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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Happy wanderings

As I woke up from my surgery, my first thought was that I seemed to be alive. Then, with almost demented urgency, I checked whether I could move my legs and arms. After joyfully discovering that I could move, I kept kicking my legs under the covers, needing to double and triple check, that I had control over them. The nurse finally asked, "Why are you moving your legs all the time?. My answer, "Because I can...".

Today, K and I joyfully walked through the forest. Why? Because we can. What a gift.

During one of the brief stretches when we followed a trail rather than tromping through untraveled forests today, I met a neighbor who saw my neck brace and asked, "How are you?", with a word emphasis that showed that she wanted to know the truth. I thought for a second, and said, "I'm happy." That summed it up. I'm enjoying my quiet recovery time, mostly spent tromping through the woods. And, I love feeling my body getting stronger.

Most of all, my thankfulness for the gift of being able to walk through the woods, with a dog or two by my side, has grown a thousand-fold. I'm lucky and I know it.
We started our morning hike by following coyote tracks up our driveway. That's not unusual - these wild canines visit almost every night. I retrieved the memory card from a wildlife camera near our gate, and it revealed a drama from last night. A rabbit moved slowly past the camera early in the evening.
Then, in the wee hours of the morning, a coyote sniffed almost the same spot.
Then, one minute later, the tail end of the rabbit hightailed out the gate like something was pursuing it. His hind legs catapaulted almost a foot off the ground in the far left of the photo. When I looked around the area this morning for tracks, with no knowledge of these photos, I saw no signs of carnage. Perhaps the rabbit escaped.
A close-up of the fleeing rabbit.
After tracking on the driveway, K and I immediately eschewed the trails, tromping and panting our way directly up a snowy hillside. We saw turkey tracks on the hillside, a novelty in our small neck of the woods. We also saw fresh ermine (weasel) and rabbit tracks but no fresh large animal tracks.

On our way up, K hesitated at a small obstacle, sniffing an interesting scent. You can see her leash - I'm still alternating on and off leash parts of our hikes as she recovers from surgery. I'm tending to leash her in mountain lion territory and let her run in open meadows.
Atop the ridge, we crossed a deep snow drift that many other animals had also crossed. Myriad tracks criss-crossed the snow.
After climbing a north-facing slope, the reward of sun and dry ground always awaits us at the top. K had some off-leash time to romp. It's poignant, however, how much she's acting like my protector. She'll romp if no one else is around and the ground is even. When we hit an uneven patch of snow, she stays close by my right side, as if she's ready to let me reach down and steady myself on her shoulders. Or, when a loose dog arrives on the scene like happened right after this photo, she stays between me and the dog. I love having a protector like K.
I put K back on leash to descend a snowy slope where I know that large mammals like to browse or hunt. I planned to simply wander but deer tracks crossed our path. These tracks screamed of panic, like the deer had sighted a predator. In the photo below, the uphill is steep beyond words but the two successive sets of tracks are more than 20 ft apart. The first set of four hoof prints is at the bottom of the photo and the second one is behond the first tree in the middle of the photo. The deer pronked, using all four legs in unison, with an unbelievable flight time between touchdowns.
I'm not someone who can walk past an exciting track without following to try to discover the story. The panicked flight continued uphill. In the photo below, the second touchdown is beyond the tree in the middle of the photo.
After following the tracks up the almost vertical snowy hill, we emerged onto a sunny plateau with only a thin layer of snow. Upon reaching the plateau, it appeared that the deer calmed down and slowed to a steady trot. I think that he'd shaken the fear of whatever he'd seen. No tracks followed him so I assume that he scented or spotted something terrifying to provoke this flight.
At this point, I'd been so focused on the tracks and their story that I had only a vague idea where I was when I emerged on the plateau. I had my GPS but I've been working on my navigational skills so that I don't have to rely on it. So, K and I walked to a couple of lookout points where we could see landmarks, and I figured out my location all by myself. That's a big accomplishment for a wanderer who used to get lost all the time!

We found amazing rocky viewpoints on the plateau.
Guess who's on top of the world!
And, me too!

Friday, January 29, 2010

The bobcat spirit

It felt as if I'd truly climbed onto a roller-coaster yesterday. By the time I posted, my mind was swirling. The good news is that although R seems subdued, he also seems to be mending. He's eating, albeit with less enthusiasm than normal, but I imagine that a deer hoof in your stomach can wreak havoc! Thank goodness that his purple octopus always stays by his side.
Yesterday, my friend Stella posted two beautiful icons, available for people to copy to their blogs, to represent the Year of the Bobcat. I felt honored and thrilled that others saw meaning in my notion of trying to emulate a bobcat's resilience and flexibility in the coming year. One appears in the upper right corner of my blog.

