26 October 2009

Ksisskstaki Food Cache

IIII ) ll Disconnect (21Oct09)

0928 Thick fog in Sikoohkotoki prompted us to stop in at Sspopiikimi before heading south to Mi'kai'sto. I would have liked to spend all day outside. Perhaps tomorrow will have to be a "field day" for me. I'm getting desperate to visit Omahksistsiiksiinaa Kawaahko, and I really want to take my time there and not rush it

0946 In any case, lots was happening at the pond this morning. We saw a couple dozen mi'ksikatsi midpond, along with the three aiksikksksisiiksi. We learned that there are still mi'sohpsskiiksi using the north shore ksisskstakioyis. There was a flock of aapsspini in the south pool, who flew off noisily when a photographer walked down that way. The a'siitsiksimm niipistsi are finally falling individually, instead of attached to twigs. And the ksisskstaki family was busy bringing more reeds to their bulrush flotilla and packing mud on top the south side of their lodge

0954 Leaving Sspopiikimi, the route along Hwy 3 and then through the Old Man River Valley was hair-raising, due to heavy fog and extremely stupid people who don't change their driving habits in response to these conditions. Things cleared up on the north end of Kainaissksaahko. We'd have liked to drive the canal, but it looked too muddy. We did check out Innokimi and Mookoan Reservoir - the former had lots of ksikkomahkayii, and as we were driving away from the latter a flock of at least three-hundred aapsspini decended

1607 Driving some sections of the BTAP canal for the ride home. In the reservoir just west of Mi'kai'sto there are several hundred aapsspini and dozens of kaayiiksi. Then at Mookoan reservoir, again hundreds of aapsspini, all huddled against the east shore, but also some flocks of aiksikksksisii and buffleheads. No snow geese or swans, and still nowhere near the number of geese and ducks I'm expecting to arrive with winter's freeze

1640 The hidden part of Innokimi also had aapsspini, as well as a flock of ksikkomahkayiiksi. All in all though, things are as yet very quiet on the canal. There were a couple horned larks along the way, and three or four yellowlegs by the muskrat pipe, but no flocks of smaller birds and no predators

2052 Had an interesting thought this evening, while reading student papers... Several have been noting the large flocks of geese in contrast to the ring-billed gulls who are traveling solitary or in very small groups. They wonder why the gulls aren't more social like the geese. Little do they know that the gulls nest communally on small islands in the summer, while the geese nest as isolated couples. Many birds have these kinds of seasonal cycles. Some group together in winter, some in summer. It reminds me of human societies with our holidays and ceremonies - we all come together, have our intensification rituals, and then go our own ways renewed in our sense of identity and belonging. Problem is, the timing of our celebratory gatherings used to have direct connections to important seasonal phenomena - there are practical reasons for the timing of the easter egg hunt, the opening of certain bundles, solstice celebrations like christmas, and the sundance. We've lost our connections to those seasonal practicalities, and who knows what sense of meaning or purpose we're missing as a result

2214 Most recently contrived holidays (birthdays, celebrations of nationhood, remembrances of sacrifice or tragedy or human greatness) have nothing to do with seasonal phenomena at all. Totally disconnected. And they're training us (inadvertently) to understand and experience ceremony differently. With no underlying practical application, how can we come away with that real sense of interdependence - that there are some things we can't accomplish without the collective?

IIII ) lll Ki'sommainihkssin (22Oct09)

1403 Totally blew it. Had the day set aside for coulee-roaming, but after the early morning Zzzzs, and the much-needed trim, and putting some food in my belly... Oh well, spilt gravy. So we'll be going to the pond for the evening, and right now I'm walking down the coulee slope at the conjunction of the Old Man and St Mary's Rivers to see if my slithering friends are still awake at their hibernaculum

1427 Moving down the slope, I'm looking at all the plants that were so recently vibrant - the dry earth-toned remains of aksspi, the dark-red buckbrush, the leaves curling and crispy on the sage, the empty seed-heads of crested-wheat and other grasses. I'm still seeing ants and a few grasshoppers, and there's a single cricket singing, but most of the insects are gone. I want to slow down and take some pictures, but maybe on my way back up. Keeping in mind that my main objective here is to check on those ones that slither and rattle, so I want to get that accomplished first

