To see animals, you must move a little, and look a lot.
—Dick Proenneke (1916-2003)—One Man’s Wilderness
I read somewhere that the odds of seeing a bobcat (Lynx rufus) in the wild is slim to none—some say, “a once in a lifetime encounter,” should one be so lucky. While I like to be optimistic, who was I kidding? With odds like that, the hopes of adding the bobcat to my list of animal sightings seemed dismal.
It was a pleasant summer day in the mountains. Winds were light. The sky, except for a few thin clouds, reflected deep blue. While a hike would have been nice, we went for a drive instead. With no specific place in mind, we drove east turning north from the village of Zigzag onto Lolo Pass Road. To the east was Old Maid Flat—an outstanding natural area that parallels part of the upper Sandy River—a place popular with mushroom hunters that supply local restaurants with gourmet fungi in spring and fall. Before us, the landscape rose and fell for miles, affording spectacular views of Mount Hood and the national forest that bears its name; we felt as small as ants in a sea of mountains and valleys carved by glaciers and wild rivers.
Lolo Pass is a centuries-old game trail once used by Native Americans, and later, by trappers and explorers. It has served as a logging road for decades, and the clear-cuts are still very much visible. Lolo Pass begins from US Highway 26 in Zigzag, and winds due north along a narrow, often one-lane road, for approximately 37 miles to Hood River. Since 2011, the forest west of Lolo Pass is off-limits to public access—an expansion of the Bull Run Watershed that drains 139 square miles. The expansion is to protect the natural resources of Bull Run River and Bull Run Lake Reservoir—a natural lake that lies 30 miles east of Portland that has been supplying Portlander’s with mountain drinking water since 1895.
The narrow, winding road is not meant for speed, and must be taken slowly. This allows for some fantastic mountain and valley views such as Last Chance Mountain that rises to the east at 3,600 feet. Soon we were along the east flank of Hiyu Mountain that lies to the west, and whose summit is 4,400 feet. (On the other side of Hiyu Mountain is Bull Run Lake.) Where pavement turned to gravel, we left Clackamas County for Hood River County where a fork in the road veered east along McGee Creek Road toward 5,000-foot Cathedral Ridge, another fantastic area worth exploring, but best left for another day as daylight was pressing.
At the flank of Hiyu Mountain, the land rose sharply, while to the east, the it dropped abruptly into a clear-cut. Bumping along, clouds of dust rose in our wake. Then suddenly, something emerged from the clear-cut, and I hit the brakes sending a cloud of dust over the top of us. When the dust settled, we could hardly believe our eyes. Twenty paces ahead stood a bobcat. The animal gazed at us with piercing, golden eyes. Its lean, muscular body accentuated its long hind legs, and shorter front legs that sported large round paws. Its beige coat was mottled with streaks of brown, black, and gray. A sudden twitch of its bobbed tail, the big cat crossed our path with a bobbing stride that took it up the flank of Hiyu Mountain where it vanished like a ghost into the forest. Our brief encounter with the bobcat left us speechless, and we sat in silence absorbing what our eyes had just seen. While the bobcat often hunts along forest roads and clearings, I never dreamed we’d see one. I mean really, what were the odds?
THE BAT AND THE PINE MARTEN
Several years ago, we had a rare and unexpected visitor. I’d been cutting back salmonberry canes that were starting to overtake the footpath leading to the clearing. It was a pleasant August day that bore a pale blue sky and gentle northeast breeze that stirred the treetops, and helped cool my sweaty skin. I’d been at them all morning, and could feel the fatigue building in my lower back, so decided to take a break. Sitting on the porch sheltered by the carport, I opened my canteen, and took a long drink of herbal iced tea. Looking up, I saw Eddie, a little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) that arrived at the start of summer and claimed a cool, dark corner of the rafter for its day roost. Able to consume more than 1,000 insects an hour, Eddie and his kin are a welcomed sight.
