take comfort in knowing that we will still never “understand his mind.”

April 30, 2009   2 Comments

Tangled Up in Bluebirds

Andy and his dogs and I were on the upper reaches of South Boulder Trail not far from where it hooks up with the Mesa Trail Tuesday morning. A light snow had settled on the pines along the Flatirons, and temps were crisp in the high teens.

We came to a meadow with several ponderosa pines on either side of the trail. The meadow grasses were still brown, but suddenly we could see little flecks of bright blue color all around the trail. Dozens of them leaping around in the grass.

They were mountain bluebirds.

A mountain bluebird perches Tuesday along the South Boulder Trail.

A mountain bluebird perches Tuesday along the South Boulder Trail.

As ace birder Joe Prentice wrote in the Camera today, mountain bluebirds can be found all year round in Colorado, but March is when many start returning from their southern roosts. The bright blue birds are males; females are a more grayish color.

No doubt hunting was good in this area on this morning. Mountain bluebirds love open spaces and sit on low perches looking for insects. They often hover over their prey.

And delight those of us who appreciate very cheap thrills.

March 12, 2009   No Comments

Living With Coyote Means Changing Our Own Behavior

I hadn’t really thought much about coyotes until a few years ago while attending a conference in Yellowstone on predators. Three different biologists, during their presentations, praised coyote as their favorite predator.

Coyote: Scourge of the West or best predator?

Coyote: Scourge of the West or most fascinating predator? (CDOW photo)

Since this was coming from people who also studied charismatic megafauna like wolves and grizzly bears, I began to learn more about coyote. Today, though I am still partial to bears and wolves, I have to agree that perhaps the most interesting predator is coyote.

I bring this up after reading of incidents in Denver of humans being “attacked” and bitten by coyotes within city limits. A woman in southeast Denver reported being attacked by three coyotes while walking her dog, and a man in Broomfield was bitten while walking his dog, as was another Broomfield woman in January.

Much as I appreciate canis latrans, I don’t like to hear about humans having contact with, let alone being bitten by wild animals. But given the information we have, I take issue with these incidents being characterized as attacks or somehow as proof that coyotes are becoming more aggressive toward humans.

Thanks to a diverse diet and plenty of food in urban areas, coyote is certainly comfortable in the city landscape. Difficult as it is to figure out what actually happened from the published accounts, two things come to mind in both Broomfield incidents. First, each took place near dawn or dusk in parks, times when coyote is known to be active, and in each case, off-leash dogs chased after the coyotes, the humans intervened and were bitten.

Coyotes can be aggressive around food, and it is certainly possible that the coyotes attacked the humans, but it is also just as easy to suggest that the coyotes were playing with or perhaps protecting themselves against attacks from the canines. Had the dogs been on-leash, as per Broomfield law, the incidents probably wouldn’t have happened.

Coyotes are among the most adaptive animals in evolution. Coyote biologist Robert Crabtree calls them “the ultimate icon of human defiance.” They are present in every state except Hawaii and can adapt to life in a New York City alleyway as easily as a Colorado arroyo. As a Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesperson said recently, if you completely covered the United States with concrete, coyotes would still live among us.

Judging from some of the comments posted to news stories about these events, you might believe that killing coyotes is actually a viable solution.

History and studies of coyote behavior and reproduction tell us otherwise. Beginning with the repeating rifle and continuing with poison and traps, we have been trying to exterminate coyote, which evolved in North America alongside the long-extinct dire wolf, since we arrived on these shores. We came damned close to annihilating the grizzly bear and the gray wolf in the lower 48, but our attempts to exterminate coyotes have been met with nothing but frustration and more and more coyotes. The government’s Wildlife Services program kills almost half a million coyotes a year in the guise of ranch-animal protection, with no negligible effect on the population. I can find no firm statistics, but there are almost certainly more coyotes in the United States today than there were two hundred and fifty years ago.

That’s one of the main reasons I admire coyote. How can you hate a species that has completely outsmarted humans and live in defiance of us? And we humans don’t seem to be getting it yet. We leave them food in unsecured garbage bins, compost bins and pet bowls.

