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Friday, July 31, 2009

Lone coyote follows our hike

Yesterday in the late afternoon, the dogs and I ventured out into the rainy and cold forest for our usual short hike. Almost immediately, yipping and howling rose from the nearby forest. Fog shrouded the world so I couldn't see the coyote but he sounded close, very close. Fortunately, R was leashed, as he always is for the first 100 yards of our hikes, and K responded immediately when I told her to heel. We know that coyotes visit our clearing based on our wildlife camera (see below) but I've rarely heard one lurking so close to us for such a prolonged time in daylight, albeit very murky daylight.The canines went berserk - barking, growling, jumping, and lunging. And, funniest of all in retrospect, R reverted to his puppyish high pitched caterwauling, sounding as if he was singing harmony for the coyote.

When the coyote persisted, we turned back to get our serious leash-walking gear - good harnesses so the dogs wouldn't pull me and nice leashes (not pocket-sized thin one). We started our hike again, and the coyote launched into song. He seemed to follow us, enshrouded in the mist so I never spotted him. The dogs eventually calmed down enough to walk politely on leash but they stayed on high-alert every step of the hike.

I recorded the coyote near the start of the hike and pointed my camera in the direction where I thought that he was. A warning - if your dogs are nearby, you might want to use earphones to listen to this. Last night, by playing the video out loud, I sent our dogs into an hour-long tizzy searching for the coyote who they felt certain was hiding inside the house.

Then, when the coyote seemed so close that I was certain that we'd spot him soon, I recorded again. At the end of this clip, K delivered a warning bark to the stalking coyote. He briefly paused but then resumed his song.

We made it home fine but I have a very painful neck and headache from R's wild leaping and leash-jerking when we first heard the coyote.

This morning, we'd progressed from yesterday's winter weather to spring weather so K and I had breakfast on the deck. A coyote serenaded us again, sounding so close that I kept scanning the forest edge for him. This time, K reacted in a dignified way. She sat calmly to appreciate his music. I wonder why the lone coyote is singing so persistently.I cautiously rolled out for my ride with K, worried about a coyote luring her into a pack-organized trap. We stayed away from the meadows where we've encountered coyotes in the past, and, K behaved beautifully, staying in a heel when I requested it.

We climbed up to our favorite look-out where I could discern the cloud-cloaked mountains, unlike yesterday.We rolled through a forest, and K alerted me to a recently deceased weasel. At first glance, his size tricked me into assuming that he was a rodent. His body size and shape mimicked an oversized chipmunk with a long neck.
A slightly closer look showed that he was a fierce predator, not a rodent. In particular, his razor sharp canine teeth ruled out the notion that he was a rodent and made it clear that he belonged to the Order Carnivora, which includes the dog, cat, skunk, raccoon, weasel, and bear families. His teeth, coloring, size, and telescoping neck led me to believe that he was a Short-Tailed Weasel (a.k.a., "ermine"), one of the smallest carnivores. In the photo below, you can see a single canine tooth, likely the lower one.These weasels subsist mainly on mice, voles, shrews, chipmunks, pocket gophers, and bird nestlings. They're said to have fiery metabolisms, leading them to hunt and eat all night long. This weasel has his summer nut-brown and white coat with a black-tipped tail. This species transforms into a pure white color, to match the snow, for the winter. I wonder if yesterday's cold wet weather killed him or if the attached tick that I spotted on his shoulder somehow led to his demise.