To my surprise, in the past few days, I had the honor of capturing images of yet another bobcat. He visited the boulder where I have a camera set up to record video, using infrared lighting, at night.



This morning, inspired by our new bobcat video, K and I started our hike by searching the boulder outcroppings surrounding our huge meadow for more bobcat tracks or scent posts. I'm learning that these cats like to patrol the edges of meadows and prefer the bases of overhanging boulders as their scent posts. A scent post consists of a scraping of dirt or leaves into a small pile using the hind feet and then a scat left atop the pile.

We crossed the meadow in the tracks of a lone mule deer. Deer drag their hooves, even in shallow snow, leaving tracks that look almost like cross-country ski tracks.
K led the way up a jumble of boulders and stopped to look down at me, barely visible against the snow-covered boulders.
Then, she spontaneously decided to sprint to me, sending snow crystals flying into the air.
She's not really supposed to be sprinting through deep snow yet. After all, she has a 12" incision on her belly that's healing. So, I put her on leash for a while after that wild outburst. I'm glad that she feels so good!

In our wanderings, we found a new bobcat scent post at the base of a tall rock wall. A small area of dirt remained protected from heavy snow by the overhanging wall. And, I found bobcat scat and a scraping in that prime dirt spot. I'm going to keep an eye on it to see if it's active before deciding whether to move a camera there.
Someone recently asked if I'd move a camera to the spot where K spooked the other day to try to get a lion photo. I'm finding it to be challenging to figure out where to best capture a lion photo when there's no focal point like a carcass. I know the lions' general routes but I find that they can use any path within about a 50 yard swath of their route. That's too wide to for me to have high odds of getting a photo. Pointing a camera at a scent post would be ideal. I actually know where there is a scent post, on a seldom-used trail beneath a cliff on a north-facing slope. However, I'm not physically capable of scrambling through the snow to visit it now. I'll save that one for spring-time.

The one other lead that I have is that lions mark their routes by scratching bark from pine trees - it's another way of broadcasting their ownership of the territory. I've found a multitude of scratched trees, with blankets of pine bark beneath the scratchings, next to the old lion tracks that I've recently been exploring. However, I suspect that those routes were used only briefly, while the lion fed on the deer carcass, so they're not good camera locations. Despite scouring the forest, I haven't found any other lion-scratched trees yet. I'm looking!

Today, after reconnoitering bobcat habitat, K and I climbed to Hug Hill, where the mountains glowed with new snow. The snow billowed off the peaks in alpine winds, and a spindrift rose above the peaks in the right half of the photo below. It's a plume of snow being sucked upward into the atmosphere by complicated pressure and wind patterns.
I promised myself - no Hug Hill photos of K because my readers must be getting tired of them - but then she made me break my promise by looking so beautiful to my eyes.
After enjoying our favorite local peak, we plunged uneventfully down a north-facing slope. Now, we hiked in lion territory. If I'm distilling one pattern from my explorations, it's that bobcats like boulders next to meadows and lions like snowy north-facing slopes. As I thought about that pattern, K freaked out, barking and growling while staring up the slope.
I stared, trying to discern any movement or other suspicious signs. For a minute, I saw nothing. Then, a female blue grouse marched along a contour on the slope. I watched even longer because K's behavior was out of proportion for a grouse but I didn't see any predator stalking it. The grouse isn't visible in the photo below. The photo simply shows the forest, with its multitude of hiding places, that I stared into for minutes trying to figure out what provoked K to be so aggressively protective.
We headed home from there, ready to face civilization. I had a bounce in my step, knowing how well my neck is healing even though the rehabilitation road ahead is still long and hard to visualize. It's odd, however, because my neck hurts more now than earlier in the recovery. No one but me seems concerned about this oddity so I'm trying not to worry about it. It's definitely true that I am more active than I was in the first week after surgery, which could be contributing. However, the mantra of my medical advisers is that more activity is better, as long as I'm not bungee jumping, ice skating, or snow biking. I'll just keep on hiking and learning more about the nooks and crannies of my forest than I ever thought I'd know.

Here's to the Year of the Bobcat! Thanks for the icon and encouragement, Stella.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Up and down plus update

UPDATE: I just heard (9 PM) that R had a deer hoof in his tummy, which was removed without surgery. He has a few small bones in his intestines but they're all working their way through his system, albeit very slowly. So, he gets to come home tonight. We just have to watch him closely to make sure that no bones get stuck in his GI tract. A home xray machine might save us money, don't you think?
Original Post:
Today started wonderfully, with a hike through a frost-laden forest with a friend and her dog. Then, I arrived home to a phone call saying that my body is forming bony fusions between my neck vertebrae at an incredibly fast rate. My rapid healing means that I'll be able to move through the stages of rehabilitation faster than normal. I like that idea!

