Ranger Kathryn's Arches

June 30, 2016

It rattles me

Filed under: Hikes,wildlife — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 3:41 pm
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Lexington Arch, Great Basin National Park — and Kathryn

My last blog post described the realization that I live pretty close to sometimes-dangerous animals out here in the wilderness. It’s not something I give much thought to; it just is the way life works. I’m in the territory of wild creatures and I need to be aware.

On our days off, Chris and I recently headed to Nevada to visit a place new to us: Great Basin National Park. It has mountains and ancient bristlecone pines and a higher elevation (read: cooler during heat wave). With only 120,000 visitors annually, this out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere park seemed just right for us.

That is, until we decided to hike to Lexington Arch.

No one told us that three years ago a large wildfire burnt that trail area. Subsequently, a particularly violent flash flood re-arranged the road to the trailhead, washing it out in several places, leaving gullies and ravines behind instead of pleasant walking trails. The trailhead kiosk was burned to bits, too.

Large cairns had been built, however, to help us get to the start, and we felt confident. It was warm, but we had plenty of water and snacks and were protected from the sun. Up we headed, winding our way between blackened trees.

Chris stepped into one of the washed-out gullies and headed toward the other side. I stepped down, right where he had, and a menacing buzz burst on my ears. Let me just say that, when I heard it, my feet did that cartoon-like thing where they are spinning in mid-air trying to gain traction. A loud sound (possibly a shriek) escaped from my mouth as I sought to put great distance between me and the source of that rattling buzz. I nearly knocked Chris over in my startle-ment.

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Great Basin Rattlesnake. Head on right — moving away from us.

The 42-inch-long Great Basin Rattlesnake had been silent as he passed by. Chris calmly took my iPhone and snapped its photo while I went far, far away. Now, normally I love snakes. They are beautiful creatures and occupy an important niche in ecosystems. But the concept of sharing a gully with a venomous friend had me slightly undone.

Snake retired to another ravine without any fuss, but something changed as we continued walking. Every clatter of grasshopper wings sounded to me like my next appointment with slithering venom. Every cicada buzz brought elevated heart rate. My sympathetic nervous system has fight-or-flight dialed in. Vigilance plus.

We made it to Lexington Arch and back without any further ado. No other reptiles appeared, all gully crossings were uneventful, and peanut M&Ms awaited us at the car.

To all my concerned friends: I do not live on the brink of death most days. I have encountered two rattlesnakes in two weeks, but these brushes with exotic creatures actually enrich my existence.

Have you had close encounters with wild creatures? Comment below, please!

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June 10, 2016

The watcher among us

Filed under: wildlife — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 6:23 am
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It was yet another in a string of sunny, breezy, summer mornings. I followed the hundreds of rock cairns down the steep descent to canyon bottom, along the wash, past tadpole pools and oriole haunts. A peregrine falcon’s cry jerked my eyes up toward its eyrie just in time to see a parent bringing food to its young eyasses (EYE-ess-ez). It was then that I spied something out of place in my familiar canyon.

IMG_1711A mule deer carcass lay alongside the edge of the wash. It was not the slightest bit bloated in the 90-degree heat, nor was there obvious blood or odor. The doe’s abdomen had very recently been opened up. Her viscera protruded, but no other harm was apparent besides a broken neck. A tiny fawn was crumpled between her legs, also lifeless. Large powerful claw-scrapes surrounded the pair like the rays of a fingerpainted sun, with dirt and plant debris scantly dusting the bodies. A heavy drag mark extended 30 feet to the east, culminating in a sandy imprint of two bodies colliding.

I looked around, suddenly aware that this formerly benign canyon held secrets too dear for me. The mountain lion’s tracks were everywhere. He or she held territory here — where humans daily intruded. Questions barreled through my mind: Where was it? When did it ambush? Why didn’t it eat more of this pair? When would it return? How have I walked this route scores and scores of times without seeing more evidence of large predators? Should I be singing right now?

I thought about all these things, and much more. And I sang. In a minor key.

Next day, Ranger Chris posted a sign at the trailhead: “MOUNTAIN LION ACTIVITY. Do not approach deer kill. Do not hike alone.” Hiking down a couple miles, he warily dragged the still-not-eaten bodies out of the main trail area onto a reedy bank under some cottonwoods — not to spare visitors the agony of seeing Real Life, but to minimize the chance of any potential conflicts between them and Felis concolor.

Maybe the cat won’t come back; coyotes and ravens will feast. Maybe human intrusion was too much for the hunter. Sad as it is, the deaths were not in vain; we have plenty of deer, and the circle of life continues. One thing is certain: I won’t hike with the same airy abandon to which I’m accustomed. I am not at the top of the food chain.

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