1447 I walk to where there is only a very small bump of land separating me from the hibernaculum, and there I set down my backpack and get my cameras and tripod set up. From this point I walk extremely slow and cautious, partially for my protection, but also so that I don't frighten my friends. When I get within sight of their main den-hole (one of about a half-dozen such holes on this small shelf of the coulee slope), I can already see a couple of the larger ones basking. I'm going to need to move very quiet and calm in hopes that they don't scramble underground

1501 One of them slithers slowly down into the den as I approach, but there are others who remain. I walk closer and closer until I cross the threshold of their comfort. At that point, they begin to rattle. It's not their really anxious rattle sound, but just a half-hearted attempt to alert me of their presence (in case I didn't already see them). Then they too slip down into the hole - first an adult couple together and intertwined, then their two babies, smaller than wandering garters, one at a time. Just then I get a call on my cell, it's Quenton. I whisper to him that I'm standing with my slithering friends at the moment, and promise to phone him back later. Then I set-up the video camera to record on this main hole, for when they re-emerge. And while it does, I'll check some of the other den entrances

1510 There's a group of fossil hunters walking up the slope, shovels in-hand. They’re young guys, and maybe the kind who'd come after scaly skins if they knew where to look. They see me here, so I try to cover by pretending to take pictures of the forest and river below. Hopefully they don't clue in to what it is I'm really up to. I'd hate to have put these endangered animals at any more risk

1519 In the minutes that passed trying to misdirect the fossil hunters' attention, at least one of the parents has re-emerged for the video camera

1521 Seeing me here again, it's giving a bit more agitated buzz. It doesn't want to go down in the hole again, but eventually decides to err on the side of caution and slithers off angry. One of its babies remains out still, well-concealed in the grass. Now I'll check the other dens

1534 Very surprising, I've walked around to look at four of the other entrances to this hibernaculum, and there's nobody basking at any of them. I wonder if they all made it back here this year, without sudden two-week freeze

1544 When I get back to the main den, I find that the other parent has now emerged. It too becomes upset when it sees me and retreats to the hole, slowly bringing its rattling tail down behind it. I've bothered this little family enough, I think. Usually they’re not so troubled by me being there, once we establish comfort zones. I've decided to pack up and head home. I've got a pond date to keep with the lady. If the warm weather holds a bit, I'll get down here again. If not, it may not be till end of winter that I learn more about what has become of the other couple dozen who live at this site

1700 Sspopiikimi - temperature seems to be dropping a bit, and naato'si is almost behind the coulee rim already. We're fairly bundled up though. Entering from the north, I count fifty-one mi'ksikatsi and a single aiksikksksisi spread out on this side of the pond. Although a few of the mallards are dipping for food, most seem just content to float for the moment, facing into the wind, and some are even sleeping on the water. I think one of the sleepers is a female wigeon

1727 Moving along, we see that at least seven of the fifty-one mi'ksikatsi are actually female wigeons. One of the larger groups of mallards flies off, circles, and lands again to the north, opposite of where we're heading. As we pass the ksisskstakioyis, we find the bulrush flotilla is still growing larger, now at least a quarter the size of their lodge. Here, amidst the buckbrush, we hear the repetitive little tweets of several tree sparrows

1732 When we reach the south end, there are just two pairs of sa'aiksi. One pair is mi'ksikatsi, and the other flies off before we can identify them. I hear cries of a killdeer briefly, coming from somewhere on the mudflats. And just a couple minutes after we sit down to watch, a great blue heron struts slowly out of the reeds near the opposite shore. It's eating something small today, taking rapid, shallow pecks at the water

1805 Piipiiaakii wants to circle over to the river, to see what's happening there, so we make our way around the south pool. Enroute I notice how the buckbrush down here is still green (albeit a fast-frozen hue) as compared to the deep red color of those higher up in the coulees. The hairy golden asters still have their fluffy seed heads. The leafy spurge is now shades of red and pink. Down in the forest, the ground is absolutely covered with brown-green cottonwood leaves that never got a chance to yellow. They're falling in mass and many of the trees are looking barren and skeletal

1814 From the river's edge, we can see no waterfowl or deer, or anything that grabs our attention, so we're soon turned around to head back the way we came. I've suggested we go to the ksisskstakioyis and wait for the family to begin their evening. As we walk back, the heron finally tires of our antics and takes flight, moving to some point upriver. We go to the beaver lodge