But then, our R started acting like he didn't feel well. He was 'off' all day but not sick enough to go to the vet. I'll spare you the details but things got worse this evening, and the emergency vet clinic wanted to see him asap to look for bones in his intestine. If they find bones, they're undoubtedly from the same deer carcass episode as led to K's gastrotomy. Does this feel like deja vu to anyone else? This time, due to my neck, I can't travel to the vet for what will probably turn into a many hour odyssey. I'm sitting at home, worrying, feeling useless, and wishing for a long break from the drama in our lives.

If I didn't love R so much, I wouldn't feel that hollow pit of fear in my stomach right now. But, his love is more than worth the worry.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Riding the waves

Yesterday afternoon, I took the labraduo for a hike to let them stretch their legs before dark and to let me reach my rehabilitation walking quota for the day. We started with a practice recall for R but with a twist. Because K is still recovering from her gastrotomy, I don't want her to sprint at warp speed along side R. So, I kept K on leash with me, and we left R in a sit-stay. He didn't like the isolation AT ALL. After gently leading him back to his sit position a few times, he understood that the game was different from usual.

In the photo below, R sat all by his lonesome in the distance while K walked with me.
He did a terrific, high voltage, recall. And, as I bent down to greet him, K stuck her snout into my treat bag and chowed down. Everybody won!
We had a mellow hike, enjoying the quiet, aside from the whisper of the wind and the cawing of the ravens. It capped off a wonderful day where high energy and low pain made me a very happy patient.

When recovering from any major medical event, some days are up, like yesterday, and others are not, like today. The last thing my surgeon said before he discharged me from the hospital was to remember that healing is not like following an arrow from point A to point B but involves wild fluctuations. My favorite visualization is that recovering is like riding ocean waves, sometimes on the crest and sometimes being churned below the surf.

Today was somewhere in between those two extremes. I looked at my inspiring Kathleen Coy bobcat painting, and K and I headed out with a happy attitude for our morning walk. To all of you who conspired to surprise me with that painting, I'm not sure that you can imagine how much it has lifted my spirits.

K and I headed straight up a north-facing slope, through old crusty snow and dense lodgepole pine trees. We followed a path packed by hundreds of elk hooves. The herd passed within 20 yards of the lion's deer cache (the site where he killed the deer) from a few weeks ago. I guess that the elk aren't superstitious.
It was an easy climb, thanks to the work done by the single-file elk herd. Soon, we emerged into the dim sunlight on the top of the hill. We found an open area where the herd had bedded down, perhaps hiding during the daylight hours on a recent day.
The views from the spot were stupendous. I see why they chose it as their bedroom!
And, when I rotated my body a bit more (no neck twisting!), I saw another alpine view. These elk know where to bed down!
As soon as we hiked over the top of the ridge, the world changed. Golden grass and cacti covered the south facing slope. It's amazing how well K spots cacti and avoids them with ease.
I'm starting to allow K some short forays off leash, in open areas at times I think that she won't run too hard. She bucked like a filly when I released her and started exploring. We practiced a recall from nearby, and I broke into a happy giggle seeing her ears flop as she galloped toward me. My little girl is getting stronger, and I'm thrilled to see it!
From there, we climbed Hug Hill. No hike in that neck of the woods would be complete without a stop at our favorite spot. K led the way.
She stood regally on the tippy-top of the granite hill, right next to the limber pine that amazes me by thriving despite the gale winds that buffet it regularly in the winter.
Finally, because I couldn't resist her loving visage, I snapped one more photo of K. I used to think that K was the most photographed dog on the planet - that is, until I started reading other dog blogs!
We took an utterly novel route down from Hug Hill, and deep snow immediately mired us down. However, K seemed to know what I was looking for - some old lion tracks to follow. She found them.
We followed, tracking ourselves using a GPS so we can record our route on our topo maps. We didn't follow the tracks that we knew from yesterday went to the lion's second deer cache.

Instead, we followed the lion's sensible switch-backing route down a steep ravine. I was beginning to think that we shouldn't follow, even though the tracks were weeks old, because it looked like the lion was heading to new hunting grounds. Then, K became tense, muscles taut and nose in the air. Then, in a very rare occurrence in the forest, her body language morphed into a tentative and fearful pose.

I caught a shadow of her fear in the photo below but not every aspect. However, you can see that although she's staring down the slope, she's leaning backward, as if to say "Whoa, let's not go there".
I took her advice, backtracking and heading home. Sometimes dogs are much smarter than we are. At other times they're not, like the day that K gorged herself on the lion's freshly killed deer. But, for today, I decided to trust her judgment since something unknown had spooked her.

