Thursday, January 25, 2018

16. Mountain Beavers

The interpreter was holding a stick, trying to fish a white bag from the branches of an elderberry bush next to the trail. The bag had been knotted shut, blindly flung aside, and was snagged by a handle loop. What was in the bag? The sun shone through. There was no mystery.

“Poop,” said the interpreter. Of the subset of dog walkers that actually stopped to stoop and scoop, a subset of them, seeming to think its duty done, would fling the dogs’ bagged feces into the bushes. “Oh, thank you, whoever you are,” said the interpreter. He was on tiptoe, his neck aching, unable to de-snag the bag.

“Ahem,” said a woman, from behind. The interpreter lowered his arm and turned around. A scowling, grey-haired woman was a few feet away.

“Hello,” said the interpreter.

“Why is jogging allowed in this park?” asked the woman. She was angry, clearly, and she had an imperious British accent. The interpreter knew instinctively that this was not just any disgruntled park visitor. One must choose one’s words carefully.

“Well, it's a multi-use park,” he explained. “Many people jog, and they like to jog here because the trails are level and springy, easy on the shins.”

“Rubbish,” said the woman. “This is a park for enjoying nature. Not for running around like a fool, damaging the environment.”

“Oh,” said the interpreter. There was no point in arguing. It would be like trying to remove a snagged bag of dog feces from a bush with an inadequate stick. “ I’ll make a note and pass on your recommendation.”  He patted his empty shirt pocket, where he sometimes carried a note pad. In response to complaints he would pull out the pad and scribble earnestly, which gave park visitors the mistaken impression that their input was valued and would be acted upon. Today he had forgotten his note pad.

The woman glared at him. “What exactly are you going to do about this?”

“Make a report,” said the interpreter.

“To whom?” asked the woman, who clearly didn’t believe him.

“To my superior,” said the interpreter.

“And that would be whom?” asked the woman.

“Just about everybody else who works here,” said the interpreter. “You're speaking to the very bottom of the food chain.” This was absolutely true.

“Look,” said the woman. “I expect some action on this. Can you not understand how simple this issue is? Jogging simply does not belong here. This is a place for nature. Imagine a family, crouching down, enjoying a slug, and then some fool comes crashing around the corner and ruins the whole experience! Stop smiling!”

The interpreter had not wanted to smile. The concept of “enjoying a slug” amused him, especially when expressed with an imperious accent.

The woman snapped, “This is unacceptable! I want your name and badge number!”

“I don't have a badge,” said the interpreter. “We don't have badges in Canada.”

I am a Canadian! Since before you were born!”

“Sorry,” said the interpreter.


Fortunately the interpreter had also forgotten to pin on his plastic name tag. He gave the name of an interpreter from a previous year who had quit after being criticized by a superior for walking past a bag of dog feces dangling from a bush and doing nothing about it.

The woman, clenched with purpose and faulty intelligence, marched away.

The interpreter found a longer stick and reaching upward, muttered, “Enjoying a slug.”

*    *    *

They were heading east, an hour’s drive to Chilliwack.   Marilyn Woo at the Ministry of the Environment had contracted William to survey several streams on the south side of Vedder Mountain to search for another endangered species, the Pacific giant salamander.

“Cool,” said Alan.   “How giant are we talking?   It’s the size of what, of a dog?”

He knew it wasn’t, was being a goof, but William answered anyway.   “Smaller,” he said.

“Small dog?”

“Smaller,” William said.

“Like a subway-sandwich size — the foot-long?”

“No, smaller.   And why didn’t you just ask if it was a foot long?”

“I’m trying to envision one,” said Alan, “and I’m becoming increasingly disappointed.”

“They’re about...” William was about to say, 6-8 inches, not counting the tail, but Alan interrupted.

“I don’t want to know,” he said.  “I’m now beyond disappointed.  I’m disillusioned.”

“Sorry,” William said.

“I’ve always been your driver, but we never go anywhere fun anymore.” 

William said, “This has been a good conversation.”

Once off the highway and onto the narrow back roads, William gave Alan a brief rundown on their quarry.   The PGS, as it was known to biologists, lived in fast-moving mountain streams as a tadpole and in some populations retained its gills into adulthood.   In other populations the adults were terrestrial and spent the non-breeding season within the humus of the forest floor.   Those  were most easily found by flipping logs.   Two years earlier a few  had been found in and near the streams they sought, but recently a clear cut of questionable legality had been carried out in the uplands above and it was feared that the soil and detritus now tailing down were negativelyimpacting the population.

“Negatively impacting the population,” said Alan.  “I like how you science-people speak.  I would just say, ‘killing them’.”

They parked at the side of the road a stone’s throw from the U.S. border.   William was using a hand-held GPS device to figure out where they were relative to the streams, which could be difficult to find on a forested mountainside, especially when rainfall had been scanty.