After checking out the weasel, K and I rolled through a grassy opening in the forest and caught sight of the Divide again. It looked even more ominous, especially for the morning.
I left K at home so that she could eat and reach the awe-inspiring canine sleep quota. I headed east, downhill for the first half and uphill for the second half. I pedaled up a trail through oceans of Horsemint. Hummingbirds buzzed around the purple flowers and hovered to sip their nectar.During the climb, after glimpsing it on a few rides, I finally stopped to look closely at a plant with bizarrely shaped flowers clustered into spheres - Showy Milkvetch (Asclepias speciosa). On the 2 ft tall plant below, two racemes have blossomed while most of the buds remain closed on the third.The petals looked almost sharp, as if they'd pierce a visiting hummingbird. But, they contrasted starkly with the bluebird sky to the east.
As I finished the ride, I passed our view of the mountains yet again, and now I felt truly grateful that I'd scrapped my plans for a high altitude hike today.Close to home, using my 'soft vision' so that I'd see the slightest movement in the woods, I spotted a fawn hunkered down in the shoulder-high grass. She was large but cute spots still mottled her fur. I wished her good luck and rolled on before I alarmed her too much. Between the coyotes and the cats roaming nearby, it must be scary to be an innocent soul like a fawn trying to grow up in the woods.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Pedaling through the mist

As I woke up this morning, I thought that someone had beamed me to another part of the country - a wet, cold, and gray part. Living in Colorado has spoiled me. One rule of thumb is that it almost never rains all day. A thunder storm usually erupts in the afternoon, but it's brief and intense, and then the sun dries everything out. In fact, I've read that we have more than 300 "sunny" days each year. I'm not sure of the definition of a "sunny day".

Somehow, K and I persevered, and we headed out into the 40 degree air with rain splattering out of the sky. K didn't mind in the least, and I tried to emulate her happy attitude. I lived up to her standard until the rain had leached into my bones and my extremities glowed white with cold.

Almost as a joke, we rode up to our favorite look-out point. Since we were actually in a cloud, I couldn't see anything beyond a small circle surrounding us. I asked K to sit next to my bike for a photo, and she was afraid of it, continuing her odd thyroid-addled behavior of yesterday. I think it was the pogies that spooked her. They're the big black insulated and waterproof mittens mounted on my handlebars. Astonishingly, not only did I use pogies today, but I also used chemical hand and toe warmers. And, it's JULY.
We rolled along a forest path with great caution. Off-camber wet roots and logs mimic black ice when a bike tire touches them. As we headed back toward home so that I could drop off K, we found part of a rib cage of an animal that certainly died within the last 24 hours. The remaining muscle glistened with bright red blood. Because I didn't have the whole rib cage, I'm not sure what animal it was. A fawn? A bear cub?
All the time, I kept an eye on K's body language to see if she sensed a predator nearby. Watching my dog for scent information became second-nature when I trained my dog, Acadia (see her photo in the sidebar), to be an air-scenting search and rescue dog. Here Acadia lies on the Pacific Crest, a happy dog on top of the world.And, here Acadia and I backpacked before my spine became too fragile to carry a big pack. We're on an expansive snowfield, covering one side of a steep cirque that sloped down into a frigid snow-fed lake. Don't worry - I wore crampons and carried an ice axe (and even knew how to use it for self-arrest if we slipped).Through search and rescue training with Acadia, I learned that a dog can discern a scent, like a human, from an inconceivable distance and can follow the 'scent cone' to its pinpoint source. Using this laser-sharp sense of smell, a dog knows more about what animals, human and others, currently reside in an area or have recently traveled through it we can even imagine. The only way for a human to get any clue about what a dog smells in the wind is to 'read' a dog's body language. To make a long story short, K looked alert but not concerned as she lay next to the ribcage. I always look to K for my cue about whether to be concerned in situations where predators may lurk nearby.

About 20 minutes later, I passed the same spot as I headed out on my solo ride (imagine the Jaws soundtrack now), and the ribcage had vanished. I saw tracks next to its former location but couldn't see enough detail to identify them. The vanishing act gave me chills. The specter of an animal secretly spying on K and me while we investigated the rib cage swirled through my mind. Like I wrote the other day, the "lions and tigers and bears" are starting to spook me because the evidence of predatory activity is skyrocketing.