Seeing Eddie reminded me of something that happened many years ago, something that is hard to think about even now. I was in grade school, and it was during recess that my friends and I saw a group of boys gathered at the baseball dugout. There wasn’t a game, so curious, we girls walked over to see what the attraction was. On the ground, in the center of the circle of boys, was a little brown bat. Something, or someone (and I’d put my money on the latter) had removed the webbing from its wings. Even worse, if that was possible, the poor creature was still alive! No telling how long it had suffered. I felt sick to my stomach, and wanted to cry. We pleaded with the boys to put it out of its misery, but the bell rang and they took off running like cowards. We girls didn’t know what to do, but knew we had to do something. One girl looked for a rock, but there were none. The only thing near was a barrel of rainwater, and so we drowned the poor creature.
I took another drink, and was about to return to the salmonberry thicket, when something came loping up the driveway. From a distance, I couldn’t tell what it was. At first, I thought it was a cat, but its body was longer, more like a fox. As the animal came closer, I saw it was neither. To my surprise, it was an American marten (Martes americana).
The American marten is a handsome furbearer that is bigger than a mink and smaller than a fox, but looks like a cross between the two. He has a long body and bushy tail that gives him a combined length of 24 to 30 inches—(females being slightly smaller). The legs are short, and the feet (adapted for life in the trees) heavily clawed. He has a handsome round face with small round ears, small curious eyes, and a short pointed snout. He wears a reddish-brown coat with fur that is short, soft and dense with blond highlights on the chin, chest, and belly—no wonder trappers sought his pelt. Shy, and something of a recluse, he generally avoids people and makes his home in high elevation spruce, fir, and hemlock forests west of the Cascades, and low elevation ponderosa, Douglas-fir forests east of the Cascades. While his diet consists of mice, voles, squirrels, rabbits, birds, insects, and fish, he will also dine on carrion, as well as food scraps if available.
If the marten knew I was there, he never let on, and never broke his loping stride, not even for a moment. Never once did he look in my direction, and disappeared silently into the forest never to be seen again.
For me, the greatest things in nature are the unexpected. On this particular day in May, the unexpected presented itself as a colony of fairy slipper orchids (Calypso bulbosa) that I happened upon while hanging a flicker house on a cedar tree.
A native perennial herb, the fairy slipper blooms from May to July, but only when soil conditions are favorable for it requires specific soil components for the seeds to germinate. The tiny seeds that number from 10,000 to 20,000 per capsule must be nourished by hypha: a mycelium—the branching structure of a fungus. But it doesn’t end there. The bulb (corm)—the plants nutrient storehouse, must meet a fungal hypha that forms a fungus-root—a mycorrhiza that will colonize the bulb, and give it nutrients.
When the seed germinates, and the small round bulb is nourished, it sends up a single, delicately sheathed stem 3 to 7 inches tall. (At the base of the stem, just above the bulb, appears a single, large, egg-shaped leaf with toothed margins.) From the top of the stem, blooms a single, sweet-scented, pink to lavender (rarely white) flower joined by three sepals and two petals above a large lip shaped like a slipper. Between the upper lip, streaked white, and the lower lip, streaked magenta, appears a double spurred tongue.
To appreciate their beauty, required me to get on hands and knees and view them with a hand lens. At ground level, my senses embraced their sweet, vanilla-like odor. I had to be careful with my movements since the slightest disturbance will dislodge the shallow bulb thus killing the orchid. While I found it hard to imagine that such a frail little plant could afford any other use than just looking and smelling pretty, the Haida Peoples of British Columbia found them delectable, and gathered and ate the bulbs, which are said to have a rich, buttery flavor. As tempting as this was, I couldn’t bring myself to sacrifice even one of the lovely little orchids just for the sake of tasting. Unfortunately, despite my carefulness, one of the orchids was lying on its side. I must have bumped it when hanging the birdhouse. With its bulb partly exposed, the orchid was doomed. After a few photographs and some sketches, I collected the fairyslipper and put it in the plant press to keep for all time.
Copyright 2012. All rights reserved.
2 thoughts on “The Unexpected”
Great stories, as always Julie. Reminds me of my unexpected encounters – several Coyotes, Beavers, Liitle Brown Bats, a pair of Goshawks and a Mink. Has been many years since I’ve been in the mountains and foothills (Alberta amd BC) – thanks for sharing your adventures.
Thank you, Thad. I like your list of the unexpected. Each encounter holds a special memory. Nature sure is fun!