And instead of a couple of unfortunate incidents that better human decisions might have avoided, there are people in Denver somehow convinced that coyotes are out there behind the back fence plotting to snatch their pets and terrorize their lives. In an extreme and unfortunate reaction, Greenwood Village is foolishly going to waste precious city funds to hire sharpshooters to kill coyotes within city limits and is petitioning the state to allow leg-traps. God only knows what they will catch in those things, and come next January, there will more coyotes there.

That’s old-fashioned thinking, and it is doomed to failure. Why not teach people, like the Division of Wildlife does, about coyote behavior? Why not secure your garbage and pet foods? Why not leash your dogs in areas where coyotes are known to be? Or let your neighbors know when coyotes have been spotted in your neighborhood? We are not going to kill off coyotes or change their behavior, and to live with them, we will have to change our own — or live in Hawaii.

March 1, 2009   1 Comment

Killing Coyotes Only Shows Our Stupidity

The Denver Post reports that Greenwood Village’s city council Friday approved “limited” shooting of coyotes in public areas of the city, including parks, greenbelts and watersheds.

Back to the Old West: leg traps. ©Life 1941

The city will pay a private contractor about $200 a day to kill coyotes – the story doesn’t say how many are slated for “elimination” — and it is also asking the Tri-County Health Department for permits to allow the setting of leg traps for coyotes. (Perhaps there are new leg traps that differentiate coyotes from German Shepherds or red foxes or house cats, but I doubt it.)

This is pathetic. What are the council members thinking? Sharpshooters on open space? Leg traps in a municipality in a state that overwhelmingly voted in 1996 to ban such cruel devices? Greenwood Village’s wildlife management plan forsakes all known science about coyotes to hold a media show – perhaps the contractor holding up dead coyotes by their legs like they used to in the Old West? – and demonstrate its commitment to public safety.

“The problem is the population is out of control, and it has created a public-safety issue for our community,” the Post quotes City Manager Jim Sanderson. “We are not trying to eliminate all coyotes.”

Sorry, Mr. Sanderson, but it doesn’t work that way. I’m guessing that somewhere in your packet of materials about “coyotes being more aggressive,” you missed the dirty secret about killing coyotes to “control” them. “Coyotes are ‘compensatory breeders,’ that’s what the research says,” the Post quotes Jennifer Churchill, a Colorado Division of Wildlife spokeswoman. “When the population gets knocked back they will indeed create more coyotes.”

What this means is that coyotes, when faced with a threat to their population, will compensate for their loss, in this case by producing more pups and litters. The federal government knows this, yet it financially supports Wildlife Services, a euphemistic name for an agency that uses tax dollars to kill hundreds of thousands of animals — coyotes, foxes, birds, you name it — in the guise of protecting “agriculture, health, property and health and safety,” continues its wasteful, destructive ways, shooting thousands of coyotes from airplanes. In the last twenty years nine shooters and pilots have died and 34 others injured doing this.

All this “management,” and yet coyotes are flourishing. This is dirty secret number two about coyotes. Fact is, humans have been trying to eradicate coyotes since Europeans first settled in the New World. Our species came close to eliminating wolves and grizzly bears from the lower 48 (along with collateral animals like lynx) by using guns, traps and finally poison. But after several centuries, the coyotes are clearly winning

That’s the other dirty secret about coyote: As an adaptable species, it is infinitely superior to humans. Ever wonder why the coyote in literature is known as the Trickster? Coyotes find plenty to eat and enough good habitat to live and breed alongside us, even because of us. They are an active, integral part of our eco-systems.

There are plenty of proactive ways to deal with coyotes. Teach citizens to secure trash and control companion animals, to chase off coyotes and other wildlife off when you see them, to not feed wild animals) But instead of teaching human responsibility, Greenwood Village, under the guise of protecting the children, embarks on a the Wild West management plan: Killing animals and using cruel methods to do so.

And next year at this time, there will be less money in the Greenwood Village coffers, continued, perhaps increasing incidental run-ins with humans — and, just as the DOW spokeswoman indicated, more coyotes!! Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Photo: Life magazine 1941

February 9, 2009   No Comments