01 January 2010

Beaver Breath

IIII ) lllllllll Water Hole (27Dec09)

Naato'si has just risen, the skies are clear and the mountains glowing in the dawn light. I'm on my way down the coulee slope. Some lucky coyote, or eagle, or magpie family gets to eat beef liver today

Intermingled with the tracks of deer, coyote, rabbit, pheasant, partridge and magpie, all the way down the slope were the marks of Christmas - fresh cut ski and sled trails. Down on the sagebrush flat, three mule deer were resting. They stood and hopped to the edge of the forest when they saw me

My first stop was at the chokecherry stands on the flat. The birds had visited my sling trap. All the granola and raisins I'd left were gone and the sling had been sprung, but there was no evidence that it caught anything. Perhaps they had bumped the trigger stick, or simply pulled on the line with their beaks, rather than stepping into the leg noose. The rabbit snare I'd set-up next to the sling on my last visit had not moved

At the first cutbank dropping into the forest, I again spotted a large porcupine, asleep on a barren cottonwood branch high in the canopy. If it is the same animal from a few days ago, its moved a ways downstream from its previous position. Today there is no sign of the smaller kai'skaahp, at least within my line of sight, though that says nothing of the view from the adult porcupine's position

Moving back along the cutbank to the tree where I'd formerly observed the larger kai'skaahp, and looking into the forest from there, I still couldn't see the smaller animal. But when I decided to cut through to the river, I soon came upon it. Like its relative, the small kai'skaahp is sleeping high up in a cottonwood branch this morning. Nearby, I hear the peeps and "here-sweeties" of the niipomakiiksi

Rather than heading straight into the willows this morning, I wanted to get my liver offering placed out on the river, along with a video camera to record whoever accepts it. So I continued through the forest and down to the ksisskstakioyis. There, I stopped to photograph some of the wonderful, feathery, shimmering ice crystals formed at the beavers' ventilation hole

I placed the liver on the ice near the ksisskstakioyis, which I thought would make for a nice background in the video. Then, after setting up my camera, I followed the mouse highway out into the sweetclover, heading toward the flotsam where some of my rabbit snares are placed. As I walk, I drop a handful opf granola at each entrance to the subnivian zone that I can see the mice have been using. A lone aapsspini is passing overhead, moving upriver, crying. It sounds like it's in distress. It's not the usual goose honk. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that something happened to its partner

There was nothing at the flotsam besides tracks of all the rabbits I haven't managed to snare, so from there I began walking through the forest, moving downriver to the willow thickets. I thought by now I would have heard the calls of the magpies over at the liver, but perhaps they haven't found it yet

Arriving at the rabbit willow, I was happy to find that one of my snares had caught some action. What was probably a mountain cottontail passed through and got hung-up. Unfortunately, it must not have caught its neck, or if it did the rabbit managed to pull free. But in any case, the snare-loop was pulled tight. There was no blood, or hair, or anything of the sort to make me think that the animal had been injured, or that my catch had been stolen by another predator. All evidence suggested it had merely pulled free

It was nothing for me to walk over the next burm to the river after resetting my trap. Along the way, I passed a magnificent snow angel that looked like it might have been produced by a landing grouse. It was a perfect circle, with sunrays where the wingtips had touched, and a tail flare behind. I took photos, then walked back to the ksisskstakioyis to check on the liver. To my surprise, none of the animals had found it yet. Ah well, I picked up my video recorder and began hiking upriver

Just upriver from the beaver lodge, walking on the ice, I found a little spot of open water against a cutbank where the ksisskstaki keep a slide. Though there's no evidence of their coming and going, I wonder if they've managed to keep this spot open. The tracks leading to it show that they coyotes have certainly appreciated it. I wish the water was clean enough that I too could drink from it