1825 We haven't sat long when a large muskrat comes out from the lodge, climbs over the log pile by the south door, and heads off for the subpond canal. I hope that this is a sign the ksisskstakiiksi will be out shortly too. But we sit and wait and all is quiet. Piipiiaakii starts to get cold. In her wheelchair, she's been sitting the whole time. I suggest she get up and take a short walk around just to get the juices flowing and warm herself. She does, using her chair as a walker. As she moves up and down the trail, I notice that the new sliver of iitao'tsstoyi is finally visible in the sky, having been covered by clouds the last few nights

1835 The first ksisskstaki has just come out. I think it might be Patches. I can see that it's one of the lighter colored ones, but it's a bit dark outside now for photography to confirm. She swims over by the gate surrounding the pipes that bring water to and from the neighboring golf course. Watching her, we suddenly see a second beaver by the gate. I don't know how we missed this one coming out of the lodge. It continues paddling south, while the one I think is Patches dives and re-surfaces going into the subpond canal

1843 Next to come out of the ksisskstakioyis is a very small muskrat, probably one of those born this year. It swims south, and from somewhere on the east coulee rim in that direction we see a small flock of sixteen aapsspini flying and honking. They circle once and come to land in the north end of the pond

1846 As the geese land, Piipiiaakii notices something in the water beside the bulrush flotilla. It's the beaver pup! It floats there a few minutes, then dives into the lodge. A minute later it's back out, floating again, and again it enters the lodge. Obviously it's not allowed to stray far

1855 Although things are just getting interesting, we decide to pack up and leave, to return early in the morning. Piipiiaakii is still cold, it's too dark for us to see, and we haven't brought the night vision. Moreover, we need to respond to this moon. We haven't done our ki'somainihkssin ceremony to sing-in this new winter cycle, and now that we've seen the first sliver we shouldn't wait any longer. We'll go home and take care of it right away

2220 Just finished ki'somainihkssin, starting our winter night stick count. I'd like to go to the kano'tsisis tomorrow, to put some of our beaver protection songs toward the offering being made to block H1N1 in kainaissksaahko. But I don't know if I can handle teaching all day after twenty-four hours no sleep

IIII ) llll Dawn At The Pond (23Oct09)

0748 Sspopiikimi at Dawn - We've finally made it out here before sunrise, this windy morning. The eastern horizon is pink and light's coming fast. We're sitting at the ksisskstakioyis - mallards, coots and wigeons on the north, a flock of Canada geese to the south, and three beavers have just come home from the subpond

0804 One of the ksisskstaki swam south to the subpond canal, another is busy with something on the lodge - it ripped some plastered mud and reeds off the north wall, then dove under the bulrush flotilla with it. There are a couple geese passing overhead, and a rapid call coming from one or two in the south. That photographer's here again, walking toward the geese. I suspect they'll pick up and leave when he gets too near

0815 A flock of ten geese fly in from the river. Two of them split off and join those in the south pool. The other eight wheel around and return toward the river. I can see one beaver hunched over, munching on something (probably bulrush) near the subpond canal. Those at the lodge have gone inside. It's light out now, but the sun hasn't broken over the horizon of the coulee rim

0822 The ksisskstaki who had been sitting by the subpond returned and entered the lodge by way of diving under the bulrush flotilla. This brings to mind interesting possibilities. It reminds me of the long wooden tunnels used on old-time war lodges, made such that an enemy can't get inside without crouching very low, maybe even on hands and knees. I wonder if the flotilla might have a similar protective function in winter, when coyote predators can walk right up to the lodge

0837 The geese didn't fly off as I'd predicted when the photographer disturbed them. Instead, they started swimming north toward the ksisskstakioyis and our position. I suspect the heavy winds might have had something to do with their chosen method of escape. I counted sixty-one of them on their way toward us before we had to pack-up to leave so I could make it to my morning meeting at the university

IIII ) llllll Food Cache (25Oct09)

1045 Akaiinissko - nitohkattsisamayaaksipookaki, but I probably needed the Zzzzs. The girls were still sleeping, so I figured this would be a good opportunity to come down here and begin my usual winter study of this stretch of the river

1057 On my way in, driving along the coulee rim, I noticed that the big shore lodge the ksisskstaki had built along the river last year seems to have a mound in front of it. From a distance, it reminds me of the bulrush flotilla the family is constructing at Sspopiikimi, though I'm sure it's something different, given that the bulrush stands along this stretch are slim. All the same, I decided immediately that investigating this mound for comparative purposes would be my main objective in the brief time I have to work with today

