07 January 2009

Iitsitayo'kaa Miiksi Aapsspiniiksi

III ) lllllllll Misamiko’komiaato’s (7 Jan 09)

Yesterday was business in town for Adrienne and I, a series of meetings that quickly stole away our daylight. I often wonder why we don’t do as in the past, and conduct these kinds of affairs during evening hours in this season, rather than committing ourselves to grow pale indoors. Just another way we neglect to respond to the natural cycles of our environment, I suppose.

During one of the intermissions between meetings, we were able to make a quick run out to Thunder Chief’s gas bar to pick up smokes. On the way back to Lethbridge, I noticed a small flock of geese nestled into the snow in a stubble-field on the north side of Highway 3 and, a bit closer to the river, we saw two adult bald eagles – one sitting in a tree, and a huge bird soaring low overhead. It was frustrating to have to just drive on past these familiar faces. It reminded me of one of the analogies I use at the college when discussing traditional harvests, like berry picking. Our relationships with the plants and animals were established thousands of years ago, and for all but the smallest fragment of time since, indigenous people from around the world lived up to those commitments. Although today we’re only a couple generations removed from our ancestors, we now go driving along the highway at a hundred kilometres an hour, nearly oblivious to what’s around us, and when we see the berries and others present themselves to us, we just pass on by. We might consider scheduling a berry picking excursion into our summer agenda, but we insist that the visit manifests when we’re good and ready, with no concern at all for the desire or intent of the bushes themselves. To me, this is like walking past one of our elders on the street, and when he or she smiles and goes to shake our hand, we just turn a cold shoulder.

I wish Adrienne and I could have stuck around to visit the geese and the eagles. They don’t show themselves to people without cause. Every such encounter is an opportunity for visiting and exchanging, learning and nourishment. Yet we often settle for just being able to see them in passing. That’s not much of a relationship. Driving away to our next meeting, I thought to myself, I don’t do New Years resolutions, but if I have a personal resolve it’s this… I’m going to respond more often to the invitations extended by the plants and animals I encounter. That evening, when we got home, I took my daughter to her piano lessons, and then set off to the coulee to begin following-up on a couple of the invitations I’d been given most recently.

There were a couple of outstanding challenges that I felt needed to be addressed. First off, there was the lingering question of the long-eared owl’s residence. I’d seen it hunting along the river on two consecutive evenings, and I thought (probably mistakenly) that I might have even heard it calling on occasion. I’d searched the two poplar forests where I thought the long-eared most likely to be residing, and came up empty. But in my continuing discussions with Del Huget, of the Lethbridge Nature Society, I learned that these owls will sometimes occupy old magpie nests in areas of dense willow. That was news to me. I hadn’t even thought of searching through the substantial willow growth where I’d first observed the owl hunting.

The other thing that was bothering me was the unidentified rodent tracks. I wanted to know who was coming down off the sheer cliffs, exposing themselves during long-distance journeys across the snow and ice, to get at the seeds and stems of the licorice plants. Doing what research I could on the net, I narrowed the possibilities down to two species: the bushy-tailed woodrat or the least chipmunk. Of the two, the woodrat seemed the more likely, because although I’d never come across any of their nests in the cliffs, I hadn’t really gone looking for them either. The least chipmunk, on the other hand, seemed less likely because, even though some of the literature places it in these parts, I’d think that in a few years of walking the coulees I’d have seen one by now.

Another member of Albertabird, Katie Calon, had read my previous descriptions of the rodent tracks and asked for pictures, so that she and her working group could try to identify them. I sent her a close up, along with a shot of the tracks beside one of my ski gloves, evidence of the eight-inch stride that – from what I’ve seen – is pretty typical of these animals. Katie’s group came back with two potentials as well: the bushy-tailed woodrat (again) and the deer mouse. I hadn’t considered the deer mouse before, because the one’s I’d seen, including the deer mouse who’s in our Beaver Bundle, looked pretty small to be taking such long strides. But it turns out these mice have a stride that can range from four to twenty inches, taking longer hops when out in exposed areas, such as the places where I’d been seeing the tracks. What Katie suggested was that I bring a ruler along on my next hike and try to measure the stride width, and that would tell us who the more likely candidate really was. While I fully intend to follow-up on that advice, I’m also very interested in seeing the animal with my own eyes as well.