Coming around a bend in the river, I learned why perhaps my liver offering had not been swooped-up as immediately as they've often been in the past. There, at the open-water crag upstream, were the telltale signs of a good feeding in the snow. I suspected it would be a goose kill. But when I got up to the site, littered with coyote and magpie tracks, I found hair. My next guess was that it had belonged to a skunk, because the first couple tufts I saw were black and white. But picking up a bit of white hair in my hand to smell it, I suddenly recognized who it belonged to. This was the hollow hair of a mule deer. As I looked around further, I saw clumps of its grey and brown hair as well. The coyotes had actually taken down a deer. Amazing. All that was left of it was a bit of hair and its undigested stomach contents. There was very little blood and no bones. The coyote and magpie had made use of everything

One last stop at the hawthorn brambles before beginning my ascent. One of my snares there has been pushed aside and needs to be reset. The others are just as I've left them. It's warm now. So much so that I've removed my hat and only wish I could shed the coat. Looking forward to getting to the truck, where I know half a bottle of water awaits

IIII ) llllllllll Beaver Breath (28Dec09)

Sspopiikimi - Dawn with Mahoney at our frozen pond

Aapsspiniiksi, one small flock after another, pass by overhead, moving upstream, as we walk south along the pond's edge. I count them in groups of ten, eight, fifteen, twelve, eight, seven and two. My guess is that they all spent the night together in one of their large congregations at some openwater downriver

As we walk down the peninsula and across the icy pond, several more goose flocks pass. They are all headed in the same direction, and I suspect their groups are comprised of families. I put my customary beef liver down on the ice and situate our video-camera to record a magpie feeding event, but I'm not sure we'll be here long enough to witness it. After placing the liver down, I go to the southeast corner of the pond to take a few photos of the open water and its frosty ice crystals amidst the cattails and bulrush hummocks. By the time I get back to where Mahoney's sitting, her toes are already getting too cold. Mine are not too warm either

We walked the ice over to the ksisskstakioyis, so I could take pictures of the feathery, frost crystals around the beavers' air vent for a new photo album I'm compiling. Then Mahoney went back to the truck to warm up and rest her legs, while I continued to wait for the magpies. Even still the geese were passing overhead

I figured I'd go into the forest to give the magpies a chance to feel comfortable coming down to the liver. I know they've already spotted it. But before entering the forest, I returned to the ksisskstakioyis to inspect their food cache. Contrary to our earlier perceptions that it was all bulrush, looking more closely I found the beavers had also collected quite a bit of bullberry, prickly rose, and cattail

After registering this new info about the beaver cache, I thought I'd best check the midpond muskrat lodge as well, the new one they'd built at the end of summer. I found it to have been constructed of bulrush, cattail, and lots of aquatic roots (probably from milfoil). There were some rodent tracks leading from the wet meadows to and from the muskrat lodge, though they seemed too small a pace to belong to the latter. However, following these tracks I was led to two more small muskrat lodges at the edge of the wet meadows that I hadn't even been aware of

Further north along the meadows, on my way to check the old beaver shore-lodge, I came across more of the rodent tracks, which led me to yet two other muskrat lodges we hadn't seen before. So perhaps these were muskrat tracks after all. The north shore lodge, however, had no such tracks around it. Instead, it had the signs of coyoe and magpie who, from the looks of the feathers scattered around, had recently feasted on pheasants

It was then I noticed there was a man walking along the west shore of the pond, heading toward the place that I had left both the liver and my video camera. I could not risk the gamble on human decency, I needed to make it back to the site before this other person arrived there. So I cinched my backpack, headed up through the wet meadows, then south within the poplar forest. My movement stirred up some white-tail deer, two bucks and two does who, upon rising, found themselves boxed-in between myself on one flank and the new visitor on the other. I stayed still and took some photos, giving them the opportunity to escape in my direction

At the south end, I learned that the magpies still hadn't taken to the liver. Probably my close placement of the video camera gave them cause to worry. With Mahoney back at the truck waiting, I figured it was time to collect my gear and head home

IIII ) lllllllllll Northern Flicker (29Dec09)