“So that there’s the border?   Right there?”  Alan was pointing at a narrow, linear cut through the forest running diagonally up the side of Vedder Mountain a hundred meters south.   “We could easily stroll on over.”

William said, “No doubt we’re already on a video screen somewhere in Washington State.  Someone or some machine somewhere is reading our lips.”

“Well fuck you very much, America,” said Alan to the invisible camera.

“Try not to look suspicious,” William said.

“Right.  We’re just two guys stopped in the middle of nowhere with backpacks full of regular stuff.   Even though we look like we’re about to work on our cross-border drug-smuggling tunnel, we’re just two guys, doing regular stuff.”   He was still talking to the invisible camera.   He said to William, “You do the talking when the Minute Men arrive.”

William laughed.   Alan was right, to a point.   Much of what field biologists did was totally foreign to the average person, and often included use of unfamiliar or improvised equipment.   Upon encountering a biologist at work, an understandable first guess from an outsider would be that something shady was afoot.   If forced to explain one’s  activities to, say, an officious local official or a cranky landowner, a biologist’s best strategy was to tell the entire truth, which was usually much more peculiar than anything anyone could make up.   Nine times out of ten the challenging individual would quickly turn around and offer what he or she expected to be helpful tips, which generally weren’t.

William wasn’t expecting to meet anyone this time however.   They were moving away from the border, not toward it, and if anyone wished to follow them up this hill, which had a 70 degree grade, he had better be in shape.         

“How’s your hip?” he asked Alan.

“I think it’ll hold,” he said.                                                                          

They scrambled up, gripping at sword fern clumps and the thin, arching trunks of vine maples, every so often pausing to hug a Douglas Fir, second-growth but still quite impressive.  The trees provided a chance to straighten up and rest leg and back muscles without going ass over teakettle back down the mountain.  The soil was loose and pebbly and sheared away with their jamming footfalls.   On a slight ledge there was a thick patch of vanilla leaf whose pale, elephant ear-shaped leaves had always appealed to William.   In the middle of the patch was a dinner plate-sized lumpy brown mound, glistening with berry seeds.  “Here’s fresh bear scat,” William said.

“Good,” said Alan, who was clambering up behind.   “This is incredibly insane.   You would do this for a living!”   He laughed and lost his grip and slid 30 feet down on his stomach.   He laughed all the way.            

One of the streams was off to their left, not far.   They could hear it trickling faintly through the thick thimbleberry underbrush, and they angled upward to its new top, where it bled from the base of a tangle of logging slash intermixed with an eroding soil mound.  Rudely above was the denuded top half of the mountain, shaved bare and left to slump into the forest below.   They  started working back down, photographing as they went all the rubbish the loggers had left to tumble down the hill — oil drum, buckets, plastic tarp, ropes, cans, plastic bottles.   It was disgusting.   It also made it hard to know where to start searching for larval salamanders.   All the pools they would have checked were full of trash and the heavy silt that asphyxiated the gilled larvae.

William said, “We can at least check the coarse woody debris along the banks for adults.”

“And that would be scientist-speak for...logs?”

They flipped every log they could find and found nothing beneath other than earthworms, wood bugs, and yellow-spotted millipedes that smelled like almonds.   Every few minutes they found more fresh bear scat.

William was holding onto a cascara tree, a spindly understory species with avocado-plant leaves.  He told Alan that cascaras had been nearly eradicated early in the 1900s by pharmaceutical companies who used the bark to produce laxatives. 

“My guess is your bear has been nibbling on them,” said Alan, pointing at yet another seedy heap.  There was bear scat everywhere.   Alan and William were looking for another imaginary creature, as Alan called them, but all they were finding was shit.   Making sure there was none around him, William sat down.   He thought Alan would enjoy knowing the end-product of this endeavor.

“You know what happens if we actually find a salamander?”

“We win?”

William laughed.  “We photograph it, record it, and I write a long and boring report about its status on this site and how that fits with what’s known of its status elsewhere and what those data combined may suggest about the prospects of the survival of this species, given a number of scenarios of varying levels of habitat degradation and loss.”

“That, in itself, was long and boring,” said Alan.   “It was very boring.”

“It gets better,” William said, “because my report may never exist, officially.   I submit it to Marilyn, and if it satisfies her, science-wise, she passes it up the provincial food chain and up it goes until it hits a bureaucrat, or worse, a politician, who realizes that an animal designated at risk federally, such as a Pacific giant salamander, if it’s in a given timber stand, can be grounds for protection of that timber stand.  Logging interests hate when that happens and politicians love logging interests.

 “So, my precious report, which, as you are experiencing, requires a shitload of work to produce, gets buried.   It becomes a ‘Draft,’ which may not be cited .  For all useful purposes it ceases to exist.  Then someone winks at a logger or a developer and that individual swoops down and destroys the habitat.   If called on it they can claim there weren’t any reports specifying endangered species concerns for that site, so, oops, sorry.”