As I rolled through the rain on my solo ride trying not to look over my shoulder too often, Harebells drooped under the weight of the droplets on their petals. These bell-shaped flowers served as forerunners for the current purple wildflower wave that includes Horsemint, Mariposa Lilies, Colorado Loco, and Asters.
Harebell petals look so papery thin that it's amazing to imagine them enduring a summer hail storm. Yet, they do, again and again and again. Shortly after I marveled at the Harebells, I saw a friend out trailrunning, accompanied by only one dog rather than her customary two. Tragic news - a few days ago, her golden retriever died suddenly of hemangiosarcoma. At precisely that moment, the light rain turned into a bona fide downpour, noisily rattling my brains as it pounded on my helmet. I felt like the heavens wept for all the sweet dogs who have died recently, leaving behind heart-broken families. Later in the day, I saw a rainbow (top photo). Oh how I hope that there's truth in the Rainbow Bridge poem.

It felt like the remainder of my ride was a death march. I was sad, soaked, and chilled. With every pedal stroke, my feet squished in the water pooling inside my shoes. But, I just kept pedaling, inexorably rolling closer to home. Some days, that's all that I can do. I made it home, took a hot shower, and sat next to our fire. I'm lucky that I have a warm place to live.

As I completed my 'death-march' part of the ride, I still had my head up scanning for animals and other interesting forest inhabitants. I never know what magical scene I might find in the forest - a gallivanting bear cub, a stalking lion, a strutting bobcat, a neon mushroom, or a bright flower. Even in dismal conditions like today's, I'd rather visit the forest than stay home and dry.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A manic dog and ride

During our bike ride early this morning, K zoomed around frenetically and her mood bordered on manic. No doubt, wild animals triggered it. She began drooling, whining, and charging ferociously into the forest when we passed downwind of a berry-rich glade where the bear family roams. Drooling is a general sign of anxiety in dogs but K reserves it for bears.

However, today, after I called K back to me, she couldn't find the self control to remain by my side - which seemed so odd that it caught my attention. Her body language seemed herky-jerky as if she had pure adrenaline coursing through her veins. She finally calmed down enough to stand still when we climbed to the rooftop of our trail system. K looked into my eyes imploringly.When we emerged above the trees, the sun's rays had just touched our little peak and the forest to its west. A magical hue tinted the pine trees and stormy sky. For our little slice of the Earth, it was not a normal summer morning. The day dawned cloudy, cold, and damp. A curtain of clouds shuttered the mountains. The view below usually highlights the Continental Divide.
After our short break, K and I bounced down the hillside to a forested trail, and she ran next to me with a smoother gait than earlier. But, she still had a jagged edge to her energy like she'd imbibed an entire bowl of espresso this morning. Even when she sat still, she fidgeted as if she had ants crawling all over her.

After I dropped her off at home, I wanted to do a high intensity ride. However, my body refused - my heart rate seemed to have a glass ceiling. So, I changed my plans, moved more slowly, and immersed myself in the wild and precious forest.

In a dense pine forest glade, I passed tiny pink flowers that glowed like fireflies in the night. This spot was where K and I stopped to remember Rover the other morning. Based on the photos that I took that day, I wasn't able to identify the flowers but today I took another careful look.No doubt, they resembled the Pink Wintergreen flowers that I'd seen in a similar spot a few weeks ago. So, I researched the Wintergreen family, and I found my answer! They're Prince's Pine (Chimaphila umbellata occidentalis). "Umbellata" is Greek for "umbrella", which makes sense if you look at the shape of the flowers. These flowers look exquisitely delicate, especially when they're the only wildflowers adorning a dark forest floor. They inhabit forests across much of the US but most subspecies have white flowers rather than pink ones.