0930 The coyotes are already up on the stubble-fields above the coulee rim when I drive out, two of them scouring for voles. No geese on these fields today, nor have there been any since the slow melt-off began, a week or so ago. They must have literally located greener pastures

1015 I hike straight down the slope with no incident, stopping only to check my snares in the chokecherry brush, nothing. I then proceed to the edge of the forest, which I can follow downstream to the sandbar willow thickets

1030 As I walked along the forest edge, a red-shafted northern flicker swooped in and landed high up in a poplar. It gave a single call, then sat there perched. I thought it might be a good occasion to sit down myself, have a smoke, and watch it. The bird didn't stay long. Before I'd finished my cigarette, it swooped over to a different tree, and then a few minutes later flew off toward the river. I heard it give a staccato call from somewhere out in that direction. This is the first flicker I’ve seen in this stretch of the coulee this winter. Last year there were several here

1124 I took my time in the willows. There, it was evident that I'm coming ever closer to successfully capturing a mountain cottontail. One of my four snares had been pulled tight, and a tuft of grey fur left behind told me this rabbit was very lucky indeed. Either that or the coyotes beat me to my kill. I set up another two snares along the runs, and hopefully they will prove ample on my next return

1145 The river ice allows me to cover some distance pretty quick, and in no time I’m at the flotsam pile upstream. Though there’ve been rabbits around, none have run through the few snares I have placed there

1213 Between the flotsam and the place where I begin my ascent, I pass through a clearing in the forest that is dense with buckbrush. Here I find a few mule deer bedded down. They stand while I walk by. At the base of the coulee slopes, I find that my snares in the hawthorn brambles have been no more successful than any of my others. I must be doing something wrong, though I can’t quite figure out what it might be, unless the snares need to be better camouflaged

1303 It takes nearly an hour to ascend the slope. Along the way, my presence provokes a flock of grey partridge to fly to a different area of the coulee. I can’t get an accurate count of them, but I know that there were more than a dozen

IIII ) llllllllllll Hutterite Shopping (30Dec09)

0827 Up, Up, and Awake... from another dream-heavy sleep. Today we go grocery shopping at the Hutterites

1010 Rethinking this "drive out to the Hutterites" idea. Too much snow falling, it can wait a couple days. Maybe it's time to go look for a new bison connection in town

1153 Snow let up, so now we're on the 509, headed to the headquarters of beards and polka dots

1233 Damn, the "boss" of Standoff Colony's in Lethbridge today, so all we got from them was eggs ($5.00 for 30 eggs). We have to talk to the boss if we want to buy turkey, chicken, goose, etc. Anyway... off to the Cardston Colony in search of cheese

1537 Couldn’t find the Cardston Colony, even with directions from residents. But did pick up a sack of organic wheat (produced in Vulcan) and grain mill at the In Case Of: Solutions For Self Reliance store, plus three Saskatoon berry pies from a Hutterite family who happened to be in town. The family told us that their colony probably would not sell us cheese anyway, so perhaps it wasn’t a big loss that we couldn’t find them. Driving back to Lethbridge via Magrath, we hit the jackpot at Spring Valley Colony - corn, peas, potatoes, onions, cabbage, tomatoes - about 50 pounds of veggies for $60. They've got a year-round greenhouse

1640 Back in Lethbridge, we found the Old Country Sausage Store, which sells only locally produced meats and cheese, including bison and cured meats that have no nitrogen or other weird preservatives

1703 Project Niitaowahsin, Day 33 - Bought a wicked lot of good, local Oldman Watershed food today for only about half the cost of what we normally spend on first-of-the-month groceries. Includes Hutterite eggs, veggies and saskatoon pies, as well as wheat from Vulcan, our own flour grinder, bison roasts and sausages, and three different locally-made cheeses. Will post a pic of our haul tonight

IIII ) lllllllllllll Ode To Kai’skaahp (31Dec09)