I figured a trip to the coulees after sundown might be an opportunity for me to respond to both the long-eared owl and the rodent, both of whom could be active in the dark. Of course I had already missed the magic hour of dusk, but I thought it was still worth a shot. So I got my warm clothes on, grabbed a video camera with night vision capability, and drove out.

With the broth winds we had a couple days ago, the access road to the river-bottom was closed and drifted-in. I would have to hike down again. Unfortunately, the place I wanted to park also had a bit of a drift blocking its access. This one didn’t look too bad though, so I tried gunning through it, thinking that as long as I had some momentum behind me I’d definitely clear it to the other side. Bad decision. For the next forty-five minutes I was laying beside my truck, working a little trenching shovel underneath to try and dig myself out. By the time I got unstuck, I was thoroughly damp with sweat, the kind of sweat that can be dangerous when you’re walking around outside in the cold. I almost turned around to go home. But then I thought, I can at least walk right down to the river and back up. With all that digging to get here, I owe myself that much.

So I started making my way down. Below, I could see a group of seven deer spread-out grazing on a wide grassy ledge, with another larger deer (probably the buck) laying down on a nearby ridge. The deer saw me too, and when I stopped to watch for a minute they got nervous. The seven bunched together and moved around to the other side of the ridge, out of my view. The one laying on top just stayed there, observing my descent.

Further down the slope, I came across two different groups of grey partridge, both of which flew off as I approached. Neither group had too many members. It was dark, of course, but I would estimate four or five birds in each. They may have been a single flock to start, because they were only about twenty or thirty meters from one another. I wondered though, with the cold night air, why they hadn’t nestled in together.

All the while as I walked, I scanned the area around me, searching the snow for any hint of movement that might lead to a rodent encounter. I also stopped now and then to listen. The appearance of both the land and the river had changed with the chinook. Where there had been a more-or-less even blanket of snow two days ago, now there were waves of exposure, broken by high drifts. One of the drifts I came to, on a ledge half-way down the coulee, was piled up taller than me.

When I reached the confluence of the rivers, I sat down on a boulder to rest, have a smoke, and decide whether or not to climb back up to the truck right away. I was warm enough, but still damp. The determining factor in my decision came when the owls started calling. It began with a series of typical great horned owl songs, coming from the forest on the other side of the river…

Hu-hu-huu hu-huu huu

Hu-hu-huu hu-huu huu

Then I heard the same song coming from downriver, probably from the bird I’d found roosted over there the other day. But that call was answered by another owl with a slightly different song…

Hu-huu huu huu

I started walking, using the ice on the river to speed me along. Then I cut up on the bank and wound my way through the willows to the cutbank at the edge of the forest. I wanted to find out where the response call was coming from. When I though I was close enough, I sat down on a log and listened. The songs went back and forth…

Hu-hu-huu hu-huu huu

Hu-huu huu huu

It was definitely two separate owls, because in waiting for responses from one another, sometimes one would try its call again, interrupting the start of the other’s song. I knew the response call was not coming from a long-eared owl, because after sitting quietly for twenty or thirty minutes, I started hearing other couples upriver having the same exchange. I couldn’t say for sure how many great horned owl couples there were within range of my hearing, but at least three, maybe four. I sat, and listened, and wondered. What is this song about? What does it mean to them? Is it comfort? Is it courtship? Is it just keeping tabs on one another? Will it change if I visit them in the night a month from now? Next spring? Next fall?

I stayed there listening to the owls until I really did start to grow too cold. Then I figured it was best I get myself back up the side of the coulee. Again I made my way through the willows (which turns out to be surprisingly easy to do at night), and along the river to the confluence. There I followed the calmest grade back up to the top. The deer were out in open sight again, the buck still sitting sentry on the ridge. Somewhere between the river and the truck, I lost a glove. I’d stuffed the pair of them into my jacket pocket when I started the climb, and one of them fell out along the way. I didn’t even realize it until I got all the way up, and by then I was sweating again, tired, and ready to go home. Retrieval of the glove would have to wait.

The Sun hadn’t even lit the horizon when I returned to the coulee again. I might have had about four hours sleep. Nothing a good cup of coffee couldn’t cure. Luckily, I only had to walk about a third of the way down the slope before the missing glove turned up, frozen solid on a patch of snow. Then I was off to Red Crow.