After our recent experiences. I'm more aware than ever that the spooky scent could have been from the fierce lion whose photos I've been working on daily to make into a documentary-type video. I've figured out based on his paw pad size that he is indeed a male. His largest paw pad measures about 2.5" across, which I've learned means that's he's one of the bigger males to be found in our forests. I thank him daily, as I edit his photos, for sparing K's life.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

You'll never guess who visited!

A very handsome feline received word that it was the Year of the Bobcat at my house, and he ambled down our driveway last night. My wildlife camera captured his muscular and agile body. The black spots on his tawny fur almost certainly help him blend into our rocky meadows. The stripes on the inside of his front leg look like an elegant fashion statement!
As you can see from the wider view, he walked through our gates and down our driveway. Despite extensive searching, I couldn't find where his tracks led from there.
I decided to mount a wildlife camera by the gate based on a scent post that I noticed in late December. It looked like the descriptions of bobcat's markings that I've read in scientific books. The scent post is next to the fence that's behind the bobcat in the photo. One of the things that I love about wildlife cameras is learning whether my interpretations of nature's elusive signs are right or not. In this case, I think that I was right!

It is, for sure, the Year of the Bobcat!

Today, K and I wandered our forest. After each of these surgeries that forces me to break my regular routine, I find new facets of life that I enjoy. In this case, I'm learning that I love exploring the woods on foot, off-trail, searching for animal signs. K and I barely set paw on a trail today, as we followed old animal tracks through the forest.

First, we headed in the general direction of Hug Hill and the second cache location for the mountain lion's deer carcass that I blogged about earlier. I gazed into the woods and thought "if I were a wild animal, I'd go that way to link up with another, rarely used, human trail". No tracks led me into the woods, I just wandered, pretending that I was an animal who wanted to stay hidden. K's head appears in the lower left corner of the photo, as she briefly led the way as we plunged into the dark woods.
As we walked through dense pine trees, we caught a glimpse of the mountains. We've never seen them from this spot before.
Then, voila, huge melted out tracks appeared, with the spacing and straddle to be our lion's. The tracks were very old, probably a couple of weeks had passed since the animal left them, so I felt no worry about following them.
We followed them around juniper bushes, over small rocks, through some deeper snow, and finally emerged in a brighter spot. To catch the sunlight, I took the photo at an angle that shows the tracks going from left to right.
While I took that photo, K decided that it was the perfect time for a snow-wriggle, giving me a strong signal that the scents of scary animals were not in the air.
After following the tracks for some distance, we stumbled into the small clearing that was the second hiding place for the deer carcass. Nary a hint remains of the carnage that once lay here. It felt mysterious and wonderful to have followed the lion's route to this spot. I used my 'tracking' function on my GPS so that I can upload his routes to my computer and see them on topo maps. One of my goals is to have a local map full of animal routes, so I can see how the predators and prey move through the landscape, avoiding one another but, as my mountain lion posts show, sometimes colliding.

Then, we used a human trail for a little while to climb to Hug Hill. It was still and breath-takingly beautiful.
I couldn't blame K for wanting to look at the mountains rather than at me!
It was so warm in the sun that we sat and enjoyed the day. I'm thankful that we are both capable of climbing to our little peak and rejoicing in nature. I think that K and I are healing in parallel.
As we cut cross-country down from the peak, we found our lion's tracks again. They were weeks old, so we followed. At first, the ponderosa pine trees stood far apart, making walking easy for us and the lion.
Soon, however, the forest became denser and downed trees blocked the path. I've read, based on scientists' observations, that a cougar will almost always choose to go under an obstacle rather than over it when traveling slowly. Here, he met a tree in his path. It's hard to get perspective from the photo but there was little doubt that he stepped up onto the tree and hopped down on the other side. He was a big cougar, and perhaps the 18" under the tree weren't enough for him, particularly if his belly bulged with meat.
Just like the previous tracks, these ones led us to the exact spot where the lion had cached his deer for the second time. His tracks tell us that he took forays in all directions from the carcass, either going to nearby daybeds or starting the hunt for his next prey.

Near the very end of our hike, the snow crystals glittered in the sun in a beguiling way. The tiny aspen twigs peeking out from the snow give a hint of the life that the snow is nourishing. Spring will be here before we know it!
Most of all, I realized today that I'm learning to enjoy a slower pace during my recovery. K and I are investigating nooks and crannies of our mountain landscape that we had no knowledge of before. In every set-back, like my back surgery, there is opportunity to grow and change.

For those of you who have expressed interest in knowing more about what's up with my back, I've included a post about it below. It's a bit dry - but it tells the story.