I passed another intriguing sight, Spotted Coralroot plants growing directly out of a rotting log. I highlighted this orchid species back when it bloomed, and now the flowers have become seed pods. These alien-looking plants have no green parts and no leaves. Both were lost through evolution, and these plants survive on energy produced by fungi digesting dead wood and other forest debris.
As I headed toward home, I glimpsed the mountains for a brief, almost surreal moment. Then, the curtains slowly closed and the show ended.
Later in the day, K's 'ants-in-her-pants' behavior continued when I took her to our 'drop-in' advanced dog training class. We haven't attended in about a month, due to vacation and K's leptospirosis, although we've been regulars since K was 6 months old. During class, K's weird, almost clashing, combination of manic and shy behavior devoured my attention. It might have even been comical if I hadn't been worrying about why K was so agitated. For example, during a 'wait' exercise, K repeatedly cruised next to me and then halted in her tracks when I uttered the 'wait' cue, looking like a well-trained dog. Then, out of the blue, she took a wild leap at someone - not an aggressive leap but an excited and out-of-control puppy lunge. On another occasion, she dropped to the ground to wriggle on her back in the midst of perfect heeling. In the photo below, K is heeling on my right while making eye contact. Her face exudes tension. While I tried to patiently cope with K's wild behavior vacillations, our trainer, Gigi Moss, reminded me that K's frenetic behavior undoubtedly reflected how she felt. This way of thinking is what I love about positive training and about Gigi, in particular. Training isn't about 'forcing' your dog to do something. Rather, it's about understanding your dog's motivation and state-of-mind to decipher and shape her behavior.

As I thought from Gigi's viewpoint, I became convinced that K's thyroid levels had dropped below a critical threshold, yet again. I suddenly recalled seemingly insignificant recent episodes like when she tip-toed to avoid the scary cracks between the boards in the deck, when she shied away from a set of steps in the dark, and when she softly growled at R for his crazy antics designed to tempt her to play. Then, I realized that she's been shedding fur at a surprising rate - at a very odd time of year for shedding. All of these things have characterized her past 'low thyroid' phases.

Ironically, when I arrived back at the car after class, I received a message that her routine blood draw from last week showed low T3 and T4, both of which are key thyroid hormone components. So, the good news is that pieces of the puzzle are sliding together perfectly. Now, we have to fine-tune her medications so that she can feel relaxed and calm again. That's often a challenge.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Lions and tigers and bears

All of our hikes and bike rides near our house are taking on a hint of peril. Our neighbors have repeatedly seen the mother bear with young cubs, and the sow has chased off other people's dogs. On almost every evening hike, the dogs give their 'bear signals'. So, we do recall after recall, practicing for that inevitable day when we meet a bear snout-to-snout.

K sprinted to me on a recall through the Horsemint bedecked meadow after 'telling' me that a bear roamed nearby with body language.And, R did his trademark insanely intense recall.The good news is that no one has seen the bear family exploring near homes. Rather, the black giants of our forest seem focused on berries. While the bushes sang with flowers a month ago, they're all laden with berries now. Ruby red Buffalo berries are tiny but so numerous that the shrub branches stoop under their weight. These bushes flourish in the midst of pine forests, unlike many other berry bushes. When I found bear scat a little while ago, I mentioned that it contained 'seeds'. Since then, I've dissected a Buffalo berry, and without a doubt, its seeds were prominant in the scat.
The other peril is more mountain lion signs. A trail-running neighbor's dog pack of seven found a second deer carcass cached in close proximity to a trail. I'm forming the opinion that we have a female mountain lion hunting nearby. A female patrols a territory about half the size of a male's territory because, as far as I can tell from my research, females spend their entire lives either pregnant or with cubs. Thus burdened, they can't afford to expend the energy to roam far and wide searching for prey. Instead, they focus on a prey-rich small area - which describes our neck of the woods perfectly. Surrounded by prey, they kill deer up to twice as often as a solitary male. When a series of carcasses appear rapid-fire in a smallish area, it's usually a sign of a female lion hunting in the area.

Today, during our mountain bike ride, K went on high alert near the latest carcass (which I wasn't yet aware of - a neighbor later alerted me to it). K sprinted off while snarling.But, she turned as soon as I called her, and I had her remain in a heel next to my bike until she looked relaxed. I can't tell you how often I thank my lucky stars that my dogs have strong recalls!
After I dropped off K, I took a mellow and relaxed ride, enjoying the new wave of wildflowers. A sea of purple met me in some meadows dominated by horsemint and mariposa lilies. Horsemint (Agastache urticifolia) smells strongly like mint, and its zany shape reminds me of Albert Einstein's hair. A flower consists of a bevy of flowers projecting out from the head, crazily sticking straight up in the air.With Horsemint next to Mariposa Lilies, the purples overwhelm the senses.
Time to head out into the wild woods again for our evening short hike. I love living in the woods with my dogs but sometimes I wish that we could simply walk without constantly scanning for animals!

