Al Thieme, Cascadia Wild!
Al Thieme is an animal tracker, naturalist educator, and executive director for Cascadia Wild!, a conservation and environmental education organization. Currently, he is searching for forest carnivores in Mt. Hood National Forest.
Monday, 12 Mar 2001
MT. HOOD, Ore.
I’m standing in the White River Canyon on Mt. Hood. Flows of iridescent snow court Mother Earth, asking her for silence in this time of transition: winter. Why am I here? Good question. To follow the tracks of the winter creatures, to search for lynx, marten, fisher, wolverine, snowshoe hare, Douglas squirrel, black bear, cougar, coyote, elk, and bobcat. To see where they come from, where they go, and how many there are. Today I try to focus on forest carnivores, but every snow ripple fascinates me.
Photo: Cascadia Wild!
Starting along the line of forest nearest the stream, I tangle and untangle myself in the heavy cover of the small subalpine fir, mountain hemlock, lodgepole pine, whitebark pine, and red alder. Success. Snowshoe hare tracks, as well as Douglas squirrel tracks, begin appearing everywhere. Amazingly, one snowshoe hare decides to depart from cover and bounds directly out into the sparse forest. Alarmed by this unusual tactic for a common forest prey creature, I follow. Surely, this hare risked many kinds of death — by owl, bobcat, marten, fisher, cougar, lynx and others — by making this dash. Perhaps not. Perhaps in this stark landscape, in this forest cathedral, the carnivores are so diminished that our large-footed friend knew she was safe in her journey.
Maybe she was scared in this direction. But as I continue to follow the tracks, I am unable to detect anything in pursuit. The tracks lead on, a full mile out into the semi-open plain of ivory flakes. Is this unusual? What is her home range? Later, at home, I will find in my field guide that the range is approximately 10 acres, but that hares will occasionally run a full mile. I am thankful for the stories arriving on the wind, full of ferocity and vision, but I also appreciate these diminutive elders built of tree bones, these collections of native naturalist stories we call field guides.
Photo: Cascadia Wild!
Much later in the day, I cross the tracks of a large elk. At first I wonder if it’s a bull or a cow, and then I smell it. The air reeks with an unmistakable pungency, the fresh passing of an antlered elk. I continue following the long striding tracks, while intermittently marking spots with the GPS to record data for later. I sense the animal knows I am there; it hears me, it feels me on its trail. Obsessed with following this creature, I run in the cold mountain air, mystified and ultimately curious about its being, its life. I follow it through dense stands of forest, shrubby red alders blocking the way, through open areas, across streams, down slopes, and further down the mountain. The elk has stopped to urinate, and the urine is fresh. Its smell is milder than the musk on the air, which comes and goes as I trot along the trail. I know elk habits, and I know he could run for five, 10, or 20 miles if he wanted to, and yet I’ve only covered two.
Despite the cold, my blood warms and I feel the instincts from a childhood hunting in the hills of Appalachia. I’m tracking, but now I’m hunting, too. I develop an affinity for this elk, a strange bond between the hunter and the hunted. But I don’t have a rifle, and the long-ago abundance of the creatures in this forest has diminished. We are no longer a hunter-gatherer culture; besides, it’s not the season to hunt anyhow. I hear the roar of a river nearby as I examine three whitebark pine needles clipped down to an inch, pointed in the center — they don’t look like snowshoe hare chews. Elk or deer? They appear old by the browned tips. The elk chooses to continue on across the river. And with darkness coming on, I turn away, up the drainage.
All this day, forest carnivores are nowhere to be seen. Have I chosen a poor site, or perhaps the wrong elevation, or an area with inadequate vegetation? I know the human impacts this forest has sustained from excessive logging and road-building, and I wonder: What is our connection to the unseen? How many of us would it take to call the animals back? What gifts would you leave for the sacred? What gifts would you leave for the forest carnivores, to show the tracks, to tell the stories to your grandchildren?