1127 From where I parked on the rim, I walk about half way down the slope, where I reach a wide shelf. There, I follow deer and coyote trails along the shelf downriver. I do this for two reasons. First, I've heard there's another hibernaculum on this side of the shelf, so I'm always hoping to come across it, though it's doubtful I will today given the cool temperature. My other purpose for coming this way is that I want to pass by the little area of badlands where I started finding fossil bones over the summer. Originally, I'd thought they were a small dinosaur, but a couple of experts have identified them as alligator and turtle. I figure if I keep passing over that area, eventually I might find a tooth

1119 Along the way to the badlands, I collect photographs of several plants in their early-winter appearance: fringed sage, big sage, sagewort, crested wheatgrass, a ball cactus with a fruit that has been nibbled on one side, nearly leafless skunkbrush sumac, ma's or breadroot, prickly pear cactus, broomweed...

1141 Eventually, I arrive at my destination. My boots are caked with mud, the ground’s still soggy from yesterday's rain. Already, I see fragments of fossilized bone all around me. I take off my backpack and intend to look around a few minutes before moving on

1153 I'm not the kind of guy to get greedy and take every little fossil I find. What's the benefit of such hoarding? Things end up stashed as trophies in little boxes - either in people's houses or in museums. It's a shame. I'd much rather see these fossils stay out here where they belong. I might take an interesting piece or two home to show the girls, and I can understand a paleontologist wanting to take something back to the lab for study. But I'm of the mind that if you do remove something from its place of context, you need to either be utilizing it for a beneficial purpose, or you need to return it to where you got it

1215 Today, although I find the best piece of turtle shell I've seen yet, I decide not to take a thing. I'm ready to move on toward the river and beaver lodge

1225 Like at Sspopiikimi, the a'siitsiksimm on the floodplain here have recently shed their leaves. This forest wants me to be its student. I feel like each tree is waiting to introduce itself. I'm looking forward to visiting more frequently, and regretting that I did not take the opportunity to do so this summer

1233 The awatoyi have spotted me walking through the forest. They run somehow silently amidst the grass and fallen leaves, weaving through the trees to distance themselves from me. As they wave goodbye with their tails, I follow their movement and see that there is also a small herd of mule deer here. Unlike the white-tails, they don't immediately scamper. Rather, they stand clustered together as a group, watching me for several minutes. Then two of the sizeable bucks (eight and six point, from what I can see) stay behind to keep tabs on me while the rest trot leisurely off into the bush

1300 I'm enthrawled by the two bucks, and hope I find them together again in the future, so I can travel with them for a day. As it stands, I follow for just a brief time, watching them nibble from low branches of cottonwood, and wondering what brings them together. I thought these large males were more aggressive toward each other this time of year

1313 Unfortunately, I can't linger. I need to get down to the beaver lodge to investigate their pile, before I'm expected back home for our afternoon to dusk pond visit. So I leave the deer behind and continue, exiting the forest and passing through the dense willow stands to arrive finally at the river. Just at the forest edge, I encountered some familiar faces from last winter. Two niipomakii, black-capped chickadees, passed by. They were moving from tree to tree, chattering about my presence and pretending to hunt for insects in the bark as they checked me out

1326 When I got to the river's edge, it was immediately apparent that what the ksisskstaki are doing here is the same as what those at the pond are engaged in - namely, making a food cache. I had thought the bulrush flotilla was something else, but at this bank lodge they've created a similar structure - a massive pile of willow stems right in front of the lodge entrance. This is obviously a winter food store. Now the question is, why did the beavers at Sspopiikimi opt to use bulrush for their cache when there's an abundance of rabbit willow available there?

1348 Departing the river just upstream of the ksisskstakioyis, I begin hiking up through the various echelons of the flood plain - through the sand and rock and licorice burrs by the shore, then rising past the first stand of trees I wade through an expanse of sweetclover (dried and yellow skeletal stems). Another wave of trees and the forest opens up to a meadow. Off to one side of this meadow I find a fallen poplar that is positioned perfectly for my intended construction of a survivalist-style lean-to for use as a base camp this winter

1412 Coming out of the forest, I cross the big sagebrush flat to the base of the coulee slope and begin my ascent, heading straight up toward the den of my slithering friends. I have my doubts as to whether they'll be out today. It's not warm. But it's sunny, and I'm sweating hot from the climb, and the closer I get to the hibernaculum, the higher my expectation rises

1422 But no. Walking into the hibernaculum, all the den openings are vacant. The inhabitants are underground beneath my feet, huddled and twined together to conserve and share heat. I probably won't see them again till the frogs emerge