Monday, July 27, 2009

This I believe - a remembrance

Today I awakened with a heavy heart, remembering that 18 years ago, we lost one of our first dogs to violence. His name was Rover, and he was a spirited, strong, and loving two year old Labrador.We adopted him with his almost identical littermate, Astro. Once, I switched their collars - Rover always wore red and Astro always wore blue. My husband didn't notice right away and was flummoxed when neither dog responded to his name! One surefire way to tell them apart was to close your eyes and stroke their ears. Rover's ears were the silkiest soft ears that I've ever touched.We met these dogs, who lived in a very humane research lab, when they were puppies. Soon, we were sneaking them out of the lab for adventures and even sneaking them home to spend the night with us - without asking our landlords. One Saturday morning, we woke up to find the landlords doing yardwork outside our door. It appeared that they planned to work all day, and we had two 70 lb illicit Labs in the house who needed potty breaks. My husband pulled out two HUGE duffel bags. First, he used treats to get Astro into one, and he confidently walked to the car with the bag. Rover was next. Neither of them wriggled or made a peep. We drove away giggling wildly and let the dogs out for hugs and pats. What an escapade!

That night, we asked the landlords if we could have the dogs at our house, and they happily gave us permission. I don't know why we didn't just ask to start with!

Soon thereafter, the non-invasive experiments on the dog duo ended, and we adopted them. They launched us into our love affair with dogs.

Back then, we lived in New England, and we had adventures with the dogs in the woods and the White Mountains almost every weekend. Rover loved swimming in cold lakes.Here, the two dogs had just swum, undoubtedly with Astro barking in frustration because Rover was a speedier runner and swimmer. Rover is lying down.
Today, K and I mountain biked as usual. I kept K close by, like I always do, but with even more fervor. We found a silent and beautiful spot in the pine forest where a grove of tiny gems bloomed. We sat together, and I remembered Rover. His brother Astro lived to be almost 16 years old. I'm still sad that Rover and the rest of us lost so many years together. I'm also sad that the violence and death of that day 18 years ago changed me forever.About a year ago, I wrote a "This I Believe" in the style of the NPR essays. Mine focused on Rover and his legacy.

This I Believe

I believe in seizing the moment to do things that I love. I’ve developed this belief through both bad and good experiences. The most life-changing experience happened in my early 20s. My husband and I had the good fortune of having a pair of Labrador littermates unexpectedly land in our life. Prior to their unexpected arrival, we would not have chosen to make a commitment to two young dogs because we wanted to keep our freedom. However, it was one of the best things that ever happened to us. We learned daily about the exuberance of young dogs and the loyal love that they naturally give their humans. We learned how they joyfully embrace each day and find happiness in the smallest things like carrying a stick while sprinting around in circles.

One Saturday morning about a year after we adopted our Labs, we overslept, and our pups awoke us by marching around the bedroom carrying our hiking shoes to subtly tell us what they wanted to do that day. On the way to the trailhead for our hike, my husband and I talked about how old we would be when our dogs became elderly. We happily counted the many years and fun experiences that we thought that we would share with them.

Our youthful naiveté was shattered during that hike when a crazy drunk man murdered one of our dogs and then threatened me with his gun. Although I’ve endured many losses since that time, that particular event profoundly changed my view of life. First, I learned that I have more courage than I ever dreamed – when my dog lay dying and the crazy man waved his gun at me and told me to leave my dog’s side, I refused to abandon my dog to die alone. I still draw strength from knowing that I have that kind of courage. Then, over the months and years following that event, I struggled with my loss of trust in humankind. Sadly, I never totally regained that trust.