It was a foggy drive south through the reserve this morning, at least until the buttes. I knew that with yesterday’s decent weather, Blood Tribe Public Works would have finally been able to make some headway pushing their graders through the back-roads and shovelling people’s driveways. Since I was a bit early, I thought maybe I’d pull-off the 509 at One Spot and get a picture of myself in front of the truck, with a drift piled above my head on either side. Then I could follow the gravel up toward St. Mary’s Dam, and maybe spot something interesting along the way. Wishful thinking…. As soon as I made the turn, it was apparent I had underestimated the conditions by quite a margin. Looking at the drifts in front of me, I knew the truck wasn’t going to get more than a hundred meters before I’d be left digging again. I pulled around and got back on the highway.

Given the obstacles, it was surprising how many staff members made it in to the college. For some, it was the first trip out of the driveway they’d made in the last week and a half. One of my colleagues, Alvin Many Chiefs, was printing off a series of photographs he’d taken, showing the growth of a massive drift that settled over the road to his house. When he finally got a trail cleared, just yesterday, the snow piled up on either side stood higher than the roof of his school bus.

Mid-way through the morning, I got a visit from Bruce Wolf Child, one of our elders. Over the holiday break, Bruce had suffered a minor stroke as a result of forgetting to take his blood-pressure medication. But he wanted to assure me that all was well, and that he’d be coming back to help with some of our language immersion projects. While he was visiting, I received word that all the departments on-reserve were closing down at noon. A high-wind warning had been issued for Pincher Creek and Ft. McLeod, so it was likely that those who had managed to drive to work would not be able to get back home again if they waited too long.

The sudden notification of another day’s school closure got Bruce talking about our recent weather. He reminded me that a meteorite had fallen up north a couple months ago, and that this is always a sign of something difficult to come. Bruce related the event to the classic story of Soa’tsaakii, Tail-Feathers-Woman, a human being who married the Morning Star and was brought into the sky world to stay in the lodge of the Sun and Moon. While living there, she was taught how to use a digging stick by her mother-in-law. One day, while Soa’tsaakii was out gathering roots, she went against the advice of the Moon and dug-up omahka’s, the big-root (fern-leaf desert parsley). The hole that was left from where the root had been created a window in the sky, and down below she saw the Earth, and her human family.

When Soa’tsaakii went back to the lodge of the Sun and Moon that evening, she was obviously homesick, and everyone knew just what had happened. The Sun told her husband, Morning Star, that she would never be happy again, and that he should let her back down to Earth through the hole she had made, using a long strand of spider-web. Soa’tsaakii came down wearing a crown of creeping juniper, carrying her digging stick, the omahka’s she had dug, and a son born of her marriage. Today, some people look at the stone monuments left from this time and see “medicine wheels” with “spokes” pointing in certain directions. I look at them and see spider webs.

Soa’tsaakii was instructed not to allow her infant son to touch the earth for a certain period… otherwise he would feel too heavy, and his spirit would want to return to the sky. She tried to live by this, but nobody on Earth believed her story, that the boy was the child of a star. They laughed at her when she came home wearing juniper on her head. Eventually, when Soa’tsaakii went out to pick berries one afternoon, her own mother put the infant boy down on the ground. Immediately, he started to cry. The old lady picked him back up and laid him down in a hammock, covering him up with a robe. When Soa’tsaakii returned, and pulled the robe back, all that remained was a puffball mushroom.

That night, the hole that she had descended from in the sky was filled with a new star, the spirit of her infant boy. Only then did some of the people believe her story… particularly the Iiaohkiimiiksi, those who took care of Beaver Bundles. They gave Soa’tsaakii their elk headdress to wear, in place of the juniper, so that people would know that her story was true. Soa’tsaakii in turn gave the Iiaohkiimiiksi her root, the one that creates a window into the sky world, which we still use today as our winter smudge.

“You know that story of the woman who married the star…,” Bruce told me, “When anything comes down from the sky, it means that something went wrong up there. That’s why we’re having a hard winter.” I’d heard this about meteorites before, but when Bruce put it that way, connecting it to the story of Soa’tsaakii, I began to wonder what gifts the meteorite might have brought down to Earth as well.