0856 Getting a late-start on my coulee rounds this morning

0947 Had a typically uneventful hike and butt-sled down the hard drifted slopes, straight to the sagebrush flats and the chokecherry cluster where my first snare is set. Thanks to the new snow of yesterday, I could tell that nothing had been in the chokecherries recently. In fact, most of the aapi'si and omahkaaatsisttaa tracks this morning were observed high-up near the coulee rim

1005 I then dropped down below the first cutbank of the floodplain, in the tree-line. Four white-tail deer sprang out from their beds beside the thick diamond willows as I entered the forest, blowing as they ran toward the river. I began walking downstream beneath the cottonwoods and poplars along the edge of the cutbank, surprised to see no sign of rabbits or porcupine along their usual trails there. Where the tree-line met the coulee cliffs, the sounds of chickadees drew my attention to a thick bramble on a cottonwood snag where I could see a great horned owl roosting. Moving closer, I found that there was not one, but two owls in the tree. This reminded me that their nesting cycle would be starting again before long. I'll have to return to check this roost on future visits

1037 The snow started coming down heavy as I moved into the dense stands of sandbar willow. By the looks of it, all of the sikaaatsisttaiksi that have been moving through here the last couple days went cleanly around my snares. One even nibbled clean through the twine tethering a snare to a thick willow. The chickadees followed me into this brush. And above, on one of the coulee cliffs, I can see a small herd of eight mule deer starting to graze their way down the slope. I'm tempted to wait here for them, in case they come down

1130 The deer spotted me in the willows, so I walked away from there until I was beyond their line of sight. About five minutes later, I took a peek and saw that they were indeed headed down the slope into a narrow draw. Cutting through the forest, I quickly made my way about a third of the way up the coulee cliff, figuring that the deer would come down the draw and then walk along the trails below me. I hid behind a boulder and waited. After about twenty or thirty minutes, when no deer were showing up, I thought I’d sneak over to the entrance of the draw and see what they were doing. Just then I heard something above me and looked up to find a doe staring down at me. The deer had not followed the draw. They’d merely gone down the one side and up the next, and were now passing above me. The distance between us was such that I’d likely just lose any arrows I attempted to send their way, so instead I packed up and hiked away

1210 I followed another cutback back upstream, the one that defines the border between the sandbar willow thickets and the lower forest. This led me eventually to the flotsam piles where I’ve been keeping some other snares. Surprisingly, there were no fresh rabbit tracks there at all. But then, it has been snowing pretty consistently the last couple days. Chances are the mountain cottontails are all hunkered down in their scrapes to avoid the storm

1223 There’s still a lot of seeds on the dry sweetclover plants. I took a ziplock out of my pack and began collecting handfuls to try-out in our new flour mill. While gathering, I’m careful to strip only the seeds that are black in color. I remember reading somewhere that sweetclover plants often get a mold on them late in the season, and that this fungus is not good to consume

1315 I picked sweetclover seeds along my path until about halfway up through the forest, where the dominant non-grassy ground vegetation changes to buckbrush. Then I made haste toward the hawthorn brambles low on the coulee slope that would be my last stop before heading back up to the truck. Just as I was checking my snares in the hawthorn, all empty and with no sign of activity, I noticed that a porcupine had suddenly appeared in the buckbrush below, in the same area I’d just passed through minutes earlier. Since I’ve confirmed that there are several kai’skaahp living in this section of the coulee, I decided that this one would become our food. It stood almost as if waiting while I descended the slope again and walked up to it. When I got very close, I could see that it was shivering. The arrow I shot at close range went straight through it, disappearing into the snow. Once mortally injured, the porcupine attempted to crawl into an old badger hole, and it probably could have made it, but perhaps the pain made it back out again. Still at the entrance of the badger hole, I grabbed one of its front legs and slit its throat. There were only a few more attempted breaths, and the animal died. I gutted it on the spot and left the innards for the magpies and coyotes, then began the hike back to the top

1400 Home from the coulee and processing the porcupine in the basement. Now I can see that this animal is a bit younger than the last one we ate, and more fatty as well. All the same, it has enough meat on it for a few dinners at our table