August 28, 2012

Marlin Perkins must have been an early riser

It seemed as though few critters roamed the mountainous regions of Oregon when I began hiking. The only "wild life" I experienced in those days with any frequency was downtown on Friday or Saturday nights. After a night of carousing, I'd wake up with the exuberance of a bear having hibernated all winter, slip out of a toasty bed, brew some coffee and dilly dally around the house before heading out for the wild green yonder. After a long string of disappointing endeavors, in which animal sightings were at best rare, I concluded that wildlife management's estimations of animal populations were grossly exaggerated.

There were those extraordinary occasions when I'd look up from the trail to see a deer with its head down, browsing the forest floor. I'd quietly pull up a shaded rock and watch the animal for as long as it decided to stick around; after all, I never knew when I might come across another one of these rare sightings. The odds of what I assumed to be the only deer within miles appearing along the very trail I was walking seemed astronomical.

But I heard animals on backpacking trips, often after the sun went down, when I was laid out in my sleeping bag inside a tent. The stomping of hooves often indicated that several critters were outside my tent, frolicking about as if the moon were disco ball.
Bear in Wallowa Mts.
Then, on one hike, everything seemed to magically change. Beginning a hike at dawn, after staying home the night before, sunlight had barely appeared when animals began popping out of the forest in front of me in numbers I never before thought possible. Deer bounced about. A bald eagle soared above. A tiny rock pika posed as I took its picture. Despite the short length of the hike, this quirk of nature had given me my greatest day of animal sightings.

Despite what I thought were dismal odds of that day ever duplicating itself, I looked forward to my next hike with great anticipation. So much so that my hiking gear was packed well in advance, allowing me once again to arrive at the trailhead at first sunlight.

Surprisingly, this hike shaped up to be every bit as monumental as the last. It was easy to figure out what those two hikes had in common – I left my camera at home! Not really. The key to seeing wildlife was looking for them early. Those sunup hours were filled with the appearance of wildlife.

I arrived at my destination about the time my stomach was telling me it wanted dinner. The timing was good, because the animal sightings had slacked off for several hours. Tired, I drifted off to sleep and woke up as the sun began its descent. I immediately grabbed my camera and set out on the trail. Again, the wildlife was thick. Deer were all over the place, foraging thickets for dinner.

It finally became obvious that early morning and evening hours were the prime time to see wildlife. Any hunter will tell you that, but I didn't grow up in a hunting family. (After his brother was shot in a hunting accident, my father decided to take up other pursuits). Future hikes were scheduled, when possible, to hit the trail at dawn or strike out on a short hike in the evenings.

Since my discovery, I have had a multitude of experiences with spotting critters in the wild, including cougars, bobcats and bears. The next time someone tells you to go take a hike, ask if it can wait until morning.