By the time Bruce and I finished visiting, the college was closing and there were rumours going around that Standoff was already in a white-out. Driving home, all I encountered was the dense fog again. The heavy winds that had been expected never came. Still, I was glad that somebody had made the call to close-shop. All too often, we don’t act until a storm is already upon us, and then we all drive home through the worst of it. The problem is, we just can’t seem to accurately read the approaching weather.

Since I was home early, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to get down into the coulees for the magic hour of dusk. And since I already knew the access road to the river-bottom was closed, I figured there was no need to go driving anywhere. I might as well just walk down to the Old Man from my house, which sits about half a kilometre from the coulee rim.

Again I took my video camera, in hopes of spotting the elusive cliff-dwelling rodent. As the Sun disappeared and darkness began to slowly close, I followed along an old barbwire fence. I’d gone this way late one night last winter, and walked right through the middle of a herd of mule deer, who weren’t startled at all by my presence. This evening there were no deer, no rabbits, no coyotes that I could see. Just the occasional black-billed magpie flying from ridge to ridge, between drainages.

The fence-line took me down to the edge of a cliff, about three kilometres downriver from where I’d been hiking the last few weeks. From that vantage point, I could see a rift in the ice upstream, much larger than any of the open crags I’d visited near the confluence. I could also see that there were Canada geese sitting on the ice all around this rift. They looked like black dots from where I stood, but I knew right away what they were. From that distance, I estimated there were at least a hundred, possibly many more. Just like that, all my intentions of scanning the cliffs for rodents evaporated. I’d found my wintering geese.

Sitting down to slide part of the way downhill, I completed my descent of the coulee. On the other side of the river was a long island, thick with poplars and brush that I could use to conceal my approach. No sooner had I crossed the ice than I noticed a large flock coming in to join those already seated by the open water. A few minutes later, two more flocks dropped from the sky. As I walked hurriedly upriver, wave after wave began to come in for a landing. I was far too excited to count. All I could say for sure was that barely a minute passed between new arrivals.

I wanted desperately to film this event, and soon I was rushing through the forest to secure a decent position. I eventually chose a seat on one of the island’s cutbanks, right next to a young poplar tree that I thought would provide at least a little camouflage. I pulled out my video camera, turned the night-vision feature on, and started filming. For the next fifteen minutes, one flock after another came to rest at this bit of open water. Some of the flocks were quite sizeable, with probably eighty or more members. All of them, interestingly, appeared to be returning from the prairies upriver. Not one goose flew in from downstream. On the other hand, about one in every six returning flocks continued past this open water, moving downriver to where I’m sure there must be another rendezvous site.

Eventually, it got too dark to continue recording, and I began to grow cold. But in the moment, neither inconvenience seemed to matter. I’d been watching for at least a half hour, and there were still straggling flocks arriving every four or five minutes. The geese on the ice, who’d been exceptionally loud during the height of this event, now sat quiet. The only time they made noise was to alert another flock of their position. The darker it became, the more it seemed this guidance was needed. I observed two late-arriving flocks in particular that looked as though they would have flew right past if it weren’t for the assistance of calls from below. I know an ornithologist might try to rationalize this helpful behaviour with something akin to the standard “safety in numbers”. But that’s not the sensation I had, as an observer. To me, it seemed the geese had a very strong kinship, such that they would be willing to risk betraying their own position to ensure the safety arrival of the collective. Those who were called down were those who belonged to this single, extended winter family.

I only walked away when the number of new arrivals seriously slowed down. By that time, I calculated (loosely) that there must have been at least a thousand geese at this location. Probably many more. My previous experiences observing Canada geese had all been during the spring nesting period. I had no idea that those who wintered here, feeding in small groups on the farm fields, gathered together each evening at the river. I was completely blown away by the magnitude of this event. And I sat there utterly in awe of the way they responded to the transformation of daylight to darkness. This kind of collective, coordinated, and cooperative response behaviour, harmonized to natural ecological stimuli… this is what we human beings presently lack.

As I climbed back up the coulee, toward the lights of my neighbourhood in the distance, I heard the coyotes howling in a valley across the river. The drama of the night, I understood, was just beginning. I would have to return there again if I hoped to take part.