The artist asked William, “How does it feel to have all your work ignored?” 

“It’s completely soul destroying.”   William got up and took a few steps downhill.   He turned and said, “But you get used to it.”   He looked left and right, which way to step, and pointed, “Here’s more fresh scat, really fresh.  This one’s attractively arranged on bed of fresh sword fern fronds.  It’s like a display of chocolate truffles.”

Alan slid down to photograph it.   He had been photographing scat since they got there.   William hadn’t asked why.    As Alan focused, William crouched and moved a frond aside to improve the composition, saying, “I doubt Martha Stewart could have done a better job.”   They laughed, and after they stopped, someone else nearby in the thimbleberry thicket made a snorting sound.

“And who could that be?” said Alan.       They stood up.

A very large black bear rose on its hind legs and towered over the shoulder-height shrubs, slightly up-slope.

“Bear!” William yelled, and jumped to his right, the downhill side.  He lost his footing as the soil failed beneath and on his ass skidded down, angling with his right heel to veer toward the trunk of a Douglas fir, which he met with his ribcage.   Winded, he looked back up at Alan.   He was standing still, facing the bear.

It chuffed at him and swung its head, and then dropped to all fours to charge.   Braced against the tree, William grabbed for rocks, for something to throw, but found only pebbles and twigs.   “Run, drop, roll!” William yelled, in his alarm confusing what to do when you encounter an aggressive bear with what to do when your clothes are on fire, but Alan stood on the steep slope, awaiting the assault, his face curious, amused, not scared.

The bear charged.   Alan held up his hand. “Enough!” he yelled.   The bear cut sharply right and went crashing away up the mountain.

Once silence returned, Alan skidded down to where William was sitting examining a cut on the heal of his palm.   He didn’t know at what point he’d cut it, or on what.

 “This has been very interesting,” Alan said.  “I see the appeal of this line of work.”

“Let’s go!” William said.  He pulled Alan’s sleeve and they slid downhill on their backsides 50 yards or more, finally stopping when the slope became shallow and the ground was damp and covered with mossy hummocks interspaced with 3-inch holes.

“Oh,” William said.

“What now?” Alan stood up and swatted at the seat of his pants.  “My ass is soaked, thank you.”

“Mountain beavers.”

 Alan looked right and left.                                                         

“We’ve landed in a mountain beaver colony.   These holes are their burrows.” 

“Really?    I’ve never seen one of those guys,” Alan said.  “I didn’t know they were here.”

Mountain beavers were small, peculiar rodents, not at all the same thing as the beavers in Burnaby Lake.  Their colony was softly beautiful and peaceful.   It looked like a verdant place where elves and fairies might cavort.

“I’ve never seen one either,” said William.

After a minute or so, Alan asked, “So why are we waiting?   Are they going to come out  and sing for us?”         

“You almost never see them,” William answered.  “They’re very secretive – and very much endangered.   All these invisible little lives being snuffed out, with no one hearing a peep .  But they’re still here.   They’re all around us on this mountain.   We’re in the middle of them.”

Neither made a move to go.  They were quiet and still for a long time.  William glanced at Alan, and then watched him more closely.   He was staring at one of the burrows on the far size of the colony.   He raised a hand very slowly, and pointing, whispered, “Look.”

A furry little face was peeking out.   The creature emerged and tip-toed toward them.   It was scruffy and looked half-drowned.  Its eyes were tiny and black and unfocussed.   It was the size of a fuzzy slipper. 

“It looks like a guinea pig on crack,” Alan said.  

They remained frozen as it snuffled along their boots, and then dropped down another hole.

“I thought you said you never see them,” Alan said.

William shook his head.   He was lost for words.    Perhaps it was a hopeful sign, a blessing from the netherworld.  That’s how Tom Carlisle would have seen it.

William asked Alan if he had set the traps in Stanley Park. 

“No.   Milt keeps forgetting our meetings.”

“Where are the taps now?”

“In the back of Baba’s ice cream truck.”                                                              

“Baba has an ice cream truck?”

“Baba is an ice cream vendor,” said Alan.

“I’ll help you catch that beaver,” William told him.

Alan said, “Thank you.”  He stood and started slowly down the slope, favoring his right leg.

How could William not?   It was quixotic, therefore important for some reason, and inspiring.   It was also irresponsible.   Beavers are social animals and don’t like strangers.   To release one in Burnaby Lake, which was Alan’s intention, might put the new one at risk.   Conversely, the introduced one might bring with it parasites or illnesses that could spread quickly in so dense a population.   William knew it was a wrong thing to do, but because Alan wanted to do it, he wanted to help.   William couldn’t help him find his wife, but could help him catch a beaver.

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