Finally, after years of grieving and learning about the fragility of my own health, I distilled the lesson that I should seize each day as if it were my last with my human and canine family. Life is fleeting, precious, and unpredictable. Indeed, exuberantly seizing every day is exactly what my dogs naturally do - and in that aspect of life, they are my best teachers.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Enchanted kingdom

Yesterday, the weather forecast showed little chance of lightning storms so K and I swooped in for an alpine hike. My impaired spine hates hiking so I have a whole routine for pain reduction. First, I went for a short bike ride to loosen up my back - and it felt great. Then, I wore super cushioned running shoes rather than hiking boots. I carried only water, a granola bar, a lightweight rain jacket, Spot Messenger, and my camera. Finally, I hiked rapidly, since fast walking seems much better than slow trudging for my back.

Yesterday, despite the whole routine, my back screamed from the first step and sent streaks of pain down my leg. Something, inflammation, a bone spur, or a disc, definitely impinged on the S1 nerves (the nerves leaving the spinal cord just above the pelvis). Often, I get better as I get into the groove of hiking so I persevered. Unfortunately, the pain was my companion for the whole hike.

I make a point of not letting the pain stop me from doing the things that I love, like visiting high mountain vistas. Yesterday's hike paralleled a rushing creek still swollen with snowmelt. Over eons, the rushing cold water has worn a groove through a subalpine forest. The sweet aroma of pine sap permeated the air as we climbed upward with each step. Flowers that love moist pine glades lined the trail.

An understated plant, with cones of diminutive whitish flowers, popped up from every lush spot. I took a close-up photo, and when I looked it up at home, I discovered that it's Death Camas, a poisonous plant. It contains zygadenine, an alkaloid that's more deadly than strychnine. And, K had been nibbling at lush greenery all day long. Whew, a close call, and I didn't even know it.A gorgeous shrub with bright red flowers grew near a side stream - Bog Honeysuckle, I think. We soon spotted blue sky, rather than towering trees, above us on the trail and emerged onto a plateau spotted with snowbanks and lakes. A wild party of water-loving subalpine flowers met us. Jacob's Ladder, a tiny but beautiful flower, covered shady spots.
Out in the full sun, just below a melting snowbank, Parry Primrose brightly decorated a meadow.
Just above the melting snowbank, we found the first of a trio of lakes that covered the plateau. K 'bagged' all of them. Her water-loving genes shined through!
I wanted to climb above this plateau, inhabited by several camping groups and fishermen. Within the past few years, this area was designated 'Wilderness', causing a plethora of changes, most of which make the area less 'wild' than it was before. That's why I love getting away from the areas with trails and wandering cross-country to lakes or other spots that I spy on the map. Then, I feel like I'm in the wilderness.

We wound around the lakes and climbed next to a small stream falling from an enchanted kingdom, a lake-containing cirque, hidden in the sky. The wildflower party reached a new decibel level.In the midst of the columbines littered everywhere, scarlet paintbrush flowers adorned the hillside, particularly flourishing next to streams.
Every step took us higher, and soon we looked down upon the lakes that K had just bagged.
We climbed through a boulder field where a colony of at least six marmots lived. One, the 'town crier' perched on top of a boulder a whistled warnings to his brethren. They gracefully bounded, long tails trailing behind them, from one boulder to the next. Finally, they disappeared into their subterranean den. Even then, the town crier held his post, whistling shrilly, until K and I had disappeared.Finally, we after negotiating boulders the size of small cars, we glimpsed the aqua blue lake deep within a glacial cirque of sawtoothed ridges. A cirque is a rock-walled ampitheater, once excavated by the top of a glacier that likely flowed down to the plateau below us. Despite the beautiful gem pulling us toward it, the sight of more boulders dismayed me. We continued boulder-hopping. To my amazement, a columbine plant, didn't just eke out an existence in between boulders, but sang with joy!
We finally arrived at lake level, to find no other people nearby. K swam and then lay in the sun. I think that combination is her favorite on Earth. Alas, soon we headed back down toward the plateau, following a different creek route than on the way up. Amazing wildflowers adorned our view of the opposite wall of the valley.We arrived back at the plateau, pausing for a moment to reflect on our adventure up in the uninhabited enchanted kingdom. How I love wandering in the awe-inspiring wilderness, unencumbered, with my best furry friend.